No Rehab for Wizards – a suburban fantasy tale

I cut off one of my eyelids today. It was definitely worth it.
“Now why on Earth would you want to do something like that?” Mum asks.
I shake my head, tut. “So I can control manatees,” I say.
“And what do you want to control manatees for?”
I shrug and turn the volume up on Match of the Day. Mum never gets me. She was banging on the other day about how I need to go into rehab. “There’s something not right about you, boy,” she said. “You’re always chopping bits off yourself. It’s not right.”
I tried to tell her there’s no rehab for wizards. Magic always has a price: a sacrifice of flesh always has to be made. A chunk of skin off your arm will give you control of a mayfly, but what’s the point in that? At least manatees have got a half-decent shelf-life.
I was telling her the other day about these wizards around Birmingham way who kill dogs and badgers for their magic. I asked if she’d rather me do that. She just cried.
The thing people don’t realise about using animals is that if you want to take control of dog, you have to kill about thirteen or fourteen of them. And even then, you only get to control one of those shitty little yappy ones. Seems pointless to me.
When Mum had a go at me for lopping off my little toe a couple of weeks back, I made a joke that I’d sacrifice her if she carried on having a go at me. She cried at that as well, and I really only meant it as a joke. Thing is, though, the more I think about it, the more it seems like a good idea.
I’d have to work out how strong the magic would be if I did it, though. I’m assuming it would be a bit like with the dogs. Kill a whole bunch of people to take control of a shitty one? I’d get in trouble for sure. But I’m thinking it’d probably count for a lot more if it’s your own mum. It must do.
I turn off Match of the Day and go upstairs.
“And where do you think you’re going?” Mum asks. “You’re not going to chop any more body parts again, I hope? What would your father say if he could see you now with all them bits hanging off?”
I turn back and smile. “I’m just going for a wee,” I say. “Stick the kettle on will you?”
When the kettle starts to boil, I reach behind the toilet and pull out my blade. I run my finger across its edge and grin as a small cut opens along my fingertip.
“Your tea’s on the hearth,” Mum says, shouting up the stairs.
“Coming.” I tuck the blade under my hoodie.
Limping back downstairs, I see Mum has put Eastenders on. “You don’t mind me watching this on catch-up do you?” she asks. “You’d turned your football off.”
“It’s fine,” I say.
I stand behind her and look down at her grey-streaked hair. I take the blade and bring it across her throat. She makes a weird gurgling noise.
I panic and run to the kitchen to grab some tea towels and kitchen roll. I try dabbing at the blood, but it makes a right mess.
Mum always said that when I started to get into one of my panics I should stop, take a deep breath, and have a nice cup of tea. So I sit down on the opposite sofa and sip my tea, my eyes half on Eastenders and half on my mum bleeding out all over her nice cream carpet.
If I let her keep bleeding, it will stop eventually. Then it will dry and be easier to mop up. I really don’t want to ruin any more tea towels, so it’s probably for the best to wait.
Then I remember: I’d forgotten to do the incantation. What a complete waste of time.
I turn Match of the Day back on. At least I still had my manatee.

Prisoner of the Wasteland – a story in the Wasteland universe

The filthy bedroll slips beneath him when David sits up. He squints at the thin lines of sunlight seeping between the gaps in the boarded-up windows, the damp glistening along the concrete walls.

“You awake?” he whispers, shaking the shoulder of a dark-skinned boy curled up next to him. “Mike?”

The boy glares at David through purple-rimmed eyes, cringing as he grabs the back of his head. “What is it?”

“I was thinking,” David whispers, looking over to the locked door. “We need to get off this stuff.”

Mike laughs, shaking his head, his mouth twisting. “This is it. There ain’t no getting off this.”

“That’s just what they tell you. Bree was say—”

“What does Bree know?” Mike spits. “Tell us, Bree.”

David leans over to the girl lying next to him and shakes her shoulder. “Bree?” He looks up at Mike. “She’s not breathing.”

Mike scrambles over and looks down at Bree, her long black hair matted into knots, and shakes his head. “She’s just high.”

“I tell you, she’s not breathing.”

Mike puts a hand near her mouth and waits. He drops his arm and shakes his head, slower this time.

David gets up and stumbles over the other sleeping children, sweating as he hammers at the door, calling out for help.

A couple of the kids groan and swear. The lock clicks and a bolt shifts across. David steps back as the door swings open.

A tall man, with a grizzled beard and scarred face, eyes David from the doorway. “What the hell is going on?”

“It’s Bree. She’s dead.” David sucks in his bottom lip and nods towards her body, unremarkable among the other death-still children.

“Which one?” The man asks.

“Bree.”

The man wraps a leather strap around his hand and barges through the door, shoving David aside, his eyes darting around the room. “Which one?”

David scrambles across the prone bodies of the sleeping children and crouches next to Bree. “Here.”

The man stands over him and stares at the corpse. “What you waiting for? Get her up. Get her out of here.”

There’s a long silence, and David exchanges a glance with Mike, who shrugs.

“Come on, then,” the man snaps, clearing a path to the door with his kicks.

Struggling, David hooks his arms under the dead girl’s armpits and drags her across the room, straining against her weight as he struggles to get her through the door, her ankles catching against the frame.

“This way,” the man says, marching ahead along the corridor.

David holds back tears as he stares down at her grubby feet dragging along the concrete.

The man knocks on a steel door at the end of the corridor and waits.

Sunlight pours in as the door creaks open. “We got another one,” the man says, nodding back towards David.

A woman looks around the man and shrugs. “Sling it over there,” she says, gesturing behind her. David follows where she’s pointing and takes in a sharp breath.

“Well, come on. We’ve got a busy day,” the man snaps.

David steps outside, the stench of the floodwaters stronger in the open air. He looks around at the buildings looming above him, starting when he’s prodded in the side by the woman’s rifle-butt. “Get rid of it,” she says.

With a deep sigh, David nods and drags Bree’s body to the building’s edge. He glances back at the man, hesitating.

“What you waiting for? Get rid of it.”

David looks down at Bree’s knotted hair, the purple rims around her eyes, her sunken cheeks and bony shoulders, and shakes his head. “I…I can’t.”

The man curses and storms over to David. He grabs Bree around her neck and flings her into the water, her body bobbing on the surface for a minute, her inflated clothes sagging before sinking beneath the blackness. The man wipes his hands and turns to David, prodding a forefinger into his chest. “When I tell you to do something, you do it. Otherwise you’ll be next.” He points to the tiny white bubbles, the only visible marker of Bree’s grave. “We clear?”

David looks down at the flattening surface, and nods. “Yes, sir,” he manages, turning his attention to his feet. “Sorry.”

David sits cross-legged on his bedroll, staring down at a stale piece of bread.

“You going to eat that?” Mike asks.

“I can’t believe she’s dead,” David says, still staring.

Mike sniffs and snatches the bread from David’s limp grip, stuffing it into his mouth. “We’re all dead. I said you shouldn’t get close. If it’s not plez, then it’s the Family.”

“But Bree was a good person.”

“She was an addict and now she’s not.” Mike shrugs and brushes a crumb from his chin. “If you ask me, I’d say she’s better off.”

David sighs and shakes his head, starting when the door crashes open.

“Everyone up,” the man with the grizzled beard says. “Follow me.” He turns and marches out of the room. The other children look at each other, confused, and get to their feet, filing out of the room.

David follows the stream of kids as they meander outside. “What’s happening?” he asks, turning to Mike.

“Shut up,” Mike growls under his breath. “It’s probably about Bree.”

The children are lined-up at the edge of the building, the floodwaters still and silent behind them. David looks down to the place where Bree’s body was thrown and holds his breath for a few long seconds.

Three women stand guard with rifles as the man with the grizzled beard paces in front of the kids, stopping when a small boy, a head shorter than David, emerges flailing with a collar and chain around his neck. “Look at the face of this boy,” the man says. “We found this boy trying to steal plez. Do you know what we do to people who steal from us?” He makes a gesture to one of the women. “Pull him up.”

David and the other children watch in silence, not daring to move as the chain around the boy’s neck tightens and lifts him three-feet off the ground, his feet flailing uselessly.

“Watch,” the man says, pointing. “Any of you kids turn away from this, and you’ll be next.”

David turns in the direction of the kid, his eyes focused on something in the distance, the last few spasms of movement blurring at the edge of his vision.

A long tense silence hangs in the air before the chain is released, dropping the boy to the ground like a pile of dead meat.

“Get rid of it,” the man says, pointing at David.

“What?”

“Get rid of it. Put him with your friend.”

“But—”

“Disobey me again and see what happens,” the man says, narrowing his eyes.

David swallows and dips his head with a single nod. He staggers over to the dead boy and looks down at his vacant eyes. Shuddering, he unfastens the collar digging into the dead boy’s neck and tosses it aside. He drags the body to the building’s edge, gets to his knees and rolls it into the water, turning away before he sees the splash.

“We’re going to need a new cleaner,” the man says. “Someone who’s not going to steal from us. Any volunteers?”

David glances over to the other kids, all of them looking at their feet.

“No one?” the man says, shrugging. He turns to David. “You’re small. You’ll do.”

David squirms against the electrical wire wrapped around his wrists, binding his hands together as he’s led across the plank of wood extending between rooftops. He stares ahead, trying not to look down at the floodwaters as the wood wobbles beneath his bare feet.

The man with the grizzled beard directs him through a door, one hand firmly clasped on David’s shoulder.

An expansive factory floor opens out before them. A thick chemical odour penetrates the stench of the floodwaters. Steel vats stand in rows along the concrete floor. Twisted copper pipes spread out in all directions. A purple haze lingers in the air.

The man turns to David and unbinds his wrists. “You need to keep this place clean,” he says. “Whenever there’s a new cook, you need to get under those and get rid of the gunk.” He gestures beneath the vats. “Try not to get burnt, those things get very hot.”

David looks around and nods. “You want me to get under those?”

The man ignores the question. “If you steal, you’re dead. Same goes if you try to escape, if you’re late, if you don’t do what whoever is in charge says.” There’s a pause. “We clear?”

David shrugs. “Okay.”

A prod to the shoulder brings David from his sleep, the last fragments of plez pulling at the edge of his consciousness. He looks around in the gloom as the others sleep around him, and starts at the sight of a man, dressed from head-to-foot in yellow plastic, standing over him, a carbine hanging at his side.

“Come on,” the man says. “Time for work.”

David staggers to his feet, confused. “Okay,” He follows the man outside, across the bridge, and to the factory.

“Wait there,” the man says, pointing to a patch of floor near the door. He returns a minute later carrying a sweeping brush, a gasmask obscuring his face. “Clean,” he says, his voice muffled through the rubber and glass.

Sucking in his bottom lip, David takes the broom. “What’s the mask for?” he asks, his voice little more than a whisper.

“Speak up,” the man says.

“What’s with the mask?”

“Cooking fumes are bad for you.”

“Can I have one?”

The man lets out a laugh and shoulders his way past, shaking his head. He stops and looks back. “You keep your questions to yourself. Get cleaning.”

David spends the next few hours sweeping the room, wiping down vats, and tipping trays filled with ash into the floodwaters. He stands on the water’s edge, looking down, and then heads back inside, his stomach rumbling.

The factory heats up as a roaring fire burns at the far end. A purple-grey haze fills the room as steam rushes from the joins of copper pipes along the ceiling. David wobbles as his feet grow light. He taps the man on the shoulder. “Can I eat?”

“Don’t talk to me,” the man says, his voice distant. “You can eat when you’ve cleaned up this batch.”

David nods and watches as the man pulls a tray of gleaming purple crystals from beneath one of the vats, biting his bottom lip as he takes in their twinkling forms.

“Don’t even think about it,” the man says, shaking the crystals. He picks one up, turning it in the low light. “You saw what happened to the last one.”

“Looks like a good batch.”

The man pulls off his gasmask and wipes his sweat-soaked forehead with a sleeve, frowning. “Don’t be friendly.” He hangs the mask from a hook descending from the ceiling and gestures to a crate. “Bring me that.”

David runs to the corner and drags the battered wooden crate to the man. “Here okay?” he asks, looking up.

The man nods. “Hold it still.” He pours the crystals from the tray, letting them cascade into the crate, filling it halfway. “Put the lid on it.” He looks around, rubbing his chin. “Still not enough.”

David gives a confused look. “What?”

Raising a hand, the man’s eyes flicker with rage. “Take the crate back to where you got it and cover it up. We need another batch.”

Flinching, David looks over to the corner and nods. “Okay,” he whispers, dragging the crate backwards. When he reaches the corner, he rummages around the other crates until he finds the right cover. He places the sheet of wood over the crate, adjusting it until it slots into place.

“Well, don’t just stand there. Get rid of the crap.” The man gestures to the tar-like substance clinging to the underside of the vat.

David picks up a cloth and bucket, runs over and crawls underneath, scrubbing at the gunk. He calls out in pain when his hand brushes against the metal, still hot from the cook, and rolls out, clutching it.

“What is it?”

“Burned my hand,” David says, tears filling his eyes.

“Let me see,” the man says, grabbing at his wrist.

A bright-pink oval stretches from David’s little finger to his wrist, his skin frayed where the flesh peeled off against the metal. The man turns away and shrugs. “I’ve seen worse.”

“But it hurts.” Cross-legged, David leans forward, gritting his teeth against the pain.

“Get up. Do your job. If you can’t do your job, you’re done. You understand?”

David swallows and nods, his left hand throbbing.

Streams of dying light punctuate the gloom as David sits hunched over on his bedroll. He looks up, forcing a smile as Mike hands him a slice of hard bread. “Thanks,” he says in a whisper.

Mike scrunches a blanket into a ball and sits down next to David. “Weird without Bree, huh?”

David looks at the area of bare floor where Bree used to sleep, and sighs. “Just life, I guess.” He tears a chunk of the bread away with his teeth, moving it around his mouth as he chews, licking his lips against the dryness.

“What happened to your hand?” Mike asks, gesturing to the long blister.

“Got burned on one of the plez vats.”

“Looks bad.”

“It’s okay.”

Mike nods. “Plez will sort you out. Hit of that, and boom! You’re out.”

Shuddering, David takes another bite of bread and stares down at his hands.

“Did you see them make it?”

David nods and swallows. “My head really hurts.”

“You get any?” Mike whispers.

“And get strung-up?” He looks down at his burns and winces.

Shaking his head, Mike makes a wide smile. “Man, if I was in there, I’d just get as much as I could…” His voice trails off at David’s glare. “What?”

“I’m done with it. I wasn’t kidding. I’m getting clean. It’s bad.”

Mike smirks and lies back onto his bedroll. “I’ll have yours when they bring it round.”

David looks up when the door opens. A woman and man enter, both with rifles over their shoulders. The other kids jump to their feet. “Don’t move,” the man says, patting his rifle. “She’ll bring your plez.” He shakes his head as the woman hands out crystals to the other children. The kids scurry back to their bedrolls with their drugs, some lighting-up without hesitation.

Mike bolts to his feet when the woman approaches, and she hands him a single crystal. “What’s up with you?” she asks, looking down at David, still on his bedroll.

“My head hurts.”

The woman tosses a purple crystal, no bigger than a thumbnail, onto the blanket to David’s left. His mouth twitches as he grabs the crystal, watching as the woman moves away.

Mike lets out a snort and grins at David. “You let me have your plez?”

David doesn’t respond, his hand squeezing around the crystal.

“Thought not.” Stuffing the plez into a finger-length steel tube, Mike lights a candle and leans down to it with the pipe in his mouth. He turns to David and smiles. “See you on the other side.” Turning back to the candle, he pushes the crystal into the flame, holds it for a few seconds, and then inhales. A shudder spreads across his back and up along his neck. The pipe flops from his mouth and he slumps to his side.

The chemical tang hangs in the air. David cringes. He looks around at the others, many of them now in a stupor, and sighs. The burn on the side of his hand itches and throbs.

Leaning back, he stares at the ceiling, listening, breathing. He loosens his grip and lets the plez roll from his hand. Closing his eyes, he takes in a breath, holding it in until his he hears his heartbeat. He exhales and snaps to an upright position, his hand shooting towards the crystal and his pipe as his mouth turns desert dry.

A flood of tears catches him off guard when he looks over to the bare space where Bree used to sleep. He holds his breath, chewing on his fist. Cold sweat gathers along his back, seeping from his forehead. Dry heaves contract in his stomach, tearing at his throat and chest. Squeezing his eyes shut, he drives the plez into his pipe, leans towards the candle, inhales, and fades.

Shadows stretch beneath the vats as David scrubs the dull metal surface, taking care not to burn himself again. He slides from underneath and looks up at the man standing over him.

The man’s breath clicks and wheezes through the gasmask, his yellow plastic suit crackling with movement. He gives David an unsure look then glances over to the door. “I’m going for a pee,” he says, his voice muffled. “Stay here. Don’t move.” He pulls of his mask and hangs it from a hook.

David gives a nod and rubs the sweat from his brow as the man leaves. He looks towards the crate of plez and bites his lower lip for several seconds. The gush of foul air from the open door clears the lingering chemical fumes. He goes over to the door and leans outside, the light fading from the day.

Scanning the rooftops, he sees no signs of other people, no movement. The man stands on the edge of the rooftop with his back to David, urinating into the floodwaters below.

David looks towards the sunset, to the blotches of purple and orange smearing the sky. His eyes rest on the shoreline. He follows it south, tracing its shape with his finger, his gaze lingering on the end of the highway that winds its way west, fading into the hills.

“What you doing out here?”

David takes in a sharp breath and swivels on his heels. “I need to pee.”

The man eyes him for a second, and then nods. “Be quick. Nearly done anyway.”

Hesitating, David steps past the man and heads over to the building’s edge. He looks over the side and into the water as it sloshes against the bricks below. The rooftops around him stand empty. Firelight pours from a window in an opposite building. He flexes his burnt hand and looks over his shoulder, shivering at the chill wind, listening as it blows around the buildings in a low ghostly hum. He looks back down towards the water, staring for several seconds before sighing and heading back inside.

The man stands leaning against the doorway, waiting. “You took your time. We’ve got to get this shipment out first thing. Let’s get cleaned-up and get these crates out.”

“I think I can escape,” David says in a hushed voice, rolling on his side.

Mike stares back at him for several seconds, his face contorting into a smirk, and then a laugh. “We got it good here.”

David leans on his right elbow and sighs. An empty bowl of sour-tasting soup rests on the floor between them. “Good? You think this is good?” He waves a hand and Mike shrugs. “We’re going to die here.”

A sharp breath shoots from Mike nostrils. “We get beds, we get plez, we get food. I mean, yeah, the work’s bad, but we’re alive.”

“For how long?”

“You think things are better in the wastes?” Mike lies on his back, looking up at the ceiling. “No dogs, no raiders, no scavenging.” He counts the points on his fingers. “If you think being out there is better, you go ahead.”

“I want to be free.”

Mike sits up and looks back at him with purple-rimmed eyes, his face etched with deep creases, sweat glistening along his forehead. “So you can swim?”

“I don’t know.”

“So what’s your plan?”

David shrugs.

Another laugh splutters from Mike as he lies back on his bed. “Keep dreaming. Plez will be here soon. That’s when I’m free.”

The next morning, a man with a rifle strides into the room and sweeps his gaze across the children’s faces. “We’ve got a shipment to prepare, so you all need to stay in here.”

“What about work?” a boy asks.

The man turns and glowers at the boy. “Are you thick? I just said you all need to stay in here. That means no work.”

Mike rests his hands behind his head and leans back, grinning. “Happy days.”

Leaving the room, the man closes the door, bolting it behind him.

David frowns. “I need to pee,” he says, getting to his feet. He steps over the other children, his feet finding tiny islands of concrete among the sea of bedrolls and limbs. When he reaches the door, he knocks it and waits.

“What?” a voice asks after a few seconds.

“I need to go.”

“There’s a bucket.”

David glances at the bucket in the corner overflowing with urine and faeces, and wrinkles his nose. “It’s full. Please, I really need to pee.”

David staggers back as the door opens. A man leans in, looks at the bucket, and eyes David up and down. “You know where you’re going?”

David nods.

“Be quick.”

David slips past the man and makes his way to the roof. He looks over the water as the sunrise flares across the sky. He steps to the building’s edge and goes to pee, watching as a pair of dealers walk around a canoe, checking its hull for damage.

He goes to the other side of the roof and relieves himself. When he’s finished, he glances over to the shore, the shape of a campervan just visible at the end of the highway.

Looking around, he takes in a deep breath then jumps into the water. A shock of cold runs through his body as the water hits.

His head drops below the surface and he takes a mouthful of the foul water. He bobs up, gasping, kicking his legs frantically. The water covers his head again, stinging his eyes and filling his ears. He claws and scrambles, reaching towards the wall, trying to pull himself up, trying to breathe.

“Help,” he calls out, his words obscured by the water filling his mouth. Reaching out, he grabs a metal bracket jutting out from the wall and calls out again. The water pulls at him, tugging him down. “Help!”

With weak muscles, he tries to pull himself up, his arms bending halfway before giving out. His head falls below the water again, and he kicks his feet against the wall, trying to gain purchase. He reaches for the bracket again, gripping it with trembling fingers, his biceps throbbing with the cold. “Help. Anyone.”

“You,” the man calls down from the roof. “What you doing down there?”

“I…I fell in.”

The man lets out a mirthless laugh. “You tried to escape, didn’t you? You can’t even swim, can you?”

“I tripped.” David looks around, gasping. “Honest. I fell in.” He looks over his shoulder at the water. “I don’t want to leave.”

“Right.” Nodding, the man steps away from the edge, returning a few moments later with a length of blue rope. “If you’re lying…”

“I’m not…I didn’t…I wouldn’t…” David manages between coughs.

With narrowed eyes, the man lets down the rope until its end dips below the surface. “Grab on.”

David takes the rope, flinching as it takes his weight.

The man groans above, heaving the rope, bringing David up to the roof. Breathless, David rolls onto the roof, soaked and shivering. The water’s stench fills his clothes.

“Get up,” the man says.

David turns and vomits, the sick bursting from his mouth like black lava. Sweat and tears streak through the filth.

“Get up,” the man repeats, his voice colder, lower.

“I…I can’t.“ An explosion of vomit erupts from David’s mouth, and he flops onto his side. The man yanks him by the arm, dragging him to his feet.

“You’re lucky I don’t string you up.”

David swallows, trying to focus, trying to catch his breath, his heart pounding, blood rushing in his ears. “I didn’t mean to fall.”

“Get inside.”

Hesitating, David looks down at his clothes, sopping wet and coated in filth. “I’m too dirty.”

“You addicts are all dirty,” the man says, spitting on the ground. “Get inside.” He prods David with the rifle-butt.

“Okay.” David dips his head in assent then shambles forward, making his way back.

“This isn’t over. I’ll deal with you properly later.”

When the man closes the door behind him, David squints at the gloom as the other children stare up at him, wide-eyed. He stumbles over a few bodies on his way back to his bed-roll.

“Damn, what happened?” Mike asks.

David tears off his clothes and huddles into his blanket, still trembling. “I tried to escape,” he whispers.

Mike lets out a loud laugh. “You’re good,” he says, shaking his head. “You nearly had me there.” He slaps his thigh. “No, really. Why you wet?”

“Seriously.”

Mike sits up, raising his eyebrows. “Seriously?”

“I thought I’d be able to swim, but I can’t.”

“So, what? You just jumped in the water?”

David nods. “I figured it couldn’t be hard.”

“How far did you get?”

“I didn’t. I just went under. The guy outside sent down a rope.”

“They know you tried to escape?”

“No.” David shrugs. “I said I fell in.”

“When you were having a pee?”

David smiles. “I think he believed me.”

Mike shakes his head. “If they knew you were trying to escape…”

“I know.”

“Get up,” a man’s voice growls in David’s ear.

“What?” David looks around, confused as the other children lie sleeping.

“Get up.” The man drags David to his feet, yanking him free of his blanket. “Come on. We’ve got to load the shipment.”

David rolls his shoulders, bones clicking in his neck. He follows the man outside, rubbing his eyes through the fog of sleep and plez. It’s still dark when he gets outside.

The man leads the way with a flaming torch, stopping when he reaches a stack of crates. “I need you to lower these onto those boats,” he says, pointing.

“It’s too dark. I can’t see.”

The man looks the kid up and down, his torch held out at arm’s-length to the side. “You saying you’re not going to follow orders?”

David sucks in his bottom lip and takes a step back, shaking his head. “It’s dark. What if I mess-up?”

“If you mess this up, you get strung-up. Is that clear?”

Swallowing, David nods and goes over to the crates, a coil of rope resting on the ground next to them. Among the crates, he places his hand on a blue plastic barrel. “Do I need to send this? It’s empty.”

“Does that look like a crate?”

There’s a long pause and the kid nods. “Just the crates?”

The man gives no response, only watches.

With fumbling, trembling hands, David takes the rope and secures it around the first crate. He looks back at the man, still standing over him, the torchlight providing the only source of light. “Where do I take it?”

“Lower them onto the boats. It’s not that difficult.”

David rubs sweat from his brow as the first hints of sunlight reveal themselves. “Sorry. I’ve just woke up. It’s the plez.”

The man stares at David for a long moment, a curl creasing the left side of his upper lip. “Addicts,” he spits, shaking his head. “Just get on with it.”

Taking the first crate in his arms, he ambles slowly to the roof’s edge and looks into the black waters. His eyes linger on the rippling of the waves, the tiny shimmers of reflected gloaming, before shifting them to the boat. A woman looks up at him, staring impatiently. “Well?”

David looks around. “Here.” He lowers the crate, the rope rubbing against his blister when the woman tugs at it with a sudden jerk.

She unfastens the rope from the crate and looks up at him. “Well? Don’t just stand there. Get the rest.”

David runs back to the crates, secures them with rope, and lowers them one-by-one to the woman, now distributing the shipments between four different boats. “Is that the last one?” she asks, after a while.

“That’s it,” David says.

“Good. Go see your boss.”

David looks around but sees no signs of the man. He wanders back to the blue plastic barrel, leaning his hand on it as he waits. After a minute, he yawns and looks down at his drumming fingers. A few of the Family’s dealers drop into boats, pushing out on the water towards the shore. He watches them for a minute or so, then turns back to the barrel, considering its shape, its hollowness.

The rising sun sends red light flooding across the rooftops. A breath catches in his throat as he takes the barrel, rolls it over the edge of the rooftop, and follows it into the water.

The cold shock hits him. He scrambles wildly, gasping as his head bobs beneath the water, its acrid foulness filling his lungs and burning his eyes. The barrel bobs on the surface, just out of reach. He leans forward and plunges beneath the water, kicking his legs and flapping his arms.

Turning, he grabs onto a rusted bracket and pulls his body against the wall. With a thrust of his legs, he shoots forward, grabbing around the sides of the barrel. A shout comes from above, echoing around him.

The barrel sinks low into the water when it takes his weight. David waits, and the barrel holds. The voices comes again, louder, more urgent. He ignores them and kicks his legs, moving forward, cutting a course through the freezing water.

He grabs the opposite wall with one hand, his other clasped to one of the barrel’s handles. A bullet whizzes by, the gunshot’s snap deafening. But he keeps going.

By the time he reaches open water, his legs move with slow, jellylike kicks, his muscles seizing against the effort and cold.

Teeth chattering, he smiles as the sun grows warm, its light soothing against the back of his neck. He heads northwest, away from the direction of the Family’s campervan, now no more than a speck in the distance.

A few gunshots ring out from the direction of the dealers’ boats, but he keeps pushing, keeps swimming.

He cries out when something sharp catches his left foot. Kicking weakly, he feels the land beneath the water.

A minute or so later, he reaches the shore, drags the barrel from the water, and flops to his side, exhausted.

It’s dark when David stirs. He looks around at the jet black sky, squinting as hunger and plez pull at his thoughts. His clothes hang damp and tattered from his body as he hugs his arms around his knees.

The need for plez pushes away the hunger. Sweat seeps from every pore, coating him in a layer of cold. He coughs and cries, looking back out over the water towards the Family.

Getting up, he wanders along the water’s edge, shingles clattering beneath his bare feet. He picks at long-dead bushes, sniffing their branches. His mouth grows dry and the need for water is almost as strong as the need for plez.

He wanders aimlessly until long after sunrise, coming to rest among the stones, curling into himself, sweating and crying as he rocks himself to sleep.

Grasses with stringy yellowed stems rest flat against the ground. David picks at them, sucking at their moisture, chewing them before spitting them onto the dirt.

Following the shore north for a few days, he staggers in a daze, stopping at the edge of the water to feel its wetness against his lips as the hunger tears through him.

He turns south, retracing his steps along the shore, heading towards the highway.

The smoke from the factory rises in black curls against the morning sun. David wipes the sweat from his brow, shivering, cold, hungry.

Crouching next to the floodwaters, he cups his hands and dips them below the surface.

“I wouldn’t drink that water if I were you, kid,” a voice says.

David stiffens and looks around. A man stands over him. A long leather jacket hangs past his knees, his face obscured by a kerchief, goggles, and a tattered red baseball cap. “It’s okay, kid.”

The man removes the goggles and kerchief, offers David a smile, and reaches out, offering him a water bottle. “I’m Abel.”

THE END

 

TheWasteLandSeries-Boxset (1)

Host – a dark short story

  The tunnels around me are dark, dark. I yearn for the hum of the strip lights, the drip, drip of the pipes. It’s cold down here. I lie, weighed down by my sac, as a dozen babies claw and writhe inside me.
It never used to be this way, but when the plague came, we all changed. Those that survived were never the same. A new norm emerged.
I whisper to the children. They’re not my children. They grow inside me, but they grow from the seeds of men and women. I am not like them. I am a host.
The men bring me food and water. The women bring me stories and blankets. They fear me, but they need me. Like soil, they need me to grow their seeds. Through their worship, their reverence, I can still taste their fear, bitter on my tongue. They look upon me as something else, something neither here nor there: a host.
I’ve heard whispers in the dark of “necessary evils” and “unfortunate realities”. Without me — without us — they cannot breed.
When they bring their offerings of sperm and ovum, I eat until I can eat no more. A desire to swallow the men and women, to tear them apart limb from limb — like a mantis extinguishing her mate — is only expunged by their restraints, their binds.
I know there are hosts like me who roam the tunnels and the wastes, feeding on their mates once the impregnation is complete. They aren’t like me — they are free.
There’s a tear in my sac. Amniotic fluid seeps around me, soaking my flesh. Men and women arrive. The first child is born a host. The child is cast to the flames.

Lord Sidebottom and the Awesome Airship Mystery

The clock above my workbench struck seven. I rolled up my designs for what can only be described as the most awesome airship ever conceived—not in that vulgar sense uttered by those young people they have nowadays to refer to anything even vaguely of interest. No, this airship was awesome in the truest sense.

I stowed the blueprint in my wall-safe and locked the front door behind me as I stepped into the cold. It was time to meet the beautiful Lady Elizabeth.

I shovelled coal into my Segway. The machine rumbled to life, steam jets hissing from its exhaust vents. My feet stood firm between its wheels as the vehicle rolled forward.

The sands extended towards the sea’s distant glimmer as the Segway hopped onto the promenade. Seagulls eyed me from their gas lamp perches.

The beautiful Lady Elizabeth would be waiting for me. I had taken it upon myself to court her and prove I was a man of means and keen perception.

Approaching the pier, I spied a commotion around our usual place of meeting. I recognised Detective Jones, as tall and impeccable as ever with his black uniform and airman’s moustache. “Detective,” I called, drawing to a stop.

“Lord Sidebottom.” Lamplight caught the flicker of anguish in his expression.

I followed his gaze and my mouth gaped. An emerald green dress lay draped across twisted limbs. The beautiful Lady Elizabeth stared at nothing with dead eyes. I stepped from my Segway and knelt over her body.

“Do you know this woman?” the detective asked.

“It is the beautiful Lady Elizabeth. We are…we were courting.” I turned to him. “Who could have done this? Who could have snuffed out the life of such a wonderful woman?”

He removed his hat and dipped his head. “I am dreadfully sorry.”

“That is not an answer,” I spat. “Are there no clues?”

The detective licked his lips and gave a slight nod. He handed me a brass plaque, no bigger than my palm and no thicker than the brim of a cheap top hat.

I rose to my feet, tilting it towards a nearby gas lamp. The etched image of Mad Frank winking back at me caught the light. “It is Mad Frank’s calling card—my arch nemesis. Curse that—“

The emerald dress burst open as a dozen or so clockwork crabs launched themselves towards me, nipping and tearing at my flesh and hair and clothing.

I frantically pried them from me, hurling their metal shells to the ground, stamping them down beneath my boots.

The detective lunged forward, swinging at one of the damnable things with his truncheon, screaming out when the creature snapped at his face, lopping off a chunk of his moustache.

We looked around, dazed and breathless as gears and brass shards lay spread across the flagstones.

“Are they gone?” he asked, straightening his hat.

I stared down at my ragged shirt, and wiped my bloodied face with a handkerchief. “What the devil were they?”

“I believe they were Mad Frank’s attack crabs.”

A shuddering breath left me and I knelt next to Lady Elizabeth. Holes in the dress revealed a construction of wood and rubber beneath—nothing more than a container for those mechanical mockeries. I ran my hand towards her face and prodded rubbery flesh. “This is not a murder, detective. This is something else.”

“Then no murder has been committed. It is a closed case.”

“I was supposed to meet the beautiful Lady Elizabeth. If she’s not here, then where is she?”

He met my question with a blank expression.

I tipped my hat and mounted the Segway. Deflated, I returned to my workshop.

I came to a stop outside and rummaged for my keys, my fingers brushing Mad Frank’s calling card. Why had he sent clockwork crabs? Where was the beautiful Lady Elizabeth?

None of it made a lick of sense.

My workshop door flew open and three robot monkeys charged from inside. Steam poured from their ears. Alchemical light glowed behind their eyes.

I jumped to one side as they swung from trees and lampposts.

The first of them leaped towards me. I gripped the creature around the throat, slamming it against my garden wall, its skull shattering on impact.

I sidestepped the second and stood back as it tumbled into a thorn bush. I ran towards it, my boots crashing down on its chest, oil and coal spilling across the cobbles.

I turned swiftly as another mounted my back, its claws tearing at my already ragged shirt. Grabbing its ears, I flipped it over my shoulder and shoved it against the wall. It thrashed for a moment then dropped face-first to the ground.

I examined its head—it was coated in the same rubbery material as Lady Elizabeth’s false visage.

I drew my fists up and shouldered my way into the workshop. Lengths of rubber hose and copper wire lay across the counter. Brass gears and cogs stood in haphazard piles. My gaze shifted towards the wall-safe. Its door hung at an awkward angle. Scorch marks ran along its hinges. I marched over and thrust my head inside. “My designs!”

A glimmer of something caught my eye—an etched sheet of brass, Mad Frank’s calling card.

I snatched it as a low droning hum filled my workshop. I bolted outside, skidding to a halt as Mad Frank’s airship loomed above.

I threw a handful of coal into my Segway and fired up its engine. The airship turned slowly towards me as I raced ahead. A salvo of missiles burst from the airship’s cannon.

Charging headlong towards the first missile, I pushed my Segway beyond its limits, its frame rattling as the wind rushed by my ears. With a swift kick, the Segway rose from the ground and slid along the missile’s edge.

Teeth gritted, I hopped to the next missile, and the next and the next, climbing towards the airship as more of the rockets rained down. I glanced over my shoulder to see my workshop in flames far below. Bouncing from the final missile, the Segway cracked beneath me, its wheels falling to Earth. With a burst of strength, I leaped towards the airship, crashing through a window and clattering onto its deck.

Gasping, I forced myself to stand.

A fiendish masked man stood before me, his black cape rippling against the wind. He twiddled his moustache. “Lord Sidebottom. We meet again.”

“Mad Frank! Gah! What have you done with the beautiful Lady Elizabeth? And what have you done with my designs for the awesome airship?”

He let out a cold laugh. “I do not have time for your games, Lord Sidebottom. You may have destroyed my clockwork crustaceans and mechanical macaques, but you will be no match for my robot-crab-monkeys.”

He clapped his hands, summoning a trio of robot-crab-monkeys. The vile brutes ducked and weaved around me, steel claws snapping, fangs glistening.

I swung at them with kicks and punches, but they moved with swift, unpredictable flourishes.

Overwhelmed, I yielded.

Mad Frank clapped again. “Lock him in the cell.”

The robot-crab-monkeys dragged me along an unlit corridor and threw me into a metal-walled room, locking the door behind me with a thundering clunk. I slumped to the floor, hopeless as darkness pressed around me.

I rifled through my trouser pockets, searching for tools or lock picks. The evening had meant to be a walk along the promenade and a hotpot supper followed by some gin and dress-up, if all went well.

My fingers brushed against the edges of two brass sheets, the etching of Mad Frank bringing a curl to my lips. My sneer turned into a smile as I rammed the calling cards between the door and its frame, shifting them until the lock finally gave way.

Flinging the door open, I grabbed the heads of the two robot-crab-monkeys standing sentry, smashing them against one another with all the force I could muster. Steam gushed from the tops of their craniums, arms flailing wildly.

As the guards fell into a heap around me, a third robot-crab-monkey bounded towards me and pounced. I swivelled, striking the monstrosity with a sharp jab of my elbow. Searing pain tore through my arm as it drove deep into its chest. Hot oil squirted from its frame as it collapsed next to its fallen brethren in a plume of billowing smoke.

Holding my scalded right arm close to me, I crept towards the bridge and kicked open the door.

Mad Frank looked up at me with a start. “Where are my robot-crab-monkeys?”

I shrugged and offered him a broad grin. He charged at me, throttling me with fists.

I nudged him backwards with a shoulder, knocking him into the airship’s control wheel. The craft lurched sharply to the right. We lost our footing and tumbled to the deck. Sliding across the polished oak, I swung at him to no avail. “Gah!”

“You fool!” His wild laughter stopped abruptly when the airship crashed into the sea, a shockwave hurling our bodies to the deck with an almighty thud.

Cold sea water lapped around us, pouring in through the cracks in the ship. I dragged Mad Frank through the nearest window and swam to the shore.

The detective ran over to us as the airship ignited in a tower of flames. I offered him a weak smile and gestured to Mad Frank as we lay coughing and spluttering, sand and seaweed coating our bodies.

Mad Frank pulled something from inside his cape—my designs for the awesome airship. The sodden paper turned to pulp in his hands. “It is ruined! The sea has destroyed your blueprints.”

I rushed to the detective and pointed a finger at Mad Frank. “That man burgled my workshop and attacked me with an assortment of clockwork and steam-powered attack robots. He also blew up my home with missiles, took me prisoner, and, worst of all, he tried to steal the designs for my awesome airship.”

Mad Frank let out a cackling laugh as the detective heaved him to his feet. “You are ruined, Lord Sidebottom. Your awesome airship is no more.”

“What you stole was but a mere copy. I always make duplicates.”

Mad Frank’s eyes widened. “No! All my work was for nought!”

The detective cuffed Mad Frank and led him up the steps towards the promenade. “I’m arresting you in the name of the law.”

“Wait!” I called, chasing after them.

The detective turned to me. “We will interrogate this criminal and then I vow we will find Lady Elizabeth.”

I shook my head and reached up to Mad Frank’s face. I tore off his mask, then pulled away the layer of rubbery flesh. “Oh, Lady Elizabeth. How could you?”

The End.

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To Grip the Bright White Chains

The ocean reflected a sky the colour of hung meat. Elsie coughed as a chill wind changed direction, bringing with it the stench of washed-up fish.

She turned as a boy shuffled toward her with purple-rimmed eyes. The boy looked like every other addict: dishevelled, dirty, desperate, dead. He was beyond saving.

The boy crouched on one knee then swung a grubby rucksack from his shoulder. “You got the plez?”

Elsie nodded. “Three caps. I assume you’ve got what I asked for?”

The boy looked up at her as he unfastened the rucksack. “This stuff wasn’t easy to get hold of.”

Raising her chin, she pursed her lips and glowered at the boy. “A deal’s a deal. If you want the caps—”

“Fine, fine.” The boy scratched at his hair, and laid the items out on the mottled concrete.

A smile crept over Elsie’s face. “Real. Unopened.” She knelt down on creaking knees to touch the pair of tins. “This is good work, but I asked for a brush.”

The boy groped inside his rucksack for several seconds and then pulled out a paintbrush. “It’s not perfect. It’s the best I could find.”

He handed Elsie the paintbrush with trembling fingers. It was sticky to the touch and coated with long-dried drips of paint.

She placed the brush into her shopping trolley, tucking it between a roll of polythene and a coil of blue rope.

The boy lifted the tins into the trolley and stood before her. She dropped three plezerra capsules into the boy’s outstretched hand. He nodded, turned, and ran. She shook her head and sighed as the boy disappeared beyond the sea wall.

Pushing her trolley, Elsie looked across the water, slick with oil and algae. The trolley’s wheels squeaked and snagged on stones and discarded plastic as it clattered along the promenade. Turning left, she pushed the trolley along a street lined with boarded-up and barricaded terraced houses.

She thought about the boy and about the drugs. He would feel wonderful for a day at most and then be back on the streets, stealing and whoring; each day bringing him closer to an early death.

The demand was there—the demand was always there. She told herself it was better for the drugs to come from her than from a violent street thug.

Turning right, Elsie walked down an alleyway, and shouldered her way backwards through a gate, closing it behind her. She gripped the trolley as she regained her breath. Feeling the twinge in her back, she lifted the tins from her trolley.

She surveyed her months of work. Bees buzzed around her while she inspected a bed of chrysanthemums, red and pink blooms swaying gently with the breeze, their fragrance tickling her memories, reminding her of carefree, more playful times.

She walked over to her bench, and ran a finger along its framing of curled wrought iron, glossy and black and detailed with twists of ivy. Varnished slats creaked as they took her weight, and Elsie looked over to the strawberry plants crawling up the wall. The berries were weeks from ripening.

The tins were the finishing touch.

Rummaging through her trolley, Elsie found a flat-head screwdriver and used it to lever open the first lid. She lingered on the old, familiar smell, a fresh smell she had not experienced for many, many years. She wiped the brush with a cloth and dipped it into the white gloss paint, brilliant and gloopy. Satisfied, she watched the paint fall in slow, deliberate drips from the brush and back into the tin.

Dragging the tin over to the first pole, she set to work applying the paint, grinning as it clung skin-like to the rust. She looked up at the chains hanging from the crossbeam and painted them too. She worked until the sky went dark and the air dropped cold.

She rushed to her garden early the next morning to see the paint had dried. Her work was complete. She stepped out through her gate as the sun emerged in the hung-meat sky, and approached a pair of children begging on the corner: a boy and a girl no older than eight.

“I’ve got something to show you,” Elsie said.

The children stared up at her and scowled. “Piss off,” the girl said.

“You’ll like it. I promise.”

The children exchanged furtive glances and rose to their feet. The boy regarded Elsie for a long moment before nodding to the girl.

“Okay, but if you try anything funny.” The boy patted a blade on his belt.

Elsie led the way and the children followed. She opened her gate and welcomed the children into her garden—their garden.

“Whenever you feel sad, whenever you feel desperate, I want you to come here. If you ever feel tempted by plezerra, come here instead. This is your sanctuary.”

“This is for us?” the boy asked.

“For you, for any child who needs to feel safe.”

The children smiled. “What’s that do?” The girl gestured past Elsie.

“I’ll show you. It’s perfectly safe.” She signalled for the girl to sit on the wooden seat and to grip the bright white chains.

“Hold on.” Elsie walked behind the girl. She pushed her and the girl swung up and back, up and back. Elsie felt the girl stiffen for a moment. Then the girl laughed. Then the boy joined in.

Elsie wiped a tear.

It had been a long, long time since she had heard the laughter of children.

The end.

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Basilisk on a Yellow Field — a story in the Ravenglass Universe

I stood on the edge of a large stone room lit by alchemical orbs casting soft white light across the faces of two dozen children as they danced to the drummers and pipers performing a traditional Ostreich folk song.

The adults looked on in their green finery. The men wore matching coats, tailored from silk. The women wore long hooded dresses in a darker green than the men. They were cut low along the bust and pulled tight at the waist, with wide skirts extending to the floor.

My dress was in the style of the other women, though a hidden slit allowed me to reach across with my left hand and easily grasp my blade, the Feuerschwert.

A red-faced dancer stared at me as she swayed from left to right, turning and twisting her hands in time with the music. I smiled, but my smile was not returned. There was fear in those eyes.

The Feuerschwert rested cold against my skin. Though secured to my waist, I feared the ravenglass might cut into my flesh, bringing out its dormant power.

The scent of roasted pork hung in the air as I examined the revellers’ faces. I took care to note the features of each person in an effort to remember. A woman’s face sparked a memory when I saw her from the side, but when she turned to me with an unsure smile, it was clear we shared no recognition.

Just one smile, just one nod of recognition was all I craved. Someone to tell me who I am — to tell me my name.

I moved left along the wall as the beat continued. Though the festivities were held in honour of Jorg Shultz’s fiftieth year, the Viscount had retired to his chamber during the final course of the feast. I stepped around a stone bust of my target, staring expressionless from a marble plinth, and skirted past a colourful tapestry that was fifteen feet across. It showed a knight bearing the Ostreich sigil of a black basilisk on a yellow field thrusting a lance into the belly of a green-scaled wyvern.

Reaching the end of the great hall, I slipped through a half-open door. The alchemical glow faded as I made my way along a bare stone corridor illuminated by wall candles. The handle of the Feuerschwert brushed against my side as my steps grew urgent. I found my way to a spiral stairway.

I ascended the steps until I reached a thick door in varnished oak. I placed my ear against the door and listened. Hearing nothing, I turned the handle. I held my breath, pulled up the hood of my dress, removed my shoes, and stepped through the door.

The corridor was dark and the floorboards cold beneath my soles. A faint glow seeped out from beneath a door at the end of the passage. I reached into my dress, removed the Feuerschwert, trembling as I held it my hands. Its ravenglass blade was a deep black — a much deeper black than the darkness of the passage.

I unhooked the skirt from my dress and freed myself from the corset, dropping them in a heap next to me. I stepped towards the door and teased its handle. My heart thundered in my chest as I pushed the door open.

A fire burned in a hearth at the far-right of the room. Above it, a portrait of a long-dead Viscount looked on with a dark, disinterested gaze. Thick green drapes hung in front of the windows overlooking the Braun Sea. I heard a shuffle to my right — it was Jorg Shultz. Our eyes met.

“What is the meaning of this?” he asked.

I said nothing and pricked the index finger of my left hand with the Feuerschwert. The Viscount’s eyes widened at the blade turned from deep black to a glowing red as it consumed the blood.

“Ravenglass,” he whispered, his eyes bulging.

I jumped back on my toes as he tipped his chair towards me. Jorg unsheathed a blade, longer and thicker than my own. With a fluid motion he rolled up his sleeve and sliced the blade across his left forearm. His blade too glowed red.

A wolfish grin rose beneath his thick blond moustache. Nobody had warned me about this.

My hands went slick with sweat. I danced on my tiptoes, feinted left, then right, trying to draw him into dropping his guard, to making a mistake.

“Who sent you?” he growled.

I shook my head. I was not going to answer him. How could I answer him?

He swung his blade in a broad vertical arc. I hopped to the right and stabbed forward with a twist of my wrist. He jerked his shoulder to the side. We both straitened up, regaining our stance.

We circled each other, his blue eyes locked with my own. I dived forward, striking the back of his leg. He let out an agonised scream as the blade hissed, its magic tearing through his flesh, burning him from within.

He swung and I moved to parry, but instead of the expected ricochet, his blade went through my own, like two jets of water crossing each other’s paths. His blade nicked my arm and I felt its fiery heat swell inside.

Neither of us bled from our wounds, but I sensed Jorg’s pain as it spread through his body. He fell backwards, looking up at me in terror. “What do you want?” he managed. His words were weak, his breath shallow.

I stood over him. His blade returned to black as it dropped from his convulsing hand. I pulled my hood down and pushed my blade into his chest.

“It’s you,” he gasped. “What—”

I pulled the Feuerschwert from his chest. “Wait,” I said. “Who am I?” I leaned down and shook him. “Please,” I pleaded. “Tell me who I am.”

But he was already dead.

The End.

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As the Gravity Flipped

“Janis, you awake?”

“Mat?” Janis rolled over in her bunk and rubbed her eyes, yawning. “Come in. Do you know what time it is?”

Mataes entered and sat on the end of her bunk. Damp socks draped over the mattress, and unwashed clothes lay scattered across the concrete floor. “I’ve brought you some food,” he said, pulling a half-loaf of black bread from his coveralls, unwrapping it from a piece of cloth.

She sat up with stiff joints, air ducts wheezing above. She grabbed the bread from his outstretched hand and took a large bite. “Where did you get this?” She looked into his dark eyes, smiling.

“I stole it from the higher-ups’ mess. They’re hoarding now.”

“Thank you.” The dry bread stuck against the roof of her mouth, but she savoured each mouthful, letting the bread soften on her tongue before swallowing. “Sorry, would you like some?”

“No thanks, why do you think it’s only half a loaf?”

“You’re amazing. If there’s any way I can repay you?”

“There is.”

“Oh.” Janis fell silent and stopped chewing. “What is it?”

“A few of us—.” Mataes hesitated, brushing his hand over his scalp as he faced Janis. “You want what’s best for everyone, don’t you?”

“Everyone? Who’s everyone?” She wiped breadcrumbs from her rough woollen blanket.

“All of us workers. We’re starving while the higher-ups are sitting on supplies. We’re still getting bills for power and water — what are you going to pay them with? It’s only a matter of time before things start getting violent. You don’t want that, do you?”

She shook her head. “I see.”

“A few of us have got a plan, but we need people we can trust to help us. I know I can trust you Janis — you’re a good person.”

“Is this ‘few of us’ Arfo?”

“Has he spoken to you?”

“No, but the way the pair of you have been going around lately, I could tell you were up to something.”

“You can get to the cleaning stores. No one would suspect you if you did,” he said, taking Janis’s hand.

She knitted her brow, pursing her lips as she considered his words. “I could get to the cleaning stores when I was working, but how am I supposed to get across to the other platform without raising suspicions? Haven’t the higher-ups stopped the capsules?”

“Arfo said he can fit you with a vacuum suit. He said you’d just need to go up the capsule tunnel to the other side.”

“Right.” The side of her mouth twitched.

“There won’t be anyone on that side except for a few of the higher-ups. We just need you to mix some cleaning chemicals.”

She pulled her hand back and scratched her head. “But we’re not meant to mix them — it’s a rule.” She shook her head. “Is there no one else who—.”

“There’s no one, Janis. I know you can do this.”

“Right.” She looked down at her chipped fingernails and gave a quivering sigh.

Mataes cupped her hands with his. “I believe in you, Janis Parvo.”

“Okay.” She gave him a nervous look. “And what should I say if I get stopped?”

“We’ll do it when the higher-ups are asleep. And if you are stopped, just tell them there’s an issue over on our side with the toilets. They’re not going to show their faces on this side any time soon.”

“When were you thinking?”

“There are a few things we need to prepare, but if you want to help us, it will mean so much to me. Being willing to make this sacrifice is amazing.” He cast his eyes to the door. “I like you, Janis.”

Janis smiled, then nodded. “If this is what we need to do to help everyone, I’ll do it.”

“That’s great Janis. That’s really great. I’ll let Arfo know you’re in. And remember — don’t say a word to anyone about this.”

She nodded. “I won’t. I wouldn’t.”

 

 

Janis stood with her arms outstretched and hair tied back as Mataes made the final adjustments to her vacuum suit. She winced as the suit squeezed around her thighs and forearms. Air ducts hissed as the station creaked with low syncopated ticks.

Steel beams and blue light tubes curved ten metres up to the tunnel entrance above. Without the workers boarding and alighting transport capsules, it was far too quiet. She leaned over the platform edge, expecting to see the top of a line of spherical capsules, but the hole was empty and black.

“I’m scared,” she said, stepping away from the concrete edge.

“You’ll be great,” said Mataes. “The suit’s just adjusting to you. And if it’s any consolation, you do look ridiculous.”

She laughed and struck him on the arm with a playful punch. She leaned forward and kissed him on the lips.

“Well, look at you two.”

She released him from her embrace and flushed. Arfo strode across the boarding platform towards them. He stood tall and thin, with sharp features and a thick black ponytail.

Mataes fumbled to fit Janis’s oxygen backup. “Good luck,” he whispered.

“Make sure your communicator’s off,” Arfo said. “We don’t want the higher-ups to listen in on any of this. Are you happy with the plan? Do you remember what to do?”

She nodded as a small bead of sweat collected on her forehead and dripped to the floor.

“Just keep going straight up the capsule tunnel and you’ll be fine,” Arfo said. “Try to accelerate to the point in the centre when you feel the gravity dip. When it flips you want to start decelerating. If you keep at a constant acceleration, the gravity’s going to give you a big speed boost, and you might lose control, so please be careful.” He glanced up at the tunnel and then leaned over the platform edge.

She gave an unsure nod.

“Just remember when you get to the middle, what you thought was up will become down. Just try not to get disorientated.” Arfo brushed back his hair and examined Janis’s suit.

She smiled as Mataes lifted the helmet over her head. “I’ll see you on the other side,” he said. “I’m so proud of you for doing this.”

The helmet clicked into place. She moved her head from left to right and up and down, testing its range of motion. She smelled her nervous sweat and the faint trace of ozone. Air pressure pushed against her ears.

Looking up, the capsule tunnel gave the illusion of a series of concentric steel rings. She gulped.

Arfo tapped her helmet twice and nodded. Taking a deep breath, she twisted the knob to open the propellant and floated up and into the tunnel.

She’d travelled back and forth along the capsule line thousands of times, but always within the confines of the windowless transport capsules. This was something different, both exciting and terrifying.

The gravity reduced the closer she came to the central point between the two platforms.

Then she stopped. Turning to her left, she gazed out of the window and realised it was the first time she had ever seen outside — the blackness of space; the dull orange surface of Titan; the vast swathes or white and orange and red across Saturn’s surface, its icy rings shimmering ghost-like against the distant white sun.

The sounds of her body filled her ears — her breath, her heartbeat, the grinding of her teeth.

After drifting past the viewing window, her speed increased. The gravity flipped.

The suit jerked and she went into a spin. Closing her eyes, she tried to re-orientate her body to the new direction of gravity’s pull. She took a deep breath, reduced her acceleration and drifted down towards the work side of the station.

The gravity increased until it reached the station’s normal level. She made a final twist on the suit’s knob, stopping the propellant, and squeezed past the stationary capsules.

She switched on the suit’s internal communicator. With trepidation, she tapped on the side of a capsule — its hollow, metallic sound ringing out around her. She couldn’t switch on the suit’s external communicator, but she could hear her surroundings.

The platform mirrored the one she had left behind. The platform creaked and strained against the ubiquitous rumble of idling machinery, the low whine of air ducts, and the echo of her own footsteps against concrete and steel.

Her workplace was unfamiliar at this time of night. Gone were the crowds of workers and drones racing back and forth; gone were the bright daylight lamps lining the corridors; and gone was that sense of community, of belonging.

All was quiet. All was still. The silence terrified her.

She crept along the main corridor lit by strips of dim blue light. She passed by the drone control rooms and the administration offices, the medical bay, and security room with its reinforced doors framed by thick rivets. She passed the stairwell down to the farms, the air processing and water treatment levels. She passed the elevator up to the reactors and the higher-ups’ accommodation. The door to the main delivery dock loomed ahead. She stopped.

A distant rhythmic sound rang out behind her. She hugged her body against a doorway. The pulse in her head became louder and louder. She held her breath and strained to hear, but the internal communicator’s range wasn’t as good as her own ears. She unclicked the helmet. Her ears popped. The air was stale. The stench of something rotten lingered.

Placing the helmet next to her on the floor, she waited and listened, cupping her ear with her gloved hand. Nothing.

Shaking, sweating, she reached down and clicked the helmet back on. The pressure returned to her ears. The platform’s ambient sounds faded to little more than a compressed hiss. Her neck stiffened.

Crossing the corridor, she entered the cleaning store. She closed the door behind her, switched on the light and slumped onto her usual seat. She sighed as she considered the vats of chemicals stacked against the opposite wall.

If she wanted, she could turn back.

She got up and walked over to a trio of cleaning drones standing along the rear wall, each of them looming over her by half-a-metre. One-by-one, the drones came online as she keyed in their respective codes. She’d used these machines every day, but she had never considered using them for anything other than cleaning.

Squinting, she keyed in each of the drones’ manual overrides. She opened the containers of various cleaning chemicals, struggling and wobbling as she poured the first vat into the fluid cavities of each of the drones.

She turned off the suit’s internal communicator then poured the other cleaning fluids into the drones. She couldn’t smell the liquids, but she was confident the containers would be correctly labelled. Kneeling before each drone, she keyed in the commands for them to dump their payloads on the higher-ups’ accommodation level.

She held her breath when the three drones moved out with smooth motion. With slow, cautious steps, she followed as they called the elevator and waited — still, humming, ominous. They entered the elevator, the doors sliding closed behind them.

 

 

“Hey, are you okay?”

Janis snapped out of a trance as Mataes placed a reassuring hand on her bare shoulder. Scratching her head, she forced a smile. “Honestly, I feel terrible.”

“Come down to the common room, join us,” he said, perching on the edge of her bunk.

“I can’t. I feel so—.” She closed her eyes and held in a breath.

“You’re a hero, Janis,” he said, stroking her arm. “You saved us.”

“At what price?”

“You can sit here feeling sorry for yourself, or you can think what would the price have been if you hadn’t helped us. You were the only person we could trust who had access to those cleaning stores. And you did so brilliantly.”

She sighed and stared at her open palms — pale, small, wrinkled — the hands of a killer.

“Look at me,” Mataes snapped. He hooked her chin with a finger, his skin cold and rough. She met his gaze and blinked. “The higher-ups were keeping the stores for themselves. They’d locked us out. Hundreds of us would have starved. If they had done the right thing, kept things running, fed the workers — well, we wouldn’t be where we are.” His words were a slow and deliberate monotone.

She frowned. “I know. But have you ever—.” She paused, hesitating as she ran the words over in her mind. “You’ve never had to do what I did.”

“All you did was mix some chemicals and programme some drones. It’s what you’ve always done — nothing different,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Don’t play me for a fool,” she said, her voice rising. “I know what I did, and God will judge me for that. I poisoned eight people — people I’ve known all my life.”

He held her. After a moment of tension, she leaned her head onto his chest, tears filling her eyes.

“Think of it like this,” he said, stroking her hair. “If someone was going to open the airlocks on a platform and the only way to stop it was to kill that person, what would you do?”

She didn’t respond.

“It’s exactly the same. You saved many lives. What you did was difficult, but you were so brave. That’s why… that’s why I love you, Janis Parvo.”

Janis sat up and regarded Mataes. “What?”

“I love you,” he said, looking away.

“That’s not true.”

He reached out and stroked her cheek. “I’ve loved you for a long time and, well, when you kissed me before you saved us all, I knew then I wanted you. I wanted to be with you.”

She flushed. “I don’t know—.” She shook her head.

“Please say you feel the same,” he pleaded.

“I do,” she whispered, smiling. “I really do.”

“Then be with me, Janis. I’ll help you, I’ll be there for you. We can get through this, together.”

She leaned over and kissed him on the lips. They held each other. Pulling away, she smiled, then gestured for him to join her in bed.

“Do you want me?” she asked, slipping off her underclothes.

“Yes, I want you,” said Mataes, his breath growing heavier as he threw off his coveralls.

 

 

Janis hummed to herself, smiling as she held Mataes’s hand. Arfo rose from his seat to address the mess hall. She sat at the head of the table previously reserved for the higher-ups, with Mataes sitting to her right and Arfo to her left. Steaming potatoes, fresh breads, roasted chicken and apples piled high along the steel table. Workers clamoured to fill their bowls as the hall buzzed with conversation. The smells of cooked meats, baked bread and boiled vegetables hung in the air. The room loomed around her as daylight lamps glared down from high above: all clean lines and off-white walls.

Arfo banged his bowl against the table three times until the workers fell silent. “For this meal, we have one person to thank.” He raised his bowl high above his head, grinning as the other workers echoed the gesture. “Let the name Janis Parvo ring through the generations as the person who freed us from our bondage — the woman who saved us all from starvation, the woman who saved us all from certain death.”

Janis squirmed as the three hundred or so men and women stared at her and banged their bowls in appreciation.

“Without Janis’s selfless bravery, we would still be living in uncertainty. We would all be wondering when our next pay would arrive, wondering how we could pay our bills, wondering how we could feed ourselves and our families. She is an example to us all — the risk she took was great, but the reward was greater.”

Janis scratched behind her left ear, then leaned forward to pick a slice of chicken breast from a tray being passed along the table.

“And this is true of all us,” Arfo continued. “A few of us are working to get the reactors back online and get back to work. But this won’t be work for the higher-ups — clawing for a measly wage which barely covers our bills — this will be work for all of us.”

Mataes squeezed Janis’s hand.

“I am not your leader and you are not lowly workers. We are all equal, all for one, working for the good of us all. No longer will you have to pay for power, for heat, for water, for food — we will work for the good of us all.” He brushed his hair back and scanned along each of the five parallel tables.

“Things will be difficult to begin with — things are always difficult in times of change and transition. But your lives will improve. We will build our own trade networks, reap the profits of our own exports and take control of our lives.”

The room filled with cheers and the loud rhythm of bowls banging against tables — metallic, sharp, deafening. There were stamps and whoops. Janis focused on the grip of Mataes’s hand.

“This evening is more than just a celebration of our bright new future,” Arfo said as the noise died down. “We’re also here to celebrate the coming together of Janis Parvo and Mataes Rafillio. The couple will make their union official once things settle down, but I think you’ll all join me in wishing them the greatest of luck.”

Janis’s cheeks flushed as the banging bowls rose again to a loud, thunderous crescendo. Arfo poured her and Mataes a cup of cider. She sipped and it tasted bitter on her tongue.

 

 

Janis awoke to find the bunk empty beside her. She placed her hand on the space where Mataes had been sleeping — it was cold.

“Mat?” she whispered. She listened in the darkness. She was alone.

She sat up and stretched. Yawning and blinking the sleep from her eyes, she slipped from the bunk and pulled the blanket around her shoulders.

Creeping through the bunkroom door on tiptoes, she turned right down a corridor, passing beneath a dozen dim blue light halos before making her way to the bathroom. She slunk down onto a toilet and yawned.

In the cold light, she heard the sound of low voices coming through the wall behind her. Not daring to flush, she stepped softly from the bathroom.

“You’ve got to keep her sweet,” the first voice said. “She’s a tool of the revolution, but you need—.” The words came muffled, unclear. “—the wedding will cement that—.”

Holding her breath, she moved a few steps closer, cupping her ears to listen.

“I know she’s thick, but that’s the point.” She heard Arfo’s voice, but it sounded harsh, threatening. “She’s obedient and malleable — you need to stick to the plan.”

She leaned closer, pressing her body hard against the cold metal wall, shrouded in the shadowy mid-point between two light halos.

“I can’t stand her though. She’s ugly, she’s boring — she does nothing for me. What am I getting from this?”

“You fucked her, didn’t you?”

“Well, yes — what would you have done if it was there in front of you?”

Janis froze.

“Look, we’re done with her now, surely?”

“If you don’t continue the engagement, people will suspect.”

She gasped as a sudden white-hot pain tore through her chest. She wanted to cry out, to scream, but instead she moved in silence back to her room.

She climbed into the bunk, wrapping the blanket tight around her. A numbness engulfed her. She lay for a long time, staring into the dark, listening to the air ducts hissing and wheezing through the night, pretending to be asleep when Mataes returned. He lay next to her, rigid, silent.

They both remained awake until morning, neither acknowledging the other.

 

 

“There they are, my favourite couple,” said Arfo as Janis picked at her porridge.

“She’s in a mood this morning,” Mataes said. He tipped a second boiled egg into his bowl.

“I’m not in a mood. I’m tired.”

“Well we’ve got a wedding to plan, haven’t we?” Arfo said, sitting to Janis’s left.

She pushed her spoon around her bowl, wishing he would go away.

“Come on — it’s not that bad,” he said. “We’ll do something really special.” Arfo smiled.  “You like apples? I know a great recipe for an apple cake — we could have that at the feast.”

She slid along the bench and rose to her feet. “I don’t like apples,” she spat, marching away from the table.

 

 

Janis wiped another tear away as she programmed the cleaning drones for another day’s work. She paid no attention to the smiles and greetings of other workers as she turned to the stairwell and made her way up to the upper levels.

She entered the former higher-ups’ living quarters, cupping a hand over her nose. The bodies had been removed and jettisoned from an airlock, but the smell of death still lingered — at least to her it did.

The level was quiet, save for the reactor’s hum and the occasional whistle of air ducts. With a deep breath, she pulled open the single door to the communications room and sat in front of the console. She spent several minutes examining the black sheen of the buttons and turning the receiver in her hand.

Nodding to herself, she switched on the console and opened the communicator to broadcast on all external channels. She wasn’t sure if this would register with those onboard the orbiter, but it was a risk she had to take. The betrayal was too much. They’d used her.

“Hello,” she said, her voice thin and trembling. “I’m on the Titan Orbiter and, well—.” She checked over her shoulder. “The workers have taken over. Please send help or something. Arfo and Mataes did it. They killed the higher-ups.” She frowned. “Please.”

With adrenaline rushing through her body, she got up quickly from the seat and left the room, unsure whether her message had worked.

 

 

Janis frowned as Mataes crawled beside her into bed. “I know what you and Arfo have been scheming,” she said through a lump in her throat. Sweat pooled on her brow and seeped from her armpits. Her heart raced in the darkness.

Mataes sat up and slid his legs from the bunk. “You’re already in on the plan — you know that,” he said in a low voice. “You’re tired. You should try to sleep.”

She clenched her jaw and sighed. “Just stop,” she snapped. “Just stop the lies. I heard you talking last night.”

Mataes stiffened.

“I heard you,” she repeated. “What was it you said? That I was thick? That I was boring? You weren’t saying that when you were inside me. How could you be so—.” She swung a fist against the wall.

Mataes stood. She waited for him to speak. “Are you going to say anything?”

“It’s not what you think,” he said after a long silence.

“Then explain it to me.”

“I… I can’t.”

“You thought you were so clever. You and Arfo. What was your plan? Trick the stupid cleaner lady in doing your dirty work?”

“Not—.”

“Stop lying,” she snarled. “I knew exactly what I was doing with those drones. You weren’t tricking me at all.” Her pulse thundered in her ears. “Well?”

“Well, what?” he huffed. “I don’t fucking know.”

She saw him as a faint outline against the dark as he paced back and forth, rubbing his hands on his scalp in a jerking motion.

Wrapped in her blanket, Janis sat up and switched on the light. She caught Mataes’s eye with a sharp glare and smirked to herself when his gaze shot to the floor.

“You’re pathetic,” she said. “I want you to take your stuff out of my bunk and get out of here.”

“Fair enough,” he mumbled.

She rose to her feet, her blanket dropping to the floor. Standing naked before Mataes, she leaned so her mouth brushed against his right ear. “You can tell Arfo I was in the communication room today,” she whispered. “You can tell him I sent a message to all open channels telling them what’s happened here.”

Mataes’s eyes widened. She pointed to the door. “Now leave.”

He hurriedly scooped up his belongings and left without another word. Janis leaned her back against the door, sobbing.

 

 

Janis closed the cleaning store behind her when the alarm sounded. Workers ran past her in all directions.

Flinching at the siren’s shrillness, she grabbed a man’s shoulder before he could pass. He squirmed as he stopped himself from tumbling. “What?” he snapped, his dark eyes wild.

“What’s with the alarm?”

“Some ships have docked.”

Janis stood motionless as the man turned and fled. The thin trace of a smile made its way across her face as she pictured the reactions of Arfo and Mataes.

Covering her ears, she backed her way through the door into the cleaning store, closing it behind her and noticed the vacuum suit hanging like a marionette from a peg on the far wall.

She took off her coveralls and examined the suit. Taking the suit down, she pulled it up her legs, her shoulders contorting as she reached into the arms. The suit’s material clung to her like a second skin. She checked and fastened the oxygen tanks. The noise from the alarm dropped as she clicked the helmet into place. She breathed a satisfied sigh.

Stepping into the main corridor, scores of panicked workers ran past her in dreamlike silence. Reaching the departure platform, the capsule stood, unmoving. Groups of men and women paced around in confused agitation.

Taking a deep breath, she stepped out over the platform edge, turning the knob to release the suit’s propellant. She rose past the capsules and the workers and up towards the darkness.

Her body jolted upwards as she ascended the tunnel. She drifted through weightlessness, adjusting the propellant as the gravity flipped. She did not stop to look out of the window.

The daylight lamps came into view as she drew closer to the side of the station.

Coming to a stop, she found the capsule platform empty. She removed her helmet and breathed. Placing the helmet on the platform, the alarms stopped, leaving behind an unnerving absence, a strange stillness.

She stepped through a large door into a corridor and crept past the kitchens. Most of the workers were on the other side of the orbiter during daylight hours, but this was too quiet.

Approaching the workers’ mess hall, she heard shouts coming from inside. She pressed herself against the wall at the sound of a loud bang, followed by a chorus of screams. Holding her breath, she moved to one of the mess hall doors and peeped through a thin crack.

Her eyes widened as two dozen men dressed in black uniforms stood over some of the workers. Three bodies lay on the floor, blood pooling around them. She almost called out as one of the uniformed officers lifted up a sidearm and shot a woman in the head.

Scores of familiar faces lined along the mess hall wall with their hands on their heads. She gasped at the sight of Mataes.

She moved away from the door and caught her breath at the snap of another shot.

Stepping into the kitchen, she walked past half-prepared meals and shouldered her way into a storage cupboard. Though not as well-stocked as her own, she found barrels containing various cleaning fluids. She rolled them over to the kitchen hatch, straining as she lifted them onto the worktop.

Ducking, she pressed the button to raise the serving hatch and tipped the containers into the mess hall. She scrambled back to the storage room. More shouts and cries came from behind her. She tipped all the containers out that she could before her lungs burned and vision blurred. Thick white mist gathered all around her as the chemicals hissed and fizzled.

She lay on the floor as the coughs and chokes from the other workers faded.

“Forgive me,” she whispered.

The End.

 

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