Just Say When: a short timey-wimey story

A person in a spacesuit walks in front of massive red rocks. “Hey, Vesper, what have you found over there?” I said, stowing a new dirt sample in the back of the Rover.

Nguyen, sixty metres away by a large upthrust of rust-coloured rock, turned to face me with that little bunny-hop bounce necessitated by the low gravity and her EVA suit. Nguyen is Vietnamese. You’re maybe having trouble pronouncing her name. That’s OK, so do I. The first time I met her, in a small Houston bar, I couldn’t get it right at all.

“That first syllable can be hard for Western tongues,” she had allowed. “Why don’t you just say ‘Wen’?”

“Just say when? Like I’m pouring you a drink?”

“Thanks, I’ll have a Vesper.”

That comment sealed our friendship immediately, and since that day I had simply called her by the name of her favourite cocktail instead. She was happy with that, even amused, and reciprocated by calling me after my own favourite tipple.

“You’ll like this, Shirley Temple,” she said, her voice crackling a little in my earpiece. “It’s a cave.”

Now, before you go getting the wrong idea, Nguyen and I are not, and have never been, a couple. Sure, we’re a team, and a good one: we work well together as colleagues, and as friends, but there’s no romance involved. Throughout training and testing we’d consistently done well, both individually and together, and when the time came we’d both been chosen for the first HEOMD manned expedition to Mars.

I double-checked the screen on the Rover’s output dash. “Geoscan shows nothing in this rock formation but, well, rock,” I said.

We had launched from the Lunar Gateway a year ago now. Nguyen won our rock-paper-scissors decider, despite her missing middle finger, the result of a childhood accident, making it more a game of rock-paper-skewer. Her victory gave her the honour of being the first human ever to set foot on Mars. I’d followed a few minutes later, the Martian Buzz Aldrin. And yes, the moon landings had been a giant leap off the doorstep, but now humankind had properly left home and walked down the road. Humanity reaching out to neighbouring worlds borrow a cup of sugar. Boots on the red planet.

“Nevertheless,” Nguyen said, “a cave there is, and it’s a biggie. Come on, Shirley, get your hairy ass over here.”

I bounced over to her, using the comedic hop-skip gait we’d developed to move safely in the weak Martian gravity. She was standing by a dark opening in the rock, a jagged crack twice my height, yet only a metre wide. I shone my helmet light into the opening. The crevice widened out just inside and ran back a fair way.

“Turn your light off,” Nguyen said.

“What?”

“You heard.”

I did as she said and looked again into the crevice. There was something in there, back in the darkness: a deep red glow, the colour of cinnabar. It pulsed gently, almost like a beating heart.

“What the slippery wiggins is that?” I said.

“I know exactly what that is,” she said. “It’s an anomaly.”

“An anomaly? What’s that? Don’t tell me; is this another Star Trek reference?” Nguyen loved her Star Trek. I’m more of a Buffy man myself.

“Yes. Generally, it means ‘We have no idea what this unexpected thing is’. You can have all sorts of anomaly – this is possibly a crystalline anomaly, a subspace anomaly, or maybe just a common-or-garden spatial anomaly.”

“Should we go inside and investigate?”

“We’re explorers, Shirley. Investigation kind of goes with the territory. To boldly go. Adventure: without it, why live?”

“I take your point. Just say when, Vesper.”

“When.”

We turned on our helmet lights and squeezed into the cave. It widened out after a couple of feet: dust had blown into the entrance a few yards, but further inside the floor was hard and even: safe for us to walk on. Ahead of us, in the dark, the ‘anomaly’ pulsed and beckoned. I watched it for a while, then closed my eyes and watched the green afterglow that remained against my eyelids.

“Fuck. Ing. Hell.” It was unlike Nguyen to swear so baldly, so I pulled my attention away from the radiance.  She was facing the side of the cave, shining her lamp towards the foot of the wall. I joined my light with hers, and when I saw what she was looking at, my sense of the universe changed forever.

“F … Sh … what?” I struggled for words.

Nesting at the foot of the wall was a pile of bones. Human bones, with a human skull and vertebrae, and arm and hand bones reaching towards the cave wall.

“It seems that I might not be the first person to walk on Mars after all.” Nguyen said.

“But … how?”

“All I’ve got is ‘fucking hell’.”

“OK. Perhaps … perhaps there were actual Martians once, humanoids like us, and this is one of them. The bone looks blackened, old.”

There was something – a scratch, a mark – at the very base of the rock wall close to the finger bones. I squatted as best I could in the confines of my suit and looked more closely. There were indeed scratches, faint and worn away by years. At first I thought they were random marks, left by the desperate clawing of a dying Martian, but as I studied them it occurred to me that they resembled three slightly overlapping letters: J, S and W.

“This thing is pulsing faster,” Nguyen said, and I looked up to see she had moved and was staring at the light, which hovered at about head-height just in front of the back wall of the cave. It was indeed pulsing more rapidly, as if excited, like a heart at the sight of a lover. Fascinated, Nguyen lifted her hand to touch it. I’ll regret to my dying day that I was too slow to stop her.

A tsunami of crimson light flooded the cave, causing my helmet faceplate to darken in automatic response, and when it cleared Nguyen was gone. She hadn’t run outside: I checked, obviously. No, she’d just vanished into thin air (quite literally given Mars’ weedy atmosphere). I stared at the space where she’d been, and the pulsing light that had apparently … I don’t know, what? Absorbed her?

What the hell was it? Would it absorb me? Probably, if I got too close. What was it that Nguyen had said about anomalies? Surely Star Trek was fiction; but then a lot of what Star Trek had predicted had come true in the years after it was broadcast, so why not these? What kind of anomaly appeared as a pulsing red light?

Eventually a thought occurred to me, and I returned to the impossible skeleton. This time I paid more attention to the bones near the wall, the outstretched hand. There were no middle-finger bones. At that moment I knew what the scratches on the wall meant, and an hour later, when I contacted Houston, I was with some confidence able to use the words ‘temporal anomaly’. Thirty minutes later their reply, delayed by distance, arrived.

“Please investigate the anomaly <beep>,” it said. “Be cautious but use camera and infra-red analysis for initial investigation. <beep> You might like to toss a rock into it. <beep>

“Sorry, Houston, no,” I sent back. “I’m not ready to go anywhere near that thing yet.”

Thirty minutes later: “Understood, Mars One <beep>. Tell us when you are ready. <beep> Just say when.”

Leafcutter

A little story for you, prompted by Miranda Kate’s Midweek Flash. The idea came from a tweet by @_mysteryghost.

A winding brick wall, snaking off through trees into the distance. Brown leaves cover the ground.At the far end of the snakesweep wall, a small white speck trembled. It was moving towards me, following the curves of the bricks, steadily and slowly. When it reached the tree, another smithereen of white appeared at the far end, a few wall-curves behind it.

The first gradually came closer. It looked like a tiny boat with a sail, tacking against the wind on a brick sea. A third tiny boat appeared at the far end. The second had reached the tree.

No, they were not boats. The leader was eventually close enough for me to make out that it was an ant, carrying a scrap of white paper. I knew about leafcutter ants, of course, who didn’t? These were not carrying leaves, however.

More white scraps appeared, moving along the top of the winding wall like a confetti parade. When the leading ant reached me, it put down its burden, and turned to begin the long meander back along the wall. I picked up the fragment of paper it had left, upon which was scrawled a word: ‘felt’. The second ant gave me ‘my’; the third ‘pain’.

I moved Derek aside with my boot, swept away the leaves he had been snuffling, and on the dry earth I began to construct the jigsaw of ant-borne words. It took some time, but when I had finished, this is what I had:

“My own Athenais. I understand why you felt you had to leave. In a world where every person is assigned an animal familiar – a soul in creature form, to carry their dreams and guilts – when two people fall in love it is important that their familiars can co-exist. I have asked my ants to bring you this message to spare us both the pain of parting words. Simply know this: I love you, and I will love you until my final breath. Hold that truth ever in your heart and think of me sometimes. All my love, Cullen.”

As I read the last word, a gust of wind scattered the shreds of paper, pulling their meaning apart like a lost love. I sighed, stood, and walked away. Derek, my anteater, followed at my heels.

A Lyttell Geste of Robin Hood

Marian introduced me to sea wormwood that morning. I put a sprig in my belt, and every so often was greeted by a lovely sage and camomile smell that complemented perfectly the salt breeze from the cove. We sat on the shingle. Marian took my arm, pulled me close and laid her head against my shoulder.

“What are we to do?” she whispered. I sighed. I could see only one way ahead, and it hurt me to my core to even consider it.

“It pains me to say this,” I began, lifting a hand to stroke a wisp of hair away from her eye, “but if he will not see reas—”

“John! John!” The shout pierced the whisper of waves and set to flight screeching gulls and piping waders. Much thumped out of the nearby trees and slid to a halt, scattering fine pebbles over Marian’s boots. “He’s at it again!” he roared, his baritone bedizened with frustration. “We can’t stop him!”

“Fucksake,” Marian cursed. “I thought I told you to watch him, Much!”

“I’ve got to have a shit sometimes!” Much clenched his fists. His eyes dared her to argue with him.

Marian raised her hands apologetically, then leaned on my shoulder to push to her feet. “Come on, buggerlugs,” she said. “Let’s go see what our intrepid leader’s up to this time.”

We climbed through the trees to the camp at the top of the hill. A haunch of venison smoked over the fire, the flesh blackening. The friar, who was supposed to be turning it, was over by the big oak. There a rotund man sat on the ground, his back pressed against the ancient trunk. The rich shining cloth of his tunic was torn and dirtied, and his hose stained with moss and mud. He pressed his head back hard against the bark. Terror dwelt in the wide eyes that he fixed upon the dagger blade that thrust up against his cheek.

“Hoodwinked, weren’t ya?” spat the man standing over him. A fleck of spittle hit the terrified merchant’s forehead and trickled down the bridge of his nose. “Hood! Get it?” The man’s assailant giggled. “I don’t think he gets it, Scarlok.”

“Will’s not here, Robin,” pleaded the friar. “Why don’t you leave the silversmith alone and have some venison?”

“Venison, my arse,” Robin growled. “Hold your wind, hedge priest. Venison’s for mere kings. We can eat far better than venison. For myself I quite fancy sliced long pig. With lots of crispy crackling,” He drew the blade down his victim’s face, pulling a line of blood from the blubberous white cheeks. The merchant whimpered.

“Enough!” cried Marian, striding forward and dragging Robin away from their captive. “Robin, remember the mission!”

“There is no mission, have you not realised yet? There’s the forest, and there’s us, and there’s them.”

“We … we began this undertaking to right wrongs, to undermine unfair taxes. Wealth in this country is in the hands of a tiny few, while many more starve to pay their tithes. We banded together to correct that; to rob from the rich and give to the poor. It’s the very reason so many have joined us here in the greenwood. Not one of us signed up to slaughter innocent people. That is going a thousand steps too far. Robin, murder is against all laws; not only those of the Sherriff, but those of God, too.”

It was well argued, I thought, and passionately said. I loved Marian all the more for that. Robin, though, was not as taken by the maid’s words as I. “Laws?” he said. “Laws are as meaningless as dust to us. The Sherriff gave us that freedom when he named us outlaws. We are outside all laws, whether they be laws of man or of God. Ipso facto – pardon my Latin – that makes us gods of this forest. We can do or say whatever we like, and what I like right now is to see this fat pig’s hot fear trickle out of him from between his legs.”

“Robin, Robin …” I stepped forward. “Come, sit by the fire and we’ll have some ale.” The friar gave me a look and shrugged. Robin was getting worse; it was becoming ever harder to stay him from his increasingly frequent murderous rages. He suddenly straightened, nostrils flaring.

“Is the meat burning?” he asked, dropped his dagger onto the fallen autumn leaves and strode over to the fire to turn the spit.

“He’s getting worse, isn’t he?” the friar said quietly.

“Distract him,” I said. He nodded, and waddled over to help Robin slice portions of roast venison. Marian looked into my eyes, and understood. She picked up the dagger and cut the merchant’s bonds.

“Come with me,” I told him, taking up my quarterstaff. “And for your life, do not make a single sound.” I led him away from the camp, winding through the sun-spattered trees. He moved frustratingly slowly, but at least silently. When we were out of earshot I finally allowed myself to breathe.

“I make jewellery,” the merchant said, in between gasps for air. “Why does he want to hurt me? I have a child.”

I did not reply, continuing to lead him away from the camp. It was not the ideal path to take, but I did not think the merchant could manage a wide circle around the camp through thick undergrowth and fallen branches. This path would have to suffice.

When we reached the fallen tree, I indicated that he should cross first. He tiptoed to the edge of the crevasse and peered over the edge. Sixty feet below us the River Welland tumbled through sheer cliffs, eager to reach the sea.

“I can’t cross that,” he said, gazing in horror at the fallen tree that spanned the chasm. I could not see the problem. The span of elm was at least four feet across and cleared of branches on its upper side. Still, I could see terror in his expression. He would have to overcome it.

“Would you rather face the knife again?” I indicated the cut on his cheek. He looked again at the tree-bridge, then nodded and got down on all fours. Hesitantly he crawled onto the makeshift bridge. “I’ll be right behind you,” I said. “Don’t worry.” I followed him as he gradually inched his way over, ready to grab him if he should topple. We were almost at the far side when the arrow thudded into the back of my left shoulder. The pain sparked stars in my vision and I almost fell, but managed to steady myself with the help of my staff. I turned, grimacing in agony. I knew Robin’s arrows, and I knew the one that he had just shot into me would have to be pushed out through my shoulder to avoid the barbs ripping my flesh.

He stood at the far end of the tree trunk, another arrow notched and ready to release.

“Go!” I told the merchant. “As quickly as you can. Head straight until you see a tall silver tree. There you’ll find a path that leads to a village that will help you. And for your very life, man, make shift!”

“Thank you,” he squeaked. “How will—”

“Bugger off!” I urged. I heard him scamper away, panting heavily. Robin hadn’t moved. I knew that he could hold his longbow at the draw for hours if need be, so I tried not to move too much, though the sharp agony in my shoulder made that hard.

“John Little, you traitorous worm.” Robin said.

“You’re not well, Robin,” I told him. “You’ve been getting worse for some time.”

“Fuck off,” he said, and drew his bowstring back another half inch. The bow creaked.

“You’re no longer him, are you?” I said. “The Robin who was my friend; the Robin who I followed into the greenwood – he would never have acted like this.” The tip of his arrow dipped a little. Perhaps if I pointed out where he had gone wrong, then he would see. “That Robin – my friend – would never have tried to throttle me when I beat him in a silly archery competition. That Robin would not have casually killed the little page that caught us breaking into Gisbourne’s grain store. That Robin would take money from the rich – and then let them go with their lives.”

He lowered his bow. “That Robin was a twat,” he said. “He was blind to his true nature – my true nature. You know, I had thought that I could restore Marian to the exalted position that she was used to before she met us? Highly exalted once more, only now exalted here, in the forest. She could have been a goddess in Sherwood, if only …” He trailed off, and narrowed his eyes. “If only you hadn’t stolen her from me.”

That jibe, on top of pain that was making my eyes water, tipped me over into fury. I was done being patient.

“I stole nothing, you arrogant bastard!” I shouted. “You drove her from you with your violence, your constant antagonistic behaviour, and your persistent, egotistical rants. You frightened her, man! Can you not see what you have become?”

This was puzzling. Why was he bothering to engage in conversation? Why had he not stuck me with more arrows, so that I fell to my doom on the rocks below?

“I can,” he said quietly. He put his bow on the ground and picked up a staff. “You can keep the whore, little man. I have no need of her now. For I have become a god.”

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“You beat me once with the bow,” he said quietly. “The bow! My skill! I should have strangled you when I had the chance. But now I shall take my revenge. I shall best you at your skill.” He strode toward me across the elm, quarterstaff at the ready. “This is the hour of your death.”

“Robin, please do not do this. Even wounded, I—” but he reached me before I could finish the sentence, his staff blurring at my head. Of course, he had no chance of beating me, even with his arrow sticking out of my shoulder. Fighting with a quarterstaff had never been one of Robin’s strengths. He signalled every move before he made it. His arrogance now blinded him to that fact and he tried four or five times to knock me to my death. I parried each attack easily.

“Marian doesn’t love you, you know,” he grunted between blows. “She’ll open her legs for anyone. Even the hedge priest has had her. Besides, she likes a big man, Little John!”

You know, I could have simply knocked him backwards and disarmed him. I could probably have struck him unconscious and caught him before he fell. I didn’t. His callous insults of the woman I loved drew red mist into my mind and I swung hard. I heard the bone crack as my staff broke his skull, then he was spinning down through the air and splashing red across the rocks below.

***

Image1“That’s the end of it, then,” said Much when I told the band what had happened. No one had blamed me for killing their leader, not even Scarlok. They knew the way Robin had been deteriorating over the last few months. Dickon had even told us that he and Alan had been about to leave anyway, for fear of Robin’s violent moods.

“Aye, it’s over,” said the friar. “People believe in the man, not some raggedy bunch of ne’er-do-wells, even when we do, in fact, do well. It’s Robin Hood they look up to. It’s Robin Hood that gives them hope.”

“Not any more he doesn’t,” Scarlok said, rubbing the scar across his eye that Robin had given him a seven-night ago. We looked at each other morosely.

“Why not?” said Marian, fussing about the wound in my shoulder.

“’Cause he’s cocked his clogs,” Much said.

“So what? Listen,” she said, packing damp moss into my wound. It hurt like the devil. “People believed in the man, yes. The legend of the nobleman who rejected all the luxuries and comforts he had been born into so that he could help the ordinary man and woman; the poor and downtrodden, those treated unjustly. But what did people actually see whenever we helped them?”

“Well,” I furrowed my brow. “Robin. They saw Robin, first and foremost.”

“Did they?” she asked enthusiastically, her beautiful eyes shining, fired by an idea that clearly thrilled her. My heart skipped a beat. What a woman she was.

“See,” she carried on, “I reckon that people just see a man in a green tunic and hose and wearing a green hood and say ‘That’s Robin Hood.’ I’m willing to bet that they never actually look at his face.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that Robin Hood, the man, is dead. Robin Hood, the idea, lives on. We carry him, and his ideas, inside us. We are all Robin Hood.”

***

Lady Isabella laid her hand on the muscular forearm of the man in green. “Oh, Robin,” she said. “How can I ever thank you for rescuing me from the lustful advances of that horrible man?”

“No thanks are necessary,” Much said from the deep shadow of his hood, “but you could tell your friends that they have nothing to fear from Robin Hood, as long as they treat their servants and serfs fairly.”

At the same time, three miles away, a man in green carried the body of a large deer across his shoulders into the village of Wickham. He dropped it by the well on the green.

“Thank the Lord and thank you, Robin!” said a woman nearby. “My children are starving.”

“There’ll be more soon. Put it away quickly lest the Sherriff’s men see,” said Scarlok from inside his large hood, before turning and disappearing into the forest.

In the same moment, at the edge of the small town of Netherfield, Robin Hood loosed an arrow from his bow. It nicked the sleeve of the fleeing tax collector and put the fear of god into him.

“He’ll not be back quickly,” said the tall man in the hood. “Leave word for me at the Woodcock Inn if he returns.”

“We’re lucky to have the protection of Robin Hood,” the woman told her young son as the man in the green hood strode away.

“I want to be a Merry Man when I grow up!” the woman’s son said. “What was that he smelled of, Mam?”

“Sage and camomile,” she told him.

The Greatest of All Human Blessings

TW: horrific death, but in a nice way. Kind of. The title of this story is from Socrates, who said “Death may be the greatest of all human blessings.”

The Greatest of All Human BlessingsHonestly, I didn’t hear a thing. No ‘Bang’, no ‘Baaaammmm’. Maybe my ears went numb in the split second it took for the landmine to explode. I’m surprised that I don’t feel any physical pain. Perhaps that’s shock. I do feel like I’m cut off from everything outside my head. It’s as if a giant bubble has been wrapped around me; as if I’ve been removed from the world, but still haven’t left it. All I feel is numb. All I see is black smoke scarring the summer-blue heavens. All I hear is a faint, high whine.

Or … wait. Is that a voice? A child’s voice?

“Why are we here?” she says. “This place is noisy-ugly.”

I can’t see her, but I feel her small, cold fingers take mine. As hallucinations go, this is not a bad one.

“It’s war,” I tell her. “Bad men … I …”

I cough, spraying blood down my battledress. Jesus, is this it? Is this my end? I look down to where my legs used to be, bloody torn stumps all that is left after the bomb ripped me apart. I shake with terror.

“Don’t be scared, Daddy,” she tells me. My breath is ragged, painful, but the fear evaporates at the sound of her voice, a sound I’ve not heard for decades.

“I’m not,” I say, despite the burning in my lungs. “I’m not afraid now that you’re here, sweet pea.” My lips are as dry as old bones as I take my last trembling sip of life, then suddenly here she is, my baby girl, still just six years old after all this time.

“Yay!” She smiles. “You’re here!”

She pulls my hand and I stand beside her. But my legs … I look down at the gory mess at my feet.

“Ew,” I say.

“Don’t worry, silly. That’s not you anymore. Come on, let’s go and haunt Mummy.”

Old Gods

Old GodsMy boy @coturnixsolis alerted me to the existence of  Long-term nuclear waste warning messages, which are intended to deter human intrusion at nuclear waste repositories in the far future, possibly to even as far as 10,000 years. My first thought, of course, was what if the citizens of future earth found one of these sites – would they understand? You can find out more here.

As soon as she reached the village, the girl scampered to seek out the Eldest. He sat by his cave, on a rock smoothed by his arse over countless years.

‘Mothling,’ he creaked, ‘how are your goats?’

‘Grandfather,’ Mothling said. She was breathless, unable to contain her words, which tumbled from her lips. ‘Grandfather I saw a thing a great spiky thing evil I think it was it made me shiver I—’

‘Slowly, young warrior, slowly. Take your time.’ His gnarled hand motioned her to sit by him. She squatted on the warm sand. ‘Firstly, your goats?’

‘They thrive, Grandfather, thank you.’ Mothling’s leg shook, full of eagerness. She let out a long breath, then bit her lip.

The Eldest smiled. ‘Go on, then, Mistress Impatience. Speak. Tell me what you saw. But use sentences this time, child.’

‘I’m eleven, Grandfather. I’m not a child.’

‘Nor am I.’ The old man’s eye’s twinkled. ‘Annoying, isn’t it? But carry on with your story.’

‘Well, I was over past Oldtown, down by the woods there, and Gabriella ran off.’

‘Gabriella?’

‘The littlest goat. She’s very young and flighty.’

‘Traits which she no doubt inherits from her mistress.’

‘Grandfather!’ Mothling pouted.

The Eldest grinned. ‘Oh, don’t sulk. I’ll refrain from teasing. Carry on. Presumably, you followed the flighty goat?’

‘I did, through the woods and out the other side.’ The Eldest gave her a disapproving look. Mothling stuck out her chin. ‘I know we’re not supposed to go there, but…’ Her voice faded under the old man’s severe eyes.

‘There are reasons—’ he began.

‘I know that, but Gabriella doesn’t! I couldn’t just let her disappear, Grandfather. When she went through the wood how could I not follow? When she crossed the wall, how could I not also? My job is to look after the goats.’

‘Wait,’ the Eldest held up a palm. ‘You went beyond the wall? How is that possible? It is higher than the trees.’

‘There was a hole.’

‘A hole?’

‘Beneath one section, where the metal had been … well, it looked like something had dug down, then finding that the wall extended below the surface, had bitten a way through. What can eat through metal, Grandfather?’

The Eldest shook his head. ‘There are stories of creatures being changed by proximity to the Old Gods’ works. Mutating, they call it. Perhaps this is what happened here – mutated rabbits that can eat through metal. I’ve heard of stranger things.’

‘Whatever it was made a large hole. Gabriella squeezed through the gap. So did I.’

‘Oh, my child, the wall is there for a reason! None have seen beyond it for uncountable generations. Unimaginable danger lies on the other side.’

‘And yet here I am, safe and sound. Gabriella too.’

The Eldest took her hand and examined it, turning it over to look at both sides. He peered at her face. She stuck out her tongue and grinned.

‘True, you do not seem harmed,’ he said. ‘Thank the Old Gods for that.’ His forehead creased and he watched her eyes for a moment. Mothling held her breath behind tight lips. The words pushed at her mouth, desperate to get out into the world. ‘Tell me what your eyes saw, child.’

‘Well,’ she said, ‘Gabriella just stopped and stared, because there was no grass on the other side. The earth was black and bare and stretched flat as far as I could see, which was not far. The horizon was hidden by an upthrust of enormous spikes that towered above my head, rising thickly above the ground, row upon row of them, like a jagged forest. It took me ten minutes to walk over to them—’

‘Mothling! It is not wise to disturb the Old Gods! What were you thinking?’

‘I’m not sure I was. My mind was enraptured by the forest of enormous thorns. They were made of stone – a smooth stone once, though lichens now pattern the surface – and into the surface were carved small shapes.’

‘Pictures?’

‘I don’t think so. Writing, maybe, though nothing I could understand. Squiggles in a line.’

‘Do you remember any of the squiggles? Could you draw them in the sand for me to see?’

‘I can do better than that. I copied them into my journal.’

‘You have a journal? You have been making paper from leaves, as I showed you?’

Mothling reached into her bag and pulled out a thick stack of rough, green-brown sheets. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘and I bound the sheets with cord, look.’

‘Good work! Let me see.’

Mothling shooed away an inquisitive Gabriella and opened the pages to where she had copied the patterns from the strange monoliths. The Eldest leaned over and frowned at the markings.

The danger is still present,’ he said.

‘Do you understand it, Grandfather?’

‘Yes. It says…’ He slid from his rock to join her on the sand. ‘The danger is still present … in your time … as it was in ours.’ He took her hand and squeezed it. I think … I think it’s a message from the Old Gods. This is their writing.’

‘Truly? I’ve only seen scraps of it before, I think.’

‘Yes, on fragments of stone, or scraps of ancient metal. I don’t think anyone has ever seen so many words all together before. The Old Gods, child, they had power. They had machines that flew, and they could set fire to the world. When they did exactly that, they destroyed almost everything they had created.’ The Eldest’s eyes glittered. ‘But this … this is a whole message from centuries ago. Did you copy all of it?’

‘Yes.’ Mothling turned back a page. ‘It starts here.’

This place is a message,’ the old man read, ‘and part of a system of messages. Pay attention to it. Sending this message was important to us.’ The Eldest looked Mothling in the eyes. ‘Those spikes,’ he said.

‘Yes?’

‘What feelings did they arouse in you?’

‘Fear,’ Mothling remembered. ‘Repulsion. Death.’

‘A warning, then. A dire warning from the past.’

‘Read on, Grandfather. What does the rest say?’

We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture. This place is not a place of honour. No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here. Nothing valued is here. What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us.’

‘Greandfather, what sort of thing could frighten even the gods?’

‘I don’t know, child.’ He pressed her fingers in his hand reassuringly. ‘This message is a warning about danger. The danger is in a particular location. It increases towards a center and the center of the danger is here, and below us. The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.’

‘Shit,’ said Mothling.

‘Shit,’ the Eldest agreed. ‘The danger is to the body, and it can kill. The form of the danger is an emanation of energy. The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.’

The Eldest gripped Mothling’s hand hard now. ‘Did you disturb the ground in that place?’

‘No … but there were a few rabbit holes about.’

‘Sound the Gathering Bell. We have to seal that hole in the wall. And find a way to stop rabbits that can chew through metal.’

Give Way

Photo by Paul HartA poem prompted by this picture posted for Miranda’s #MidWeekFlash. The deserted crossroads made me think of loneliness, and we’re never more alone than when we die. My creative head’s been thinking mostly in poetry lately. It’ll probably ease off once my new poetry book, A Winkle in Estuary Mud, is finally published. The photograph is fully attributed on Miranda’s site.

Good.

At least

the rain stopped.

There is no sound

save the wind that scours

these deserted crossroads.

Now, though, a scratch, then a screech,

and the air tears above

the puddled tarmac.

The demons come

to bring me

to death.

Good.

Chronokinesis

Here’s a brief timey-wimey short story for you, originally published for my patrons and subsequently in my book Florilegium: a collection of stories inspired by unusual and beautiful words. It was inspired by my friend Jane saying to me one evening “Time is squidgy”.

A skeleton holds five playing cards. The one at the front, an Ace, shows a woman's face. Across the top is written the title 'Chronokinesis'. At the bottom 'by Michael Wombat'“Seven of clubs,” Jane said.

Sheilagh turned over the next card. It was the seven of clubs. How was her friend doing this? She watched carefully, trying to spot the trick.

“Two of diamonds,” Jane said. Sheilagh flipped the next card. It was the two of diamonds. The pack was not marked, she knew; it had been cellophane-wrapped when she had bought it from the barman. Sheilagh narrowed her eyes – hell, Jane wasn’t even looking at the cards.

“Jack of diamonds.”

She turned the card and the knave looked up at her impassively. His expression seemed to be saying ‘Oh mate, she got you. Pay up.’ Sheilagh sighed.

“You win,” she said. “The drinks are on me tonight. What’ll you have?”

“I’ll have a Pink Honey, please, and keep ‘em coming.”

“We’re having one of those evenings, are we?” Sheilagh grinned. “How do you even do that trick? How do you always know what card is next?”

“Believe it or not, I don’t,” Jane said.

“You did just now,” Sheilagh pointed out.

“No, I really didn’t.” She smiled. “Get my drink, then I’ll explain.”

Sheilagh went to the bar and paid way too much money for two small cocktails. She brought them back to the table.

“So,” she said, sitting down. “What’s the trick?”

Jane took a sip and said “Time is squidgy.”

“What?”

“It’s pliable. Like … oh I don’t know … plasticine? No, that’s not quite it.”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

“OK.” Jane frowned. “What’s that thing called where you can smell colours?”

“You’re so weird. What has this to do with cards?”

“Indulge me.”

Sheilagh sighed. “Synaesthesia?”

“Yes, thank you. Well, it’s like that. Two senses connecting that shouldn’t. Not that I can smell colours, no – when I woke up yesterday I found I could touch time. I can bend it, ever so slightly.”

Sheilagh gave her a look. “How do you mean? You can time travel?”

“No, I don’t travel to a different moment. There would never be two of me, for example. I … pull back what has happened. Basically, I rewind time itself. Only for a short while, a few minutes at most, but still. Anyway, that’s the trick.”

“What the slippery hell?”

“I guess a card, you flip a different one, so I press rewind to before my guess and guess again. Only this time I know what the card’s going to be.”

“But I’d notice if time changed direction.”

“Would you, though? Oh, maybe subliminally, but your thoughts are rewound too. I doubt it would register to you as anything more than a blink.”

“Prove it.”

“I thought I just had, with the cards.”

“Hmm, maybe. How about something else, though?”

“OK, um … I can tell you every single thing you have in your pocket.”

Sheilagh blinked. “You have X-ray vision, too? Even I don’t know what’s in my pocket.”

“Credit card, four keys on a cute penguin key-ring, three pounds twenty-four pence in cash, and aww, that photo of us at school.”

Sheilagh emptied her pocket. Every item was exactly as Jane had described, right down to the embarrassingly cute penguin.

“See?” said Jane. “Of course, I got it entirely wrong the first time, so when you showed me what you actually had, I rewound, and simply told you what I’d just seen.”

“That’s amazing!” Sheilagh laughed. “Jane, you could do anything with this power. You could make a fortune! You could fuck shit up, then just rewind and fix it. Queen of time, drop the mic, boom!”

“And I can indulge myself,” Jane said. “Do things I wouldn’t have the courage for, if I had to live with the consequences. Like this.”

She leaned over the table and pulled Sheilagh towards her, kissing her long and wet and passionately. Sheilagh blinked.

“Seven of clubs,” Jane said.

Sheilagh turned over the next card. It was the seven of clubs. How was her friend doing this? She watched carefully, trying to spot the trick.

The Earth Sings For Those Who Will Listen

A quick poem for you. I’m not sure yet whether it’s too twee for its own good.

Her voice spirals skyward on monarch wings,

slow ballads purred in bumblebee hum,

thin line of ants a steady snare drum.

All life makes its music when Nature sings.

.

Sweet golden arias when the wind blows.

Forenoon aubades of sun-slathered daisies.

Dusk serenades from streamburble hazes.

A hawthorn threnody for lost hedgerows.

.

Whalesong canticles pulsing and deep-sung.

Puffins and cormorants whistle and cliff-screech.

Anthems of crashing waves washing a white beach.

Swooping bat lullabies, stalactite hung.

.

The fart of a cow, the rasp of a crow,

dandelion fairies, fern-fingers uncurled.

oysters abed in the deep, ocean-pearled,

the cymballic climax, a crashing ice-floe.

.

Each is an instrument, each bears its worth

in life’s symphony played by the e’er dancing earth.

The Old Woman on The Bridge

The Old Woman on The Bridge“Old woman!” shouted Kapitan Nikitin. “Clear the way! Move your cart! Move your donkey!”

The tattered bundle of rags, barely human in shape, ceased belabouring the cartwheel with her large wooden mallet. She stood, all faded floral fabrics, sparse grey hair tied up with a tattered scrap of cloth, rheumy eyes squinting at our armoured car from between countless wrinkles. Her toothless mouth spat on the dusty ground.

“And who might you be?” the crone gurned. The donkey in its traces farted wetly, then released a stream of steaming diarrhoea onto the stones of the narrow bridge.

“We have exercises further down this road. Please quickly clear the way so we can pass.”

“What kind of exercises? You are soldiers. Did you cross the border to come here?”

“Yes.”

“You come to attack my country? Invaders! Fascists! Why do you bring all this metal and bombs and guns into our land, you pieces of donkey shit?”

The actual donkey shit glimmered in the sunshine, vapour curling delicately from its brown folds.

“Please, calm down,” the Kapitan said. The babushka reached into one of the sacks on the back of her cart, took out a handful of black seeds and threw them at us. She spat once more.

“Whoresons!” she cursed. “Put these seeds in your pockets! Then when you die here the sunflowers will grow from your corpses!”

“Please do not escalate this matter,” said Kapitan Nikitin. “We mean you no harm.”

“No harm? You are raping my country, katsap!

“Look, just move your cart so we can pass.”

“If I could easily move then I would move,” she said. “This wheel is buggered. I can either spend an hour fixing it now, or I can try to set off and the cart will collapse and block the road all day. Maybe that would be the best thing. It would stop you advancing.”

“Kapitan?” I said. “Those explosions we heard. Those bodies in the last town. Is she right? You told us we were asked to come here for exercises – were we? Or are we going to war, as she says? Are we attacking our neighbours?”

“Wait here,” he said, climbing down. “I’ll help fix her wheel.”

He walked over to the ancient hag and held out his hand. She gave him both a dirty look and the mallet. The Kapitan bent and looked at the cartwheel.

“Why, it’s almost secured,” he said. “You’ve more or less fixed it.” He struck the hub with the mallet, hard. The seed-sacks in the back quivered with each blow.

“There,” the Kapitan said, peering under the cart at the axle. “I think that will hold now.”

“Thank you for your help,” the old woman said. “Here. Take some seeds for your garden with my thanks.”

She reached once more into her sacks, pulled out a gun and shot Kapitan Nikitin in the back of the head. His face exploded all over the wheel.

“Hold on, lads!” I screamed to the otdelenie in the back. I slammed the vehicle into reverse and skidded backwards at speed until the road became wide enough to spin around.

Was it fear that took me like a bat out of hell back to our homeland? Or was it anger at the lies, the illegal orders, the unwarranted and horrific invasion of a peaceful neighbour? Was I right to disobey orders that, had I obeyed, would have torn apart my honour? Orders that were morally abhorrent.

That is for you to decide, good generals. I have made my peace with my god. I will accept whatever punishment you deem appropriate.

Moss

     You are four hundred million years old.

     You live on every continent,

     with neither roots nor towering trunks.

     You tasted the air before the first feather,

     before shrews stirred the leaf litter,

     before even ferns uncurled their fingers.

     When my mind hisses like a kettle,

     I look to your long, patient silence,

     to the green lessons of

     soft, simple quiet beneath the sun.

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