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.

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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.

8. A Socialist Rises

At 12minutes to 4 on a Monday afternoon, 5th of May 2012, Alex Chistiakov finally arrived at a set of traffic lights near a terminal that would see his bus arrive in just under five minutes, and see him home in another forty. He had muttered obscenities under his breath every step of the way from a job interview that ended ten minutes ago. His feet ached from his quick pace and his jaw was stiff from scowling at young children, pets or anything else that caught his downcast ire as he went.

Never before in his working career had Alex encountered such an extreme level of buffoonery as he had experienced that afternoon. This man had easily spent an hour and a half talking about himself and, when Alex was finally invited to speak, sat there with the contemptuous gaze of a man who genuinely considered himself to be the voice of fourteen million pounds. His attitude smacked of arrogance and the subtext was that only arse-kissers need apply.

“Prick,” spat Alex, for what felt like the hundredth time this afternoon. The mood at the traffic lights was equally as restless. Commuters eager to return home after a long working day vied for space on either side of the road, advancing and retreating in platoons to view the volume of oncoming traffic. Invariably they would decide against a dash for freedom: the distance was too great and the cars too many.

“This,” thought Alex, “is the true face of Capitalism. A man who has no objectives in life beyond earning more money. He will work the hours, he will earn you millions, but he will barely pass the Turing test. Didn’t he ask me about my relationships and goals, only to scoff at them but give no clear answers himself? Say that because I have a loving relationship I am somehow a second-tier citizen, as I can never find the hours to compete in his workplace? That he accused my five-year plan as trite fantasy, whereas his could have been an advert for Google SEOs? This man has no idea what he wants, yet he is the type of man that will decide my future for me. He will ruin my prospects and own my soul.”

The crowd’s eyes collectively widened as a renegade cautiously stepped a few feet beyond the pavement and then walked quickly, but coolly, across the road. Our Lenin took the form of a tall, thin commuter dressed in a slate-grey suit, with black thick-rimmed glasses and a crop of curly black hair. People fell silent as they watched him step gracefully around oncoming vehicles, neither cheering nor condemning his behaviour. Some waited for that first car horn to sound: a signal to other drivers that their prey, no matter how bold, was only human. The rest would then inevitably follow and in a horrendous cacophony of noise chase the revolutionary from the road in a humiliating display of supremacy. Remarkably this didn’t happen. Instead, with a little under halfway to go, he deftly skirted the final approaching vehicle and, dignity still in tact, lightly trotted to our side of the street.

“It wont be long before people decide they’ve had enough of this. On the one hand we have a society tricked into believing the problem is the idleness of our poorest, whereas in fact it’s the Cronyism amongst out richest. This is a recession, yet our leaders have shown more than ever they want to push the same culture that caused this disaster. If they push any harder, it wont be long before people unite, and hit back.”

A man sporting a shell-suit two sizes too small spat a lump of phlegm the size of a golf ball at Alex’s feet. Alex looked up, and was greeted with a vapid, crooked grin.

“That’s it!” He declared out loud. “I’ve had enough! All of you,” he turned to the crowd accusingly, “all of you, as far as I’m concerned, can go to hell! God knows you’ve earned it.” A few people blinked and the rest stared blankly; this type of behaviour isn’t unusual for London. His parthian shot complete Alex turned towards the road, looked once each way, then sprinted to the other side; past the traffic lights, past the bus stop and towards home.