Wednesday, 24 October 2018

A job for Life? (Halloween in the Graveyard)

The slab slid aside. Inside the crypt, it was dark and the air was like soup, motes of decomposed flesh and insects’ droppings filling it until it seemed impossible that it could sustain any form of life. There may have been a few cracks large enough to admit small rodents, but it was inconceivable that anything else could survive there.

A small figure emerged from the casket, its head and shoulders pushing up through the wedge-shaped opening. Its hands were roughly bandaged but its head was fully swathed, eyes being of little use in total darkness. It would have to find its way using memory and touch.

The moon was shining outside above the graveyard. It was a full moon and it was wreathed in clouds, shadows striping the graves as it pushed feebly through them, giving the illusion of motion. There were usually few people present here at this time but tonight there were two, the sexton and the gravedigger, the pair of them busy reopening a grave so the police could examine the remains within it, neither of them concerned about being where they were in the dark. They’d hoped they could save themselves time later when the officers were present, always feeling ill-at-ease when people were watching them at work, this never being a problem for them when they’d only the dead for company.

Horace was waist-deep in the grave, throwing soil to one side. He’d created a fair-sized pile already and was beginning to feel uncomfortable, the earth rising above him as though he was being buried himself. The sexton was smoking a cigar, using its odour to disguise the smell of decomposition that was always a problem when they had to exhume a corpse, Horace being blessed with an inability to smell anything at all.

A dull thud disturbed them, the marble cross topping one of the tombs falling away in slow-motion, the masonry carving hitting the grass on the opposite side of the hole. The sexton dropped his cigar, its glowing nub disappearing into the hole and Horace swore softly, dropping to his knees to avoid both items. This job was usually safe, the second person assigned to be a watcher, the soil sides of the graves rarely collapsing onto the digger. A third figure appeared, walking hesitantly, arms outstretched. It walked forward and then tripped, pitching head-first into the hole.

Horace reappeared from the grave first, spooked by the newcomer. The bandage-clad corpse emerged next, clutching the cigar. Its dressings had already begun to smoulder, and it thrust the smoking stub back at the sexton, holding it with one hand whilst beating out the hotter charred patches with the other. The sexton nodded, took the cigar, raised it to his mouth and then puffed it into life again. “You see that, Horace,” he said, wafting away the stench that had begun to rise. “Some people don’t even let death get in the way of them providing a service. You could learn a lot from this individual.”

Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Mai Queen

I don’t know who I am anymore. I’ve changed. I can remember the best of my life so clearly; the soaring thrills, the feeling I’d become what I’d always been destined to be; the knowledge my life had been leading to that one brief period of fulfilment.
It was hardly any time ago. The proctors had collected us all together; this season’s Queens, they called us. We were excited to be together; hundreds of us, all the same age. We were driven to the coast and then fed a delightful feast; the flat-backed proctors always watching, hardly eating anything themselves, their poor bodies deformed and twisted into parodies of nature. We all pitied them then, as we always did. We were young and they were aged; we were vital and they were staid and heavy and dour. It was almost that they were another species from us; their lives a travesty, their existences soured by what they’d missed, their bitterness directed toward us in revenge for the cruelties nature had exacted upon them.

We were then shipped to the island. There must have been hundreds of us. Thousands, maybe. Again, the proctors were with us, feeding us until we could swallow no more - the rocking of the boats and the strange juices they were giving us making us feel odd and uneasy. I can remember the proctors I had with me then; the one rowing and the other one urging me to eat and drink. I never really identified with the rower – she was just a back to me; never speaking, never doing anything but pull on the oars – but the other one was mercurial; trying to act as though she was a friend but still with a calculated edge to her. I’m sure she would have thrown me overboard if I hadn’t done as she demanded. And then we were ashore and it was dark and we were hustled on again, across the beach and then up to the castle.

There were more proctors on the island, each as silent and muscular as the rower, the original one with the boat returning to the mainland as soon as we were ashore. The cheery one that wasn’t, the feeder, stayed with me while we were taken up the cliff, the new one we’d been assigned following behind as I was led up the steps. There must have been hundreds of steps we had to climb, carved into the rock, with only our balance and sure footing stopping us from falling. And there were fallers – I know that because I saw one above me, her skirts opening and flashing red for a moment before she hit the rocks and the sand. My mainland proctor stopped above me then, looking down, and I had to stop too, becoming conscious again of the other one behind me, her breath now in my ear. We must have stayed like that for a minute, with me always looking forward and up.

And then we were at the top and I felt safe again, despite the company I had with me. The proctors led us to the castle, although there was nowhere else to go, its walls almost up to the cliff’s edge. We were taken to a great hall and then stripped; the slimmer of our attendants removing our clothes while the others stood aside in readiness. I can remember feeling silly – it must have been the excesses of the food and the strange drinks, I think – but I felt enervated by my nakedness and the sight of all the other Queens there. I slipped away from my entourage and we danced together, hundreds of us, each of us happy to be together and apart from the moderating influences of our proctors. We were young and we were free and we were reckless; our spirits heightened by the screams of the fallers we’d heard, feeling the relief of knowing that it hadn’t been us and the guilt of us still being alive. It was just good to be there and present and we took advantage of it, kissing and hugging and laying entwined with one another, taking delight from our youth and the excitement that bubbled through us all.

I wasn’t the first, but I was one of the early ones. I’d heard someone cry out and then the screams of the others near her before it happened to me. I already knew something was wrong when my back collapsed; the bulge between my shoulders breaking open to let the wings fall free. The attendants must have been watching us, waiting for it to happen, because they were with me almost immediately, primping the feathers and pulling at the muscles to warm them. My long-term proctor was there, forcing me to drink again, the other one doing the massaging. I saw others like me, their wings either trailing or still half-folded, all of us with our attendants; each of us being coaxed to straighten our wings or to make those first few flaps, exercising the muscles we’d discovered we’d had lying dormant. I know I felt dizzy and afraid and confused.

The next thing I remembered was the ledge. The door had been locked behind us and there was nothing but the pale light of the windows and the darkness in front of me like a wall. My proctors were with me then and there was none the fakeness I’d sensed before; the slimmer one now stony-faced and the more muscular one a barrier, preventing me from making my way back to the door.

“It’s up to you, now,” my proctor said, her eyes hooded and unreadable. “You can take the dive or be pushed – it’s all the same to me.” She craned her neck around and then smiled, pointing, feeling no fear of the height. “The men’s island is that way – second star to the right and keep straight on. If you’re lucky, you’ll get there before morning. If not…” She shrugged. “It’s all the same to me.”

I looked out toward where she was pointing and saw a dim light, low on the horizon. “It must be a long way,” I said, dread filtering through me. “How far is it to the mainland?”

The proctor smiled, hawkishly. Her nose was very narrow and her cheeks were concave, almost cadaverous. “’Bout twenty-five miles, I’d say. Your best bets going straight on, toward the men. At least you’ve a point to aim for – you could fly around in circles till you fall, otherwise.” She paused, then continued, delight suddenly animating her face, “The fishes eat well this time of year.”

The blockier proctor was closer now, clenching and unclenching her fingers – first a fist and then a clawed hand.

“And don’t think you can fly back here – we patrol the coastline and drown the ones that aren’t already dead. An inexpert flier’s noisy; we can hear you coming from miles away.” My proctor shrugged, mockingly, her face now as impassive as it had ever been.

“So, I just jump? From up here?” I could see the castle wall, rising dimly above me, and the few lights of the courtyard far below; the blocks of the wall in both directions large, smooth and fitted closely together.

There would be nothing to save me, if I fell. Or if I was pushed. I would just have to put trust in what my wings could do. They had to be there for a reason.

And there was no other choice.

I heard the noise behind me and I jumped, determined to make the decision for myself. At first, it felt like I was flying; the rush of air past my face heady and intoxicating.

And then I opened my eyes.

The first thing I saw was my feet. Then I saw the wall, rushing past me. And then I saw the slabs in the courtyard, growing larger, gaining detail. I began to thrash out with my wings; feeling them first being pulled up vertically so that they dragged uselessly through the air and then the pain as I drew them down again, shedding feathers and feeling my muscles knotting with spasms. I sensed my weight again, not realising the euphoria I’d felt had been my headlong plunge, my vision tunnelling and growing dark even though my eyes were open.

I would not give in, I vowed; knowing it meant nothing to my proctor. I would do this. I would defy her. I would do whatever it took.

And then I was in control.

I soared above the castle, not knowing how I’d made it up there. I could see other Mai Queens on the ledges, their own proctors implacable and brooding. I arced up and away from them, seeking the light I’d been promised. It seemed closer from up there, the dot brighter almost and knowing it offered me freedom, I turned instinctively toward it, aligning my face and my hopes in its direction.

The first few minutes of my flight were dreamlike, and I took pleasure from rising up and then diving again; the sea’s waves always there when I got low enough to distinguish them from the dark aquamarine wall they’d become when I was higher. The skies weren’t truly black either, of course, stars appearing when I became better dark-adapted, populations of bright sparks forming patterns when I studied them more intently; the brightest one always being the one low down toward the horizon. I played with my new-found ability of flight; swooping with first one wing down and then the other, trailing their tips through the waves, then circling and spiralling through the air, rising up into a stall and diving down again, knowing I could always recover my equilibrium and my heading. The beacon-light grew brighter and soon became an island; the dot now covered with trees but with also an inviting shingle beach that I corrected my course toward. It seemed too soon to end my flight but I also felt tired, only now realising the efforts I’d put my body through. What I needed now was to rest and then to eat something more after I’d slept. I would fly again tomorrow, I promised myself, but first I needed to recover.

I landed awkwardly, almost dropping out of the sky, clutching at the air to fall in a steep glide onto the sand, my knees bucking beneath me. A group of people were there to greet me – not Mai, like me, but not like the proctors either. They were broader shouldered and muscular and had hair on their faces, unlike anyone else I’d ever seen. They all seemed glad to see me and quickly crowded round.
And then I awoke in the dark and I was alone. I stretched my shoulders to flex my wings and felt nothing, backing clumsily to the wall so I could trace their lengths against it.

And still felt nothing.

Feeling nothing but the roughness of hewn logs against my shoulders.

I turned about and oriented myself with the doorway, its empty archway lighter than the rest of the room. As I moved toward its opening I felt something brush against my foot.

A feather. One of many on the ground,
I was weeping when the men came for me, crouched alone, clutching my useless wings to my chest. I’d tried to reattach them, but they’d fallen away again, refusing to re-join themselves to my back.

How can a life pass in a day? I wish I’d never been given my freedom. It only made my return to earth more painful when I fell.


As this is on a blog-hop, the other links to follow are:

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Fifty Shades of Cyber-sex

He unscrewed her foot and dropped it on the floor beside the bed.

“You’re staying the night,” he said. “I’m not taking no for an answer.”

“Oh, I HATE it when you do that!” Eleanor pushed a chestful of air between her lips, looking down at the stump at the end of her leg. A threaded spigot protruded from the lower end of her calf, her ankle and everything beyond it out of sight and now out of reach. “You know you’ve only got to ask. I’m programmed to comply, whatever you ask.”

“That’s true, isn’t it?” Jacques clapped his hands and then threaded his fingers together, turning his palms outermost and then flexing them until his knuckles cracked. “Okay, remove the other one too. And your left hand.”

Eleanor sighed. This evening was not progressing as she’d anticipated.

But she still obeyed him. She had no choice.

“Right. My turn.” Jacques took hold of her remaining hand, pressed the opposing points on either side of her wrist to disengage it and then removed it too, holding it triumphantly above her. “Looky here,” he said, grinning. “How about that for underhand behaviour?”

Eleanor turned her face away. He was incorrigible enough without her encouraging him. She closed her fingers so her nails bit into her palm, forming a fist.

“Hey! You can still use that? Now, that gives me an idea!”

He dropped her hand onto the bed, his face suddenly close to hers.

“Memory purge time,” he said.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Rise of the Reavers

Failure is not an option.

Those five words could be seen everywhere. They were stencilled onto the walls, etched onto their personal items, even tattooed onto their skins. Their credo was with them each moment of the day, from their first conscious breath in the morning right through to their last thought every night.

There is nothing but success.

That was another of their conditioning phrases, second only to the first. They had no alternatives; they had to fulfil their missions. The trainers gave them no options, raising their requirements daily until the meek and the weak had all been eliminated from the process. Some of the candidates speculated on how the unworthy ones were treated after they dropped out, but those few people soon disappeared too, their voices quickly forgotten. There could be no distractions. There was nothing but success.

Taryn was the first from her family to be chosen. There had been others in the village who’d vanished, never to be seen again, but there was no proof of their fate. They could just have fallen victim to the Collectors, the raiding parties of the occupying forces always keen to take the strongest and the fairest from each community for their purposes, none of those returning alive, although sometimes their corpses were found.

The Reavers were different.  They were things of legend, a resistance force that battled the oppressors, fighting to take back all that had been snatched away.

They had to succeed.

Failure was not an option.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Flight into the gloom

He brushed her antennae. She released a cloud of golden dust which rose into his eyes, making him blink. They both chittered for several minutes and then fell silent, knowing the sun was now below the horizon.
Draven flexed his shoulders, seeking warmth from the stone. It was already beginning to cool and he knew they would both need to move soon. They'd be easy prey if they stayed here much longer, their joints becoming immobile and their attention dimming.
"We should find shelter", he said. "Night's almost here."
Emanelle raised herself up, her head outlined against the darkening sky. She clicked her mandibles, irritated by the necessity to stir themselves. She was already feeling drowsy, swearing like a hive-drone as she fought to move, her legs already beginning to fuse into rigidity. She weaved drunkenly, her coordination slow to return. It had been so close. A few minutes more and they'd have been lost to the cold. The oblivion that took everyone could take them both now if they lingered here much longer.

A meeting

He was anxious, she knew that. He'd brushed his knees of crumbs half a dozen times since they'd been sat here together and his hair stood no chance of falling over his eyes. He was a pleasant-enough man though and he made good conversation. He was also attentive and had shown consideration to her, pulling the chair out so she could sit at the table.
"Tell me," she said. "What are your passions? She held his eyes, resisting her own urge to look coyly down toward the table. "What is it that fills your dreams each night?"
Russell leaned forward toward her, clasping his hands between his knees. He'd be brushing them free of crumbs again soon, she thought, wagering herself a second cup of coffee if she was correct. Then he smiled, laid both his hands on the table and then returned to his previous position, sitting upright but not leaning back, not wishing to appear too casual so soon. This was only their first 'meeting'. She imagined it'd be a while yet before they began to have dates.
"I'm a painter. I've no real talent, of course, but it gives me pleasure." He stopped then, as though waiting for her to comment.
Diane said nothing. She waited. He'd tell her much more if she gave him the stage and an audience to play for. Even if he said nothing, his words choking him into silence, that would tell her a lot about this man.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Garden Party

Denise flipped the switch and the bulbs began to glow, their filaments like fireflies against the darkening sky.
“You can make the announcement now,” she said.
“Ladies and gentlemen, friends and family, colleagues and acquaintances, dinner is served!” I unclipped the thick red rope from the eye on the second post and hooked it up against itself. I stood aside and beckoned through the people we loved, one by one, the parade twisting and clumping as they continued to chat, speculating on the seating arrangements they’d find.
We’d taken days on this, the decisions crucial to the success of this night. Denise had hired the best caterers in the town and we’d hesitated before choosing the most expensive table d’hôte menu options they’d offered. There was something for everyone, our friends able to pick anything that had been on the cards they’d been sent, the difference being that we’d also engaged a chef for the night, her duty to cook and plate anything they asked her to prepare, ensuring that everyone would be happy with their meal.
It had cost us a fortune but it was worth it. It would probably be the last time we’d see most of these people, so we wanted to leave them happy and give them something memorable to remember us by.
Denise stood with me now, her arm around my shoulder. She leaned against me and smiled, her lips brightly painted and her eyes filled with stars.
“It’s perfect. It’s come together so well. We couldn’t have hoped for a better night.”
I nodded, my eyes running along the queues forming at the serving-stations the caterers had wheeled out onto the lawn. The manor house had been an inspired choice from the event organiser, the grounds and the gardens usually closed to the public. The organiser had known the family who lived there, having arranged private functions for them in the past, her success and her popularity making this possible at short notice. There was nowhere in town that could handle this many people, that could provide such a rich and varied menu, and do it with so little notice. We’d both taken a deep breath when the organiser had told us how much it would cost but that was the old James and Denise reacting. We’d won so very much so we could spend that and hardly notice. And it would be the grand event everyone would remember us by.
“Is that a cloud, Hun?” Denise leaned across me, her hand pointing to the west. A line of dark smudges were massing, growing larger and heavier as they neared us. Threads of light joined them and an ominous rumble began.