21. Ether

“Did you get it?”

Mac doesn’t answer. Flakes of snow land on his face and stick to the fur lining of his parka. He lies still, just a few feet away, but doesn’t budge an inch. The wind whips across the tundra, and sheets of white ripple over the ground like waves on a stormy sea.

“Hey Mac. Mac, c’mon man. Did you kill it?”

He moves slowly, still looking to the distance, but finally pulls back the bolt on his rifle. That’s it, our last bullet. Our last hope too.

“Mac, I-”

“Yes.” He looks over at me with a face like leather, chapped from the wind and cold, tanned by the sun and sea spray. He doesn’t smile, which is just as well. A face like that reminds me of a broken in shoe: comfortable, but ready to burst at the seams if you stretch it too far.

“Yea, well you fucking better have, because-.”

“Go get it.”

I look him over, up and down. Power games, thinking he’s the big man just because he managed to blast a sleeping animal, but I’m just too hungry to play. I need that seal – I need its blubber, its meat, its flesh and bones. I need it all. I’ve got a cudgel in my hand and I’m over the small, snow barricade we dug a few days before, running towards Mac’s trophy.

Did he shout something? Could be the wind. Christ it’s cold, and howling so hard now I struggle to keep in a straight line, but I need this animal butchered and bagged before I get competition. So hungry, and I wont be the only one that feels this way. In a world where there’s so little land and most of that land is ice, you’re fighting mother nature just as much as you’re fighting your own. That logical voice in your head that keeps your human nature from taking over, from making you rip off your clothes, eat your supplies and howl at the moon ’til the frostbite gets you.

“Pssh, bastard,” I mumble. The kill’s good, right through the brain, I can use just about the whole animal from this. Mac’s not perfect, he’s quiet and smug, but he deserves a bit of credit. I’ll give him first pick of the meat.

“Hey,” I turn back, shouting, “Sniper Zaytsev! Get…”

Mac’s finally got a bit of colour in his cheeks. His mouth’s open, his eyes rolled back, his head hangs by its spine from the mouth of a polar bear. Then its gone, inside.

“Shit. Shit, shit, shit!”

It’s looking this way. Fuck Mac, our last bullet. Up on its back legs and the size of a yeti, all muscle and fur and big teeth still dripping with its first course.

The ether we use to keep the engines running, up in the cold. A long shot, and my hands are numb but my heart’s ready to explode as I fumble for it at my side. The bear’s back on all fours and running, grunting like a maniac. Got it. I pull out the cork with my teeth and throw it at the fucker.

Got to move fast. It’s pawing at its face. I pull a flare from my side and twist off the striker. Once. It’s got a roar on it, like thunder, like the heavens opening. Twice. Come on. Come on. It’s coming at me again, so close I can see the saliva foaming at its mouth. But it’s lit!

The bear snarls, roars, pink light reflected in deep black eyes. But it’s too late for it to stop. I throw the flare at it with arms that are limp and it’s up in flames. Blue and orange and hot, like a huge cotton ball it burns bright. It runs in circles in a panic, its deep roar now a squeal, then a choke, but I’ve got to see it through. With a roar of my own I run at the bear as the flames give way to black, singed skin and strike it on the jaw with my cudgel. It cries out, but I’m getting the power back. My arm smashes its skull until it’s just cracked, charred bone stuck in a brain and blood jelly.

“Holy Shit. Fuck, oh fuck.” I’m shaking and panting, but the beast’s blood is already starting to cool. Fingers of red slow down on the ice, congeal, crystalise. “I’m sorry Mac. I know…I know we never had much to say. But I don’t know where to go from here. Oh fuck Mac, I needed you.”

Forgive me Mac, because these tears aren’t for you. Alone and adrift on a flooded planet, with three corpses for friends. I think you’re the lucky one.

20. Doge

“Meat, Doge, and a replacement for this.”

Keikos dropped a mechanical device onto the table that Doge ignored, instead locking intense, blue eyes with the Hekathon.

“That’s no way to ask for a favour, Keikos. Remember whose territory you’re in.”

Keikos grunted without a reply, yet after some discomfort glanced once up and down the sun-baked street. Doge appeared satisfied with this response, and for the first time looked down to acknowledge the trinket, his eyes only leaving Keikos’ at the last moment.

“Ah, yes. This device is for navigating underground, quite easy to acquire for a Chesh’r, but more difficult for a foreigner.” He paused to glance at Keikos, this time more casually, “certainly an interesting piece of equipment for a soldier who spends half his life on the water and half on the archipelagos.”

Keikos offered nothing, so Doge smiled and continued to speak, this time eyeing the object more closely. “Something to do with your little castaway last night?”

The soldier’s features flickered briefly before resuming their original stoic mask. The noise of the port seemed to flare, and the sound of children running past caused his sword arm to tense.

“Relax, Keikos. I know you in Dekan think security is non-existent on our side of the strait, but it isn’t so bad they can’t spot a lone foreigner with a torch in the dead of night. They just aren’t paid enough to fight a nikaiakon full of Hypersian commandos. So I ask you,” Doge handed the repaired article back to the Hekathon. “What’s in it for me?”

Two sacks of vegetables and a reed basket of bread loaves presented themselves on the table.

“You can keep the cloth, Chesh’r.”

“You know what I meant,” spoke the merchant to the soldier’s back, as he walked away towards the jetty. Doge settled back in his canvas chair, snatching one of the bread loaves. “I’ve seen much more of the world than you have,” he muttered quietly, “and naivety can only carry you so far.”

pt.1 | pt.2

19. Light on the Shore

The light on the shore was puzzling. Earlier in the evening a sentry had alerted his commander to movement on the opposite coast and now, after dark, Resios led a cadre of skirmishers over the Hypersian strait.

A torch fluttered weakly some way up from the beach, faint yet visible among the stiff grass and sand of Dekan-Hekwat. Its implications lay uncomfortably on the troops. A bandit, or even Chesh’r squad, would be foolish to move so openly in view of the distinctive Hypersian watchtowers that lined the coast behind Resios, punching through the rocky earth like a corpse’s fingers. An ambush was possible but would be equally poorly reasoned on a night so clear the moon drew every edge in chalk and silver. He stroked Lekos’ right cheek, who in turn repeated the move to the next oarsman until their course shifted to further up the beach.

A warm gust of wind accompanied the skirmishers as they touched shore and rolled into the water, those at the rear disassembling the craft as those in front kept watch. Taking their nikai the skirmishers broke into four groups of two and dispersed. Resios took Prixalis on the most direct route, ready to co-ordinate the rest of his squad visually when they were in position. With sand, still warm from the day, beneath his feet, he pressed his body close to the bank and moved quickly towards the light. When near Prixalis dropped prone to keep watch on their vanguard as Resios crawled on.

Through the bentgrass a tall, thin body lay motionless beneath the torch, one hand outstretched towards an object that appeared to be a shell. On the ridge above him the dark faces of Resios’ squad appeared in sequence, their attention shifting between the body and his own face as they waited for instruction. He found Medomai among the heads and gestured for him to move forward, Resios also rising to his feet and taking his weapon with him. He batted away the shell, then looked at his compatriot.

“Find anything?”

“Nothing,” returned Medomai, his voice so deep the sound seem to come from the earth beneath their feet. “It’s just him.”

Resios moved his hekasiteros to the person’s stomach, aiming to pull him onto his back with its hook. Instead of finding the dessicated features of a corpse, the man opened his eyes and gasped. Surprised, yet composed enough to check Medomai’s weapon and prevent him decapitating the prisoner, the man began to gabble in a language completely foreign. Medomai snarled, and looked ready to  fling him into the water.

“Ba-Chesh’ret!”

“No.” The starving man’s eyes were imploring, and Reisos firm. “This isn’t Ches’r,  and look at his skin. It’s dirty, but pale, like nothing I’ve ever seen.” On the ridge the commandos’ expressions had changed from warriors to spectators, entranced by the alien in their midsts.

“Lekos, Keikos, gather the others and prepare to return to the fort, this man is our prisoner. Prixalis!” He shouted behind him, “bring him some water.” Kneeling, the refugee spoke just one word. “Za.” Gesturing to himself with a piteous grin, eager to explain, he repeated “Za, Za.”

Medomai grunted, “this is Dekan-Hekwat, Za. Fortunately for you we found you before the Chesh’r, else by now you’d be in chains and on your way to a life of forced labour. Or the sacrificial altar.”

The man appeared stupidly grateful and continued to smile as his eyes rolled back in his head, falling asleep.

pt.1 | pt.2

18. A Conversation

It’s eight minutes past five on a Friday afternoon when Adam finally enters the Costa Coffee, adjacent platform five, at Newcastle Central train station. He manoeuvres through the door to a backdrop of warm, equinox sunlight, channelled down ceilinged platforms as it falls below the horizon, and gives a quick smile of acknowledgement before queueing to order his drink. A little over five minutes later he’s sat down and hurriedly removing his hooded jersey.

“I’m so sorry I’m late,”  he offers, with no qualifying explanation, any guilt quickly hidden by his top as he pulls it over his head. When his outdoor clothing is completely removed Adam relaxes, and gives a broad smile that immediately turns the conversation from an interrogation over his tardiness to what it was supposed to be: a meeting of friends.

“That’s ok. Why were you late?”

“Oh, nothing really, you know how I can be. I was just working and lost track, I got here as quickly as I could when I realised the time.” He ran his fingers over the indents of the Costa logo on his cup, then the handle and finally traced a finger around the rim. Seemingly bored already of answering questions, he offered his own, “So then, Emily, how are you? I feel as if it’s been forever since I’ve seen you!”

“I know! Well, it hasn’t been so long actually, but I suppose last time we met it was brief. We haven’t had a chance to spend any real time together in a while.”

Adam continued to smile and nodded, then looked down to tear a corner from a brown sugar sachet. He spoke as he poured, “well, no-one could blame you. You’ve just come back from Belgium right, on an EU internship? If I was there I’d have had little time for social networking.”

“Yea! It’s been brilliant, well, mostly. I’ve already had a taste of the kind of bureaucracy I can expect later and it’s going to be so annoying. There’s also so many acronyms, it’s like learning another language!”

Adam looked up long enough to laugh, then stirred his drink. “In addition to French, and German night classes? They’re certainly getting their money’s worth with you.” He returned the wooden stirrer to the table, then continued, “Remember when we took that road trip to Cornwall, and we’d spoke the whole way about how much we were looking forward to sausage sandwiches,” he took a few sips, “but when we arrived we realised we didn’t have any fuel for the stoves? So we had to eat bread and butter and cold tinned beans.”

“I know! Such a depressing start to our little adventure. In fact, I have something you’ll enjoy.” He looked at the photo Emily had presented on her phone and smiled. “You’re even wearing the same top now.”

“I know, it’s uncanny, like a reverse Dorian Gray. In the picture I looked sharp and tanned whereas here I’ve become more tatty.” He suddenly moved farther back in his chair and tensed then relaxed his shoulder blades, as if relieving a cramp, then moved forward again, resting his elbows on his knees.”Remember Steve, and those gloves he wore the entire journey?” Adam spoke to the right of Emily and used his hands to mimic Steve’s outlines, as if addressing his spectre standing over her shoulder, only glancing at her to confirm her attention was still with him, “I wonder if he still has those. It’s funny to think he does.” Adam smiled briefly and tried to hold eye contact, but this time it didn’t last. His gaze drifted from one feature of the room’s architecture to the next, and before long he settled on the floor. He gently squeezed the tip of one index finger.

“How have you been up here?”

“Ah, it’s been OK. What can I say really? I don’t know what to say.”

Silence.

“Things will get better for you.”

Adam didn’t look up to see her leave to catch her train. It took fifteen minutes before he threw the last cold mouthful of coffee down his throat, donned his jersey, and walked into the Newcastle evening.

15. In Plain Air (VI)

There’s something predictable in human terror. I hypothesise that if I were to don a white lab coat and find enough volunteers, I could arrange a scale from nought to ten corresponding to frightening instances and guess reactions at each stage. At level nought, just a handshake on the terror scale we reach four and we’re told we have cancer. At level six a loved one is abducted, then we’re thrown from a plane for seven. At eight we look outside the shower and for the first time in our lives it doesn’t vanish when we turn to face it, but its fingers stick against the opaque curtain. Nine

14. In Plain Air (V)

Here I am again, this time with the moon so high I can see my room in ink blots. He’s in the bathroom, but it’s so tiny, I’ve no idea how he can fit. He’s watching and will soon unfold from the cubby-hole to meet me. I could try to climb out the window, but I know it will just stretch on forever, as hopeless as trying to crawl back into my mother’s womb.

I can’t face him.

He’s coming now. I saw him move. The moon melts from his grin and the air is thick. I’m drowning. So just shut my eyes. Surprise when I feel his hands around my neck.

12. In Plain Air (IV)

I circled the wreckage once in pursuit of the figures but only met disheartening barricades of plane, cargo and fire. People shrank through the smoke when I tried to approach them despite seeming desperate to find other passengers and safety. At other times I fancied I could see a sole survivor look straight at me, holding my gaze, before turning and running back into the flames. With my circuit complete I again stood looking at the hill where I had first watched this catastrophe unfold.

I was frustrated with my lack of success and unsettled being near the plane at all. There was a quality in the sounds it made, a bleating of heated metal and aching joints, that paired with its dangerous position on the hill made it impossible for me to believe that it was not malevolent.

I pulled out my phone with the objective of calling for help. No signal, then one flickering bar as I left the valley. Emergency calls only. I dialled three nines and heard it ring, but an automated operator answered before I had a chance to speak:

We understand from your location that you wish to report the plane crash. Don’t worry, we are aware of the problem, and special teams have been dispatched to assist you shortly. Thank you for your concern.

I had to talk to another human being, one close to me, and strode to higher ground in an effort to gain more phone signal. As the air cleared again I heard a familiar whispered cry to my left.

11. In Plain Air (III)

It came to a halt close enough that I could see a door pop off and a yellow tongue unroll towards the ground. The plane was mostly intact. Several massive tears were present across its nose and a handful of small fires enveloped the wreckage in an ochre shroud. I jogged as figures leapt from the emergency exit and assembled nearby, trembling with their arms crossed. None came from the back door and nowhere near enough were gathered to account for all the passengers.

As the survivors began to look my way I noticed just how precariously the plane was positioned. Its tail section was almost completely shredded, and what remained balanced on the crest of a hill. The mid section was suspended above ground and looked ready to spill passengers and debris like a bloated artery. The fuselage already showed a noticeable buckle and was capped with white stress marks that spread like make-up on a clown’s grin.

The air was thick this close, and the chaos leagues from the tranquillity of my earlier vantage point on the hill. Pieces of jet, cargo and passenger were scattered across the landscape, obfuscated by clouds of black smoke and the constant orange hum of fire.

I called to survivors but they would only shuffle amongst the wreckage, hidden by the fumes, never close enough that I could see their faces.

10. In Plain Air (II)

The plane that hit the ground before me followed this pattern. It approached through the cloudless sky as gracefully as a bumblebee, until its left wing clipped the hillside and broke the spell.

I was out walking through the countryside when it happened. The air was an azure blue bleached with bright, hot light from the sun directly overhead. At first I could only see a glint bobbing delicately above the horizon. It was framed by tapered streaks of glare in such a way that the mystery object appeared like a dancing Star of Bethlehem. In time the glare receded and from it came a cockpit, fuselage and wings that listed from side to side as if swimming a gentle front crawl.

I couldn’t see any smoke or visual signs of a problem aside from this exaggerated roll, but the plane was clearly on the descent. It was also almost completely silent. I considered it could be engine failure, or the pilot shutting them off in preparation for an emergency landing, but these were assumptions. All I knew was that this aircraft was quickly falling to earth.

Now I could see its shape more clearly: a large jet, the type used for international flight. It pulled away from a copse of trees a few miles ahead of where I stood and changed it’s path so I could once again see it straight on. Now I could see the the British Airways insignia on its flank, and for the first time fear flushed my thoughts.

But I was slow to react. As the urgency of my condition dawned the behemoth’s wing clipped a hillside, barely five kilometres away, and what grace it had managed to retain fled instantly. In another heartbeat the sound of torn metal resonated through the landscape as the plane hit the ground. Joints and materials, rubber and earth, screamed in different pitches as they were stretched, thumped and cut past their limits.

It came to a halt close enough that I could see a door pop off and a yellow tongue unroll towards the ground.

9. In Plain Air (I)

It is said no-one fully understands how a plane is able to stay in the sky.

I once sat in a classroom at the end of a school day. My backside was numb and my legs tingled from a lack of movement. Sunlight, filtered through blinds already half-drawn in preparation for the final bell, drooped over benches filled with students in heavy felt blazers. Near the front of the class a teacher droned on about the relationship between thrust, gravity, lift and drag, occasionally turning to a poorly sketched diagram of a plane cut with arrows representing each force. As he spoke my eyes drifted to one of the many threads of dust hanging lazily in the late day sun, and I absently wondered how the same natural laws the teacher described worked to keep it afloat.

That was my intial experience of aviation physics, and I would imagine this is as much as most people ever learn. However, I have since spoken to a number of engineers who tell me that these forces alone don’t explain how a plane is able to stay airborne.

Anyone who has seen a plane land knows exactly what I mean: it drifts so casually to earth it makes the sky seem viscous, thick and able to support its massive bulk. As effortlessly as a whale plunging through fathoms of water it yaws belly up, and only betrays its true mass when its wheels bounce and groan as they touch the runway. Until this moment movement is guided gently from underneath and free of the the familiar rules that bind us to our clumsy terrestrial sphere.

The plane that hit the ground before me followed this pattern. It approached through the cloudless sky as gracefully as a bumblebee, until its left wing clipped the hillside and broke the spell.