1000 Years – Prompt Inspired

This is a really long one that I’ve been working on for quite some time. Again it’s SciFi, not my strength, but the prompt was good. The prompt would ruin the surprise though, so I’ve included it at the end.

*****

I’m awake. That’s the first coherent thought that fights its way to the surface, through the layers of dust and grime of my deep-space slumber. The second is: well d’uh.

I want to giggle at that – the wake-up process is making me feel silly and dopey – but my diaphragm is too focused on remembering how to breathe normally, and unconcerned with such frivolities. Come on, Sonja. This is a momentous occasion, be serious, for fuck’s sake.

A third thought suddenly rips its way through the remaining sluggishness: holy shit my foot itches! My arms are not as on-the-ball as my diaphragm however, and will not yet move on their own. So I am forced to put up with the agonising tingling.

I hear a hiss behind me, and know that the Deep Sleep Unit is disappearing into the headrest of my Pod. I wonder how well it worked? I lift my eyes to the curved glass window on the front of my chrome-coated pod, and see a reflection that is only a little different to what I remember, and I send out a silent prayer of thanks to whoever’s listening.

The technology is – well, was – brand new and, up until this point, untested. I’d been rather concerned that the aging process wouldn’t be fully stopped, and that I would wake up a withered old husk, but thankfully all worked as planned. My face muscles remember how to move, and I watch my reflection smile back at me from the Pod’s window.

My eyes travel up from my reflection to the digital clock above the window. It blinks benignly at me, as if it counts nothing more unusual than the length of a movie or how long my pizza has been crisping in the oven. The last thing I did before settling down for my rather lengthy snooze was set that clock counting. 1 SECOND, 2 SECONDS, 3 SECONDS. By the time 30 SECONDS flashed by I was already asleep. The number that blinks at me now is 1036, but it ceased counting minutes a long, long time ago. Hours, too. Now it blinks the word YEARS at me, over and over again.

I stare at that number. Every time it disappears I think to myself surely I was mistaken, surely it said 103.6, but 1036 comes back just the same every time. I am over a thousand years old. That fact is almost impossible to process, so I push it aside.

My arms work now, but I cannot seem to bend down to scratch. I’m suddenly overcome with the fear that I’ve become partially paralysed, but with a wiggle of my toes relief floods through me. I tsk aloud at my panic, and after so much silence the harsh sound actually startles me.

I hear another hiss, this time outside of the little enclosed space that I have called home for the past thousand years. A leg appears, slinging itself over the edge of the smooth, egg-shaped pod to my left. The number 215035 is tattooed above the ankle. I roll my eyes and groan internally. Of course Karn is first up. Always the overachiever!

Slender fingers snake their way over the rounded edge of the pod and grip tightly. A pale, skinny face slowly emerges above them and grins at me, blue eyes sparkling with mirth. I give Karn a scathing look, but he just laughs and greets me with a wave of one of his somewhat gangly arms. My control breaks, and I laugh too. It feels good.

I feel the laughter move my whole body, and realise that I am finally able to scratch that awful itch. Feeling and probably looking as clumsy as a newborn lamb, I awkwardly rub my foot. My throat wakes up enough to let out an audible sigh of relief. It feels like bloody heaven.

*****

Sim was the last to wake, for which we all teased him mercilessly both verbally and physically. He flailed his feeble and uncoordinated arms weakly as Karn tickled him with a feather that he produced from who knows where. The sight of such a huge, muscled man wiggling and giggling like a child dusted away the last of the cobwebs, and as soon as Sim was on his feet we made our way to the training room.

Now the whirring of treadmills and the boisterous laughter of a tight-knit crew fills the air as my feet pound the belt again and again. It feels so good to move, almost like I’ve woken from the dead. Sweat is trickling down my spine and my stomach, my muscles burn, and my breath sounds hoarse with exertion, but I am ecstatic.

I think that somewhere deep inside me, my subconscious has been aware of my self-inflicted coma. The chemicals of living are now rushing through my system, and they are feeding both body and mind like a drug. I feel like a caged animal set free after a life of imprisonment, and all I want to do is run wild across the Zerengheti until I collapse. The treadmill may not be the sprawling plains of Afric, but it’ll work just the same.

Karn is rambling away excitedly next to me as he stretches his impossibly long legs on his own treadmill, and I am half-listening in companionable silence. Now that the ship’s computer has found the first truly habitable planet and woken us all up, it has all become so much more real to him.

He is making bets with himself on what we’ll find when the huge silver airlock hisses open and we set foot on what the Captain has dubbed “Naxul” for the first time. “Huge bugs” is the favourite so far, followed by “super-intelligent aliens who will teach humans everything they know”, but I’d put my money on “absolutely nothing” every single time.

“I suppose super-intelligent aliens wouldn’t actually be a good thing,” Karn muses, “‘cos they’d probably enslave us.”

I can’t help but react to that, and Karn raises an eyebrow at my snort. I suppose I should elaborate. “If someone lands on your planet for the first time, you don’t immediately enslave them. If nothing else, it’s just plain rude!”

“Okay, so they’ll get as much information out of us as they can first, including where we’re from. Then they’ll enslave us and the rest of humanity.”

“They’ve probably got no need for slaves. Probably got amazing technology that our tiny little brains can’t even begin to comprehend. No need for enslaving alien races when the robots that clean your crapper are smarter than them.” My workout’s almost over, so I slow down to a cool-off jog. Karn ponders my point, leaving me to do some musing of my own. “Perhaps, seeing as they’re so smart, they found out a way to avoid the need to crap. Maybe avoid pissing too. How good would that be? Think of all the extra time we’d have if we didn’t need to head to the bathroom several times a day…”

Karn shoots me a disapproving look. He’s never been fond of such crude talk.

An idea strikes me. “Anyway,” I say casually, trying to keep a straight face. “If anything, they’ll breed us for food. After all, that’s what we do to lifeforms with intelligence below ours.”

Karn almost gives himself whiplash as he turns his head to stare at me, jaw lax. “You think so?!” he breathes.

My shoulders raise and lower in a noncommittal shrug. The belt beneath me slows to a stop, and I grab my workout towel from where it was draped over the top of the machine.

The design was unimportant when I purchased the towel – I simply grabbed the first one I saw that would be recognisable amongst the rest of the crew’s laundry – but when I look at it this time it gives me pause. It features imposing yet beautiful snow-capped mountains that gaze down on emerald fields and gently undulating hills, dotted with flora and fauna. I briefly wonder if any such scene exists on Earth anymore. Or if Earth itself even exists anymore.

Then I realise that I am not even slightly equipped, let alone actually ready, to consider such thoughts, and promptly stuff them into the deep dark reaches of the back of my mind to hang out with the concept of my thousand years of age. I fold the towel in half with the colourful if somewhat faded design on the inside, and sling it around my neck. Out of sight, out of mind.

“Well?!” Karn prompts me, his treadmill now stopped and his workout abandoned. “What do you think they’d do with us?”

“Who knows?” I ask with deliberate mystery, waving my hands in a slow, tight circle in front of my face like a Magicienne as my eyes bulge wide. I chuckle at Karn’s disapproving look. “Seriously though. The pigs, cows, and sheep of Earth may have known instinctively that we were predators, but do you think they stopped to consider exactly what the future of farming held for them? No, because their intelligence is inferior to ours. They had and still have no idea.

“I suppose we would just have to wait and see what our instincts told us about theses aliens.” I continue. “Although when you consider how friendly some animals can get with the humans who then turn around and roast them later, you’ve got to wonder if we’d fare any better…”

My legs wobble like jelly in exhaustion as I hop off the treadmill and head to the showers, leaving Karn staring after me with a look of concerned bafflement on a face even paler than usual.

*****

“Come on, people!” Captain Larkon bellows, putting those foghorns he calls lungs to good use.

Karn has been worrying aloud and demanding my reassurances for the whole march down to the airlock, leaving us both breathless stragglers now rushing to catch up. Which is easier for him than for me, seeing as my petite frame is about half his size. I have to jog to match his long stride at the best of times, and my legs are currently pumping like pistons to keep up.

The corridor is quiet except for the thudding of our combat boots on the diamond plate flooring, as well as the rattling of the equipment stacked high on our backs and dangling from countless straps, loops and belts on our armour. Despite the fact that many alien worlds have had vividly different landscapes to our own, our forces have stuck with ol’ favourite moss-green camouflage for our armour. For all our love of gadgetry fads and technological advances, sometimes humans just don’t like change. When you’ve almost no idea what you’re heading into, just go with the comfort of familiarity.

Karn and I finally jog through the ship-side airlock doors, and Larkon eyes us disapprovingly as we fall into line at the rear of the party.

“About bloody time” he scolds, his heavy frown making his tiny eyes disappear even further into the pudgy pink mass of his face. At one time Larkon’s six-foot-five frame had been built like a brick shithouse – even his muscles had muscles – but he’s gone soft in his years. Physically soft, anyway. His manner is as tough as ever.

As if to prove the point, Larkon re-activates his biological foghorns as he begins to stride down the ranks towards the airlock control. “Now, if Karn and Flit are quite caught up on their highly-important gossip” he barks, “we can get on with the less important business of our actual bloody assignment!”

For some reason I always find getting into trouble funny rather than concerning, and I’m struggling to suppress a mischievous grin. As Larkon turns around to fiddle with the controls I risk shooting a glance at my partner in crime.

My humour fades as I see Karn chewing his lip with a distant look in his eyes, still worrying about what we’ll find when the doors hiss open. Not for the first time, I wish I hadn’t opened my big mouth and put the idea of humans-as-food in his overactive imagination.

Karn is normally very easy-going, and I have no idea what’s got him so worried this time. We’ve been on scouting missions before and never come to harm. We’ve had the odd allergic reaction that has swollen faces to twice their usual sizes, but that kind of thing is easily subdued by a quick shot from our Medipack. Yirra broke her leg once, but hell, she could have done that falling down the stairs in her appartment!

Sure, this mission is roughly five hundred times further away than any other that we’ve been on, but so what? There’s no logical reason to assume that Naxul is any less boring and deserted then all of those nearer but less habitable planets. In fact, as it is so similar to Earth that almost zero terraforming would be required, and the computer has done a vast amount of checking for hostile life and found diddly-squat, it’s probably going to be even more boring.

I sigh to myself, and try to keep my mood light and unaffected by Karn’s anxiety.

Larkon jabs at the console’s buttons. Some rather cliche bleeping and blooping noises that sound like they came straight from a cheesy 2080’s sci-fi flick echo around the otherwise silent airlock. The doors behind me close with a series of hisses and thuds, and I finally feel the nervous excitement begin to bubble in my stomach.

As much as I complain, I do love being among the very first people to set foot on a planet’s surface. History may not remember me specifically, nor anyone else in this airlock, but we still make it every time our feet tread ground previously untrod by humanity.

We all flick the visors on our helmets shut, and the familiar rushing of air fills the room. We are cleaned of any remaining pollutants that could set the new planet on the same path as Earth, and the pressure is slowly equalised. Then the air vents seal themselves, and we are plunged into silence once more.

The console emits a series of monotonous, unexciting beeps, and the Captain presses a single button. The planet-side airlock door slides smoothly open, and the room is slowly filled with blinding sunlight. A cold breeze rushes in, making an odd contrast with the warming sunlight that beams down on us from the clear sky. Instinctively, we all raise our hands to our visors to shield our eyes from the assault of natural light that’s far too bright after the dimness of the ship.

Larkon had remained in the shadows to one side of the doorway, and is now peering out into the slice of outside world that is visible from his position. “It looks clear. Scouts, move out.”

We are all Scouts – the science boffins will remain in the ship until the planet’s safety level has been ascertained – so we all march through the doors and down the ramp, and step out onto… My towel. Or at least, the Earth that it depicts. The Earth I remember from my childhood. Surely it must be? No planet this similar can exist. The probability of such a thing existing is so inconceivably small that it might as well be considered impossible. But here it is, not in faded fibres but full-technicolour 3D.

I am standing on the same green grass under the same blue sky, basking in the rays of the same autumn sun that I saw every year but the last ten during my forty-four years on Earth. I bend and extend my knees and feel the same moist, springy earth beneath my feet. I can feel the pressure of the wind on my suit, and I ache to feel it ruffle my hair and stroke my skin.

We have landed in a valley surrounded by mountains on every side by one, where instead there is a long line of low hills that block our view of the horizon. A great waterfall cascades down the grey and brown rock to the east, then winds its way slowly through a meadow of beautifully unkempt grass and wildflowers in soft pastel shades until it tips itself over the hills to the west.

We are on the south side of the river, and far to the north a great forest of evergreen pines slowly sweeps its way up the mountainside until the bristling treetops tickle the snow-capped peaks. Despite how clear the day is, fluffy little clouds drift serenely through the treetops and scud gently along the mountainside. I wish I’d thought to check our elevation before we left the ship, and ask the AI why it chose to land us so high up.

The screech of some bird of prey reaches my ears, and when I focus on listening I realise that I can hear all the many and varied calls of nature. They aren’t identical to Earth, though. This fabric of sound is definitely woven from different threads, but the overall pattern is the same: joyful, peaceful, and calming.

From the high-pitched singsong of birds to the chirping of crickets, everything is as I remember from when camping trips and nature walks had been safe. I can even hear the rush of the waterfall and river. The smells of the wilderness finally penetrate my space-age suit and mingle with the sounds, making it feel as if my helmet is filling up with memories. I hadn’t realised how much I had missed it all even when I was back on Earth, let alone during my journeys through space.

The crew is looking around in silence. After all the weird and wild and wonderful things we have seen on our journeys, nobody can quite believe their eyes. On other planets we have found landscapes in strange psychedelic colours, extraordinary evolutions that even the most imaginative of us could not conceive, and panaceas to cure all ills, but nothing can compare to the riches we have discovered today: a fresh start. A clean slate. Hope.

I snort at how corny that sounded, and it breaks the spell.

Karn is standing to my right, chewing his lip as he looks around nervously. I take his hand and squeeze it, giving him a reassuring smile. I can’t speak because everyone will hear it through their audio feeds, but he’ll know I’m telling him that it’ll be okay.

Larkon’s voice suddenly bursts into our helmets, shattering the awe-filled serenity of the moment and causing us all to jump.

“Stop gawping! Haven’t you ever seen a fucking field before? Let’s get moving. Delta Formation, my lead, Flit rear. Move out.”

I consider mentioning the fact that not everyone was as ancient as him, and several of the younger recruits probably couldn’t remember seeing any large expanse of grass before, but decide that I’d rather not have burst eardrums and a well-kicked arse for the remainder of the expedition. So instead I just smirk to myself and make my way to the rear of the formation.

We walk in silence, unwilling to disturb the gentle peace of the valley. The ground becomes softer as we near the river, and the height of the grass creeps up and up until the long slender blades sway freely in the breeze and fluffy seed heads toss their bounties into the air as they are disturbed by our passage.

When we reach the riverbank we cannot help but stop and stare at the fresh, cool water that has traveled mere minutes from its source. Water that has come not from a fountain or a tap, but from the rock itself. We gaze mesmerised at the shadowy shapes of large fish that skulk around on the rocky riverbed, and at the little skittish ones that dart around just beneath the rippling surface. I wonder what truly fresh fish tastes like, and decide that it’s probably moist and delicious.

Karn looks happier here. His shoulders seem less tense, his head is held higher, and he seems to look around with curiosity rather than caution. Maybe he thinks that any super-intelligent aliens would have either massacred us all or approached us with false expressions of peace by now, and has therefore assumed that we are safe. He’s never been much of a tactician – the rest of us would assume that the aliens were waiting until we entered the narrow passage carved through the mountains by the river’s exit, giving them the high ground and us nowhere to run. But he’s a hotshot with a rifle, so we keep him around.

Whatever’s improved his mood, I’m glad of it. I doubt there’s anything here worth worrying about, but if by some stroke of bad luck we do come across something intent upon wiping us off the face of the planet at least Karn and I will have been able to share some last laughs together first.

That won’t happen though. If this really is a planet almost identical to Earth then the most threatening life-form would be humans. If humans do exist here then, judging by the fact that this vast swathe of untouched nature still exists, they clearly haven’t reached the same level of technological advancement that Earth humans had reached well over a thousand years ago. For all we know they could still be bashing rocks together in a cave, or using swords or simple bullets. Nothing compared to the tech we’re packing.

Larkon has obviously decided that we’ve spent enough time staring into the water like simpletons, and has lead off once more. I’m surprised he gave us any time to stare at all. Perhaps even his hard, bitter heart has been softened by all of this natural beauty.

Eventually we reach the point where the river slices its way through the rocky hillside like a knife. There is no more riverbank here, so if we were to keep following the river we would be forced to try and walk along the steep hillside perpendicular to its gradient. After a few false starts that involve Hern and Pocken slipping and sliding repeatedly on the mud and scree that litters our path, we decide that the hill gradient is low enough that scrambling up and over a low point is our best option.

I’m puffing hard as we near the peak. The shine of a natural, tech-free environment is swiftly wearing off. I miss travelators and portals and Personal Flight Devices in particular right now, and as lovely as it was to see the sun again I had forgotten just how bloody hot the thing could get. I’m beginning to wonder why we ever wanted to leave the comforts of Earth, even with its darkness, until I crest the hill and a harsh reminder hits me like a punch in the gut.

Sprawled out before us in all its shame, marring the magnificent countryside like a cancer, is the complete and utter destruction that only humans can bring.

Nothing moves, and no noise reaches our ears. No more chirping crickets, no more chattering birds, only dead silence. There is no sign of the pastel pastures we left just behind us other than far away at the horizon, where a thin line of lush greenery is masked by the soft whiteness of distance that hangs over it like a curtain, as if shielding it from the horror before us.

The desolation that used to be countryside stretches out before us, dotted regularly with huge craters and patches of land charred black with fire. Dark splotches of sickness snake their tendrils over the earth from a central mass of death, enveloping almost everything in sight. Anywhere those tendrils go and anything they touch or even approach is dead and dark, and looks like nothing I have ever seen before. It’s as if the very essence of hell has seeped up through the ground and smothered the city in its oily blackness.

Even the river that is a crystal-clear blue beside us turns a sickly shade of brown as it cuts a slick, smooth line through the chaotic carnage. Once-great buildings have been levelled, reduced to jagged and broken walls jutting upwards like shards of shattered pottery cast down from the sky, surrounded by rubble. And amongst it all, spread all over every foot of the land, something is scattered.

I push a button on the side of my helmet, and my vision zooms in on some twisted black husk. It takes me a moment, but realisation eventually dawns as I recognise the shape of a hand, twisted like a claw. A foot pointing in the wrong direction. A charred, featureless head and a gaping mouth stretched wide in a silent scream.

I feel my heart thudding in my throat. I scan the scene and see figures cowering in corners, their arms fused to their skulls where they covered their heads in fear. I see figures hanging from ropes by their necks; whether by their choice or not I can’t tell, and probably don’t want to know. I see corpses piled up against building exits that have been barred and chained shut. I see more violence, more callous murder in this place than I have ever seen in my lifetime as a soldier.

“Holy hell” Karn breaths in shock. I can only agree.

*****

It takes a while for us all to break out of our stupor. No matter how much you might wish to, it’s impossible to take your eyes off such a scene. It isn’t just the complete and total destruction before us that has put us into shock, even when you consider the juxtaposition between this scene and the beauty we initially found when we landed. It is also the fact that we have travelled so far and left everything behind to see it. It is also the fact that we may have merely traded one hell for another. It is also the loss of our last shred of hope.

My audio feed crackles as Larkon addresses us all. “Snap out of it. Let’s go.” The words are familiar, but even our hard-hearted Captain cannot keep the shock and edge of despair from his voice.

We are forced to tear our eyes from the scene before us and watch our footing as we begin our descent. I feel numb. It’s a while before coherent thought can form itself in my mind.

How can this be? I think to myself as I watch stones skitter down the hillside around me as I descend. How can we have travelled so far and found such a perfect place, only to find that it humans have already evolved here, apparently to the extent that they have begun wiping each other out with who knows what?

I risk a glance up at the ruined city before us; it looks no better halfway down the hillside, and I shudder to think what we’ll find when we reach its outskirts. I will not risk looking at Karn though, because I know what will be written all over his face.

Larkon stops the bottom of the hill and turns to face us, looking us over with cold, hard eyes. “I know this is rough, but we have to get moving. If there is still danger here, we need to find it and eliminate it or retreat as soon as possible. Whether these… remains here are human or not, keep these things in mind: they probably have lower tech than us so any enemies should be an easy fight, and it’s possible that they have wiped themselves out and we can move in and pick up the pieces of this planet.”

He stopped and looked over his shoulder at the ruined city. “Or we can at least avoid the pieces that they have broken, and use this planet to regroup until we can maybe find another. This is not a futile or wasted mission. We have a job to do, and we’re damn well going to do it. Let’s move.”

We traipse after him, our heavy boots dragging on the sickly grass that edges the city. My heart is hammering against my ribcage as we step onto the blackened land. Despite the confidence I have in my suit, I’m still half expecting to pass out choking on some toxic unknown fume. As soldiers we have witnessed a great deal of humanity’s depravity, but it has been a long time in human history since an entire city was wiped out so completely and so effectively. Who knows what they used.

It takes a long time to sweep the first few blocks of the city. Some of the buildings are hard to access, with collapsed or blocked doorways, but we must ascertain the safety of every single one. Everyone is on edge, and the stress of trying to spot threats without looking too hard at the death around us is taking its toll. But eventually, we get the all-clear.

We find a building with one floor’s worth of wall still standing and a relatively clear floor, and decide to use it as a base for the night. Most of those Larkon assigns to guard duty stand reluctantly at the doors and windows, the others perch on what little remains of the second floor, and the rest of us take the time to rest.

Nobody speaks. What is there to say? When night falls the guard changes, and the rest of us bed down. Nobody sleeps.

Dawn breaks and we begin to break camp. Jerro, our medic, hands out the sustenance shots, and we all inject the liquid into the tubes that connect to our bloodstream. In silence we move out to explore the rest of the ruined city.

This continues for days. We wander through a museum of torture and destruction, trying to look and yet not look at the horror around us. No matter how much I try not to think of it, I think of Earth, and I know others do so too. It will have died by now, I am sure of it. Did anyone else make it out, when they realised they had no choice but to evacuate? Where would they have gone, if this, the nearest habitable planet, was over a thousand years away? Are we the last of our kind?

One day bleeds into the next as we traipse through the smog of death that hangs over this place, feeling that we leave more of ourselves behind with every step. Eventually the crushing weight of it all numbs us, and we walk around like ghosts. Unthinking, unfeeling, mere whispers of what we once were.

That is, until we come to one of the last blocks in the city. The countryside is visible beyond the charred and blackened outskirts, and the tiniest spark of hope flickers to life in my chest. This is just one city. The stark difference between where we landed and this place was so overwhelming that we were taken in by it, and never stopped to consider the other possibilities. Who knows what the rest of this world holds? Maybe this was a necessary evil, and these people deserved to be wiped out? In the back of my mind I know that I’m scrambling for excuses and answers that don’t lead to complete despair, but it’s the only way I can go on, so I pretend that I believe myself.

Here, in the corner of a large courtyard at the rear of what once must have been a magnificent building, stands a door. It is a simple door made of what looks like very thick metal, set in one wall of a very small room that can only be two paces wide by five paces long. The bricks that make up the walls of this room are bulky and grey, blackened and charred in many places. A scorched humanoid husk leans against one of the side walls, its knees pulled up against its chest and its arms folded tight over its head. We all try not to look at it.

Sim gets out his gear. He holds a device up against the door and places his ear against it. After a minute or so, he moves to one of the walls without a corpse leaning against it and repeats the action. The device goes back into the crate.

Another device is pulled out and pressed against the wall. This time a screen flickers into life, and shows us an empty room. Empty except for a trap door.

It takes a while to break through the thick metal door, but eventually our laser tech prevails. The trapdoor proved to be even more difficult to break through, with locks in several areas that require melting, but that too gives way. Larkon lifts it open and we all stare down into pitch darkness as a gust of stale air blows over us.

It was a narrow stairwell, only just wide enough for two people. What little of the walls we can see appears to be clean. No charring, no blood. Could this be a shelter? Could people have survived? The spark of hope begins to flame, and I allow myself to actually believe in it.

*****

Larkon points at Pocken and Yirra, then points either side of the first doorway, commanding them to stand guard. He clicks on his headlight and steps down into the darkness. Half eager and half reluctant, the rest of us slowly follow suit.

Our footsteps echo eerily as we step carefully down the metal staircase into total silence. The way the sound bounces down the deep passageway and back up makes it sound like a group of people are ascending to meet us. The hairs on the back of my neck are permanently raised, and my eyes are straining wide to see as far as possible down into the abyss.

We round a corner and reach another door, which we quickly break through. We walk through the door and the little square of daylight above us vanishes, plunging us into total darkness on all sides, other than the thin lines of light provided by our headlights.

I feel trapped, like a huge weight is bearing down on me. My breathing rasps shallow and haggard in my ears. It occurs to me that this shelter might not be occupied by this city’s citizens, but instead those who came to kill them. My pulse and breathing quickens.

A red dot appears ahead. It slowly grows larger and larger as we descend the final stretch of stairwell and alight upon a flat surface. I see now that it is a light, one single solitary light that announces the presence of yet another thick metal door.

Larkon turns to face us and motions for us to ready weapons. I heft my rifle in my arms, feeling its reassuring weight in my arms and pressed against my body.

He pounds a meaty fist on the door. There is no reply.

We break out the laser tech once more and burn our way through that final barrier between us and our fate. I am giddy with a mix of fear and excitement that makes me feel sick, and my head is so light it feels like it could just float away back up the stairs and into the sky.

The door swings open slowly with a squeal that is deafening after the heavy silence.

“Oh God no” Karn breathes, the first words any of us have spoken to one another in days. They are the heralds of hope’s death, and carry with them a sense of unimaginable loss. A sense of finality. A sense of desperation turned to morbid resignation. Positioned as I am at the rear I cannot see what lies beyond the doorway, but with those three words I already know all that I need to.

Slowly we file into the large, brightly lit room.  The only sound is the gentle humming of the fluorescent lamps that are dotted along the low ceiling. The floor here is carpeted thickly, and the walls are painted a calming shade of blue with ornate cornicing where they meet the white ceiling. In the centre of one wall hangs a screen of some kind, whilst the other walls are dotted with artwork. One painting shows the city as it was: bright, beautiful, the very definitely of graceful modernity with its smooth faces and sweeping curves. Next to it hangs a replica, picked out in wobbly red crayon.

In one corner there is a kitchen area, sparkling like new. Pots and pans are stacked neatly to one side. Beside the kitchen a door hangs open, revealing a room that clearly used to hold chilled food but is now empty but for the bare shelves that line its walls like a ribcage. Cupboards dotted here and there on walls of the main room also hang open, revealing their empty innards.

In the centre of the room lies a huge pile of mattresses, cushions and blankets in a riot of colours and patterns, made from all sorts of fabrics from simple cotton to fine silk. And in this bedding area lie most of the bodies. They are not charred or burned or twisted in a mockery of the human form, just skin and bone with clothes hanging off them in rags. Scrawny and desiccated though they are, as if someone siphoned all water and flesh from their forms, this time we can tell that they are most definitely human.

Many of them are huddled together in pairs or groups. Two adults lie curled up around a baby, holding hands above its tiny head. Two forms lie with their arms and legs entwined, foreheads resting together. A young girl clasps a child to her chest, the child’s head nestling into her grey, withered neck. One woman is curled up alone, and her small frame and black hair looking a little too much like mine.

I cannot stand to look at any more of the bodies, to hear the echoes of their tragic stories in my mind. No matter where I turn I can still see them, leaning against walls or curled up up in the corner. There is even one seated at a computer terminal to one side of the doorway through which we entered.

Larkon spies the terminal and heads over to it. As he tries to move the chair and its deceased occupant, the body begins to fall. As the shriveled skin and flesh flakes and begins to crumble the body collapses under its own weight, falling as dust on the lushly carpeted floor.

I hear Karn and a few others retch but I pretend not to, as I’m struggling to cover my own revulsion. Larkon grimaces and hits a button on the console, causing it to flicker to life. There is some sort of text on the screen which he begins to read as the rest of us examine the room further.

The large screen on the far wall flickers into life and shows us a moving birds-eye-view of the ruined city. I don’t want to look at it, so I head to the cold storage room as quickly as possible and lean against the inside wall, sucking in deep breaths to try and settle my stomach. I squeeze my eyes tight to try and block out the world. It doesn’t work.

“FUCK!”

The curse blares through my earpiece and startles my heart to pounding. I run back into the main room in time to see Larkon march away from the console towards the huge metal door to the stairwell, which he thumps hard with his fist as he passes. His boots stamp up the stairs, up and up, until we can no longer hear them.

We all look around at each other. I clear my throat. “I’ll look.” I walk over to the screen and begin to read aloud.

We have done it again. We have destroyed ourselves. We thought that we could do it right this time, as we were going into this knowing what to expect. We could plan our lives, not just evolve. Keep those separate who needed or wanted to be separate. Divide the lands equally to ensure true equality. It would be a paradise we built for ourselves, and we would take care of it this time.

I do not know how it came to this. Maybe in thousands of years, when some other intelligent life form comes across this planet, they will follow the trail. They will return to the broken world we left behind, they will understand how this all happened. Here is all I can say in my short time to help you, whoever you are.

We poisoned our home planet. We took from it and gave not back, we polluted it with war and with our own greed and arrogance, and it was dying. We searched and we searched for somewhere else but could find nothing. We sent out expedition after expedition full of deep-sleepers but none ever returned. We could only conclude that no habitable planets existed in our proximity, and we resigned ourselves to death.

But then we finally did it. We made the breakthrough that we had waiting centuries for. Faster Than Light Travel. It was a race against the clock to develop the ships to carry us away from a planet on the brink of death, and we made it. Oh how wondrous it was to jump through the stars, to travel further than we ever imagined we could travel in a hundred lifetimes let alone one!

We set off in the direction of the last expedition ship and travelled in leaps and bounds until, soon enough, we detected a habitable planet. When we landed it was like a dream. It was as if we hadn’t travelled through space but through time instead, and landed on our planet as it had been before we destroyed it. It was so beautiful, so peaceful, and so full of potential.

We settled, and for a time it was as if we truly had reached Nirvana. We worked the land as our most ancient ancestors had – with respect, to yield healthy crops and live healthy lives – but retained our superior architecture and healthcare and social policy. It was a blissful life full of the goodness of an ancient time combined with the prosperity afforded to us by our superior modern knowledge and understanding.

But the problems that have always plagued humanity plagued us still. We fought, and although many of us resolved our differences peacefully, many of us did not. We had shared our technology in the hope to prevent reliving previous wars over resources and power, but it was not enough. Our technologies were turned against us and we in turn fought back against our enemies until the only things left were robots fighting robots, following commands left by a dead race of men.

We know this because we survived down here for a time, deep beneath the surface. I and all other mayors of all other cities have shelters such as these, and they are all interlinked. I watched my citizens die, burned and disintegrated and squashed like flies, all in real time. Then the feeds from all over the planet came to our screens and we watched the same sick tableau, again and again.

I then watched my fellow leaders die, starving to death or taking their own lives, all in real time. All the while my loved ones and I sat down here safely, but with those visions of our future looming over us like a curse. Those others made the mistake of taking in as many people as possible and their food ran out, but I only took in my family. Though maybe it was not a mistake for them to do what they did, for they have been spared the worst of this torment, watching our new home tear itself to pieces.

Our food ran out three days ago, and the stealth cameras show that there is no hope of us leaving here whilst the drones and automatons roam the outside world. My family took the pills and I watched them slip away one by one. Now it is my turn.

So please, whoever you are, go back to our homeland and see what we wrought there. Understand and follow our journey so that you may not repeat it. We destroyed Earth and then we destroyed Gaia. Please do not make the same mistakes. Please remember us, the last humans, the last of our kind.

There’s nothing for anyone to say after that. We switch off the lights and close the door to humanity’s graveyard, then traipse back up the stairs, feeling hollow to our very cores.

I can hear several people crying through my headset, and I recognise one as Karn. All this way, all this way for nothing. Nothing but death and destruction and extinction. The loneliness is crushing, crippling in its absoluteness and its certainty. I can feel panic begin to wrap its icy fingers around my heart and my breath comes in short, shallow bursts. My own face is wet, and I find myself wondering if I will fill my helmet with tears and escape to the blissful numbness of death.

Larkon is nowhere to be seen when we exit the dark stairwell into the harsh daylight. Yirra is pacing rapidly, whilst Pocken is sitting on the floor leaning against the wall of the shelter entrance, a living mirror to the charred husk on the other side. I guess Larkon told them all they needed to know about what was inside the shelter.

Nobody seems to want to take charge.

“What do we do?” Karn whispers.

“I don’t know” I whisper back, the very act of speaking seeming somehow crass and insulting amongst so much death.

“What’s the point in doing anything?” Yirra asks. “We may as well go see if this mayor has any more of his pills left, or find this robotic army and go for suicide-by-drone.”

“Maybe some got away from Gaia, like they got away from Earth?” Karn asks quietly, his eyes shining with a tiny glimmer of hope. I am loathe to take that away from him, but I must.

“The Mayor seemed certain. You know as well as I do that if military AI is programmed to do something like this” – I gesture at our surroundings – “then it will leave no survivors. They only survived because they had that shelter, and it was the only one here. Don’t forget that our ship also scanned for human life and found nothing. We need to accept it: we and any other deep sleepers that have survived are the last of mankind, and we are scattered throughout the universe. We are ants crawling across the four corners of the earth, trying to find both each other and the one blade of grass that we can call home. Humanity is essentially extinct.”

A loud bang echoed throughout the courtyard. We all spun around to see the Pocken’s limp form slumped against the wall, bright red blood leaking from inside his shattered helmet, his pistol clasped loosely in his hand.

Hern and Farra whip out their own pistols. “No!” I shout, lunging towards them. I manage to knock Farra’s arm upwards and her shot fires harmlessly into the sky, but I am too late for Hern. He collapses to the ground.

“Stop this madness!” I shout as the others begin to panic. “Stop it right now! What is the sense in killing yourself?”

“What’s the sense in living?” Harra demands.

“We have people, we have men and women, some of us are strong and others are smart, we can rebuild.” I flounder for some scrap of positivity, some meagre thing that we can cling to.

“I’m not sure I want to.” Karn looks at me with dead eyes.

“We could explore further” Sim suggests. “See if this really is all that is left. And if we are killed by military AI then, oh well.” He shrugs his immense shoulders. “Not really lost much, have we.”

“We’ve lost the chance to revive the human race. That’s what we’ve lost. We could find their FTL drives, jump in the direction that EX3 went, see if we can find them. Please” I beg, “please just think of what you’re giving up. Any hope of mankind’s survival depends on us.”

“I meant what I said, Flit. I’m not sure I want mankind to survive. I don’t think we deserve to survive.” Karn looks around himself and sighs.

“Don’t be so selfish, so cowardly!” I snap at him, my temper flaring with my fear and desperation. “It’s not about what you think. Species don’t choose to survive, they just survive! They just survive, they just live” I hear my voice crack up, and somewhere distantly I realise how hysterical I sound.

Karn glares at me. “Selfish? Cowardly? How is it selfish and cowardly to remove a cancer? The selfish thing is leaving the cancer to eat away at whatever it pleases just because it survives the first attempt to wipe it out. You can choose that if you want, Flit. But I know what I’m choosing. Anyone who is choosing my way, come with me. We’ll see if there are any more of those pills. And if there aren’t, well, I’m sure we’ll find a way.” He turns away and starts towards the doorway.

“No Karn, please, stop.” I run after him and grasp at his sleeve, but he shakes me off. “Please don’t do this. Please come with me.”

Karn spins round angrily to face me. “No, Flit, I won’t. You were so convinced that we wouldn’t find anything, so happy to make jokes, that you never considered what you would do if you were wrong. Well I did. I never foresaw this, not in any of my worst nightmares, and that tells me that humanity is even worse than the lowest expectations that I ever had of it.

“You’re on autopilot, you’re following your biological drive to survive. But not me. No. When I look at this all I can think is that maybe you were right, maybe in the grand scheme of the universe we really are as dumb as cattle, and maybe the only thing we are good for is to nourish some other race who doesn’t go around fucking killing each other for no good fucking reason!” He is shouting now, tears streaming down his face. “So no, Flit, I will not stop, I will not come with you. I am removing myself from the universe’s gene pool, and I hope it’ll be all the purer for it!”

I stand in stunned silence and watch my best friend disappear into darkness. My impulses scream at me to go! Go after him! Make him see sense! But my feet won’t move, and my brain knows that he has made his choice. I respect him too much to try and take that away from him.

Yirra, Harra and a few others follow him. Nobody says goodbye.

“Is anyone coming with me to search the rest of this hellhole?” Sim asks.

“Wait, before you decide, let’s go back to the ship” I suggest. “Anyone who wants to search can take the jet and some supplies.”

Everyone nods, and we set off through the city towards the deceptively beautiful landscape in which we landed.

*****

The docking hatch hisses shut behind me and I hear the roar of the jet’s engines starting up. Sim has taken around half of the members of EX7 that remained on his foolish, futile trip. On the way back to the ship we saw the drones crest the hills in the distance and make their way towards the city, obviously on some sort of patrol. We saw what looked like bombers, as well as ships that looked to be holding ranks upon ranks of automatons in their grasp, reading to mobilise them the second they descended to the ground. My fellow scouts and the scientists who chose to go with them do not stand a chance.

Personally I see it as nothing more than a weak cover for suicide, done by people too cowardly to do the deed outright. I try not to think too hard about the fact that Sim would probably say the same thing about my chosen course.

I don’t wait to see the jet leave. Instead, I head back to the bridge to reactivate the autopilot in preparation for my journey… to where? I haven’t decided yet. The remaining crew, who total around fifty, seem to trust in my leadership. More likely is that they just don’t care what we do, perhaps just want to get the fuck away from this hellish planet and its stench of death, but I’m trying to stay positive. Which is becoming increasingly difficult.

I sit in the commander’s huge leather chair and activate the autopilot unit, which flickers into life on the oversized screen. “LOCATION?” it asks me, and the entire universe stretches before me. It feels more like it opens up inside me, so vast is the hollowness at my core. My fingers hover over the keyboard. I’m paralysed by choice. A choice I never wanted to make, one that no human should ever have had to make. I rest my hands back on the desk again.

I sit in that chair for almost the whole day, staring into space. Yirra’s words keep echoing in my head: what’s the point? The look in Karn’s eyes haunt me. He is surely dead by now. Dead like the rest of them, millions upon millions of my kin. Now he’s slowly withering to dust that will disintegrate into nothingness at the slightest breeze, as if he and the rest of humanity never existed.

Night falls and the screen still blinks “LOCATION?” at me.

“Home” I write.

“LOCATION NOT RECOGNISED.”

I sigh and reactivate the system’s previous instructions, because why not? There’s no point going back to Earth, and there’s no point trying to meet up with any other expeditions. The ship will head off in any random direction, seeking corners of the universe that could sustain life and changing direction as needed.

My boots thud down the cold, empty hallways as I make my way to the DS Room. Everyone else is already settled in their Deep Sleep Pods, their pale faces taught in expressions of stressful sadness and despair. I hope it’s not possible to dream in deep sleep.

I clamber into my own pod, close the door, and come face to face with my own reflection. When I first woke up I could barely see the difference between the self that stepped into the pod on Earth and the self that woke up a thousand years later. Now, despite the fact that mere days have passed, it’s as if I look upon a stranger. I don’t recognise this frown, nor the way my mouth turns down at the corners, nor the dead eyes that seem to peer into my soul.

The DS Unit hisses into action and I prepare to sleep. I reach up to the digital clock above the Pod window and press the little red button.

1 SECOND. 2 SECONDS. 3 SECONDS.

I watch the numbers blink by. Last time I had no idea how many years would pass before I next opened my eyes. This time I know I could be two thousand years old when I wake up.

10 SECONDS

Karn was right about everything, and I called him a selfish coward. Sim too. To choose a quick death on your own terms is brave, and to choose to explore every option before you die is brave. Maybe Sim did find survivors, maybe they could escape on an FTL ship and rebuild with more than just one shipful of scouts and scientists. To choose to move on and find a new home would be brave, but that is not what I have chosen.

20 SECONDS

In the end, I am the biggest coward. Because I could not bare to admit the truth, to confront it head-on. Because I chose hide from it in deep sleep, never accepting humanity’s fate yet never truly rejecting it. Because I know we will never find any other humans or another home in the inconceivable expanse of the universe. Because I have condemned us all to float through space in eternal stasis, in frozen solitude. Because I hope I never wake up.

Prompt:

A Generation Ship reaches its destination after a thousand year journey only to find that humans developed FTL drives while they were gone and have already colonised the planet.

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The Girl in Black and Red – Prompt Inspired

My first one after… well, a very long time.

You walk into a room and come face to face with a ghost

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

She stood tall and thin before me, her body dressed in black and red and her face dressed in a scowl. Standing on the thick white carpet in her chunky Doc Martins, surrounded by unblemished white walls that almost seemed to glow in their purity, it was almost as if she had sucked all of the darkness and colour in the room towards herself and crafted it like armour. Spikes and studs wrapped themselves around her wrists, neck, and waist; yet more armour to keep me at bay.

Her stance appeared relaxed, nonchalant, but I could see that every inch of her thrummed with hidden tension. Her arms were crossed just a little too tightly over the thin black tank top that covered her torso, and her jaw was tightly clenched. Her eyes burned the icy blue of a winter sky, and were the only part of her that was the same as me. Even if hers were outlined harshly in thick midnight where mine smouldered gently in stormcloud silver.

I watched as she narrowed my eyes at me, and saw that not a spark of recognition flickered within. I was too different.

It is a strange feeling to watch someone you know so well look at you like a stranger. It is unfathomable that someone who lives in your heart and your soul and throws their weight into every action you take can still somehow be so distant.

I knew her inside out like a well-thumbed and much-loved childhood book. A book so familiar that you know all of the hopes and dreams and troubles and heartaches that live within each yellowing page. She, however, knew me only as a theoretical, inevitable eventuality. A faceless and shapeless thing that, in the naive optimism of youth, looked completely different in her mind’s eye to the thing that stood before her.

I was her, but she was not me. Not yet. And so she looked upon a stranger.

I turned around and gently closed the door, letting my hand linger wistfully on its glossy white surface for just a moment. I desperately wanted to be safely on the other side of that solid panel, where my future stretched before me like a winding river to a sea of opportunity, but I knew that I must stay here with the dust and the cobwebs and the scars and the ghost. It was time.

The girl shifted her weight to her other foot and folded her arms even more tightly across her ribcage. Did I still look that defensive when I stood how I was most comfortable?

“Hi.” The greeting was as short as possible, rushed out hurriedly as if she wanted to get it out and away from herself as quickly as possible.

“Hello,” I replied gently. I tried on a smile but it seemed to fit poorly, as if my body knew that I was forcing myself into a garment that was neither appropriate nor desired. I swallowed hard and gestured towards the two chairs in the room. “Shall we sit?”

She twitched one of my pale, freckle-scattered shoulders in the barest of responses. Wherever we were, she was clearly as enthusiastic about the situation as I was. At least we had more than our eyes in common now.

We walked over to the two white meeting room chairs where they sat in the corner of the room on their bland legs of pale wood. They were artfully arranged to be facing each other casually, not directly; a picture of non-confrontational conversation.

I sat down and crossed my legs at the knee. She dropped herself down onto the seat from her full height, and slouched down into the chair’s plush white cushions. A rebuke leapt to my tongue but promptly died there as I suddenly wondered if I was not myself in this world, but instead my mother. I let the girl slouch sullenly. It was the least I could do.

I groped pathetically for words but my head was empty, my mouth dry, and my tongue paralysed. The girl looked down at her hands, clad in fingerless gloves I remembered well, the black and red stripes looping their way up to her elbows. She began to fiddle anxiously with a long thread that snaked out from a frayed edge. An ice-blue glint and I knew she looked sideways at me through her thickly-coated lashes, edging as close to a challenge as she dared.

Why was I here? I had visited this ghost a thousand times before in my dreams and my nightmares, my moments of deepest melancholy and regret. I had picked her up and turned her this way and that, placed her on a chessboard and moved her through life in every way I could – as a Pawn and a Rook and a Knight and a Queen – just to see if things could have been different. I could never find a better path. Why did I need to visit this girl in black and red in person? I already knew that, as always, she was in checkmate from the start.

“I don’t want to talk” she stated bluntly.

“Okay” I replied dim-wittedly, still desperately grasping for where to begin.

“I’m fine.”

“Are you?” I asked. Isn’t that how psychiatrists get people to talk? Challenge their self-perception? Or perhaps I just made that up to justify my weak attempt at conversation.

“Yes” she confirmed, still worrying at the loose black thread.

Well that didn’t work. “So why are you here?”

“Because you made me come” she said sullenly, shooting a quick glare my way.

I longed to tell her that I was forced here too, but then I wondered if that were actually true. I had lived with this tall skinny ghost in my head for so long, had I always know it was inevitable that one day I must confront her face-to-face? Did I still believe somewhere deep down that I could make a difference?

I pressed on. “You don’t seem fine.”

“Only because I’m here!” she snapped in sudden exasperation. I blinked in dumb surprise. “I’m here and I already know everything you’re going to say and it’s never made a difference, but still you make me come here!”

I tried to keep the frown of confusion from my face, even as the confusion began to dissipate and leave a black pit of dread in my stomach instead. “How do you know what I’m going to say?” I asked with feigned placidness.

“It’s the same useless crap that the teachers say, and my parents say, and even some of my friends say. Stupid, useless crap from people who don’t know anything about me.”

The corner of my mouth twitched in a smile. “I might know more about you than you think, you know.”

The girl scowled and snorted in derision, sinking lower into the chair cushions. This was not going well.

“Does it make you angry, to think that I might know you?”

“No, it makes me angry that you think you might know me.”

I processed that for a moment. I suddenly felt a pang of empathy for everyone who had ever been in my position and tried to talk to me this way. It was a challenge.

Time to stop playing. I pushed my sleeves up to my elbow. It was a rather unprofessional habit that I could not seem to break, and saw the girl’s eyes flicker as she recognised the habit as one of her own. It struck me that showing her how similar we were might more effective than telling her.

Her eyes lingered on my sleeves. “Maybe you know more than I thought” she conceded. I tried to keep the smile of satisfaction from my face, a task which became much easier when she pulled those black and red gloves down from her elbows to her palms.

My happiness departed swiftly in a flurry of painful memories and I felt keenly the empty, aching vacuum that it left behind inside my chest. She had indeed noticed another thing that we shared, but not the one I had originally thought.

It is a common thing for adults to look back on their youth and minimise. It is true that compared to an adult life a teen’s struggles with school and love and friends seem insignificant. My five hours of lessons spread across seven hours of the day during just half of the year now seem like a holiday compared to the endless, soul-destroying drudgery of a 9-to-5 life. I can barely remember what seemed like life-changing issues that had caused so many fights in my circle of friends. And so we tend to apply that logic to everything in our former years, writing it all off as the melodramatics of youth.

But the mess of cuts and gouges and scabs and angry scars that littered her pale arms was just as awful and gut-wrenching to look upon now as it was then, and I swear I felt the pale ghosts on my arms tingle.

Every fibre of my being twitched to pull my sleeves back down, but I willed myself to calmness. If there was one person with whom I could share this, it was the girl in black and red.

“Maybe I do” I agreed, trying to keep my voice steady and my eyes from staring at the physical manifestations of our pain.

“Then how can you want to do this?” she asked, her eyes pleading with me to either provide a damn good answer or just leave her in peace. “You know it won’t help.”

“It helps some people” I hedged lamely, but she saw right through my facade.

“But not me. Never me.” She cocked her head to one side, an expression of knowing sympathy crossing her face. I marveled at the sudden change in her demeanor, though I should not have. Without meaning to sound arrogant, I know that I have always possessed a kind and empathetic heart, even when the rest of me prickled with metal studs and angst.

“Never me”, she repeated, and I could see her considering whether or not to say her next words. I prayed that she would not, but she did, looking at me with those sad, sympathetic, understanding eyes. “And never you.”

All of a sudden I felt the emptiness in my chest fill up with ancient pain. It rushed in from nowhere and swirled up and up like a storm until it threatened to overflow through my stinging eyes. I was shocked and surprised into lightheadedness by its power. I felt that it drowned me from the inside out, my memories given fresh life and power by the proximity of the ghost before me and the way her words pierced my secret thoughts that I tried to deny. But there was no denying it; nothing had ever worked.

“I can help you.” I managed to choke the words out, unsure of exactly whom I was trying to convince. “I know I can. It can be different.”

She shook her head, eyes gazing down at the angry red lines on her skin with a mixture of sadness and twisted affection. “No, you can’t.” She looked up at me suddenly, her eyes piercing bright. “Do you know what does help me?”

I did, but I didn’t want to. My arms burned with the memory of a thousand blades. I stared down and saw those blades dart over my arms in wild and impulsive geometric formations born of rage and all-consuming heartache, a tally of every hurt I had ever suffered. I felt myself fill with relief as I emptied of blood, as if all the pain that boiled in my heart had spilled out as bright crimson through those ghostly wounds. My skin was a pressure valve, one that could only be opened with a knife.

I had always known that it was bad and that it was wrong, and I had always known how I hurt not only myself but all those who loved me. I also knew then what I still know now: that I had no choice. In all these years I have found nothing that compares to the relief that those blades offered to me on a blood-soaked platter. As an adult I have learned to cope with those feelings, those urges, and to attempt release in other ways. I write, I cry, I love, I sing, and I run for my life, or from my life. I sat now before the girl in black and red as a woman in many colours, tempered by time, with greater impulse and emotional control.

But controlling the urges is not the same as not having them at all. The reason I played all of those chess games with this ghost, I realised, was to try and find a way out. A place where I was free from the scars and the urges that weighed me down. I wandered the maze of my past and searched for any exit but the one that left me with this lingering addiction. I had thought that perhaps if I exorcised my ghost of her ghosts, then perhaps in turn she would leave my mind in peace.

“You can’t save me” the girl said gently. “But don’t worry; I can save myself.”

“How?” I whispered hoarsely through a throat lined with fire.

“I don’t know how” she sighed, standing up and tugging her baggy jeans down until they sat on her hips. “I just know that I can. Eventually.” She walked over to the door and yanked it open in that careless way the young treat the things around them.

“But how do you know that!” I called after her desperately. She couldn’t go now, she couldn’t, I needed to fix her, to fix myself. Maybe there was one move I hadn’t tried, one final way where she could finally dance over the black and white board with a hop, a skip, and a jump to freedom. “How do you know that you will ever be rid of these demons? How do you know that they won’t infest your life forever?”

The girl turned back to me and smiled. “One day, my cuts will be scars like yours. It won’t matter that they were cuts, because they won’t be cuts anymore. My body will heal me, my skin will cover my wounds, and I will be whole. And these things” she said scornfully, holding her scarred arms out towards me, “will be nothing but memories that cannot hurt me. Urges that I have conquered. Feelings that I have found the strength to ignore and overcome. When I have won once, I will know that I can win every single time. When I am you, I will be whole. I will have saved myself.”

Tears spilled freely from my eyes and splashed on to my arms. The memories of the blades and the red paths that they marked disappeared from my skin, leaving nothing but traces of white behind, a pale mirror of the cuts that the girl held out before me. That spiderweb of old scars had seemed so bright, so vivid to me before, but now seemed like nothing more than old fading ghosts.

I looked up at the girl I had been and saw just how far I had come. So far in fact that she could not even recognise herself in me. No matter how close it all felt, how real and how deep it went under my skin, it was nothing compared to how it used to be. It was a ghost of a previous life, slowly fading further and further into the misty past. Just as I would always carry the scars on my skin, so too would I always carry scars in my mind. I would live with both and be ashamed of neither, for in the end I had won. My skin had healed itself, and so had my mind. She had healed herself. I had healed myself.

I looked up at the figure in the doorway. All I could see through the open door were shadows, slowly creeping out into the bright light to take her away. She smiled, but it seemed sad, as if the darkness of those shadows loomed over her at every moment and tainted every happiness. I returned her smile with my own, and felt its sunlight. Her shadows no longer haunted me.

Then my ghost in black and red walked through the door, shut it firmly behind her, and left me in peace.

The Point of Perfection – Prompt Inspired

And so, after a far longer hiatus than ever intended, I return. Life got in the way as it so often does, but I found the time to write something small. I’m using it as a sort of refresher and so I have not spent all that much time on it, but here it is.

The prompt was:

A man makes a sandwich, by the time he finishes it he realizes there is no point in life.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Martin had finally finished his careful arrangement of the perfect sandwich when the explosion rocked the house. He startled and knocked the soft white base of his masterpiece, sending the succulent chicken slices toppling off the side and down on to the wooden breadboard.

This would normally have been cause for much muttered cursing and gnashing of teeth, as Martin was very particular about the way he arranged his food. This was especially true of sandwiches, the construction of which often took him a great deal of time. They had to be perfect.

“You’ve got to put them together like a puzzle,” he always thought to himself as he tucked little wedges of chicken right up the corners of the perfectly square bread. “It requires thought and care. Throw the slices on at random, with no preparation and no thought, and you’re left with a lumpy mess. Too much filling in some parts, far too little in others. But if you take the time to make it all perfect, you can enjoy the whole thing from crust to crust.”

Marie teased him for it, but Martin didn’t mind. The first time she laughed and teased him, he became self-conscious and upset. But then she told him that it was actually one of the most adorable things he did, and she loved the care he took over them. And so he continued to perfect his craft.

Today, however, the explosion took precedence. Shattered glass flung itself against Martin’s back and tangled itself in his greying hair as the window behind him burst inwards. He spun around quickly to face the driveway, knocking the breadboard from the granite counter and sending it clattering down to the kitchen floor along with a pile of perfectly prepared sandwiches.

His view through the window was almost entirely blocked by thick black smoke that billowed up into the summer sky and slowly edged its way into the kitchen. Martin’s mouth dropped open. He gasped and smoke tickled his throat. He tried to call out, but he found he had no voice. He was sure that his heart had stopped.

He snapped from his daze and bolted through the kitchen door to the hallway, leaving a squashed sandwich imprinted with the sole of his shoe in his wake. He reached the front door and grabbed madly at the handle, his re-activated heart beating wildly as he failed to control his shaking hands.

Finally the handle turned downwards and Martin threw the door open, then stumbled over the threshold and down the front steps to what was once beautifully manicured garden. Now, instead of flowers, twisted hunks of charred metal poked out of the flower beds, turning their mangled heads to the bright light of the sun. The striped pattern of perfectly mown grass was now marred by muddy scars where the ground had been gouged away and piled up against the white picket fence. Shards of glass winked at him in the sunlight from where they lay mixed with the daisies and buttercups that dotted the lawn.

He was still standing there in that garden of destruction when the police found him. “What is your name, sir?” they asked. “Are you hurt, sir?” they pressed. “Talk to us!” they demanded. But they got no response. Martin just stood there, staring down at the ground, where one recognisable object lay in pieces in a field of nightmarish debris.

The bright pink ham lay scattered randomly. No more order, no more perfection. The bread was stained by fire and smoke; two squares of foul blackness set upon a canvass of lush green grass. Two perfect squares of horror, except for the tiny bite marks that ate into one side of each of them.

“Daddy, I don’t like this ham” she had declared. Of course he would replace it. He never got to take his little girl to ballet, now that the firm made him work every Saturday. Normally he would leave just after her and Marie, but this Saturday was special. He had taken the spontaneous risk of calling in sick just to make it so. This day was special, and it had to be perfect.

Marie had told him not to worry, smiling at him from the passenger seat of his car, with her beautiful hair glinting like liquid gold in the morning sun. She had that twinkle in her eye, picturing my painstaking, artful arrangement of meat on bread in her mind’s eye. She said that we should just buy something on the way. But no. It had to be perfect.

Martin focused back to the present. In the corner of his eye, he caught the words “Bomb Disposal Unit” written on the back of a thick black jacket. The wearer held a twisted hunk of scrap in his hand. It was unrecognisable, a thing that had the potential to be anything once but was now reduced to nothing but a mangled mess.

“Do you know anyone who would want to hurt you?” they asked. “Did you see anyone suspicious?” they pressed. “Talk to us, damnit!” they demanded. But Martin just started at those tiny, delicate bite marks in silence.

He felt strong hands on his shoulders. They tried to move him away, turn his eyes from the nightmare, but he twisted against them. He ducked away from their grip and walked back down the path to the front door. They began to follow, so Martin picked up his pace. He stepped through the door and gently closed it behind him. Walking through to the kitchen he heard someone pounding on the door and shouting for him, but he ignored them.

He bent down, ageing joints creaking, and picked the abandoned food up from the floor. He gently placed the breadboard down on the worktop, placed one slice of bread on top of it, and began to remake the sandwich.

The bread was grey from the smoke that drifted aimlessly around the kitchen. The chicken was speckled with glass. But Martin placed it just as carefully as before, reconstructing his prior perfection. The people outside still hadn’t managed to enter his house, although they were attempting to get in the kitchen window. Glass tinkled as they knocked the fragments left in the frame onto the floor. He ignored them.

Finally, Martin placed the second slice of grey bread on top of the meat. Carefully taking a knife from the knifeblock, he sliced the sandwich perfectly down the middle. Corner to corner, never cutting the edges, just as she liked it.

He stared down at his creation. The chicken was perfectly contained by the bread – not even a centimetre poked out – and when he pressed down on the sandwich he felt it was perfectly flat beneath his shaking hands. He stared down at it, and felt nothing.

The people outside were shouting his name – they must have spoken to the neighbours. Sirens assaulted his ears, smoke tickled his nose and throat. His eyes stung, and began to water.

Martin blinked to clear his eyes, extended one hand, and slowly pushed the sandwich towards the edge of the worktop. His foot pressed the pedal down, and the bin devoured the sandwich in one greedy gulp. Martin watched the perfectly-constructed sandwich disappear out of sight into the inky blackness. The lid fell down and closed with a thud of finality.

Gone. It was all gone.

The Abandoned Factory – Image Prompt

So this was an attempt at several things. Firstly, writing in first person present. I thought that this might help with the second thing: writing something tense and/or scary. I’ll go into a bit more detail later.

I couldn’t find the damn Prompt Image (this is a story that I began writing weeks before this blog), but I’ve added something similar for effect. Sadly the room’s a bit small, the generators are about two or three the size I imagined them when writing, it’s not as decrepit as I would like, and there’s barely any debris… but this was pretty much the only image I found that showed a vast room with bits of old machinery. Just make sure only to use it as a vague visual aid!

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The Abandoned Factory

Click-whirrr. Click-whirrr.

The sound of the faulty generator fills my ears as I crouch in my hiding place, listening intently. Folded up as small as I can make myself, trying to calm my heart and my breathing, I wait.

My buckled leathers dig into my flesh uncomfortably and the butt of my pistol is jabbing me in the kidney, but still I do not move a muscle. I strain and I strain but still no sounds of footsteps, screaming voices, or creaking metal doors reach me. The only change in my vision comes from the gently flickering lights that illuminate the immense room, and I constantly scan its decrepit contents looking for any sign of movement.

Huge girders arc across the vast ceiling like the ribcage of a giant. Between those ribs alternate the light fixings that cast their strange glow down upon me, and huge holes that were once covered with glass but have since been shattered open to the elements. The tall walls are covered in brittle paint that has flaked away over the years to carpet the floor with its beige hue.

Walls and floor alike are riddled with gaping cracks, allowing the untamed wilderness to creep inside to writhe over the stone floor and scale the immense height of the inner walls. As well as climbing upwards, the vines also cascade down through the broken ceiling windows, reaching inside the room as if to wrap their greedy tendrils around the contents of the factory and slip away into the night with its ancient treasures.

Other than nature’s inescapable conquest and time’s general decay, this place remains strangely untouched. Although, after what just happened, maybe the fact that no sign of humans can be found it is not so strange after all.

The only parts of the room that are not at least somewhat overtaken by nature are the generators, rusty as they may be, thrumming away constantly in this ghost town.

Click-whirrr. Click-whirrr.

I so desperately want to move from this spot to a more silent place where I can better listen, but I cannot risk it; here I have the best view of the expansive factory floor and can better see them coming, although what use the forewarning will be to me I do not know. I have two pistol shots left and my rapier at my side, but I can only hold off such violent foes for so long.

Still no sign of my pursuers. My only hope is to wait for the Antaquis to arrive, and pray to the Gods that those things do not find me before my friends do. Taking the Locatrus from my pocket and flicking the engraved lid open reveals the location dials inside, and behind them the cogs and wheels that work in ways that may as well be magic to me. It is a beautifully designed and crafted piece that is uniquely mine, for the swirling patterns on the gilded case contain the story of my life and my place in this world. I usually admire it whenever I use it, but I have no mind for beauty now, only survival.

I study the dials. Backup is still at least twenty minutes away, as we had not expected any trouble in such an old place. I curse softly and shut the lid with a sharp snap that echoes around the room, even over the sound of the broken generators. My eyes widen in shock and every sense switches to high-alert as I try to establish whether or not I was heard.

Click-whirrr. Click-whirrr.

Still I hear nothing other than that sound. Does that mean there is nothing there? Have they gone? That is unlikely. They know I am here and they know they can beat me. I remember their yellow eyes full of bloodlust peering at me out of the darkness of the basement, and I shiver. The sounds of their gnashing teeth, inhuman screeching and sharp claws scratching on the dank cobbled floor still echo in my mind, bringing back the fear in sick waves.

What was it in this old factory that created them, I wonder? My eyes scan the rusty equipment and the debris scattered around the room like a child’s abandoned playthings. I recall the plans for this place to my mind’s eye and find nothing suspicious in them – no new or unusual technology that had any risks attached. If those beings choose to live down in that basement rather than up here, the cause is probably down there too.

Click-whirrr. Click-whirrr.

Still no new sounds. Perhaps they are still in the basement. Why do they stay down there, I wonder? What do they eat? It cannot be what we class as food, for nothing of that sort will grow there in that darkness. They could eat fungus, though their dagger-like teeth suggest another source of sustenance. Maybe they do not eat at all. I cannot imagine too many humans or animals venture into those depths; only stupid ones like myself.

I do so wish for the safety of a lab where I could study these beings without risk, for nothing of their kind has ever been discovered on this earth before.

Perhaps they are down in that basement simply because they like the darkness. I pause in my thoughts, frowning. Perhaps they physically cannot live outside of the darkness. Chewing my lip in concentration I try to remember the exact moment I lost them. I recall the pure primal fear that consumed me as they chased me through the linear tunnels with such speed and agility. I fired shot after shot and slashed and slashed with my blade but it only slowed them as they ran along behind me or grappled along the floors and ceiling with their claws. They were unstoppable.

But then, when I burst through the door into the bright artificial light of the main factory floor, I lost them. I assumed that my pursuers had not been able to track me as well without the linear tunnels to help them, and that they would search the building fully for me, but perhaps I was wrong. With their inhuman speed there is not a chance it would take them this long to do a full sweep. My new theory is the most likely explanation.

Click-whirrr. Click-whirrr.

I gather my courage to myself and wear it like the armour of old as I get to my feet quietly, muscles tensed for action and senses still hyperactive. With my back against the wall I slip out from behind the generator and the bubble of noise it created. I feel every stone, every twig and every shard of glass beneath my feet as I move. A decaying metal girder grazes my fingers as I slip past it and I feel the rust flake away at my touch, scattering its ancient fragments in my palm and over the floor. Sticks crack as I step on them and the sound bounces gently around the empty room, tugging at my already frayed nerves.

I know not the shape of my enemies, only their sickly, glowing eyes, so I cast my gaze over the ruined room to look for any hint of that awful yellow. I still hear nothing other than the clicking and whirring of the generators and I feel my tension begin to ease, though my ears still feel desperate to prick up like a dog’s to improve their function even a little.

Click-whirrr. Click-whirrr.

The high entrance sits at the other side of the factory, at the top of fragile looking metal staircase that is partly disintegrated. A cold feeling of dread wells up inside me as I realise that when the Antaquis approach the building they will likely do as I did: enter through the lower door first. And when one enters through that lower door they must pass through the basement to reach my position.

The creatures know that man has invaded their sanctuary and they will be ready this time, ready to use those claws and those teeth and any other hellspawned weapons they have at their disposal to rip my comrades limb from limb. I make my decision fast and increase my speed as I creep along the wall, passing other broken generators that make the same familiar noises as the one by my hiding place.

Click-whirrr. Click-whirrr.

The pathway between wall and generator is blocked by a chunk of rubble that fell from the crumbling wall, so I must leave its protection. Sweat prickles on my brow and I begin to shake despite my confidence that these creatures can only live in darkness, but I know that I must brave the open room. I crouch low to the broken ground and move out as quickly and silently as possible, eyes darting rapidly around the huge room, heart in my throat. The noise of the generators surrounds me and cocoons me as I creep along.

Click-whirrr. Click-whirrr.

Click.

The sudden silence roars in my ears and my breath catches in my throat as the lights go out with a plink. I am too far from the doorway. I can see nothing in the sudden blackness. My heightened senses hear a horrible clicking, a scritching, a sickening skittering that grates on the soul. A cry quite unlike any other echoes up from the depths of the basement, and more voices join it in a repulsive chorus from some Godforsaken opera.

I break into a run, trying to free my grapple-hook from my belt as I go, but the cloudy sky covers the light of the moon and the darkness foils my escape plan. My foot catches on a piece of rubble and I topple to the ground, crying out in agony as I feel something pierce the soft flesh of my thigh and snap from its home.

Still the terrifying scritching echoes around the factory, making my insides itch with its otherworldly sound. It feels as if it is a part of me, like their claws are raking my brain. I am sure that the sound is getting louder, closer.

Tears of pain blur the pathetic amount of vision that I had, and I scramble desperately backwards in the hope of finding a hiding place before they come. Trying to wipe the tears away only rubs into my eyes the rust that coats my hands, and I choke on despair as the tears increase their flow.

This is it. I am going to die. I continue to scrabble blindly backwards until my back hits the slowly cooling surface of a generator. I tense and wait for the end.

Silence.

My heart rate and breathing begin to slow. I gingerly feel my way to where my thigh was hit and retch as I feel rusty metal, sticky with blood, protruding from my flesh. I pat the floor around myself and establish that my grapple-hook is gone, but at least I know that I need only retrace my scrabbling to find it. Perhaps this is not the end.

My tears have washed away all the rust, and I wipe my eyes with a handkerchief. As I am dabbing the last of the moisture away, every hair on my body suddenly stands on end. Bile crawls up my throat and I freeze, petrified, paralysed by fear. A terrible sensation creeps up my spine. I begin to shake madly. I cannot breathe.

Slowly I move the kerchief away from my eyes to look ahead of me, and this time I know for sure that it is the end. Inches from my face a pair of piercing yellow eyes meet mine, and I gaze into hell.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

So the reason I wrote in first person present was partly because I was still practicing first person, but also because I felt that it increased tension. I don’t know if this is the conventional wisdom or not. I thought that writing in first person present would help draw the reader into the situation and make the fear more present, but also that not knowing the protagonist would be okay would add to the fear that they would not come out of this alive. I hope the mystery came across as deliberate rather than shoddy writing.

The setting was vaguely steampunky to allow me to combine the modernity of a piece of machinery with a fantasy setting, and I enjoyed writing that setting. I actually really enjoyed writing this whole piece, probably as much as I enjoyed A Medieval Tavern! I would like to write something like this again.

The Signal – Prompt Inspired

I undertook this prompt to try out writing something other than “swords and sorcery” fantasy and reality-based fiction. The prompt was:

A Sci-Fi story where humans are strong, smart, and feared in comparison to the other intelligent races.

Found, naturally, on reddit.

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The tense silence stretched onwards as we stood, pike-staffs at the ready, and faced the intruders. Three of them were lined up before us, and my Pod and I looked straight upon the one furthest to the left. I could feel the panic welling up inside our bodies and I could not stop shifting my weight from my forelegs to my hindlegs, unable to decide upon the best stance to take. We had never been combat trained for a being such as this.

Its long, bulky body soared well beyond the height of even the tallest of our rank, and we had already discovered the toughness of its white skin when we launched our first test assault. None of the beings had made a sound since exiting their shiny rock, nor had they made any obvious communication gestures. How they coordinated their exploration, I had no idea.

There was another Pod of these beings in the background, wobbling slightly as they walked towards us in their strange two-legged way. Their difficulty in controlling their movements reminded me of a youngling taking its first steps, and whenever they moved their limbs it was like they were partially splinted and only able to move in certain directions. We hoped this impairment would be advantageous for us, should battle become necessary.

For now, though, battle was not our greatest desire. We we were content to just watch and wait to see how events unfolded, so we stared patiently into the black voids of their featureless faces as we tried to establish their intentions.

A crackling infiltrated the air, barely audible. The body before us turned its head slightly to look at a member of the rear Pod that was slowly waving an object around itself. The huge, perfectly spherical head in front of us bobbed slightly, and the three leaders reached up to their necks with their awkward top-limbs. I felt every member of my Pod tense with me, and adjusted my grip on my staff. There were several clicks and the sound of hissing air, and then being grabbed hold of its head and pulled. We chittered in shock and disgust as the being began to remove its own head.

The intruders reacted to our reaction, taking several clumsy steps backwards. It soon became clear that what had appeared to be a head was actually just some sort of carapace, although why they wanted or needed to remove this protection I have never understood. But what lay beneath that carapace proved to be even more disgusting than the apparent self-decapitation.

Huge, white, boggling eyes sat forwards in the being’s pudgy face, flicking around constantly. A strange trunk stretched from head to body, seeming to quiver and stretch due to some internal process. As it used one bulky white hand to rub what I began to understand as some sort of sub-scale head, the skin squished and bulged around it. The flexible skin seemed to move completely freely, except for the bizarre triangle stuck firmly in the centre.

In some ways I felt this being resembled us – it had many similar body parts, even if they looked all wrong and were in very strange places – but it’s delicate-looking skin was pink and swollen like a youngling born scaleless or an adult suffering from Scalewaste. The more we looked, the more disgusting it became, and our anxious chittering did not cease.

A hole opened up in the face of the first intruder, and I felt my Pod’s confusion and wariness. Moments later we discovered that this hole was their voicer, as a sound more terrible than any other I have ever heard emerged from its depths.

It was so deep and contained such vibrations that I felt my ears begin to swell and bleed, and we all ran backwards to get away from the source of the pain. Some of us fell to the ground, dropping our pike-staffs to clutch at our ears as we screeched in agony. The intruder stammered and stopped voicing, its eyes becoming even more boggled than before. Its companions looked at one another with an expression I simply could not read.

They began to voice as quietly as they could between one another, but the horrible noise carried and we backed further and further away. As we cried out again they turned back to us with the same strange expression.

But then they held their top-limbs up in front of them, ends pointed upwards with the flat bit facing us, and the red puffy flesh around their voicers turned up at the corners.

Every single one of their voicers had moved to that position so we knew it meant something, but what? Joy at causing us pain? Unlikely, as they tried to prevent it. They were strange indeed, but they did not seem evil. Sadness for causing us pain? Certainly more likely, but why just stand there like that? Do those puffy bits of flesh aid communication for them – was it just like voicing? Was this a belated greeting? The lack of understanding was infuriating.

One of the beings at the front moved one top-limb so that it made a straight line away from its body. Whatever this meant, its companions seemed to understand it, and they all turned to stumble back to the strange shiny rock in which they had arrived.

Much time passed, but still we waited in position to see these events to their conclusion. After a time, a hole opened up in the rock and one of the beings exited once more. It looked to us and began waving its top-limbs around in front of it. Back and forth, they went, from it’s body to us, back and forth. We backed away in fear, stumbling over one another as we rapidly retreated, recognising the beginnings of magic and wanting to get as far away from it as possible. The being disappeared inside the rock again.

For a time nothing happened, but we stayed away from these strange, strange things. A deafening roar suddenly filled the air, and we turned and ran away in a panic. I felt the sticky blood ooze past my feelers that were clamped over my ears, and I began to feel dizzy and faint. That horrible sound echoes in my head to this day, and all other sounds seem muffled in comparison.

A blast of heat hit my back and I felt my scales melt and fuse together. The hills to which we ran as we fled to the safety of our underground burrows were suddenly lit up in a fantastic light that flickered and danced. I could not resist the urge to see what magic these beings had finally wrought, and turned to see a magnificent fountain of colour emanating from the bottom of the rock. It was so bright, brighter than both of our suns combined, and oh did it burn my eyes. But I thought the magic of seeing that rock lift up and away from our land to dive into the lilac heavens was absolutely worth it.

That was five suns ago now, and since then we have lost a thousand. Thousands and thousands more are sick, and unlikely to recover. I have taken back all that I said about the memories of that day being worth the after-effects. They are definitely not worth this.

The Elders have decided that the upturning of the red voicer-flesh was a signal, a code, a subtle piece of outlander magic that triggered whatever destructive force has been unleashed upon us. We do not know why they came, and we do not know why they wanted to hurt us. All we know is that they will surely be back to finish the job, and we will be destroyed.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

So this one was interesting for me. As I said, I have never attempted something like this before and it was actually quite a challenge to break out of the fantasy mindset and into the “aliens” mindset.

I view this as good practice for creating fantasy creatures, which I would like to do in The Novel (as I have taken to calling my dream-work). I know reptilian aliens/monsters are probably quite cliche, but it’s a start!

It was quite fun having total freedom to make things up in whatever crazy way I wanted, because there didn’t really have to be any basis in reality at all.

Overall, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this piece. I think it’s alright – it does the job and it works to the prompt quite well, in my opinions – but it’s not my best work.

Untitled

I wrote this in a period of depression. Not sure what I think of it, but what’s interesting for me is how different it is from the pieces I wrote going through my depression aged 14-16, even when you ignore the fact that I used to write in a more lyrical style then.

Though I have not actively been learning how to write or actively improving my writing much until very recently, the simple act of growing up has improved my introspective, emotional pieces greatly (even if they are still far from excellent). I feel like I can write more abstractly and less explicitly (as in obviously, rather than x-rated…), and I feel like it’s a more mature writing style in general. Maybe I will post an old piece of writing here just for fun one day…

Anyway, on with the post. Just in case anyone else is reading this: consider it one giant trigger for everything depression-related.

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The cavernous hole in her chest was growing. The self-wrought desolation crept and crawled from her dead core to swallow her heart whole, devouring every feeling but the anger and guilt that sustained it. Shadowy fingers clutched her stomach and crushed and squeezed, pushing the bile of self-loathing up her throat to steal her breath and burn away her excuses until there was nothing left but raw angry flesh. The sickness seeped from her pores to slither over her skin, raking its claws down her arms, her legs, and her torso, coating her in its foulness.

Eyes glazed, she stared into the abyss of her self. The darkness had chewed and chewed at her, ripping out memories and tearing at festering wounds, setting the poison free to scour her soul until she became nothing but a fragile husk. She was a hollow puppet on broken strings, a sad thing trying to dance the steps of a normal life. But behind her painted smile the dark emptiness had always been waiting to consume even the empty comfort of a life not truly lived.

The darkness filled her hollow limbs, taking control of them and carving and carving at the varnished and tarnished skin to reveal the foulness that had always lain beneath. And as the knife cut deeper into the fragile flesh, it found the true well of self-sustaining hatred. A burst of colour erupted from the washed-out blandness of her puppet body as the violent red sickness blossomed on the pale, scarred skin.

It oozed and it slithered and it dribbled from the cracks and the cuts as they tallied up her sins, and the puddles the darkness formed as it dripped to the floor retold her lies in crimson hues. Again and again the knife hacked and slashed, ripping away the fragile flesh to expose the vileness beneath, and the liquid sin poured forth like a fountain of divine retribution. And as the patches of undestroyed skin dwindled away to a bloody red nothing, she smiled.

The light began to fade as she hit the floor. The ruby darkness pooled around her body, cocooning her in the comfort of its familiarity. It was all she had ever known, and all she ever was. The darkness released her bloodless fingers from their grip around the blade, and the sad puppet danced its lies no longer.

Prompted Story – Chapter 1

Inspired by the Medieval Tavern Image Prompt that appeared quite a while ago now. There was some absolutely justified criticism on my Prompt Inspired Post, and I have not changed anything in light of this criticism to preserve its integrity.


The door swung wildly on its hinges as we tumbled into the tavern, already merrily drunk and laughing raucously. Moving from the cold stormy streets into that warm room was like crossing the threshold of another world, and I shook myself to cast away the both its physical and mental reminders.

A fire crackled merrily away to itself in the corner, chasing away the cold that had resided permanently in my bones for the past year, and small candles on almost every available surface gave off a soft and welcoming glow. As my companions and I stripped off our drenched travel cloaks, still laughing at some joke that we probably couldn’t really remember, I felt more content than I had in years.

Our grand entrance had earned us a frown from the barkeeper, but when his eyes found my face they lit up in recognition and the frown was soon replaced by his familiar smile. I sauntered up to the bar, attempting to cover my intoxicated wobbling with a cocky swagger, whilst my band of lovable miscreants piled into a booth and began shouting for an ale boy. I could feel the ale from the previous inn sloshing around in my empty stomach, and it put me in mind of the sea that we had just traveled. Perhaps the solitary hunk of bread that I had consumed that day was our boat, struggling against the waves. I stifled a giggle as I imagined tiny little butter sailors climbing the doughy rigging, and realised that it was definitely time I got some more food inside me to soak up some of the alcohol. Only so I could begin drinking again without fear of sickness, you understand.

I placed my hands on the bar and pushed my torso up and over it to plant a sloppy kiss firmly on the barkeeper’s lips. He sighed in mock annoyance, but even after all these years I could tell that my Uncle still loved the affection. Behind his bushy beard I saw his big grin widen further, and he responded to my kiss by wrapping his huge arms around me in a suffocating bear hug. My Uncle and Aunt had struggled to conceive, and when she died he gave up hope of ever raising a child. One day he got what his heart desired but at a high cost, as his brother’s daughter became an orphan. I was uprooted from my home and forced to travel for months to get to this new city – this rough, tough city – to live with a stranger. We both had no-one, then suddenly we both had each other. He feared having that taken from him, and it seemed like every time he wrapped his arms around me his embrace was a little tighter, his willingness to let go ever reduced.

When he released me I noticed an ale boy of no more than 14 crouched on the floor cleaning a spill, staring up at my cleavage where it was visible as I leant over the bar. I stared pointedly back at him, waggling my eyebrows suggestively. He met my eyes, realised he had been spotted, and turned a fantastic shade of crimson as he returned to his scrubbing with renewed vigour. I tried to stifle the giggles but they slipped out regardless, sending him scurrying away in embarrassment. My Uncle frowned at me and I looked guiltily back at him, promising to apologise in the morning.

A burst of laughter erupted from the corner that my guildmates had commandeered, and I turned in time to see Rhys doing his best impression of foppish Lord Olka. He pranced about with his nose in the air, powdering his face and hair daintily with a napkin powder-puff covered in the leftover flour from a bread plate. I grinned to myself; Rhys’ impressions were a sure-fire hit after a few ales, despite being so highly caricatured that they were almost unrecognisable to anyone not familiar with his repertoire. I ordered a cauldron of stew for our table, grabbed a huge bottle of my favourite honeywine from where it waited for me on the bar, then made my way to their table to join the merriment.

I clambered over the bench behind them to squash myself between Cydney and Brielle, spilling a fair amount of the honeywine along the way. Sliding down the fur-backed bench to sink my arse into it’s fur-covered seat was heaven, and at that moment I did not even slightly miss the hard life of the road. Walking on rocks, eating on rocks, sleeping on rocks; even the meager softness of scrubby brown grass was a luxury in the places we’d been. As I sipped the honeywine I felt its warmth spread down to my belly, and I sighed in contentment. This was some damn good stuff.

In time the stew arrived and we attacked it ravenously, scooping out great lumps of steaming meat and vegetables with chunks of crusty bread and stuffing them into our mouths. Another round of ales was ordered, and I watched the group guzzle it down greedily. We really were not a graceful lot. Well, not when we ate, anyway. Those who saw us in battle would definitely argue otherwise.

The silence that fell upon us whilst we satisfied our hunger gave me time to surreptitiously check out the tavern’s other occupants. Normally this would be the first thing I did upon entering a room but, what can I say? I was back in our city, and sometimes you just gotta throw caution to the wind and enjoy life. My gruff, muscled Uncle was protection enough anyway.

As well as the general public there were members of other guilds dotted around the room. I could see the tattoos of all but one, and I knew them all. As it should be. Whilst I trusted Markas to take care of my own guild while I was on the road, I could not prevent my departure from allowing people to become daring and create new ones. When someone embarked upon a mission such as mine they were generally not expected to return, and people often used their departure as a chance to take liberties. I was pleased to see that Markas had kept them scared, and that my trust in him had not been misplaced. He was a good man and a strong fighter, well worthy of being my right hand, and he would be in for a suitable reward. Probably something from the gilded chest I had hidden beneath the floorboards of my personal hideout.

All this was well and good, but I was still bothered by those whose tattoos I could not see. I feigned a stretch to lean back – I know, it’s oldest move in the book, but in my defense I was drunk – and craned my neck to get a better look. A face and tattoo became visible as my perspective changed, and I jerked my head back into the group so fast that I felt my neck crack. Brielle looked at me and raised a thick blonde eyebrow, and I gave her a tight shake of my head. Don’t react, it said. She gave a sharp nod in return and returned to gazing into her flagon, but I could see every muscle was taught, waiting to act in an instant. She was not the kind of person to ignore any perceived threat.

He knew we were here – there’s no way he could have missed our entrance. I cursed myself for letting my guard down and thinking I was untouchable. How did he get here before us, and what the fuck was that tattoo? I took a deep breath and tried to think. My contemplations were interrupted by a crash, and I looked up to see Rhys convulsing on the floor amid the contents of the overturned cauldron.

As one, my siblings and I leapt to our feet in the suddenly silent room. I looked around with murder in my eyes, trying to spy the cause of Rhys’ fall. Nobody moved, nobody made a sound. A strangled cry preceded the thud of Cydney’s body slumping back down onto the bench, and this seemed to break the spell. The tavern began to rapidly empty of normal customers who knew better than to be around at a time like this, and the thumps of another two bodies hitting the floor pushed the other guilds into running too. Wise cowards, I thought to myself bitterly.

The only people left in the room other than the ale boy from earlier, rooted to the spot in fear, and my Uncle, were the three people whose tattoos were hidden from me at first. I spared a moment to mentally kick myself again for being so complacent, then I vaulted over the bench and was at their table in an instant, knife at the ready. A second passed before I realised that my siblings were not with me. I knew how I would find them, if I was foolish enough to turn and look behind; each one of the nine would be collapsed, dead, dying, out cold, whatever, it didn’t matter. Fear suddenly clogged my throat, and I desperately tried to swallow it down.

He was smirking. The bastard was smirking behind his steepled fingers, still sitting casually at his table, making it clear that it was his work. As if it wasn’t clear enough already. The ale. It was the only thing my siblings had consumed here that I had not. With a jolt I realised that the ale boy had not been looking at my breasts but at the guild symbol displayed on my neck, clear as fucking daylight. He was definitely the one who brought their refills. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

I backed away, and was surprised when the men let me. Risking a look sideways, I saw that my Uncle was no longer behind the bar. I did not think I nor anyone else would be seeing him again. I felt faint. I had been so arrogant, so foolish. The warm fire suddenly felt stifling. I could feel the sweat drip down my forehead, along my spine, and off my nose.

I wavered, then stumbled down to one knee as his smile grew. He extended his finger with a languid flourish, pointing behind me. As my legs weakened and I slumped sideways to sit on the floor, I knew exactly what he was pointing at: my favourite honeywine that had been sitting on the bar, unstoppered, just begging to be taken.

He stood and ambled slowly towards me as I tried to scramble to the door. When I found I could not properly control my legs, I tried to push myself to the door with my left arm whilst my right swiped and slashed at him weakly with my blade. To this day I don’t know why I bothered – I knew there was no escape. I suppose every cornered animal has some instinct that it must obey when it is dying. My instinct was to kill, maim, hurt. My instinct was to make the bastard pay.

As I lost all strength and my body hit the floor, limbs too weak to support it, he sunk down onto his heels to take up my entire field of vision. That self-satisfied smile seemed to fill my whole mind with its betrayal.

“Goodnight, darling” Markas purred, and I fell into blackness.

~*~*~*~*~

The criticism of this, for those who did not follow the link to the reddit post, was that there was not enough description of the tavern and its atmosphere. I totally agree with this, and it’s pretty poor work on my part considering the original prompt was the room itself.

Having said that, the idea of the prompt is to go with the flow. My flow went in the direction of a story, and eventually got so long that I didn’t feel I could go back and add much description in.

Once again I’ll put this in the “gaining experience” category and hope to do better next time.