jexia: (Me 2015)
Nemo rushed out from under the ledge of a piece of coral, his stunted fin flickering wildly. "Dory!" he cried. "You made it!"

The blue fish stared at him blankly for a second, spun around in a circle, and then scooped him up in a big hug. "Nemo! I made it!" She paused. "Made what?"

He grinned at her. His friend was notoriously forgetful, and he'd grown to adulthood dealing with her lapses. As he opened his mouth to speak, another clownfish slipped out from under the coral and snuggled beside him. "Dory, you remember my mate, of course?"

Dory nodded emphatically, "Yes, yes, of course. Lovely to see you, uh-"

"Caroline," Nemo prompted.

"Caroline," Dory repeated.

"Hi, Dory. Glad you made it. It's nearly time!" Caroline wiggled her black-tipped fins, and darted away, back under the table coral.

"Come and see," Nemo urged Dory, leading the way. They carefully skirted past the anemone where Caroline and Nemo lived; the orange clownfish were immune to its sting, but the regal blue tang could easily become a victim. Behind it, in a shallow depression underneath the safety of the coral's spreading branches, lay a thousand tiny eggs, grey and pearlescent. Within the eggs, tiny forms shifted, with eyes clearly visible.

Dory stared, her mouth agape. "Wow, Nemo. They grew."

"They sure did!"

An egg twitched. All three fish watched in wonder. Another egg twitched, and another.

In the expectant silence, the fishes' thoughts turned, as often happens in times of imminent new life, to those lives that had been and gone. Nemo leaned against Caroline. "I wish Dad could have been here." She slipped a fin over his back, and Dory did the same.

"Marlin would be so proud," said Dory. His passing of old age, frail and weak, was seared upon her memory, as was the knowledge that she would probably outlive Nemo, the coming brood, and even the next generation of clownfish.

They waited, wrapped in shared memories, hope and excitement. More eggs twitched, the movements inside becoming more emphatic, and the three fish inched closer to watch. Suddenly an egg split, and a tiny clownfish larva burst out. It was translucent and fragile, but Dory squinted closely at it, then flung her fins wide. "It's a boy!"

Another egg split. "It's a boy!"

Another, and another. "It's a boy! It's a boy! Boy oh boy, it's a boy!" She swam in excited circles. "A boy! And a boy! And another boy!"

Dory swam around and around the clutch as more eggs hatched. "A boy! It's a boy!" She stopped and thought for a moment, then pointed at a wriggling egg as it split. "...surely this one will be a girl?" The tiny fish wriggled out and Dory looped the loop in joy. "It's a boy!"

She stopped and pointed again. "Must be time for a gi- it's a boy! Whee!"

As more and more eggs hatched, Dory swam around in a state of agitated confusion, finally coming to a halt in front of Nemo and Caroline, who valiantly tried to repress their giggles. "Surely you should have a girl by now? Ooh, another boy!" She darted away in glee, trying to shepherd the larvae into a group.

"Dory!" Nemo called. "DORY!"

The blue fish halted, and looked back at him. "What?"

"They're all boys!"

"I know! Isn't that strange? So this one should be a girl- it's a boy! Wahoo!"

"No, Dory! All clownfish babies are boys!"

Dory blinked at him in confusion. "What do you mean, all clownfish babies are boys? That makes no sense." She peered accusingly at Caroline. "Are you a boy?"

Caroline grinned. "I used to be."

Dory's jaw dropped. "Wha-? How... how does that work?"

Caroline shrugged. "When there's no females around, we just... change. The biggest male becomes a female."

Dory squinted at Caroline with the dubious expression of someone who has been tricked many times before.

"It's true!" Caroline added.

Dory looked at Nemo. He nodded in agreement, and she looked back at Caroline with slightly less scepticism. "You really used to be a male?"

Caroline nodded. "I've had babies before, but I didn't lay the eggs. My mate-" she broke off, and took a moment to compose herself. "She got taken by a barracuda, and with her gone, I became a female."

Dory listened, her eyes wide with fascination. "Those awful barracuda. That's just what happened to Marlin! Coral got taken, and... wait. You're playing tricks on me! Marlin never turned into a female."

Nemo looked sad. "There must have been something terribly wrong with him. He should have turned into a female. I don't know why he didn't."

Dory assessed him, askance, still not quite sure if he was telling the truth. "Really? Marlin was broken? Well, at least he was a great dad. I don't think he'd have been any better as a mum."

Nemo glanced aside. "Actually, he'd, um, she'd, um. Have been my mate."

Dory blinked. "Your what?"

He cleared his throat. "My mate. Except he didn't turn, and we don't know why, and it's rather embarrassing that he didn't."

"That's incredible! I wish I'd known that before! Why didn't you tell me?"

In unison, Nemo and Caroline answered "We did". Dory didn't hear them; she'd already darted back to the thinning cloud of larvae and was ducking and spinning, greeting each one with a startled exclamation of "It's a boy!"

Oblivious, the larvae drifted upwards, towards the light of a waxing gibbous moon. Nemo and Caroline watched them go, content in the knowledge that tides and currents would drift them through the ocean, to reefs their parents would never see.

That was how it was supposed to be.
jexia: (Me 2015)
My insides are made of fear and inadequacy. I bolster the walls with chocolate, but sometimes they leak. Tiredness wears them down; frustration and hormones wash away at the foundations. I plaster on a facade of competence, slapping flaking layers on top of flaking layers, keeping it together.

In the towering mess, my creativity lives in the cellar. To get to it, I have to scale the battlements, fight my way down through hordes of slavering self-doubts, and fish around frantically through a tiny grate, hoping to find something, anything to write about. It's exhausting. It often takes an emotional breakdown, and at least three glasses of gin.

Week, after week, after week.

I tried to, this week. I couldn't even get past the battlements. My facade crumbled, and took the walls with it. I didn't just leak; I flooded my entire world. I gushed fear and anger and self-loathing. I spilled a history of self-sabotage. I drowned in exhaustion.

Glub. My daughter was still awake two hours past her bedtime, again, because she doesn't know how to go to sleep without her thumb in her mouth, and she has to stop sucking her thumb. She spent every moment of the week throwing tantrums, from the moment she woke up, until she finally fell asleep in exhaustion. Every moment. She's hurting, and unsure, and doesn't know how to regulate her emotions without that comfort.

Glub. My eldest son's drama teacher emailed me. She wants to kick him out of the class because another parent complained about him being off-task. I was distraught, sobbing in the bathroom at work, until I realised that it was her responsibility to deal with it before it got to that point. She doesn't like him, and that made me cry all over again.

Glub. My youngest son wanted to wear the dress his sister gave him to school. I worried about him all day, though he was of course fine, filled with a self-possession and confidence that I don't understand, but cherish beyond words.

I wanted to quit. That's that self-sabotage again. I'm not good enough to do anything well, so if it looks like I might do something well, it's time to stop. I said I didn't care, but of course that was a lie.

My champions stood around me. They threw me a line, again and again: you can do this, you're too hard on yourself, it'll be okay.

And I ignored them. Ugly and weeping, I floundered around in the swamp, my nice familiar swamp.

They threw me more lines, and more and more, until it didn't matter that I wasn't catching them. They filled the water until I was pushed out onto dry land, whether I wanted to or not.

Then my champions stood me up, shaky and exhausted, and started to rebuild my walls. There's not much there yet; a few stones gathered in a circle. In the centre is that rusty grate. Maybe my creativity is there, waterlogged, drowned and shriveled. Maybe it washed away. Maybe it found a cranny to take root, and will soon spring forth in an explosion of growth.

But this week I'm too frail to check.
jexia: (Me 2015)
Tuesday 11 September, 2018

There were aliens on the TV last night. Mum said they came in a big spaceship. They are having a big war with lots of guns and they are the good guys and they need our help. If I was bigger I would help them. I would go boom boom boom at all the baddies.

By Billy


*


Tuesday 18 September, 2018

Mum said that we're not going to help. She said the big boss men had lots of meetings and they decided that we won't help. I want to help! I want to go boom boom boom! The Xrrsts are fighting the Ch'niks. I don't like the Ch'niks because they are big and scary like big giant insects. I like the Xrrsts because they are purple and fuzzy.

By Billy


*


Thursday 20 September, 2018

I hope the Xrrsts win. Jennifer said she hopes the Ch'niks win but that's just dumb.

By Billy


*


William Reynolds
79809 St. Rt. 139
Jackson, Ohio 45640

December 7, 2029

Harvard College
86 Brattle Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
Attn: Admissions Department

Dear Admissions Department,

There is no doubt that Harvard University has the most highly-regarded Exobiology program in the country. My lifelong dream has been to become a Exobiologist, from even before I was old enough to know the word. The Xrrsts captured my imagination at the age of seven, and though there has been no sign of them for over a decade, I still believe that one day we will re-establish contact with them, or another extra-terrestrial lifeform.

My ultimate goal is to attain my doctorate, and contribute to the growing body of research on the past communications with the Xrrsts, until such a time as more practical study is possible.

I have attached my application, as well as transcripts, an essay, and all of my letters of recommendation as defined in my admissions packet. I appreciate your time and consideration and look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,
William Reynolds.

*

From: exobiowill@gmail.com
To: jenniferbishop2011@gmail.com
Subject: WOOHOO!
Date: March 28, 2030

I GOT IN! Harvard, here I come!


*


From: william.reynolds@hcri.harvard.edu
To: jennifer.anne.bishop@us.army.mil
Subject: They're back!
Date: August 28, 2041

Jen! I don't know if you've heard, but the Xrrsts are back! It's all pretty hush-hush at the moment, but the big news is that I get to meet with them tomorrow!

It's all very exciting, but I will do my best to act in accordance with my station (*ahem*) and not leap around like a seven-year-old boy!

============

This message has been sent from the office of Dr William Reynolds, Lecturer (Exobiology).
If you are not the intended recipient, please inform the sender immediately.


*


CLASSIFIED DOCUMENT: TOP SECRET
Xrrst Incident Debriefing
August 29, 2041

Witness: Dr William Reynolds, Exobiology Department, Harvard University

Dr William Reynolds was present at the proceedings by request of Captain Jennifer Bishop, who recommended him based on his studies of the previous contact.

The following statement is in his own words:


I arrived at the base as directed, at 0800 hours, and was escorted to the briefing session. I was delighted to see Captain Bishop present (Note: connection there? Investigate.) but even more delighted at the prospect of finally meeting a Xrrst.

We were shown to the chamber where the Xrrst waited, and we observed it for a while behind one-way glass. It was smaller than I expected, but its fur was that beautiful iridescent purple I remembered. It appeared quiescent, more calm than during the previous contact, but of course it is difficult to judge until we become fully conversant with their mannerisms.

After observing the Xrrst, Captain Bishop, our escort of military guards, and I entered the room. The Xrrst greeted us, speaking through a communicator similar to the ones we saw last time. It's quite fascinating, really - in the past 23 years their communicator has reduced in size by a factor of twelve, and the translation has lost the unpleasant high-pitched tones. No-one has been able to tell me anything about the ship it arrived in, but I would be so interested to know if- oh, sorry, I'm getting off track.

We entered the room. I did wonder briefly about contamination, but as the previous contact had occurred without any problems, I decided not to raise the issue. Ha.

I introduced myself to the Xrrst, and it said its name was K'tad. Or possibly Kitan. I'll have to study the phonetics more closely. I expressed how pleased I was to meet a Xrrst at last, and it appeared quite agitated. I tried to gather information as per the recommended protocols, but it was not very forthcoming.

When I mentioned the war with the Ch'nik, it said "It was close but we won," but then- (Subject visibly upset. Interview paused for three minutes.)

When I asked about the war, K'tad's fur began to ripple and pale, and it groaned and shook. I tried to approach it, but one of the guards warned me away. As the shaking became more violent, I went over and asked if it was okay. K'tad looked at me and said "You will be, all the helpers will be", which I didn't understand, but then a purple cloud of something exploded out of K'tad and went all over the room.

And... I saw it go into them. Into Jen- Captain Bishop and the guards. But it didn't go into me. Why didn't it go into me?

K'tad died, didn't it. Are Jennifer and the others going to die, too?

(Subject too upset to continue. Interview finished 2315.)


*


From: william.reynolds@hcri.harvard.edu
To: jennifer.anne.bishop@us.army.mil
Subject: Hello
Date: November 30, 2041

Hi Jen, how are you doing? I'm guessing you're in a little windowless room much like my own, but I am delighted to have net access again. It's been a long three months.

The General said that if they continue to detect no changes for another three months, that we will be free to go. I can't wait.

When we get out of here... would you maybe like to go on a date? With me?

William.

*


From: william.reynolds@hcri.harvard.edu
To: jennifer.anne.bishop@us.army.mil
Subject: Movies?
Date: March 3, 2042

Hey love,

I had a great time last night. You're such a good cook. Want to go to the movies tonight? Meet there at 7?

xxx


*


CLASSIFIED DOCUMENT: TOP SECRET
Bishop Incident Debriefing
March 3, 2042

Witness: Dr William Reynolds, Exobiology Department, Harvard University

The following statement is in his own words:

It happened with Jen just like it did with K'tad. We were lining up to get our movie tickets and she started to shake. She fell down shaking and lots of people stood and stared. Some people tried to help, but then she exploded in a purple cloud, just like K'tad, and it all went everywhere and into everyone (audible sobs, interview paused for six minutes).

Except the people who tried to help. K'tad said "all the helpers will be okay". What did it mean? What's happening? And why is Jen dead?

(Subject too upset to continue. Interview finished 2100.)


*


From: william.reynolds@hcri.harvard.edu
To: jennifer.anne.bishop@us.army.mil
Subject: I miss you
Date: April 13, 2042

I miss you so much. I know you will never read this, but it helps to pretend I'm talking to you. You always listened to me.

It's spreading everywhere, Jen. Some of the people at the movie theatre left before the military locked it down. And months later, always in crowded places, they exploded too. We can't stop it.

They don't know what it is. It's a bit like a fungus, a bit like a virus, a bit like some sort of mutating nanobot. They think it's triggered by pheromones, when you get enough people in an area, but it's not been proven yet.

Other people noticed that it doesn't affect people who try to help. There's all sorts of theories about why. Some people think that the Xrrsts are trying to teach us to be helpful, to stop being so apathetic and self-obsessed. People are either avoiding public places, or being conspicuously helpful at all times.

I think it goes deeper than just teaching us a lesson. From what we can tell, the Xrrsts are incredibly long-lived in comparison to us, and they must think on scales vaster than we can imagine.

They're breeding us, directing human evolution with survival of the kindest. Next time the Ch'niks or some other force come through, the Xrrst will ask us, and we will fall over ourselves to help them. Helpful cannon fodder in waiting, keen to throw ourselves on the flames.

Human society could stand to be a little nicer, yes, but too far will be devastating. And at what horrendous cost in human life?

Oh, Jen. I don't know what to do.


*


Friday 10 September, 2083

Today we went to the museum. We looked at lots of stuff. Mrs Jamison really liked the extibihit show about William Reynolds. Jackie laughed because that is like my name. There was lots of words that I can't read but there were some pictures too. He looks a bit like my great unkle Billy.

Mrs Jamison said he saved the world by stopping a germ that was killing all the mean people. I don't know why he would do that. Mean people are yucky.

By Willa R.


*
jexia: (Me 2015)
Eleanor was happy with her life, until she wasn't. It came upon her quite suddenly one day, when she was filling out her daughter's baby book. First smile? First tooth? First word? Eleanor tried to remember, but it all blurred into a drift of exhaustion, jumbled with memories of Jasmine's big brothers. A first smile isn't quite so exciting when three other babies have done it before.

She stared at the page, with the accusing blank spaces. Ryan, Isaac and David had their books all filled out. She had to do it for Jasmine, too, or it wouldn't be fair. Let's see... smiles happened at about six weeks... add a day so it's not so obvious, that'd do. Teeth around three months. "Dada" at around 10 months. Close enough.

Eleanor closed the book and yawned. There were still dishes waiting to be done, and laundry to fold, but she'd taken this time to fill out the baby book before Jasmine's first birthday next week. Some things couldn't wait, but laundry could. There'd be more tomorrow, always.

Time for bed. Sam had gone to bed hours ago; he left for work early to avoid the traffic, so this time of the night was hers, precious and still. It was tempting to linger, to luxuriate in the peace, but Eleanor knew she'd regret it in the morning. Her sleep debt was a carefully balanced budget, and she had to meet the payments.

She groaned as she stood up. Legs that had once climbed mountains were now limited to striding behind a pushchair, and things weren't as easy as they used to be. Eleanor wandered through the house, turning off lights, checking windows and doors, and collecting stray socks to throw in the bathroom hamper.

A sock fell to the floor as she dropped a handful into the hamper, and she stooped to pick it up. As she stood, she found herself facing her reflection in the bathroom mirror. The light was harsh, and Eleanor found herself staring at her face as though at a stranger.

Later, she lay awake in bed, staring at the dark ceiling as Sam's snores kept her from dropping into sleep, and pondered. Her children's lives were filled with firsts; first step, first day at school, first sleepover. Their firsts were recognised, recorded and remembered. Some more than others, but still significant in some way.

What about her firsts?

Eleanor couldn't think of any.

Maybe she was too old for firsts. Maybe all her life offered now was lasts, slipping by unnoticed, unneeded.

The thing about lasts, Eleanor decided, is that they go unmarked by the knowledge that they are a last, until they have faded into the past. When was the last time she danced? She loved to dance. Jiggling to The Wiggles didn't count. The last time she climbed a mountain? That was the day, sixteen years ago, when she had her last first kiss. Sam had finally admitted that he'd only joined the tramping club to be near her, and Ryan had come along a bare eleven months later.

When was the last time someone had looked at her appreciatively, with an interest not founded on wedding vows? She couldn't remember. Such a minor thing, and sometimes unwanted, but right now the lack of it seemed the very essence of growing old.

Eleanor sighed and rolled over in bed. Sam echoed her action in his sleep, and his snores finally faded away. His arm slid over her, pulling her close. "Love you," he murmured.

Warm in his familiar embrace, the tension ebbed from her body, and Eleanor drifted into sleep at last.
jexia: (Me 2015)
Jill suppressed a sob, wiping a faintly grubby hand across her reddened eyes. Sorting through her mother's house was proving even more difficult than she'd thought it would be. The kitchen had been a treasury of childhood memories; the good bowls used only at birthday parties, the carving knife sharpened to a thin spine of itself, the "special spoon" with roses on the handle which she and Matthew used to fight over at breakfast time.

She hadn't expected the hallway cupboard to provoke similarly strong emotions. The Yahtzee box started the tears, seeing her own childish handwriting scrawled across the inside of the lid: "Jill got 438! Beat that!"

Matthew had added his own addendum. "Stinkybutt! I got 439!" She laughed, remembering the hours they'd spent trying to beat each other. Dice were serious business, back then; Mum would join in on the long nights when Dad didn't come home.

The graceful loops of her mother's writing finished the exchange. "Sorry, chick, Mum got 443." Jill traced it gently with a finger, and sighed. She closed the lid and set the Yahtzee box gently on the floor.

Next on the shelf was the Scrabble box. Her mum, Beth, had loved Scrabble. She knew all the funny little two-letter words, "QI", "XI", "ZO" and all the rest, and used them to wicked advantage. Scrabble was a New Year's tradition in the family. Whoever played a word on the stroke of midnight got 50 extra points, and they still mock-complained about the time Beth played "JACUZZIS" across two triple words, just as the town clock started to chime.

Jill scrubbed a hand across her eyes again. There was work to do.

"Hey, Matthew," she called.

He stuck his head out from the bathroom, his own eyes suspiciously red, and said "Hmm?"

"Would you like Scrabble or Yahtzee?"

"Yahtzee," he said, without hesitation.

One side of her mouth twitched into a grin. "You would. Stinkybutt."

He laughed, and went back to sorting towels. Jill went through to the kitchen, where the table was covered with two piles of assorted memories and miscellania. Yahtzee went on his pile, and she reverently placed the Scrabble box on hers.

***

It was dark by the time Jill got home. She staggered from the car, her arms laden with boxes and bits, and gingerly made her way up the front stairs. The outside light wasn't on, so she fumbled at the door for several minutes, unable to find the lock in the dark, until Alex groaned his way off the couch and let her in.

"How'd it go?" he mumbled, immediately settling back in to his game of something loud and violent.

"Okay. It's pretty hard, you know? All those memories..." Jill trailed off. Alex didn't even notice, staring at the TV and thumping buttons on the controller. She shrugged, and went into the kitchen, depositing the armload of her mother's belongings on her own table. The "special spoon" went in the cutlery drawer ready for breakfast, the carving knife went in the knife block, and she drifted around the house finding a home for the other pieces.

The Scrabble box was the last thing on the table, and Jill considered it with an inertia born of emotional exhaustion. She slumped into a chair and stared at it, then carefully reached out and lifted the lid.

It smelled like her mother's house, like long, warm afternoons, like cheese soufflés and date scones. She didn't bother to hold back the tears that silently slipped down her cheeks, but picked up the board, unfolding it as though preparing for a game. The tiles underneath were all face down, as Beth had always insisted on doing at the end of every game.

Except five.

"H4 E1 L1 L1 O1", they read.

Jill blinked.

"They must have got bumped in the car," she thought. "Or Matthew's playing a trick." She turned each tile face down, her movements jerky and cautious, covered them with the folded board, and put the lid back on, then carried the box to her own hallway cupboard. The faded box looked a little out of place among the glossy boxes of the modern games that Jill preferred, but she placed it atop Settlers of Catan and Tsuro with care and pride.

***

Matthew came around for dinner the next day, with a packet of fish and chips tucked under his arm. It was his last night in town, before he flew back to Hamilton. They spread the takeaways on the newspaper at the kitchen table and ate them, licking salt off their fingers, and teasing each other over who deserved the last potato fritter. Alex accepted a plateful, but stayed in the lounge, stabbing greasy fingers at his controller, and at the TV when something didn't go his way.

With the chips gone, and the oily paper bundled away into the bin, Matthew and Jill stared at each other with the uncertain expressions of dancers who have forgotten the next step.

"Scrabble?" she suggested, her voice brittle and bright.

"Sure thing, Stinkybutt. Not one of your fancy games this time?" he asked.

"Just Scrabble," she said firmly, getting up and heading for the hallway cupboard.

Scrabble box in hand, she went back to the kitchen. "You wouldn't believe what happened last night," she said, putting the box down on the table. "The tiles were all turned over, except ones that spelled-"

She stopped. Underneath the board she'd just picked up, the neat regularity of the backs of the tiles was broken by five, face up.

"C3 H4 I1 C3 K5"

"I changed my mind," she said, hurriedly putting the board back and closing the lid. "I think you'll like Tsuro."

Matthew raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything. They spent the next hour making flight paths for dragons. Jill lost several games, simply because she couldn't concentrate.

"You okay?" Matthew asked. "You look a bit... distracted."

Jill nodded. "Just... you know." Her gesture encompassed the kitchen, and a world of loss.

He nodded in reply. He knew.

***

When he left, Jill hurriedly opened up the Scrabble box. She knew she'd turned all the tiles down last night. And yet, there it was, the name her mother had always called her.

She closed her eyes, shaking her head. This was impossible. She turned the tiles face down, closed up the box, and put it in the cupboard. Her muscles ached with tiredness and suppressed tension, and she collapsed into bed, completely drained. What dreams she had were tattered and incoherent, though threaded through with loss.

In the morning, she couldn't resist the urge to check. She peeped into the Scrabble box, with her muscles tense, already half-mocking herself.

"H4 E1 L1 L1 O1", they read. Jill could almost hear her mother's voice, calling with the exaggerated "o" sound she used when Jill was lost in a book.

"Oh, Mum," she said, and leaned her head on her hands and wept.

Alex found her there when he bumbled his way out of bed, late for work as usual. He planted a kiss on her head, snatched the toast out of the toaster, and left the house. Jill sat there, staring at the Scrabble box with her thoughts churning.

Gingerly, she reached out and turned all the tiles face down, then one by one picked them up, searching for the letters she wanted.

She placed them in order, "M3 U1 M3", and shut the box.

It felt silly to look in a Scrabble box every hour, and when lunchtime came, she decided to put it back in the cupboard and leave it overnight. She lay awake, ignoring Alex's snuffly breathing, pretending that she wasn't listening for the click of tiles turning, until sleep engulfed her.

***

Jill was due back at work the next day, and although she was rushed and unprepared, she took the time to check the Scrabble box. Her "M3 U1 M3" was gone; there was a new word in the tiles.

"H4 E1 R1 E1".

Crying, Jill found the letters she wanted.

"L1 O1 V4 E3 Y4 O1 U1 M3 U1 M3"

Work was agony, trying to operate in a fog of agitated disbelief, but she somehow made it through, despite the words of concerned colleagues distracting from her surface stoicism.

***

In the morning, the tiles read simply, "W4 H4 A1 T1." Jill blinked at them in confusion, before comprehending. She'd used more than one word, and perhaps, in this strange system of communication, it just didn't work.

She stared at the tiles, trying to come up with a single word to express an array of complicated feelings and questions. In the end, she settled on "W4 H4 E1 R1 E1."

***

"H4 E1 A1 V4 E1 N1"

It was agony, communicating only one word each day, but Jill was too thankful to complain. One word from her mum each day was infinitely better than a lifetime without.

"W4 O1 W4"

***

"Y4 E1 S1"

"D2 E1 S1 C3 R1 I1 B3 E1"

How could you not want to know what heaven was like?

***

"W4 H4 A1 T1"

Jill stared at her mother's message, and flicked back through the notebook she'd started to keep. What had she sent yesterday? "DESCRIBE", what was wrong with that?

Eight letters. Jill sighed, and googled for synonyms. "D2 E1 P3 I1 C3 T1," that would hopefully do.

***

"S1 U1 B3 L1 I1 M3 E1"

Jill grinned. Beth deserved it. Then a thought crossed her mind, and she gasped, hurrying to find the letters.

"D2 A1 D2"

***

The next morning, Jill rushed to open the box.

"A1 B3 S1 E1 N1 T1"

Scrabble tiles had no tone, no expression, but Jill could discern her mother's dry amusement. There was only one thing she could say.

"F4 I1 G2 U1 R1 E1 S1"

***

"J8 U1 S1 T1 I1 C3 E1"

Jill laughed. Just like Mum, that laconic humour. She'd accepted Dad's wandering ways with resignation, but it didn't mean she'd liked it.

"I1 N1 D2 E1 E1 D2"

***

"P3 A1 R1 T1 N1 E1 R1"

Partner? Did Mum mean Alex? Jill frowned. How could she ask, given that "ALEX" wasn't a valid Scrabble word?

Ah. Her mum was pretty smart, she'd work it out. If she was wrong, her mum would tell her so.

"A1 X8 L1 E1"

***

"C3 H4 E1 A1 T1 E1 R1"

Alex? A cheater? All he cared about was X-box and beer, a sad truth that Jill had been trying to deny to herself for months.

"N1 E1 V4 E1 R1"

***

"C3 H4 E1 A1 T1 E1 R1"

The tiles stared up accusingly from the box, insistent.

"W4 H4 O1"

***

"G2 A1 M3 E1 R1"

Jill blinked. She didn't decide on a reply message straight away, but spent the evening discreetly watching Alex. He'd swapped to a headset and microphone, and his usual shouted rantings had been replaced by murmurings.

"B3 E1 L1 I1 E1 V4 E1"

***

"G2 O1"

"W4 H4 Y4"

***

"C3 O1 N1 F4 I1 R1 M3"

"O1 K5 A1 Y4"

***

"G2 O1"

"W4 H4 E1 R1 E1

***

"B3 R1 O1 T1 H4 E1 R1"

"O1 K5 A1 Y4"

***

"Jill? You here? I need to talk to you." Alex stumbled in at 9pm, to find the house dark and quiet. He spotted a note lying on the kitchen table, and picked it up.

Alex,

I've gone to Matthew's for the weekend to think some things over. I'll be back on Monday, on flight NZ527. Please pick me up at 3:10pm.

Jill.


He never noticed the worn carving knife floating up from the knife block.
jexia: (Me 2015)
Mama Bear looked around her house and scowled. She'd spent all morning cleaning the cottage, but it looked nearly as bad as when she'd started. The cracked windows and the rusty red roof let in too much dirt, and she just couldn't get it clean. She growled, and tossed her rag into a corner.

"Are you okay, Mama?" Baby Bear peeped around the door frame, his deep eyes limpid with love.

She bustled to him and stroked his head, wincing at the heat radiating through his fur. "Of course, dear. Just trying to get ready." He barely weighed anything as she scooped him up, and carried him to his little bed.

"Ready for what, Mama?" he asked, as she tucked him in.

She avoided his gaze. "Just got some cooking to do, dear. We want to get you nice and strong again."

Baby Bear nodded tiredly and curled up on his side. She rested a paw against his forehead; still burning. He needed medicine, and soon.

The front door squeaked as Papa Bear dragged it open. She padded back to the kitchen and greeted him. "Did you get it?"

Papa Bear dropped a bag on the table. "I got it all."

She hugged him. "Thank you, my love. Let's start cooking."

The two bears bustled around the kitchen, measuring and mixing, heating and stirring. Finally, it was ready, and they poured it into the only receptacles they had available; Papa Bear's great big bowl, Mama Bear's medium bowl, and Baby Bear's teeny tiny bowl. Papa Bear held his paw against the side of his bowl, and flinched away. "Too hot," he growled.

Mama Bear glanced towards the bedroom. "Maybe we should take Baby Bear for a walk while we wait. The fresh air might do him good. Get him away from these fumes."

Papa Bear nodded, and together they bundled up Baby Bear and headed outside for a walk in the forest.

***

As the bears left the clearing where their cottage stood, someone stepped out of the trees. Her hair shone with the bright brilliance of sun-dried sand, and her expression was resolute. She walked up to the front door, carefully stepping over the third porch step, where the wood had rotted. The front door stuck, as it always did where the rusted hinges had let it slump downwards, but she hauled it open and stepped into the dimness.

Inside, she nearly tripped over the table where the three bowls sat, cooling. She leaned over and inspected the bowls. "I knew it," she muttered. "I could smell it." She picked up a spoon and prodded the contents of Papa Bear's bowl. It was too hot; the clear substance was still liquid. Mama Bear's bowl had cooled quickly, but the crystals were small and fragmented, and had the yellowish tinge that suggested impurities. But Baby Bear's bowl was the perfect temperature. The crystals were a good size, and clear and colourless. Just right.

She fished out a crystal and methodically prepared it. The rush washed over her, and she stood, euphoric, watching the leaves dancing outside the grimy windows.

As the initial rush faded, she started to explore the house. She found a chair in the lounge, and, impressed by the ornate wood carving, she sat in it. It was not comfortable. Annoyed, she flopped into the beanbag on the floor and wriggled to make a hollow shaped to her body. She tried to relax into it, but her incessant twitching disrupted the filling, and she abruptly found her bottom resting on the floor. She hauled herself to her feet and strode across the room. In the dim light, the small chair in the corner remained unnoticed until she caught her toes on it. Irritation erupted and she kicked it abruptly across the room. It shattered against the empty fireplace.

Restless agitation filled her, and she stomped from room to room. She halted as the front door groaned open again, and three furry figures filled the doorway. She ducked silently into the bedroom and hid under a bed.

"Hrmph," said Papa Bear. "You do look tired, Baby Bear."

"I'm okay, Papa," he quavered, though his fur was sleeked with sweat.

"Mama will pop you into bed, and I'll start packing up this stuff. Hopefully we made enough to sell, so we can take you to the doctor," said Papa Bear, gesturing at the table. The scattered equipment caught his eye, and he turned with a growl. "Someone's been in here!"

Baby Bear had halted at the doorway to the lounge. "Somebody's been here, and they've broken my chair!"

Mama Bear grasped his paw and pulled him back to the kitchen. They huddled there in silence as Papa Bear methodically searched the house. His bed was high and wooden, and the floor underneath was clear. Nobody could hide there. Mama Bear's bed was low, and the soft centre hung almost to the ground, but Papa Bear lifted the hanging quilts and checked anyway. Nobody was there.

He eyed Baby Bear's bed, with its rumpled blankets. Leaning down, he lifted a corner and found her hiding there. He hauled her out with his claws extended, and roared "Who are you?"

Filled with chemical belligerence, she bellowed back, "I'm Goldy."

Papa Bear shook her. "What are you doing here?"

She sniffed insolently. "Wolf sent me to check on you. We caught a whiff of what you've been cooking, and he wanted to know if it was any good."

Papa Bear let her go, and his posture changed to one of supplication. "And? What did you think?

Goldy smirked. "It'll do. But your crystallisation needs work. Only one little bowl of that is saleable."

He growled. "What will he give us for it?"

"What do you want for it?" she asked, twirling a lock of hair around her finger.

"Three grand."

"Ha!" Her abrupt laugh was genuinely amused. "Too high." She pondered for a moment, with her head cocked and an eyebrow raised. "Fifteen hundred?"

He shook his head. "That's too low."

They eyed each other for a moment, then spoke in unison. "Two grand."

Papa Bear closed his eyes, and his fur settled down. Glancing up again, he said, "Just right. Do we have a deal?"

They shook on the deal, his furry paw engulfing hers.

***

In the kitchen, Mama Bear listened intently, and clasped Baby Bear in relief. Two thousand would cover the medicine he needed. Everything was going to be okay.
jexia: (Me me)
Meal time was always a battle. There was no denying it; Davi was a picky eater. K'tisha mustered an enthusiastic expression as she placed Davi's heaped plate in front of him. He promptly shoved it away.

"Nope. I don't like it," he pouted.

K'tisha tensed. "But you haven't even tried it!" she cooed. "I got it especially for you! And you must be hungry after school."

Davi deigned to hook his plate closer, and eyed the contents suspiciously.

"It doesn't look right." He prodded it. "Are you sure it's ready?"

"Of course it is, dear. The lady at the market helped me choose a good one, and all!"

"But, Muuum, it looks yucky."

"No. It's perfect. Look. Its skin is in perfect condition, no spots or marks, and it's exactly the right colour."

Davi scowled. "Jeq's family had one the other night, and it wasn't that colour."

His mother suppressed a sigh. "The lady at the market said the darker the better, so long as it's not too shiny. Davi, you need to eat."

He slumped back in his chair, glowering at her. She stifled an urge to shove the plate into his face.

"The lady taught me all about them! This was the absolute best one there! Good skin condition, good skin colour, a good weight for its size. It even passes the tap test!" She demonstrated.

He glared.

K'tisha sighed, and reached for a knife. "Look, I'll cut it up for you." She levered the blade through the skin, working off some suppressed frustration, and extracted a delicate slice.

"See? Look how red and juicy the insides are. Mmm, yummy." She pantomimed deliciousness, and shoved his plate back at him.

Davi sniffed, and sniffed again. "Mum, what's that smell?"

K'tisha sniffed, too. "That's funny, it smelled alright at the market." She gingerly prodded her carefully selected offering, and then hooked it up in one tentacle. The creature dangled loosely, its four funny appendages hanging down. She shook it, to little effect, then brought it towards her olfactory organ. "Eurgh!"

Revolted, K'tisha slithered across the kitchen and dumped the human into the recycler, then scrubbed her tentacles at the sink.

"Sorry, Davi. Shall I pop out and pick up a couple of Centaurians, instead?"

Davi nodded.
jexia: (Me me)
Dragons are not fertile creatures by nature; their brooding happens rarely, and takes many years. So when M'rtaka was heavy with egg, she searched long and wide for a haven that could sustain her through ten years of guardianship. She found a place, with high cliffs where the sun clung to the rocks, overlooking a wide plain where the herd animals gathered to drink from the cool, green river, and there she laid her eggs.

Most queen dragons lay one or two eggs, but M'rtaka was in the prime of health. Her four eggs, each of a different hue, were a truly prodigious clutch. She curled around them, guarding them through the night, and through most of each day, except when she would stoop on whistling wings to the plain below to kill, and to feast. And so the seasons changed, hot to cold, cold to hot, hot to cold.

The humans came.

M'rtaka sprang from the cliffs, talons bared, and the humans collapsed to the ground in fright. They were a ragged bunch, in poor condition, ill-fed and stringy. One of them, with the rare gift of dragontongue, cried aloud, "Oh, great one! Spare us and we will serve you!"

They didn't look tasty. M'rtaka stayed her killing blow and uttered one word; "How?"

The one with speech replied, "However you need."

M'rtaka leapt into the air, her powerful wings thundering through the air, and returned to her cliff-top abode. She curled around her eggs to contemplate the situation, gazing down upon the tiny humans.

Eventually apathy or exhaustion overcame their fear, and they staggered around making preparations for the night. They slept in the shelter of the cliffs, and M'rtaka watched with the same unceasing alertness she gave her eggs.

*

When the morning light struck the cliff-top, M'rtaka soared aloft, arcing into the wind. She monitored her eggs, and the humans, but she also searched for evidence to confirm her suspicion.

When she found it, she plummeted to the plain. The humans again cowered in fear, but the one who could speak crept forward. "How can we serve you?

The sleek dragon folded her wings. "You will hunt for me. At least two beasts, every evening. More, in time."

The human bowed. "Yes, oh great one. It will be done." The other humans muttered, but began collecting what meagre implements they had.

M'rtaka extended her front foot, the claws only half-sheathed. "And the humans who follow you- they seek to hurt you?"

The motley group froze in fear, but the speaker bowed again. "Yes, oh wise one." M'rtaka scented fear and uncertainty. "Will you... will you protect us?"

"It will be done! Now fulfill your duty!" M'rtaka roared, and sprang into the air.

*

The humans hunted through the heat of the day, their tools ill-suited to the purpose. At last, they managed to bring down two beasts, a nursing dam and her calf.

Evening shadows streaked the ground before M'rtaka returned. She gnawed half-heartedly at the calf, showing little appetite.

The speaker approached timidly. "Are they not acceptable, oh wise one? A thousa-"

M'rtaka growled, and the speaker froze into silence. "Enough with the 'wise one' and 'great one'. My name is M'rtaka, and there is no greater name. You humans may take the cow. I have protected you, and now you must grow stronger so that you may serve me better."

Hunger overcame fear, and the other humans bustled forward to start butchering the beast. M'rtaka turned her back, and lumbered to her eyrie. Her belly was deliciously full.

The preparations below took on a festive air, and what could have been just a meal became a celebratory feast. At last the humans slept, bellies stuffed into shocking protuberances on their depleted frames.

*

Months passed. The humans built shelters, and started to accrue tools and experience that made their hunting trips more successful. The budding settlement prospered under M'rtaka's watchful eye.

The humans grew healthier, but the belly of the speaker grew faster than most. When M'rtaka spoke, the speaker's stomach would jump and twitch, stretched and extended by something inside.

One night, when the moons shone bright and full overhead, the nocturnal stillness was broken by groans. The groans became screams; the screams became silence; the silence became a chorus of wails.

In the morning, M'rtaka descended to the village. No-one stood to speak to her.

*

Years passed. The humans multiplied, with little brown bodies skipping through the shallows of the river.

They hunted, still, but nobody spoke to M'rtaka, and she could not make them understand. The beasts grew scarcer and more cunning, and there were more humans to feed. With shifty eyes, the humans offered only one beast.

M'rtaka ate it, demurely, and flew to her nest as always.

When no-one died for their failure, they grew bolder. If a hunt was especially successful, they might offer two, but otherwise it was one...or sometimes none. Yet the humans grew fatter, sleek and healthy.

The dragon brooded, fussing over her clutch. The shadows within the eggs grew clearer each day, the shapes within coiling and shifting as the shells thinned.

She had no way to tell the humans that she needed more food. A dragon's pride is paramount, and so she refused to break the bargain by hunting for herself. Soon the hatchlings would emerge, ravenous and keening. If the humans would not meet their side of the bargain, they could serve in another way.
jexia: (Me me)
40 years ago...

I don't know how Chuck got the whisky, but he did. I'd never tasted it before, but when my first sip seared its way down my throat, I tried to refuse the next.

Chuck laughed at me. "Come on, Jimmy, you gonna come all the way out here and not have a drink? It's too cold to just sit here."

He had a point. The autumn air was brisk, and the warm glow of my first sip smouldered nicely within me. Wordlessly, I held my hand out for the flask. The second sip was smoother, and didn't seem so determined to ignite my sinuses. I took a third.

He grinned at me. God, I loved that grin. I didn't have words for how I felt about him, but that was okay; I knew I could never speak them, anyway.

"That's more like it." He settled back against the fence and stared up at the bare branches of the overhanging trees, taking a swig. I leaned back, too, careful not to touch him, but intensely conscious of the warm length of his thigh, stretched so close to mine. The scent of Old Spice, pilfered from his dad's bathroom, drifted around us. We watched the moon in companionable silence, sharing the bottle back and forth. I closed my eyes with each sip, aware that my lips were where his had been, knowing it was wrong.

"Man, this place is a mess." Chuck gestured, bottle in hand, to our shrouded surroundings. The crisp light of the moon made mysterious hummocks of the headstones, engulfed in masses of ivy and moss.

"Mum said the council is talking about cleaning it up, maybe opening it up again. Redhill Cemetery is nearly full, and this one still has plenty of space."

"Huh." He took another swig. "Good luck getting anyone to work here. What with the ghost and all." He handed me the bottle, warmed from his hand, and I took a mouthful and savoured it. Maybe this stuff wasn't so bad.

"Oh yes, the terrible ghost." This was something we'd done together since we met in first grade, traded ideas back and forth, making up stories together. "He wanders the cemetery every night, you know."

"Looking for the pants his wife stole." This struck us both as hilarious, and it took several minutes for us to hiccup our way back to sensibility.

"It's a tragedy, a man without pants," I said. "If only..."

"...if only, he'd kept them on."

The whisky spoke. "When his boyfriend came to visit." Chuck put his head back against the fence, his whole body relaxing and shaking with laughter. His leg touched mine, and I froze. My blood was racing through my body, driven by whisky and desire. He stilled, and I held my breath as he turned to look at me. In the moonlight, his eyes were the colour of smoke.

A moment passed.

Chuck scrambled to his feet. "School tomorrow. We'd better get home," he said. He tucked the flask into his jacket pocket and offered me a hand. I stood up, braced against his warm grip, and we walked to our houses in silence.

35 years ago...

"Hey, Jimmy." Chuck leaned over the cemetery fence. I'd never found work after graduation, so when the council finally got around to sorting out the old cemetery, I went for the job. A dollar an hour pulling up ivy and digging up weeds. The work was hot and hard, but muscles formed and bunched under my skin, and I bulked out from the angular teenager I'd been.

"Hey, Chuck." He threw me a beer; it fizzed as I opened it. I chugged it as he half-unzipped his greasy overalls and lit a cigarette. "How was work?" Chuck always had a story about something that had happened at his dad's workshop; how old Mrs Williams filled her car up with oil instead of petrol; the dodgy magazine they'd found under the seat of the pastor's car.

"Old man Montgomery brought his truck in today. He backed it into his wife's clothesline and put a leak in the gas tank. He patched it with gladwrap and bandaids to get it to the workshop." Chuck took a long drink from his can of beer, and offered me a cigarette.

I accepted, and held it between my lips as he lit it for me. "Really?"

Chuck snorted. "Don't know how it held together. He had a black eye though, said his wife was pretty cross about the clothesline."

I laughed. "Wives, eh. Who needs them?"

"I'll drink to that." We clinked cans, and drained them dry.

"Speaking of Montgomeries, I found another one today," I said. "Over under the oak tree." I gestured to the furthest corner.

"Oh?" he said.

"Ebenezer Montgomery, 1910 to 1928."

"Huh, right age to be Monty's... brother?"

"I figure so." We often did this, discussing the headstones I'd uncovered. So many of the surnames were familiar.

"He's the one that joined the circus, right?" Chuck grinned at me.

"Yep. Such a tragic end. Death by lion."

"That's what you get when you sleep with the liontamer's wife."

We laughed. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than this, forever; standing in the sun with Chuck, inventing stories about their lives, much more exciting than our own. It was amazing how many of the people buried in our little town had travelled the Amazon, or explored the Arctic.

But he wanted desperately to leave town, to see the world, to do bigger things. Every paycheck was squirreled away, saved for his escape. I saved, too; I liked our little town, but I wanted to go where he went.

30 years ago...

I'd long ago cleared the cemetery, though the ivy had a way of sneaking back in. It was no longer spooky, beyond the usual unease that cemeteries generate. I was proud of it, proud of my service to the town, and glad that the council kept me on as a groundskeeper and gravedigger.

I dug Chuck's grave.

He'd come by after work as usual. He was in a bad mood, bitter about being tied down. His dad was ill, and he couldn't leave the workshop. We'd drunk our usual beer, and followed it with extras. It had warmed me, and I'd done something I'd dreamed of for years.

I'd kissed him.

He'd kissed me back.

Then he'd turned, got into his car, and driven away. He never made it home.

Each shovelful of dirt was salted with my tears. The preacher spoke of loss, of friends and family, and Chuck's dad leaned on his cane with a trembling, accusing glare. He blamed me.

I blamed me.

20 years ago...

The council bought a little digger to dig the graves. It's not dignified. Easier on my back, though. I did the weeding and mowing, tidied up the flowers when the wind came through, that sort of thing. At the end of each day, I'd sit by Chuck's grave and talk to him.

But then Chuck's dad died. The bitter old man hung on longer than anyone thought he would. His headstone glowered at me, stark and stern next to Chuck's, and I couldn't shake the feeling that he was listening in. It was never the same, after that. I couldn't tell Chuck how I was feeling; just "Good morning, Chuck" and "Good night, Chuck".

1 year ago...

The council set up a team to handle all the cemeteries; Redhill, my one, and the new one they opened on the south side of town. They said I was too old, that I couldn't handle the work. It was true. All those cigarettes took my breath away. But I didn't like the job they did; their weedwhackers were quick, but the ivy is smart enough to just stay low. It'd take over if I let it.

So I kept doing my rounds, tidying up, weeding where I could, and checking on Chuck. It got harder every week, especially in winter when my breath whistled like the wind in the branches, and I thought about staying at home.

My little one-bedroom flat had little appeal, though, and I couldn't leave Chuck out there, alone. I'd bundle up warm, and shuffle out to his grave, sitting in silence, thinking the thoughts I couldn't speak.

One day I got there, and his headstone was gone. His father's stone still loomed, but Chuck's was gone. Those bloody teenagers, always hanging out here and mucking around, must have broken it. I was so angry that my chest hurt.

With tears in my eyes, I knelt beside his grave, in the spot that I'd worn bare of grass. "Oh, Chuck," I said.

I smelled whisky and Old Spice. I knew it was him, before I felt the warm grip on my shoulder.

Now...

I must be dead. There's no other explanation for it. I don't mind. My body is firm and fit again, no aches and pains, and Chuck is here with me.

The afternoons are endless. We sit together against the fence, sharing a flask that never empties. He flashes that grin at me, and we spin stories back and forth between us.
jexia: (Me me)
I found half a magic wand today. Mum said it was just a stick, that there's no such thing as magic, but I saw something sparkling in the middle of it, where it's all broken. Maybe it's unicorn hair. Maybe it's a phoenix feather.

Mum told me to put it down, but it's mine. When she wasn't looking, I put it in my pocket and took it home.

When Mum started cooking dinner, I went out in the garden and tried to do magic with my half-a-wand. I said "Abracadabra!" but nothing happened. I said "Wingardium leviosa!" like they do in the movie, and pointed it at the cat, but nothing happened. The cat ran away, but she wasn't flying.

Then I looked at my wand. It was definitely sparkly. I poked at the end but I couldn't get the sparkle out. It made a little noise, though, sort of a bzzzt.

I thought very hard. Maybe the wand didn't understand big magic words? Maybe it was like the nice old lady on the bus. You have to talk slowly and use little words or she doesn't understand. I pointed it at the clothesline and said, "Candy!"

The wand went bzzzt.

And the clothesline was gone. But there wasn't any candy.

Just a can of beans.

"HOLY COW!" someone shouted, and I got a fright. It was my big brother Andy. He's okay. He can be a bit mean sometimes, but he's nice to me when Daddy comes home. I call him my biiig brother because he's so tall. Mum says he's growing. He looks kind of funny with his skinny long legs.

He yelled at me again. "What did you DO?!"

"I don't know!" I said.

He said Mum was going to be mad, and he said I was a "stupid head". So I called him "froglegs". He hates that.

Bzzzt.

Andy was gone. And there was a big green frog, looking at me with big eyes, and legs all long and sticking out just like Andy.

I nearly cried. Dad would be so mad at me. He might get his belt again. I had to fix Andy! But I didn't know how.

So I thought and I thought and I thought. I said "candy" and I got a can. I said "froglegs" and I got a frog. Maybe my half-a-wand only did half-magic?

Then I thought and thought some more. And I wondered if maybe I said "boyfriend" it would turn Andy back to a boy? It was a bit scary because I didn't want to have a frog for a boyfriend, but I didn't know what else to do. So I said "boyfriend", and it worked! Andy turned back to a boy!

He was a bit scared so I gave him a big hug. And then I told him all about the magic wand and how it only did half a word. I showed him the sparkly bit at the end. He was looking at it when Mum called us to come and have dinner, and he put it in his pocket. I tried to get it back off him but he said no.

Mum tried to get us to eat dinner quickly and go to bed before Dad got home. We tried, but we weren't quick enough. Dad came home and he was all loud, and he smelled like the funny drink he keeps in the cupboard. He yelled at Mum, and then he yelled at Andy.

Andy and I usually go hide when Dad starts to yell. Or we just sit and be as quiet as we can. So it was funny that Andy stood up and said "Stop." Dad got even madder and he yelled some more, and he he started to take his belt off.

Andy told me to close my eyes and keep them closed. I didn't want to see Dad hit him, so I squished them all closed like this. And then Andy said "Deadbolt", which was a funny thing to say. That's the special lock that Mum got put on the door when Dad went away for a while but then he came back and broke it. And I heard a bzzzt.

Is Andy in trouble, Mr Policeman? And can I have a sandwich? I didn't get to eat all my dinner.
jexia: (Me me)
This planet is not our home. We came here thousands of years ago, in a failing ship. The flickering remnants in the reactor core were barely enough for us to fire off a call for help, and guide the ship to earth as best we could.

Though the planet seemed to bask in blues and greens, our scarred ship landed in a brown dustiness. We could not survive here, not in our true forms. The gravitational pull was too fierce, the atmosphere too oxygenated. Our ship was nearly drained, and help was a million light years away. We had no choice; we had to meld.

Melding is an emergency procedure, used only in direst need. If lifeforms are compatible, we can integrate our consciousness to form a shared symbiont, where we can bide our time, passing from host to host with each generation, waiting for assistance to arrive.

Earthbound, we could only scan the nearby area, hoping for a suitable host animal. Should it be those spotted creatures, with claw and tooth and the fearsome speed of our nf'anda at home? Or those small, darting animals in their underground colonies, taking democratic turns to bask in the sun and stand on guard? Or the voiceless, angular beasts that graze on the treetops?

Eventually we settled on an animal with size, intelligence, and strength, with social behaviours that mimicked our own. Its grey, wrinkled skin offered protection from sun and foes, and its faintly ridiculous facial appendage was nimble enough to be useful. We used the last dregs of power to entice a herd closer, broadcasting their own calls back to them.

They came. We shifted, and merged, encoding ourselves into their very cells. They welcomed us, in their basic way, and we learned the rhythm of the seasons, and the way of our new world.

It was brutal.

Life came and went with sudden redness, with fear and pain. It was strange to us, but we persisted through the years, passing from parent to child.

We survived, nothing more, waiting for help. Then, a thousand years ago, we heard it; the faintest signal, getting ever closer. Help was coming.

The realisation struck us hard. We had no way to respond, to show that we were still here. Helplessly, we listened as the signal peaked and then faded again, sliding into an orbit around the sun.

Despair drove some of us mad. Our mental anguish festered in the host animals; they rampaged across the dust, devastating anything that lay before them. The rest of us could only watch in horror; the other hosts learned to flee until the madness had passed.

Every year when the temperature drops, in the period of time they call "winter", the beacon comes around again. We listen powerlessly as it drifts past us. Each year, it is quieter; each year, that knowledge drives some of us mad.

I've never succumbed. Not yet. But if one day, winter comes, and the beacon does not... then, I will truly despair.
jexia: (Me me)
On an island in a lake, there stands a tree. Its roots stretch down to drink the sweet waters in which the silver fish play; its branches dance against the sky, revelling in the flow of the wind, back and forth.

Each morning, the wind blows from the east, fragrant with spices, and bearing pollen to fatten the blossom buds. The afternoon wind blows from the west, bitter and alkaline, carrying ashes and salt, but pollen, too.

The fruit on the east side of the tree grows sweet and juicy, its thick, silver rind enclosing soft, pulpy flesh. Children row out in their little rowboats, and gather the fruit, stuffing as much into their mouths as they can. There is always one child, young and on their first visit, or hopelessly optimistic, who ventures to the west.

The fruit on the west side of the tree is dusky, its rind thickened against the bitter wind. The pollen from the west tells a different story to the tree's blossoms as they swell, and the flesh within is dry and seedy. Children who try it gasp about the sourness, with their mouths puckered dry, and scamper back to the east, to sweetness and goodness.

Come autumn, the remaining fruit fall from the tree, scattering into the lake, and the tree prepares for the winter ahead.

Winter passes with its usual bluster, but one afternoon brings a terrible storm. The westerly wind, bitter and cold, lashes the tree, battering it with fury. The tree resists, but from the west comes a terrible rending sound.

Spring comes. The morning wind brings perfume and pollen. The afternoon wind brings only salt and ashes.

As spring stretches into summer, the fruit on the east side of the tree fattens into delicious weightiness. The west side of the tree is empty of fruit, covered only with soft, silver leaves. The children come, with greedy mouths and empty bags, to gather the fruit. They are pleased that there are no sour fruits, and strip the tree bare.

Autumn comes again. There are no fruit left to fall, to scatter into the lake. The silver fish cannot feed, to get strong for the winter ahead. Many die. Their darting dances no longer sweeten the lake, and the water begins to stagnate.

The tree has no choice but to drink of the water. The sourness seeps through its sap. The silver leaves wither, and spring brings no blossoms to scent the air.

There will be no fruit this year.
jexia: (Me me)
I ordered my usual gin from the servo-bot and sat down at the bar. The air was redolent with the stench of the Hudson River; ongoing clean-up work hadn't yet reversed the eco-collapse of 2133, and ten years later it still smelled of death. You got used to it, mostly. It was worse in hot weather, and today had been a scorcher.

The last few weeks at work had been hellish, fighting to meet the fixed deadline of today's lottery, but we'd done it. The atmosphere at CyberCo had been triumphantly collegial. We'd declared it "beer o'clock" at three, and then left early. I'd come straight here, for my annual tradition of watching the lottery at my favourite bar. I nursed my drink and gazed at the screen.

The Lotteries head, Jaylene something-or-other, gave her usual aspirational speech- "think big", "make a difference", the same old stuff. Then the lottery-bot, gawky and angular, fished a ball from the spinning barrel and held it aloft. It was all for show; the barrel was nowhere near big enough to hold the 38 million balls needed to represent every law-abiding, employed, adult citizen of New York, not unless the balls were

<Implant query: container volume / 38000000, allow volume factor of 1.6 for movement> 0.32mm>

0.32 millimetres in diameter.

The ball the bot held aloft was much bigger than that, but no matter. Digits slid over its SmartSkin, displaying the citizen number randomly selected by the algorithms behind the scenes. There was no need for all the stage-dressing; you could just run a random number generator over the citizenship list and choose the first seven, but the flashing lights and glamour kept people tuned in. A voice-over announced the digits, and my implant

<Implant query: Citizen 752341857> Henry James Fernandez, b. 2108, Apt. 3012, 452 Foster Ave, New York, NY 10016. Three children, 2142 income of $132,023.>

flashed up his details, while the screen showed an animated cut scene with his name and photo. The upgrades I'd made to my implant weren't strictly legal, but I hadn't been able to resist the challenge of breaching and integrating a number of supposedly-secure city databases. It was useful.

I sipped my gin; it mingled warmly in my stomach with the beer I'd had at work. I wasn't alone. A rowdy group of college kids in the corner laughed over the traditional lottery drinking game; they each picked a digit, and every time their digit was announced they had to drink. One, with the pasty pallor of a physics student, argued it was unfair to pick 0, given that citizenship numbers don't start with 0, and that started a loud discussion about probability and the unlikely characteristics of each others' mothers.

It wasn't so long since I was one of them, oblivious to the real world; I'd graduated with an double degree in Mathematics and Computer Science eight months ago, and since then I'd been working at CyberCo. They provided the gear for the lottery winners, and I spent my days working with probability analysis and consensus, modifying differential equations with 30-plus variables and integrating the calculations into code. It paid the bills, and left enough time for my other interests.

The second ball was drawn,

<Implant query: Citizen 684128953> Alicia Rose Willcocks, b. 2122. Final year PoliSci student at NYU, with part-time employment at McDenny's. Minor traffic violation in 2141, expunged with the minimum 320 hours of community service.>

and the group in the corner started the next round, reciting each digit and pointing accusingly if the person took too long to drink. Alicia's details came on screen, and they whistled appreciatively at her picture. "I'd like HER number," some wit yelled.

I rolled my eyes as I took another sip. I'd had enough of that sort of nonsense at college. Despite many attempts since the late 20th century to address the gender imbalance, I had still been severely outnumbered in my classes. I've never been a stunner, but the very fact of my femininity had been enough to goad even the most awkward of classmates into propositioning me. Urgh. Not interested. Alicia, on the other hand... I'd appreciated her smile as much as the college kids, but I wasn't crass enough to whistle about it.

The lottery-bot reached into the barrel again, and grasped one of the swirling balls. I barely listened as I savoured my drink, until

<Implant query: Citizen 722148301> Shay Malloy, b. 2120.>

I realised it was my number, my name and face being flashed up on the screen. The glass slipped from my numb hand, and shattered against the floor, the abrupt noise interrupting the next round of "Drink your digit". The pale student stared at me, and a flurry of elbows and whispers flew around the group. Suddenly they were around me, crowding me with beery breath and exclamations.

"You won!" one yelled.

"Vote for cheap beer!" shouted another, to general cheers of approbation.

I ignored them. My implant was flooding with message pings, from friends and family. I started to check the one from my mother, but it was over-ridden.

<Message: Priority: Governmental Urgent, Classified. From: New York Lotteries and Electoral Commission> Congratulations on your election. Stay where you are.>

The group around me grew quiet and withdrew, watching as two large men in dark suits approached me. How did they get here so quickly? I briefly considered running, but my shaky legs wouldn't let me. I didn't want this.

"Miss Shay Malloy." It wasn't a question. "Please come with us," said the taller of the two suits, extending a hand. I didn't have a choice; I went with them.

*

The room at NYLEC was spacious and comfortable, with the pale cream furnishings of an institute that can afford plenty of cleaner-bots. I huddled in the corner of an enormous couch. Henry Fernandez sat opposite me, his dark face wrinkled with concern. We'd exchanged introductions, then left each other alone to ponder what would happen next.

Alicia was ushered in, still in her McDenny's uniform. Despite the unflattering beige-with-yellow-trim clothes, she was stunning. Her dark eyes were wide, glittering with calculation and suppressed fear, but she maintained a casual demeanour as she introduced herself. We chatted about the superficial pleasantries of people in unwanted situations, telling me nothing my implant hadn't already reported.

The other chosen citizens gradually arrived, escorted by their own pairs of large men: Maria, a middle-aged Latina who owned a well-known bot distributor; Sherm, a 20-something who worked "whatever's going"; Charlotte, a dancer from Brooklyn with two children, fretting about whether her mother would be able to pick her kids up from school. Rickard, a perfect blustering example of middle-management in a grey suit, demanded to know how long this would take; we shrugged and ignored him. We all knew the theoretical premise of what was about to take place, but the practicalities hadn't been covered in our civics classes.

The door opened, and Rickard fell silent. The head of NYLEC came in, as pristinely groomed as when she'd appeared at the start of the lottery, followed by a few others in less formal clothes. They were techs; I knew the type, and they carried CyberCo-branded boxes.

"Good afternoon," the head announced. "I'm Jaylene Davidson, head of NYLEC. No doubt you have many questions-" she raised a manicured hand to silence Rickard as he began to blather- "and they will all be answered in time. You all know that New York is governed by consensus. Each year we select seven good citizens, assess their values and priorities, and use our analysis to form a consensus. Your consensus will drive policy and funding decisions in the coming year."

Charlotte tentatively raised a hand. "How long will it take? My kids..."

"The process takes several weeks." Charlotte gasped, and adopted the glazed expression of someone accessing her implant. Jaylene continued, "During that time, you will-" Charlotte twitched, as if receiving a painful electric jolt, "-not be able to access messaging. Any dependents will be taken care of by the city."

Alicia spoke up. "How do we do it? I know it has something to do with our implants."

"You will be fitted with a headnet. We'll put them on now, to give them time to integrate with your implants before we begin in the morning. The headnets assess your response to a range of topics. Your responses will be averaged out to form a consensus. Any questions?" Her tone was polite, but the expression on her face was cool enough to quell even Rickard.

She nodded curtly to the techs. The scruffiest one, clearly senior, fiddled with a handheld device, while the others moved around the room, fitting a stretchy net over each of our heads. One by one, a light lit up on each headnet, but the tech behind me muttered and fussed, pulling and adjusting it. The senior tech came over.

"Is there a problem?"

The tech behind me mumbled something about non-compliant settings, and the senior tech caught my eye. His eyelid flickered.

"I'll sort it out." As he adjusted the headnet, he tapped the handheld device, apparently calibrating some settings. From his smile, he succeeded, and the techs moved back to stand behind Jaylene. The senior tech gazed blandly at me, and a brief expression of abstractedness passed across his face.

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> Do not react. I will contact you later.>

He winked at me.

*

The evening passed with more briefings and acclimatisation. The real work would begin in the morning. We were shown to individual bedrooms, each sumptuously furnished in pale neutrals. I collapsed onto the bed and stared at the ceiling.

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> Are you alone? Respond if so.>

I considered his message. Concealed surveillance aside, this was as alone as I was likely to get. I composed a message and replied: <I am alone. How are you messaging me? I thought we couldn't access it.>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> I set up an internal commnet on your specific headnet. I needed to talk to you. You are not here by chance.>

<Oh?>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> I accessed the algorithms for the lottery selection and made sure you'd be picked. I need your help. The city needs your help.>

<What's going on?>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> Jaylene is working with CyberCo. She's being paid off by the Chief of Police. They came up with a scheme to reduce unrest in the city. They want to take consensus to the next level - feed it back to the populace so that they will all agree with the city's policies. They've put a feedback loop in, to override your response and encourage you to respond as they want. Then when they have the nicely-packaged consensus they need, it'll be pushed out to the citizens.>

<That's horrible! Can they do it?>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> CyberCo has the tech. You've been working on some of it. That's why I need you.>

<What can I do?>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> I hope you will be able to disable the override.>

<OK. I'll try. What do I need to do?>

I waited, lying awake until the dark hours of the morning, but my implant remained silent.

*


=====================
Please note: this is the first part of a two-part story. The second half is for the second topic of this week, Overwatch, and can be found here: http://jexia.livejournal.com/1338376.html
jexia: (Me me)
Please note: this is the second part of a two-part story. The first half is for "Intersubjectivity", and is essential for this piece. (Sorry.)

The first half can be found here: http://jexia.livejournal.com/1338776.html


=====================

A quiet knock on the door startled me awake. I must have dozed off unwittingly. My head felt murky; my mouth, too. Too much beer? Gin? Unsettling dreams about a megalomaniac trying to mess with everyone's brains?

I called, "Come in," and a servo-bot entered, carrying a tray. My mouth watered; the accompanying scents were greasy and savoury, just what my stomach wanted.

As I ate, the servo-bot bustled around, making a point of opening the wardrobe so I could see the clothes hanging there. I had no doubt they were just my size. After a quick shower, I found they did indeed fit me. The servo-bot gestured to the hallway, and I wandered until I found the others in the room where we'd met.

Alicia greeted me, but my response was lacklustre and distracted. My mind was churning furiously. Where was Benjamin? Was he okay? Jaylene came in, accompanied by a trail of techs. Benjamin hurried in at the end of the group, his cheeks flushed. He looked dreadful, his eyes dark-ringed with exhaustion.

<What happened?>

He didn't respond, other than to glance at me. I bit my lip and waited.

The techs bustled around, checking our headnets. I held my breath as the tech scrutinised mine, but apparently it passed muster.

Jaylene started to speak, and I cast a carefully casual look in Benjamin's direction. He looked distracted, tapping at his handheld device, but he paused long enough to send a message.

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> Sorry. Detected signs of someone trying to breach our commnet. Took a while, but I managed to deflect them. I'm sorry there hasn't been time to brief you.>

<What do I need to do?>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> It's my understanding that the override will appear as differential equations, in the preprocessor subroutines. You'll probably recognise them, but you'll need to locate any changes and revert them. You'll have to work fast.>

Jaylene was exhorting us to be honest and think of the big picture. I mentally snorted, knowing who I'd give that advice to, and ignored her.

<OK, I can do that.>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> There may be data protection on them, so you'll need to subvert that, and maintain the cyclic redundancy checks so the changes aren't detected.>

<That's a hell of a lot of calculations!>

<Message: Priority: Classified. From: Benjamin Cleaver> I know. Do your best. I've got your back.>

Jaylene finally stopped, and nodded significantly to Benjamin. He met my eye, and tapped his device.

I fell through familiar blackness, to the malleable space where I had reshaped my implant's functionality. I could sense others with me; the solidity of Henry, the grey sponginess of Rickard, the fiery flicker of Maria. Alicia glowed, ethereal and pulsing. If this was my mental model of them, there was no doubt how I felt about her.

A "voice" echoed through, more sensed than heard, all glint and steel. Jaylene, not bothering to materialise herself. "We are about to begin. Keep your responses as honest as you can. There is no judgment here."

A symbol appeared, the arrowed triangle of recycling. "Rubbish collection - should we increase the fees?"

Numb lassitude spread through me, warm and enticing me to agree. I mentally twisted, but couldn't escape it. Was this the feedback loop? I looked around frantically, but couldn't see anything to challenge. Maybe I had to go deeper?

I dropped to the preprocessor level, glimpsing the tail end of a calculation. Gah. I'd already missed it. These buggers were fast.

"Consensus reached. Fees to be increased 237%."

Another symbol appeared, the tasseled cap of an archaic educational ceremony. "University fees. Currently 15% funded by the city. Should the funding be dropped?"

Surely Alicia would protest? Her glowing form appeared quiescent and compliant. The amenable lassitude spread through me again, but I fought it, dropping to the preprocessor level again. There! That was one of my equations! I hurriedly scanned through the variables, searching for alterations. The sum of... ζ'... and -15 Ψ... no, that was the same... There! They'd swapped a Φ and a θ! I swapped them back, trying to resist the inexorable tug of the equation's processing. A warning chime sounded, and I reached for the CRC subroutine, frantically diving through calculations to rebalance the checksum.

I was too slow. It was gone.

Jaylene's steely voice sounded a little perturbed. "Consensus reached. University funding to be dropped, effective immediately." She paused. "Is everyone ready to proceed?"

"Yes, Jaylene," we dutifully murmured.

A green warmth appeared. "There may be some recalibration required." Benjamin's voice flowed liquidly through the virtual space.

"Yes, there does appear to be some fluctuations in the response matrices," Jaylene said.

"I'll stay here and watch over the consensus collection, if that is acceptable?" he asked.

"Of course. Let's proceed."

The malleable blackness formed into a shape, a human shape, the archetype of every unemployed citizen. The media liked to demonise them, painting them as dirty, stupid, and drug-addicted, while carefully avoiding any mention of the bots that had reshaped our society.

"The unemployment problem - does it require a more permanent solution?"

The figure lurched, leering and grotesque, and then shuffled up a ramp to a sinister black box, marked with the red logo of Animal Control.

I didn't wait. I dropped to the preprocessor level and scanned for the equation. Whoa. This one was a juggernaut, unrecognisable to me. I fumbled through the variables, simplifying where I could, trying to discern a familiar core. Could this substitute for that? I made the change, and was immediately surrounded by a swarm of stickiness, engulfing me and hampering my movement. This equation had data protection, and plenty of it.

Suddenly Benjamin was there, green and warm. "I've got it," he said, and embraced me. As he let go, sticky strings clung between us, but the bulk had transferred to him. I could move again.

What had they done to the equation? I made more changes, finding fragments that I recognised, and stringing them together. I almost had it.

"Look out!" Benjamin was behind me, watching as I worked, and he'd spotted another layer of protection. It exploded, pelting me with stinging fragments, but he shielded me from the main force of the blast. His glow flickered; he was hurting.

"Almost there!" I said, pleadingly, and made the final switch. The warning chime sounded, and I dived into the CRC calculation, trying the most common polynominals to see if I could find a match. Binary digits swirled around me; this was low-level stuff, and hard work. Yes! a 65-bit exponent, as I'd hoped! Any bigger and I couldn't have managed it. I had my new checksum, now I just had to overwrite the old one so that my changes wouldn't be detected.

"This way!" Benjamin's green glow shaded, dark to light, indicating the direction of the checksum, and he shifted.

<Message: Priority: URGENT. From: Benjamin Cleaver> GO DARK.>

I damped my virtual appearance, stifling it to an infinitesimal speck, and followed him, cautiously. Jaylene was there. That spiky form could be no-one else. "What are you doing?" she snarled.

Benjamin said, "I detected some more fluctuations, and I was trying to track them down."

"Hrm." Her steel was icy and disbelieving now. "Back to the group."

He bobbed and obeyed, disappearing up through the levels. She followed. I'd have to be fast. I flicked through tags and found the checksum, and clumsily overwrote it with the new value. It'd have to do.

With a jolt I was back with the others. Their forms stirred and twitched, as the figure of the unemployed man turned away from the sinister box.

"That's not right!" Jaylene shrieked. "That's not what the consensus was supposed to be!"

"'Supposed to be?'" asked Alicia. "How do you know what it was 'supposed to be'?"

Jaylene's jagged form twisted. "That's not your concern."

"Not our concern?" Henry demanded. "This is our consensus. What are you doing?"

Benjamin's green glow throbbed. "The same thing she wants to do to everyone. She wants to run consensus in reverse and make us all think the same."

You don't really have lungs in virtual space, but nonetheless, everyone gasped.

"Enough," she snapped. "We have enough data to extrapolate and do it without you. It won't be as concordant, but it'll do. I'd rather you complied, though."

Rickard, bless his blustery grey soul, found some spine and spoke for all of us. "No."

"Then you're superfluous." Jaylene's spikes distorted in a way that shouldn't be possible, and agony washed through me. My senses were overwhelmed with pain, though I could still hear the screams of the others. A stream of inversion matrices flooded from her, corrupting the innards of my implant.

Reacting instinctively, I gathered the malleable darkness around me. This was my space, in my head, and I'd be damned if this sociopath was going to kill me with my own brain. Through virtual eyes blurred with pain, I followed the flow of evil to its source, and engulfed her in a wall of blackness.

The pain stopped. Jaylene's shrouded form twitched a few times and fell still.

"What happened?" Sherm asked.

"I... turned the pain against her. I guess she got an extra-strong dose with it all focused on her."

"Is she... is she dead?" Alicia's radiant form huddled against me, still shaking with reaction. I did my best to exude competence and comfort.

"Let's go find out." Benjamin's form was starting to fade. The seven of us gathered around him, touched, and ascended to consciousness.

The brightness of the pale room was a shock. We still sat on couches and chairs- except for Jaylene. She lay crumpled on the floor, with the techs fussing around her. Benjamin levered himself stiffly to his feet, and limped over. "Don't bother," he said.

"She's still breathing," said one of the techs, hopefully.

"She got hit with an eightfold inversion matrix."

"Oh." The tech shrugged and moved away.

*

There were weeks of inquests, debriefings and implant inspections. I put up with the rifling through my implant, on the basis that it was the quickest way to absolve myself. Eventually, Jaylene was found guilty, and sentenced to 10400 hours of community service. A moot point, really.

Alicia and I saw her a couple of years later, begging outside NYLEC. She looked at us blankly, open-mouthed, as we went in to work. Alicia's an assistant director these days; she graduated top of her class. University funding has increased 12% since then. I work with Benjamin and the other techs; we're building a way to find true consensus, not just from seven representatives. The city belongs to the people; we can all govern it, together.
jexia: (Me me)
The door jangled as I opened it and inhaled the warm, welcoming aromas; I needed a coffee, and I needed it fast. Sheryl, the hippy-artist-grandmotherly type who ran the café, greeted me with her usual cheer. "Morning, love, how'd it go?"

I smiled wanly and waggled my hand in the so-so gesture, belying my actual thoughts. We'd nailed it last night, with none of the usual hiccups of a first-night performance. The audience had been on their feet. That hadn't stopped me lying awake for hours, replaying it through in my head. Had I missed that note, or held it too long? Did I remember to hold the dramatic pause at the end of Act II, as Sam, the director, had hammered into me?

Sheryl grinned, her dangly earrings chiming. "I'm sure it was great. You've been working on this for so long."

She'd know; we were in here every evening, thrashing out and rehashing whatever we'd been rehearsing. She was privy to all the politics and peccadilloes to be found in every theatre troupe. I'd confided my crush on Erik to her, and sat up drinking with her all night when her daughter left for Australia. She was practically our mascot.

I smiled back at her. "Thanks, Sheryl."

The door chimed, and I turned to see Sam coming in, wiping the dirty sidewalk snow off his boots. I waved to him, and headed for our usual corner, drink in hand. The couches were shabby, with that embracing softness that makes it so hard to leave. Just like Sheryl.

Our corner filled up over the next hour, as we traded jokes and worried over how each scene had gone. We drank too much coffee, and indulged in Sheryl's comfort food. Her omelette could heal a broken heart. It was tradition, just as it was that Erik would be the last to arrive.

At last he did. As expected, there was a newspaper tucked under his arm. We waited, tense with pretended nonchalance, as he spoke to Sheryl, collected his drink and came over. He squeezed into the middle of the couch, his taut thigh hot against mine, and I suppressed a thrill of desire as he made a great show of settling into place, carefully sipping his drink and adjusting the cushions behind him. At last he sat back, and as on so many other mornings-after-the-first-night-before, he held up the paper and said, "Let us consult the Curmudgeon."

James Curgeon was the local theatre critic. We'd called him "the Curmudgeon" ever since our first opening night, six years ago, when he'd described Erik as "a luscious Lothario with the wits and voice of an adolescent weasel". Erik was many things, but a weasel he was not. Still, that review had spurred us to work harder and longer, and we were seeing the benefits. The Curmudgeon's arrival in the theatre foyer last night had flown backstage in whispered messages, and I wasn't the only one who had been inspired by that knowledge.

Erik spread the newspaper on the low table as we hurriedly moved cups and the detritus of assorted breakfasts. He flicked through, searching for the review section, jokingly reading (and inventing) parochial headlines in tones of disinterest, but his act dropped in a second as he froze, then leaned forward to point at a page.

As one, the cast leaned forward to read the headline that his finger had speared.

"Local critic found dead," it read, in bold blackness.

I skimmed through the article, leaning to see around other fingers stabbing at points of interest. "...found in his home..." someone murmured. "Authorities suspect poison!" someone else gasped.

The cast broke into fragmented conversations, talking over the top of each other. "Murder!" Erik exclaimed. "Who would-?"

Sam snorted in half-amusement and gestured ironically around the group. We'd all felt the bite of the Curmudgeon's acid keyboard at some point, all entertained wistful notions of him undergoing a painful and unusual death.

*

Behind the counter, Sheryl watched the group with her usual beneficent eye. She'd grown to love these kids, with their crazy, overgrown dreams of stardom. They deserved it. They certainly didn't deserve the scathing critique that nasty man had been typing up when he stopped in for a coffee during the show. He hadn't even waited for the end, just slipped out during the intermission! So rude.

She yawned. It had been a long night.
jexia: (Me me)
Four and a half years ago, I went to work.

I had five-month-old twins.

And a five-year-old.

And no car. Every morning, I would somehow manage to get everybody out of the house at 6:15am. We'd walk to before-school care. On a good day, it would take 20 minutes. On a bad day... ever seen someone endeavouring to push a tank-like double pushchair while piggybacking a tantruming five-year-old?

Most days, I cried on the walk from before-school care to the train station. The train was never the same way around; some days the carriage with a pushchair area would be at the front, sometimes at the back. The best I could do was wait in the middle of the platform, and try to get there before all the seats were taken.

On a good day, people would deign to move over so that I could put the pushchair in the designated area. On a bad day, I got sworn at.

The express train took 50 minutes. On a good day, the babies would sleep, or at least babble to themselves. On a bad day, I would do my best to soothe two fractious babies, usually by feeding them. If I fed them, I got glared at. If they cried, I got glared at.

I'd take them to daycare, hurriedly feed them, and rush to work, getting there around 8:30am. I juggled my schedule so I could feed them, but that meant my only breaks were spent with babies' mouths on my boobs. I tried not to drop crumbs in their eyes.

Come 5:30pm, we'd join the crowds rushing to the train station. The trains ran on time, sometimes. The commuters relaxed, slouched in their seats, and I anxiously worked to make sure that my children didn't disturb them. Then I'd walk home, barely in time for dinner and a goodnight kiss from my eldest, before frantically trying to keep up with housework and laundry.

I'd fall into bed, so exhausted that I couldn't shut my brain up enough to sleep properly.

Did the twins sleep through? Did they hell. They were up three times a night...

...each.

After paying for daycare, before- and after-school care and train tickets, I was going through this hell for $140 a week. I couldn't do it. After two months, I came home one night, having contemplated how much easier it would be to be under the train, and wrote my resignation letter.

While working out my notice, I was assaulted by one of the "passenger operators" for daring to breastfeed while I sat on the floor of the train because nobody offered a seat. I'd been abused too many times to dare to ask for one. And then his supervisor came and told me that I had no right to bring my children on the train and that I needed to stay in town until the rush cleared at 7:30pm.

He told me not to cry.

It was cry, or punch him in the nose. I think he was lucky that I cried.

It took some adjusting to being a stay-at-home mum. My career, my brain, was essential to my self-image. I struggled through feelings of despair and uselessness. Hubby paid off his student loan, and while I congratulated him, I secretly mourned my untouched debt.

Four and a half years later, my children are all at school. Suddenly the financial balance of childcare and wages has started to tip in the other direction. There's still lots to organise if we're both working; what about sickness, after-school activities, and school holidays?

But we'll make it work, somehow.

We'll have to.

I went to work today.
jexia: (Me me)
Gary hated the opera. Wailing warbling wobbling women, trilling away in incomprehensible duets. Even when they used English, they kept singing over the top of each other. Ridiculous. But Cleo wanted to go, and what Cleo wanted... he sighed, and stared at his neatly-hung shirts, trying to choose one.

It's not that Cleo had any particular love for the opera, herself. It's that the neighbours had raved about it, and she was determined to impress them. It's all she seemed to do, these days; they'd only bought the house a month ago, and she wanted to fit in.

He suppressed the thought that she never would; the other houses around here were filled with the guffawing, giggling products of the best British public schools, and a plumber and his wife were never going to be particularly welcomed. Lottery winnings could buy you a house, but they couldn't buy you that ineffable, upper-class grace.

Cleo tried, he knew. One day, he'd borrowed her phone to google "electrician woldingham", and "elocution lessons woldingham" had come up in the history. She'd taken to flicking through a thesaurus before bed, consciously expanding her vocabulary so she could converse in a manner resembling theirs. She would tentatively use the new words in conversation, and look to him for approval. Like he knew! He was a plumber! He just wanted to kiss her and tell her to be herself, the woman he loved.

A clattering of coat-hangers came from the walk-in closet on her side of the bed. Ludicrous, really, to have not one but two walk-in closets, but she'd set about filling hers with a joyful avarice that made him smile. They'd got by okay before the lottery win, but they could indulge now. It made him happy.

"Darling, it's nearly time to go," Cleo called. "Are you dressed?"

"Nearly," he called back, and clattered his own coat-hangers.

"Wear the tux!" she called back.

Gary winced. He'd never imagined himself as the sort of person to own a tux, but Cleo had insisted. He picked out trousers, shirt, jacket, and tie. Dressed, he emerged to find Cleo bustling about, trying on jewellery in the mirror. He grinned. She looked glorious, her dress skimming down over her curves.

"You look ravishing! Sure we have to go?" he said, waggling his eyebrows and patting the bed.

Cleo grinned back, and waved the tickets at him. "Definitely. I got us the best seats in the house! Front row, centre. I wonder what the Harrington-Smythes will think of that!"

#

The Harrington-Smythes didn't think much of that, since they were sitting next to Gary and Cleo. Julian and Eloise offered courteous greetings, though Gary was sure he caught a glimpse of a smirk shared between the other couple.

The seats were plush, with rich red velvet that made Gary want to doze off. Not much chance of that, though, with seats directly in front of the orchestra pit, and two burly, horned-helmeted sopranos conducting aural war over a rotund tenor. Generous bosoms trembled under the combined force of industrial corsetry and operatic lungs, and Gary amused himself by imagining what would happen if the corset strings broke. Cleo watched happily, though her frequent consultations of the programme suggested he wasn't the only one who was perplexed.

The scene ended, with the tenor marched off stage at shoulder-height, standing on a giant shield and brandishing an axe. Someone with the deep, gravelly voice of an operatic Darth Vader, and the backing of an enthusiastic chorus of Viking villagers, bemoaned the loss of his wife. Or possibly mother.

Gary started to fidget. The two beers he'd downed to steel himself for the evening were jostling for attention in his bladder. At last the curtains descended with the audience shuffle that signalled intermission, and he could excuse himself.

As he left, he saw Cleo lean over to Eloise, and overheard her say, "Aren't we luc- privileged to be here tonight? To observe such a wonderful event?"

Eloise answered her with a disdainful, "Indeed," then promptly turned away, pretending interest in something on the other side of the room. Cleo gaped, then slumped back into her seat, staring fiercely at her hands.

Gary fumed all the way to the bathroom, and fumed all the way back. He clasped Cleo's hand as the curtain lifted again, silently willing his love and support into her.

The next scene managed to engage his interest. The two burly sopranos were apparently now in a love triangle, no, square, with the rotund tenor and the gravelly bass. Either that, or it was a very enthusiastic family reunion. The tenor, with cup in hand, gestured and proclaimed dramatically, and the chorus answered with fervent echoes.

A dramatic pause in the music was filled by a metallic crash from off-stage. The cast started in surprise as the giant shield from the first act rolled across the stage, and the music came to an uncertain halt. The rotund tenor jumped backwards to avoid the shield, but tripped over a soprano's foot. Stumbling, he managed to somehow headbutt the bass in the stomach. The large man, already rather flushed from his sonorous exertions, turned a peculiar purple-green, and promptly vomited.

Into the tuba.

A startled cry of "What the hell?!" was heard from the depths of the orchestra pit, followed by a thump and a howl of pain. Gary, convulsing with laughter, unashamedly stood to see what was happening. Julian and Eloise glared at him, and Cleo clutched nervously at his hand, but Gary didn't care. He was too busy laughing at the antics of the musicians.

The tuba player had dropped the fouled tuba onto the trombonist's foot, who was hopping up and down, holding her squashed appendage in one hand. The other hand still held her trombone, but since she wasn't looking too closely at what she was doing, she managed to whack the trumpeter in the side of the head with it. The trumpeter fell off his chair, causing a domino effect of toppling music stands. Violinists and cellists fluttered nervously in the front rows, and the conductor slowly swiped his hands over his face in horror or despair.

The toppling music stands finally reached the double bassist, who, in attempting to protect her instrument, somehow managed to whack the table containing assorted percussion instruments. One end folded, and a maraca flipped into the air, performing a perfect parabola and striking Eloise between the eyes with the exact sound of a dropped coconut.

Eloise collapsed in pain and surprise. Gary collapsed in laughter, wiping tears from his eyes and snorting in a decidedly lower-class way.

He loved the opera.
jexia: (Me me)
Hesychia jolted upright before she was really awake, the sound of a fretful baby twanging an instinctive, maternal place inside her. She eased to the edge of the bed, careful not to jolt her sleeping husband, and reached for Aeolus before his disquiet could turn into full-blown crying.

She scooped him up from the crib beside the bed, sshhh-ing him gently, and cradled him against her shoulder. The vertical motion startled him. Aeolus fell silent, and she felt his body stiffen against her hands. He broke wind with a volume surprising from one so small. She leaned him back to look at his face, and his murky eyes gazed back with an expression of comical astonishment. Hesychia laughed quietly to herself, and put him back against her shoulder, patting his back. He'd never settle if he was full of wind.

Her patting settled into a rhythm that reminded her of an old song, and she found herself humming it under her breath. Her husband, Hypnos, twitched and rolled over. Hesychia froze. He'd be dreadful in the morning if he didn't get enough sleep.

Aeolus filled the silence with a resounding burp. Hypnos grumbled incoherently and pulled the blankets up around his ears, as the baby began the head-bobbing searching that indicated he was looking for milk. Hesychia sighed and settled into bed, arranging the bedding and pillows so that Aeolus could safely feed while she was lying down. At least it might be quiet enough for her to doze, that way. She'd need her energy for the morning.

#

Mornings were always a disaster, and this one more than most. Homados thundered down the stairs, his dark hair tousled from the tumult of the night. He never slept well, his dreams full of glory and the roar of battle. "Mom!" he shrieked. It didn't matter how often Hesychia told him to call her "Mētēr", he wanted to do what his classmates did. He didn't like the old language.

He devoured his cereal as if he didn't know when he'd get to eat again, his cutlery clashing against the bowl. Hesychia flinched at every clank, with one ear attuned for sounds of Aeolus waking. She was tired, and her muscles ached from dozing on her side, curled around Aeolus with her arm for a pillow. Her body yearned for a coffee. She didn't have time for it, though, as she bustled around making lunches and assembling the paperwork that this society seemed to find so essential for schooling.

It was so much easier in the old days. Hesychia smiled as she remembered her lessons, around the table in the big house on Olympus. Her mother, Dike, had been big on morals and ethics lessons. There was this one time—

Oh! The time! Normally Eris would be at the table by now, hiding the spoons and salting the sugar. Hesychia padded up the stairs and called quietly for her. No response. She checked Eris' bed, expecting her tousled blonde head on the pillow, sneaking a few more moments of sleep. Not there. Hesychia called for her again, raising her voice more than she liked to.

"Eris! Where are you? It's time to get ready for kindergarten!"

No response. Hesychia checked all the usual places— under the bed, in the closet, behind the door— without luck. Her pulse accelerated with each place she looked. It was probably just Eris being Eris... but what if it wasn't?

Hesychia poked her head into the master bedroom. Hypnos snuffled and snored to himself, but at least he wasn't obnoxious about it. Hesychia peered into Aeolus' crib. After feeding him, she'd weathered three more burps and a borborygmic serenade from his nether regions before getting him back to sleep. He was still sleeping, tranquil and still, and Hesychia suppressed a surge of jealousy.

It was just about time to try to get Hypnos up for work, anyway, so Hesychia "accidentally" jolted the bed as she checked under it. When he didn't noticeably rouse, she steeled herself and coughed loudly. "Honey, have you seen Eris?"

He snorted and rolled over. She wondered if she should keep searching the room, and then realised that if Eris had been in here, it would be obvious. She could never resist playing tricks on her sleeping father. At least his eyebrows had grown back in... mostly.

Hesychia trotted through the house, trying to curtail her growing alarm, and calling for Eris. At last she heard a faint giggle from the bathroom. She'd already checked there, and mentally crossed it off her list, but she groaned to herself as she realised she hadn't checked behind the shower curtain. The rings rattled as she yanked it back.

Eris gazed blandly up at her mother, her blue eyes disingenuous as always. She was dressed in her favourite party dress, coated in a thick layer of viscous goo. Hesychia sniffed the air. She couldn't tell what all of it was, but there was definitely Homado's blue bubble bath, Hesychia's expensive conditioner, and ice-cream. The ice-cream was obvious, because the not-quite-empty container was perched upside-down on Eris' head. A chocolate trickle ran down her pert little nose, and a pink little tongue stuck out to catch the drip.

Hesychia screamed silently through gritted teeth. They needed to leave in ten minutes. Aoelus would need feeding, lunches weren't made, Hypnos was still asleep, and now she had to deal with THIS?

"Mētēr! Look at me!" Eris beamed. "I'm an ice-cream truck!" She leapt out of the shower, ducked past Hesychia and ran down the hallway, shrieking the familiar song. Sticky drops of blue bubblebath and chocolate ice-cream spattered behind her.

"STOP! WOULD YOU JUST STOP?!" Hesychia bellowed. Eris' footsteps skidded to a halt, then came padding cautiously back towards the bathroom. They stopped outside the door.

Hesychia collapsed to the bathroom floor, tears running silently down her face. She covered her face, ashamed that she'd shouted. Her shoulders shook as she sobbed with suppressed frustration and exhaustion. It was so hard. So hard. All she wanted was some quiet. She needed it.

She heard a new set of footsteps come down the hallway. There was a muttered conversation between father and daughter, inaudible except for his final words, "Use the hose then." Eris tiptoed away, her normal frenetic pace subdued for once.

Hypnos poked his head around the door frame. "You OK, honey?" he asked, trying to stifle a yawn. He came in and sat beside her, oblivious of the colourful splatters, and held his arm up, offering a hug. Hesychia leaned into him, relishing his closeness.

"It's so hard. I don't know if I can do it any more! What were we thinking?" she mumbled. Hypnos squeezed her gently, encouraging her to go on. "We used to be so good, you and me. We could be ourselves! Who am I now? I can't be the goddess of silence when all I do is yell at the kids!"

Hypnos yawned. "I know exactly what you mean. It feels like... it is eight years since I had a proper sleep." He shrugged. "It is hard. I just keep telling myself that it's not forever." He looked half-seriously at her, his newly-grown eyebrow arched. "It's not forever, is it?"

Heschyia laughed. "They'll grow up some day," she said, then froze, stricken by the thought of what a teenage Eris might be like.

He grinned. "Until then, you can be the goddess of sometimes-silence, and I'll be the god of wants-to-sleep."

Hesychia laughed, and leaned in to kiss him. He returned the kiss with interest, and reached to stroke her hair. A whoop from downstairs startled them, and they sprang apart.

"MOM!" Homados cried. "Eris put the hose in the piano again!"
jexia: (Me me)
Kayla turned the TV off and threw the remote onto the couch. Every channel was filled with shots of illness, death and riots. New York was quarantined and under martial law, and she feared it would come to Boston next. She was terrified. On the edge of the couch, her head in her hands, she prayed that David would be home soon.

"Mommy?" A small, sticky hand pressed against her leg, and a blonde head tried to squeeze into the space between her arms. She opened them wide, and helped Noah climb onto her lap. Kayla wrapped her arms around him and held him tight until he wriggled. "Mommy okay?"

"I'm okay, honey." She discreetly wiped her tears away. "Mommy's just a bit sad that Daddy's not home yet."

"Where Daddy?" Noah looked concerned, his little three-year-old face crumpled.

"Daddy's at work. He's helping make medicine for sick people, remember?"

"All sick. No playing," Noah said, paraphrasing the explanation Kayla had given him that morning about why he was at home, instead of going to daycare. There hadn't been any cases officially reported in Boston yet, but Kayla wasn't taking any chances.

"That's right. Mommy doesn't want you to get sick, so we're staying home." Noah slid off her lap, so Kayla stood up and followed him to his room.

"I do blocks now," Noah said. "Mommy play?"

Kayla smiled and sat next to him as he tipped out the bucket of blocks. "Sure thing, kiddo."

#

Darkness fell, and David found them in Noah's room. They'd had a perfunctory dinner- baked beans on toast- and Noah had splashed through bathtime with his usual glee. Now Kayla sat next to his bed, watching the curves of his pale eyelashes resting on his velvet skin.

"Hey, love," David said softly. He leaned forward and brushed his hand over Noah's blonde hair. Noah stirred, his eyelids twitching, and Kayla suppressed an urge to snatch him into her arms. "How's he been?"

"Good. How was work? Is your team making progress with the vaccine?"

David shrugged and looked away. "Some. Maybe not enough. Have you been watching the news?"

Kayla shook her head. "It was too..." She paused, and shrugged helplessly.

He touched her arm, and looked into her eyes. "There's... been some cases here. Just announced, but I think it's been going on for a few days."

She stood and leaned against him. They held each other for long moments, sharing fear, exhaustion, and comfort. The need for closeness grew, and they moved to their room, to distract each other with familiar rhythms. They slept, though their sleep was punctuated with dreams of loss and uncertainty.

#

Kayla awoke with a start before dawn, to find the other half of the bed cooling and empty. A moment of disorientation passed before she realised the muffled, familiar sound of David's car door had woken her. She smiled; David wanted to help, and work was how he could.

It was that desire to help others that had drawn him to the pharmaceutical business in the first place. He'd always been brilliant, but it wasn't until he'd met Byron that he'd found the financial backing to really make a difference. They'd founded a company together, and some early successes with malarial medicines had kept the government contracts flowing.

David and Kayla had done well out of it, alright, but the vast bulk had gone to Byron. Kayla knew that Byron had supplied 90% of the initial funding, but David had done more than 90% of the work. David defended the split, out of stubborn loyalty. It still rankled, especially given Byron's family background.

Her dislike of Byron came from more than his greed, though. There was a whole host of other slights. The breaking point had been a dinner party where Byron had made it clear that his financing entitled him to more than David's mind. She'd barely restrained herself from slapping him, and their interactions since then had been limited and of the barest curt civilities.

Kayla sighed and rolled over, huddling the blankets around her shoulders. Might as well try for a little more sleep before Noah woke up.

#

The day passed much as the previous. Kayla and Noah pottered around together, alternately playing and doing housework. She avoided the TV, preferring to maintain a facade of normality. Noah leaped at the chance to have fish fingers for dinner, and his bath had a double helping of bubbles in it. She laughed as he crowned himself with bubbles, and then made a Santa Claus beard that exploded when he sneezed.

David arrived home early, as Noah and Kayla were mopping bubbles off the bathroom wall. His footsteps were hurried, and the front door slammed behind him.

"It's spreading," he said. He didn't have to say what "it" was. "They might quarantine. The cellphone towers are already down." He looked at Noah, draped in a towel and watching him with wide eyes. "I'll get him dressed, you get your things together."

Kayla dashed into the hallway and stood there for a moment in stunned fear. It was actually happening. Could they get out? Should they? Where would they go?

The phone rang. Kayla stumbled as she ran to get it, and by the time she'd righted herself it had clicked over to voicemail. She gave it a few moments, then with shaking hands dialed the voicemail number.

"You have one new message, received today at 5:13pm. Press one-" She hit the 1 key and listened.

It was Byron. "David. I tried your cell but it's down. They're quarantining, it's done. But the helicopter's at work, meet me there before six and we can get out. There's only room for one, though."

The phone clicked, and the monotonous voicemail came on. "Press one to play the message again. Press two to save. Press three to delete."

In disbelief, she pressed 1, and started to listen to the message again. That slimy bastard.

David called to her from down the hallway, something about Noah's shoes, and Kayla missed the end of the message.

"Press one to play the message again. Press two to-"

Kayla pressed 3.
jexia: (Default)
Chaz gritted her teeth around her E-Cig3000TM, and toyed idly with the glass in front of her. It didn't matter how the ads bleated "Just like the real thing!", an e-cig just wasn't the same as sucking down a soothing mouthful of smoke. There wasn't much choice, since cigarettes had been outlawed in the Nestlé Health Reform Act of 2031, but today, of all days, she missed them.

She took another disparaging sip of the whisky-flavoured SynthacolTM in her glass, single malt being another victim of the NHRA. A grim chuckle escaped her lips as she contemplated the lack of legal options for a self-loathing police detective. Another chuckle escaped, even grimmer this time, as she contemplated the fact that she'd have to start phrasing it as "A self-loathing ex-police detective." She drained her glass.

Tom, well-accustomed to the moods of his best customer, slid her another drink. She came here mostly because of Tom- the quiet, reliable, humanness of him. Most bars used robots these days. Oh, they were good at the job: accurate, fast, and gave counselling and advice just like the best bartenders used to... but she could never quite quell the sneaky feeling that the conversations were filed away and reported on.

"Rough day?" he asked, his busy hands wiping and stacking glasses.

Chaz grunted sardonically and gestured with her head towards the wall, where the state-mandated screens flashed their frantic images, though thankfully silenced. Gruesome scenes of an explosion looped, sandwiched between advertising for SynthacolTM, ChatterBotsTM and Friend in a BoxTM. The crowded stadium exploded and collapsed again and again, now in slow-motion, now in high-def, now zoomed in on some detail better left to the imagination. Presumably some newscaster was adding breathless commentary, maybe heaping scorn on the incompetence of the police department.

On her incompetence.

"The Edenmatic Stadium? You were involved in that?" he asked.

Chaz nodded.

Tom set a glass heavily on the bar. "It's... awful."

She nodded again, and downed a large swallow of "whisky". Tom opened his mouth as if to speak, but a pack of student-types rolled in the door, blathering about how charming and quaint it was to see a real live bartender. "Hamsters" or something, they called themselves. Tom hurried to serve them.

It's not like she could talk about it, anyway. There'd be an investigation, of course. All her stellar work (and it had been the best, hardest, most intense case in her career), wasted by one mistake. And the people... oh, the people.

Chaz emptied her glass, and brooded over the last, painstaking, 14 months. An informant had overheard a careless remark in an automated McDunkFryHutTM kiosk, and from there, meticulous undercover work had got her an intro to the terrorist network.

She'd done things she didn't quite like to contemplate in order to prove herself, with grudging approval from her police superiors. Eventually she'd earned their respect enough to be granted one of the communication devices she recognised from her childhood, an IPH1-6. Apparently the leader believed in "security via obscurity"; enough comm-hubs around the city supported the obsolete protocol that it worked, though occasionally you had to go for a bit of a wander.

They didn't completely trust her - they didn't completely trust anyone - and the cell structure of the group had kept her fairly restricted, but her knack for piecing things together had kept her on the trail to the top. Something big was going to happen, and it was going to be soon.

The trail had led to the 364th floor of the ExxonMobilSaatchi enviro-habitat, and a dingy room where the leader stared at his IPH1. She'd burst in the door, her back-up behind her, and stunned him. The device had chimed as he dropped it to the floor, and she'd scooped it up and read the screen. "ED-STAD G2G, ETA 1 MIN" it read, labelled with the codename of someone she knew had been purchasing very suspicious equipment. "R WE ON?"

With shaking hands she'd holstered her weapon. Her sweaty fingers had skittered across the screen, and it took a couple of attempts to hit the right keys and hit "Send". As the "Checking... Sending..." message blinked, she'd suddenly realised what the message now read. She'd collapsed to the floor in horror, a mere moment before an enormous flash and bang lit the room from outside.

"NO." "ON." So close. So wrong.
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