Tabula Rasa

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    1. The trees shook violently in the wind.
    2. I tried again.
    3. Hundreds of them appeared at once.
    4. The door closed with ease.
    5. The smell of lemons drifted through the house.
    6. Sun poured in through the thick leaves.
    7. It had been dark when we left.
    8. Seven cats sat along the back wall.
    9. She had seen the man before.
    10. “Welcome back.”
    11. The fair was the highlight of the year for the village.
    12. I squinted in the dim morning light.
    13. He ascended from the metro, glad for the air.
    14. Today I am going to take my dog for a walk.
    15. If you are reading this, then I am dead.
    16. The rain had been heavy all week.

    The trees shook violently in the wind.

    tom

    The trees shook violently in the wind.

    Their limbs groaning; straining. Steadfast, he stood between them, unyielding to the storm.

    I watched his silhouette against the fast darkening sky, the rain hammering against the glass. Each day he would wait, a promise fulfilled.

    A man is as good as his word.


    josh

    The trees shook violently in the wind.

    Ominous
    Something on the verge of terrible
    They woke me from my fragile sleep
    Did you hear them too?
    Did they rip you from slumber?

    Calm
    Something focusing on my weakened periphery
    They crystallised and sang softly to me
    Did your voice break through?
    Did it drown out the trees?


    I tried again.

    tom

    I tried again.

    The sound of the dial tone load and tiny in my ear. 7 rings. Nothing.

    Panic washed up over me like a treacherous sea but I hung to my life raft and breathed, knuckles white around the receiver.

    He smiled across the forecourt, his eyes wary.

    This was a mistake.


    josh

    I tried again.

    I picked it up by the handle and repositioned my grip. The perspiration that covered my palms made the damn thing so slippery - constant splashes of mud didn’t help.

    I drove the metal end into the ground and finally heard the dull thud I was hoping for.

    My breath stopped.


    Hundreds of them appeared at once.

    tom

    Hundreds of them appeared at once.

    Interdimensional beings having travelled thousands of lightyears to deliver an important message to humanity.

    However, due to a slight miscalculation of the effects of quantum tunnelling, they winked into existence at a minuscule fraction of their size and were accidentally hoovered up by Mrs Hurstbridge from number 42.


    josh

    Hundreds of them appeared at once.

    Tiny, illuminative things that lit up above me in the blink of an eye. Stars. I blinked once more and they were gone, replaced with heavy clouds.

    Blink. Stars.

    Blink. Clouds.

    Years passed every time I closed my eyes.

    I blinked one final time. My eyes opened, everything was dark.


    The door closed with ease.

    tom

    The door closed with ease.

    Ah, she thought, this is not my house. A simulacrum.

    She had suspected that something was amiss, a ruse to let her guard down. A simulation. They let her go, she goes home, leads them to the hidden cache.

    But her house is old, and the front door sticks.


    josh

    The door closed with ease.

    It sang a sweet whisper as it sank into its home. A gentle but forceful exhalation of air from the lips, pursed, pulsing.

    What does an exhale sound like?

    What does wood bring to mind?

    It is louder than you might think. It breathes.

    Are doors always made from wood?


    The smell of lemons drifted through the house.

    josh

    The smell of lemons drifted through the house.

    It must be Thursday, he thought to himself, as the sharp sweetness hit his nose. Every Thursday since the day they met she had made lemon drizzle cake. He’d never been able to tell her that he despised baked goods, she loved the tradition of it too much.

    He opened the window and got back to work. An hour or so later he went downstairs but couldn’t see her anywhere. The cake sat delicately on the counter next to a note. She was leaving, for good. Apparently she could no longer bear his rigid, weekly demand for baked goods. Ironic.


    tom

    The smell of lemons drifted through the house.

    Real lemon. Not the sickly acrid taste of "lemon flavouring" but the fresh, sweet, acidic tang of actual lemons.

    I dropped my bags in the hall and ran into the kitchen. My wife stood there with a wry smile and a small glass of fresh lemonade.

    My mouth flapped uselessly as I tried to process the scene. "H-how?"

    Her eyes sparkled, revelling in my astonishment. "I saved up and managed to pull a few strings at work. Here." She pressed the glass and kissed my cheek. "Happy birthday."

    I smiled, raised the glass and brightness exploded on my tongue.


    Sun poured in through the thick leaves.

    tom

    Sun poured in through the thick leaves.

    It cascaded across the wooden floor, drenching the room in it's golden light and splashing haphazardly across the white linen sheets of the bed in the center of the room.

    The occupant stirred, the only movement amongst the fleshy vegetation, and fumbled for their glasses balanced on a pile of dusty books by the bed.

    The fecund scene dissolved into focus and they looked around in alarm.

    The room was dense with vegetation. Branches forced their way through the broken windows with thick vines were strung between them. Orchids blossomed in one corner.

    How long had they been asleep?


    josh

    Sun poured in through the thick leaves.

    They were either ficus, or magnolia, but I couldn’t quite work them out. The veins on the underside of each leaf were so distinct, so illustrated, the sun illuminating every flowing river of life.

    I pulled one from its branch, allowing more sunlight to break through, blinding me momentarily before my eyes adjusted. The leaf felt rough in my fingers.

    “Magnolia.” I confirmed to the tree, who agreed with me in a stoic silence. I let the leaf fall to the ground and I watched it effortlessly, weightlessly saunter downwards.

    As it descended, I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply.


    It had been dark when we left.

    josh

    It had been dark when we left.

    We knew we wanted to head north this time, to find somewhere we’d never even heard of. One more fresh start. We only had enough to fill one suitcase between the two of us - our entire lives in one bag. It was quite pathetic if you really dwelled on it.

    We couldn’t afford a train ticket, so we followed the tracks upward. Soon, we noticed a wet, trickling light edging its way along the metal. It turned black to orange to white, and then it took over our vision entirely.

    In that moment, I thought that maybe we were free.


    tom

    It had been dark when we left.

    It was still dark hours later as we trudged into the endless night. We had to make the most of the coolness before the searing days began again.

    It had been the same since she was born.

    Months spent sheltered underground; the smell of damp earth; the monotonous routines.

    Months spent dragging their lives through the night over the blistered surface of this forsaken terrain; forever heading south.

    Following the needle of father's compass.

    Her compass now.


    Seven cats sat along the back wall.

    josh

    Seven cats sat along the back wall.

    Scrappy, slinky, smelly, svelte, serpentine, silent, sassy, they sat along that wall and watched every step I took.

    Six days later and they were still there, a mass of fur becoming matted and tangled. Still watching me. Sadly I began to lose my mind.

    Something inside of me snapped and I knew I had to destroy them. Shots fired into the abyss of the garden in the direction of the seven cats that sat along the back wall.

    Small bullet holes were scattered over their bodies, but still they sat.

    Seriously, how the fuck do you get rid of strays?


    tom

    Seven cats sat along the back wall.

    As an astute observer, I thought this was odd. Maybe three co-located felines would pass without comment, but seven? This seemed worth investigating.

    They had their backs to me and their tails swept lazily against the rough brickwork as they stared at something on the other side.

    I grasped the top of the wall and hauled myself up, to sit up among the cats. They shuffled along to accomodate their new neighbour.

    We watched a crow struggle to pull a fat worm from the soil. The worm wore a wedding ring.

    As an astute observer, I thought this was odd


    She had seen the man before.

    josh

    She had seen the man before.

    He was tall, graceless, though seemingly purposeful in his stride. His cap sat at an aggressively jaunty angle - this defining feature is what gave away his recognisability. People simply don’t wear caps in that way any more.

    Although repulsed she was also intrigued. Something happened in the pit of her stomach this time, so she tilted her beret and began the pursuit. She enjoyed watching his shoulders bounce with each clumsy step, losing herself in the chase. Rounding corner after corner, she realised they were just circling the same block over and over again. Something in the mind-numbing simplicity of it intrigued her further.

    Finally he stopped in his tracks, at the doorway of the cafe where she had seen him. He turned slowly and she stayed firm in her stance, preparing her body for the inevitable meet. She gasped aloud at the sight of his face, handsome and gruesome all at once. In that moment she decided that this would be her partner for the rest of her days to come; the man that would father her children, mourn her after she was taken from this earth. His husband walked out of the cafe and took his hand cautiously.


    tom

    She had seen the man before.

    He had been a fish once, and they had spent a pleasant afternoon swimming near the hull of a yacht moored at the Porto de Camerota in Italy. She was a fish too, at the time. Some of her happiest days.

    Now they were riding on a bus through the back streets of Kathmandu. As humans, of course. Two fish sitting on a bus in Kathmandu had bigger problems to worry about than a familiar face. She had stared too long and he shot a quizzical glance, though not unkindly. He did not remember her, she could tell.

    They met again, 864 years later on Proxima Centauri B. This time they were both a type of conscious cephalopod that had been bioengineered to help in the Martian water wars. He remembered this time, or at least pretended to remember - she could never quite tell. Those three years were blissful but bitterly brief. She rued that they met as creatures with such short lifespans.

    She thinks about him a lot, even now as she huddles with her mate against the bitter antarctic winds. She wonders what he is doing know and whether she will ever see him again.


    “Welcome back.”

    tom

    “Welcome back.”

    The words boom across the baking concrete, thrusting themselves into the people and the dust and the hot air. A jingoistic ditty echoes harshly off the grey walls.

    "Your sacrifice is what allows our great nation to flourish. To show his gratitude, here are some words from our noble leader." A generic, hollow speech buzzes out of the speakers like so many flies. A small collection of party officials wave flags and clap. The sea of blue overalls, recently disgorged from the trains behind them, stand numbly - this is not the return they had been promised.

    They were told they would return heroes.

    They were told children were composing songs of their sacrifice.

    They were told a proud nation awaited their return.

    An angry wail erupts from near the edge of the crowd. A scuffle ensues as a soldier goes to ensure discipline amongst the returning workers. The sea writhes, a flood of emotion breaking the walls of indoctrination. The soldier drowns in the flood, shots ring out, then more. The sea turns red. The flags stop waving as the officials view the scene with displeasure.

    The speech concludes and the national anthem plays.

    Flies feast on heroes blood.


    josh

    “Welcome back.”

    Although somewhat ominous, I felt the energy surge through my system the exact moment the words left her lips. The kinetic fizz that crackled along my surfaces with each step beyond the threshold grew and I could feel myself recharge. Admittedly, I hadn’t been back in years, but every particle was familiar, every sight and sound a nostalgic chorus. I fell back into my old rhythm immediately, dipping into former haunts and favourite spaces. At the end of the day, my soul replenished, I turned around and went home.

    -

    “Welcome back.”

    This time there was an undeniably sinister tone to the delivery. It promised something darker, something more sour than just a pleasant experience. Passing the threshold today, nothing crackled on my skin, there was barely a spark. Somebody had turned down the saturation, or the lights, and the usual amicable warmth had dipped to a marginally uncomfortable chill. I heard the echo of a footstep behind me and as I turned around, she stopped in her tracks.

    “Enjoying your visit?”

    She had never asked this before.

    “No.” Best to be honest, I figured.

    “Shame.” Bodies leapt from the shadows and I was thrust into darkness. I never came back.


    The fair was the highlight of the year for the village.

    tom

    The fair was the highlight of the year for the village.

    For weeks beforehand the anticipation built like pressure inside a bottle of Jack Pendergast's beer until there was an almost unbearable tension in the village, exacerbated still by the erection of the white canvas tent. On the day, the women awoke early to garland their hair with wild flowers whilst the men awoke earlier still to polish their boots, oil their beards and fuss over their belt buckles.

    Families waited anxiously, pacing the house, until what seemed like a reasonable time to burst forth onto the village green like so much froth. Merry greetings rang out as neighbours emerged and wound their way towards the waiting tent, arms laden with baskets of cakes, pies, beer, cider, apples, bread, butter, cream, honey and many more delicious things, prepared in the most careful way for this day of celebration.

    Not just a day of feasting, this too was the day when the budding young women of the village would be bestowed a husband, chosen through careful negotiation between the heads of the families. This would be the day that Mary left home to start her new life.

    Her father called her name as her hands skittered nervously over her gently protruding stomach.


    josh

    The fair was the highlight of the year for the village.

    It was the one time we all came together, weapons and wagers laid aside, and we were united. Everyone in the village could show and sell whatever they wanted, as long as they had grown or created or made them by hand.

    This year, Vinnie had promised his world-famous cannolis, and Brenda’s embroidered kettle cosies were sure to make an appearance for the twelfth fair in a row. I had never contributed anything before - I hadn’t yet come into my artisanal speciality. This year, however, I was debuting my squash soup.

    I was getting myself set up when I looked to the stall to my left and saw Brenda unveil her creation. My eyes widened in fear.

    “Brenda, where the fuck are your embroidered tea kettle cosies?”

    “Oh, I didn’t fancy making them for the twelfth fair in a row. I thought I’d try something new with a recipe I threw together.” Her evil eyes glinted behind tortoiseshell frames. “It’s squash soup”

    I marched to her stall and thrust a spoon in the vat before me. Taking it to my lips I whiffed the aroma of chillies and tasted crème fraîche. My two super-secret ingredients.

    That bitch stole my recipe.


    I squinted in the dim morning light.

    josh

    I squinted in the dim morning light.

    It wasn't that I'd never seen the light at this exact time before, but it had never taken me by such surprise.

    There was an effervescent glow that I hadn't ever witnessed. Something magic and unexpected that both charmed and bewildered me. I stared. I couldn't tear my eyes away. Colours seeped in from every corner.

    The soft purple haze that crept from the West gently lingered a kiss on the edges of the fiery East. My eyes held focus on the clouds that were starting to grow in depth and hue.

    I felt the first drop of morning rain as I saw you round the closest corner.

    I was happy to see you, I was happy to be here to witness this morning. A gentle smile broke on my face.

    You caught my eye as the rain fell heavier than before. You erupted into a run as the sky continued to do so too.

    A stray root from the Giant Oak sent you toppling into me and we crashed onto the sodden floor, laughing and bruised.

    I rolled onto my back and looked to the sky once more.

    Still squinting in the dim morning light, I was in love.


    tom

    I squinted in the dim morning light.

    Shit.

    It hadn't worked.

    Again.

    Forgetting the cables I tried to sit up, only to be jerked back onto my pillow. I removed the clasp round my chin and hook the helmet off.

    Cold, pallid light filtered into the room through gaps in the cardboard taped to the grimy windows. Lights blinked on and off on the mound of electrical equipment that surrounded the sagging mattress on the floor. One of the lights stayed persistently red. These fucking protocols...

    I sat down at the computer and ran my eyes over the last nights logs, idly sipping at yesterdays coffee. Lines and lines of log messages flashed past my eyes as I tried to figure out what went wrong, mumbling to myself.

    "Delta wave sleep detected at 11:57...great... sino-wave correlation... yep... frequency spikes at 3Hz... fine... aha... packet loss detected... ah... no... packet loss corrected... routing tables updated... uplink established... ah fuck" I realised the cause of the problem, I had guessed the wrong hashing algorithm and was getting kicked out of their systems.

    I corrected the cryptographic functions to use SHA-256 and re-compiled the binary.

    Tomorrow, I'll be free.

    Tomorrow, I'll be waking up in the Metaverse.


    He ascended from the metro, glad for the air.

    tom

    He ascended from the metro, glad for the air.

    They journey had been long and there was nothing to see in those stifling tunnels. He had finished his book after the first few hours; a cheap mass-produced propaganda piece about a brave soldier fighting for his country in the North. It never mentioned why they were fighting.

    Eyes adjusting, he squinted at the grey sky, the grey buildings and the grey people. The city the same as when he left - a little grubbier perhaps, a little more tired. He bought a cup of coffee at a newscafé; stood eyeing the headlines while it was disgorged. Victory Declared in the North, Valiant Heroes to Return Home. He didn't feel valiant.

    His eyes noticed a man standing on the opposite side of the road while his brain caught up. An old colleague, from his time at the bank. They used to have him and his wife over for dinner. He tried to remember his name, as their eyes caught while his colleague crossed the road. The other set of eyes imperceptibly widened in surprise, before slathering a slippery smile across his lips.

    They exchanged pleasantries, before his old acquaintance excused himself and hurried down into the metro, like a man talking to a grieving widow, not wanting to spend long in the airs of their misfortunes. He never knew how Johnson managed to avoid the draft, connections he supposed.

    He crossed the road himself and started the 12 blocks to his apartment. Concrete pavement met concrete road met concrete residential slabs. Air whistled between the buildings and threw up the fine dust that they shed, evidence of a decaying city.

    It had been a long time since he had heard from his wife. All communication from the front was censored, which in effect meant that it got annihilated in the gnashing gears of bureaucracy. He wondered if she got the money he sent, the letters, the love.

    He passed shuttered shop after shuttered shop - only the ubiquitous newscafés seemed to be still operating, vending their sweet coffee and bitter words. The streets were almost empty, only a few stray dogs and stray children roamed the recreational zones, placed every four blocks.

    He entered into the foyer of one of the concrete monoliths, churches to efficiency and bureaucratic power. The front desk, manned by a porter when he left, was empty. The chair tipped onto it's back like some defeated beast.The red tiles were rendered a murky orange under the layers of dust and dirt blown in through the swinging door. Leaves clattered and chatted in the corner as the wind scurrilously entered on his tail.

    The elevator was out of order so he slung his duffel higher on his back and climbed the stairs to the fourth floor, sweat starting to bead under his heavy coat. Turning off onto his corridor, his heart palpitated with the excitement of a thousand imagined reunions. He approached his door and his hand trembled as he inserted the key.

    The lock didn't turn and a man answered within.


    josh

    He ascended from the metro, glad for the air.

    Another grimy, suffocating journey miles below ground. He hated every time he got into those tin cans on wheels, resented every second of every single trip, but he knew he had no choice. If he wanted to stay alive, to the tracks below ground he would go. That was the worst part of being psychic, he couldn't pick and choose what he could foresee. Winning lottery tickets? Forget it. Incoming fists headed straight for the temple? Impossible to see until they were mid-hurtle. His own demise? Clear as day and every detail of the gruesome scene ingrained in his brain like a snuff film on repeat. Having witnessed his own way out one day five years ago, he did all he could to avoid everything in that vision.

    As he took a moment to breathe in the sweet, clean air around him, his eyes met those of another standing a few feet away. They were intriguing, someone he hadn't seen before, although he had carried out this very familiar journey for the past 1,600 days. They had an air of exoticism, a height that was notably peculiar for a local and skin that radiated in this dull climate. The heavy feeling that seeped into his skin from the metro disappeared as their eye contact continued, and he felt in his core that he was being physically, emotionally, spiritually drawn toward them. Within a few minutes he knew their name, their desires, and their deepest secrets and fears. Something shifted that morning, he felt the seismic quake.

    The next three years sped past in the blink of an eye - a consuming whirlwind of romance. A whirlwind that was filled with adventures to the furthest corners of the earth, petty drunken arguments, and the best sex he'd ever experienced. The visions subsided. He was so caught up in living life that he had lost sight of his imminent death. In a moment of domestic bliss, filling the kettle, flicking through the calendar on the wall and checking the date casually one Saturday morning, a cold dread filled him from the inside.

    The psychic instincts that used to plague his existence threw themselves into full throttle once more, and before him, his vision was taken over by that familiar scene - the empty junction, the faulty traffic lights, the truck going full-speed directly towards him as the same date flashed on the dashboard. It was all exactly the same as before, except this time, he wasn't the one driving. Looking to his right, he saw them behind the wheel, a distant look in their eyes that were slowly filling with tears as the glow from oncoming headlights filled the scene.

    The sound of a closing door pulled him back to the present moment as he heard them shout from the other room. Dazed from the vision, he turned off the kitchen tap.

    “What did you say?” His cold sweat dripped in time with the leaky plumbing.

    "Come on, we're going for a drive!"


    Today I am going to take my dog for a walk.

    tom

    Today I am going to take my dog for a walk.

    I promised.

    I wave goodbye to my partner and check the weather on my phone. It says that there is a chance of rain at 10am so perhaps I should go at lunch. I don't want to get wet.

    I make sure I have all the stuff I need for the walk. I find the leash and put it on the sideboard, out of sight of my dog, who follows me around the house. I make sure I have enough poo bags, but there are only three. What happens if I need more? My dog poos in front of someone and they see it and I don't have a bag so I can't pick it up so I have to walk on and leave it there and then they shout at me "Hey, you can't just leave that there, pick it up" and I have to explain that I don't have enough bags and they say "Well you should have thought of that before you set out on your walk" and they shake their head at me. Maybe I should wait until tomorrow, get my partner to pick up some more bags on the way home. But they will be so disappointed, "You said you would take the dog for a walk". I get a shopping bag and shove it in my pocket, then another just in case.

    It gets to midday and I have everything ready, but maybe I should have something to eat before I get out, so I don't get hungry. I make a quick sandwich and watch something on T.V. while eating it, and then wash up. I check the weather again. Damn, it says a 20% chance of rain still, and those clouds look like they might be building. I feel like I have a bit of a cold coming on so I don't want to get wet as that will make it worse. I'll just wait for those clouds to pass, then I will set off.

    What happens if my dog rushes into the road and gets hit by a car? What would I say to the driver? Should I shout at them? Do I need to get their insurance details? I Google what to do it your dog gets hit by a car. Should I know animal first aid?

    It gets to 3pm and the sky looks clear, but I grab a rucksack and put my raincoat in just in case. I also put in a snack, a torch and a water bottle, seeing as I have a bag. I remember that I should have done a load of washing. It would make sense to get it in the machine before I head out so it can make a start, but one of the items has a stain, so I grab the stain remover.

    I hear the front door open and shame explodes in my chest, I rush through to explain.

    Tomorrow I am going to take my dog for a walk.


    josh

    Today I am going to take my dog for a walk.

    This is the first thought that leaps into my mind and it is a good one to wake up to. I love my dog. I believe it will be a fantastic day, until I roll over and see the time. When I wake up at 6:15am in the morning, the sun is barely awake either. I peek at the window and of course, it’s raining outside - my excitement to walk Scooter was depleting with every passing second. Still, I tried to force good thoughts into my brain ‘I love my dog, I love my dog, I love my dog’, I told myself.

    I dragged my whole body out of bed and threw on some messy dog walking clothes. Groggily heading down the stairs, it was weirdly quiet in the house. There’s usually some kind of commotion from somewhere, but the entire house was totally still.

    "Scooter?" No dog came scurrying.

    "Mum? Mama May? Ellie?" I yelled into the empty hallway. No mums and no sister yelled back.

    I checked the note wall but nobody had written anything there. Weird. I guess they had all left for the day already and taken Scooter with them. Sweet, no dog to walk for me this morning. I spent this unexpected, precious time watching cartoons, threw back a bowl of cereal and headed out to grab the bus to school.

    To begin with, a typical school day unfolded - awful teachers, cool kids parading around, awkward pre- and post-pubescence filling the halls. Then my phone went off. It was Mama May asking how Scooter was on our walk this morning.

    “How would I know?” My blunt question as a response to her question was met with a strangely drawn out silence.

    “What do you mean?” A third question. I was getting more and more confused with every exchange.

    “I mean I woke up, nobody was home - not even Scooter - so I assumed one of you had taken him, I watched telly, ate some breakfast and I got the bus. Why? What happened?”

    “Oh my god, and that van was there this morning again. I’ve got to go.”

    I was miles beyond confused now. I went to text her and saw there was an unread message from an unknown number - it had a mysterious address and a picture. It was Scooter. My stomach dropped as I realised he had been stolen. I forwarded it to Mama May immediately.

    “Nobody takes my dog for a walk without my permission!” I screamed into the school hall. Grabbing an unchained bike from the bike store, I bolted to the address.

    I pulled up to the house at the same time as Mama May when we saw a crooked old lady emerge from a van.

    “Oh hi, May! Doesn’t Scooter look dashing?” She beamed from ear to ear. My confusion trebled. I looked at the side of the van.

    AUNTIE SUSAN’S MOBILE DOG GROOMING

    A mobile dog groomer.

    I was going to be in so much trouble at school.


    If you are reading this, then I am dead.

    tom

    If you are reading this, then I am dead.

    I paused and lifted up the pen. "The chances of anyone ever reading this..." I thought, tempted to scrunch it up. I didn't want to think too hard about the odds, so I carried on adding some details about my intentions and provisions and signed off. Looking around the cabin for an obvious spot, it ended up propped against the control panel.

    If my plan worked, I could come back and collect the note. If it didn't, at least they would know that I tried. I grabbed my rucksack and headed out the door before I could change my mind.

    ---

    The radio crackled with the response from the ship, "Roger that. Be advised, we are having difficulty scanning the area due to the atmospheric conditions. Keep your eyes peeled and radio in when you find something. Over and out."

    A brief sound of static then silence - just the slow clanking of the engine cooling. The three of them stepped away from the lander and proceeded on the bearings projected onto their vision, towards the downed ship.

    ---

    After some time I realised that the planet was almost stationary with no planetary rotation - the sun always hanging in the same spot in the sky. If I was going to get a signal back home I would have to travel a few clicks to the east, or get my transponder much higher. By my calculations that would take at least a few days of travel, though it is almost impossible to predict over such an unknown landscape. Luckily it was in the habitable belt, so I didn't have to rely on oxygen tanks. Whether I would be able to find food was a different matter.

    I tried to remember some of my training from the academy - keep moving, stay out of direct sunlight and never trust the wildlife. The second part was easy, thick vegetation seemed to cover most of the planet, or at least the parts he had seen, and blocked out most of the light. They reminded me of plants from Earth, but somehow they seemed more... alive. Leaves appeared to shift in my direction as I passed, as though they were regarding me.

    So far the going had not been difficult. I was following what seemed like a natural path through the forest, an animal track perhaps? I had not seen any sign of animals though - not a single note of birdsong or the signs of anything scratching in the undergrowth. The only sound accompanying my footsteps was the gentle rustle of leaves in the canopy.

    I trudged for days in the the ubiquitous twilight that characterised this thick forest.

    ---

    They entered into the tree line, using machetes to hack a path through. Dense vegetation blocked their path in every direction, bleeding a thick white sap at every cut. Soon, they were covered with it, coated in the sticky memories of their massacre.

    It took them hours to make a few metres of progress but their stim packs meant they could work for many more without rest. They relentlessly and mechanically hacked and sliced their way through the looping vines and fibrous stalks, thrusting themselves deep into the forest towards the wreck.

    ---

    I finally reached a spot where I could set up the signalling device, a small hill, relatively sparse of trees. I had no idea how long I had been walking, the ever present half light under the canopy meant there was no real sense of time. I turned on the transponder and the flashing red light let me know it was working. I stared up into the sky and wondered if anyone would hear my signal and come to my aid. I doubted it. I turned and started the walk back to my crashed ship.

    The going back was much harder than the journey here. By now I was running low on food and having to trepidatiously supplement my diet with the fruit of the trees I passed. The biochem analyser I had with me could give me some confidence of what wouldn't kill me, but it must have been damaged in the crash, indicating animal DNA present in the fruits.

    The path that was straight and clear on the way to the hill was now meandering and with branches reaching out across the path. The ground covered with roots and vines which snagged and pulled at my feet.

    After a few hours I was exhausted, and I rested my pack against a tree and slept.

    ---

    At 0830 the team reached the downed ship. While the forest had reclaimed the crash site, evidence of the scar was still there. At the centre, the ship, covered with creepers and vines. They tried radioing back to the dropship, but thick cloud blocked their signals. They sliced through the vines covering the doorway and entered.

    They had received the distress signal three days ago.

    ---

    I awoke, unable to move. My legs, my arms, my body ensnared in thick roots and vines. I could feel them slowly, deliberately tighten against my struggling form. My vision was obscured by the vegetation wrapping my head, face and neck. Rough bark against skin. With one eye I could just make out the small blot of light which was the sky, glimpsed through the canopy. It shrank as I was drawn deeper into the slowly writhing mass of roots. My body felt weak and I could not scream.

    ---

    They found the note on the dashboard and formulated a plan, they would follow the intended route I had laid out.

    They do not know I am not dead. In fact, I have never been more alive.

    I am part of something greater now.

    I feel the bite of their blade across my limbs as they carry on their journey.

    They will soon know. They will join me. Join us.

    They too will become part of the God tree.


    josh

    If you are reading this, then I am dead.

    "Quel? Je ne comprends pas cette lettre!"

    Sod’s law. Of course I ended up in the hands of a faraway Frenchman with no comprehension of the English language or the gravity of the situation I have found myself in. Not an ounce of understanding of the epic words he held in his hands. How did this happen? Everything was planned so perfectly and so meticulously, down to the finest, final detail. I had set off on my journey with the best of intentions - I was going to wash up on the shore of the neighbouring island (which was theoretically full of English speakers, may I add), and I was to eloquently and concisely alert my rescuer to the ongoing devastation and the tragedies that had occurred only a few miles away.

    It was becoming quickly evident, however, that the tides had vehemently turned after I had been launched into the sea and I was now seemingly millions of miles away from my intended destination. I wondered what this would mean for my fretful endeavours. Was it over before it had barely begun? Were my efforts dashed without a single smidgen of hope for a dramatic rescue of my surviving peers? For a well-travelled piece of paper, I was experiencing more feelings at this moment than most sheets do in a lifetime. Luckily, my ink was very very obviously not ink but almost a full bodies’ worth of blood, so my oblivious Frenchman somewhat understood that there was relative urgency in my words.

    My Frenchman was racked with inner turmoil, I could feel it in his aura. He understood that something wasn’t quite right, but really didn’t have the energy or patience for an adventure, which is exactly what I needed. His sweat was dripping all over me, so I could tell he really felt in a bind. As I was mulling over how best to play the situation, I felt myself rise from the earth in his purposeful grip. In a burst of uncharacteristic courage and curiosity, he took it upon himself to at least try and track somebody down who spoke my language and I had no choice but to surrender myself to his journey. My fate was quite literally in his hands.

    Over the next two weeks we travelled by horseback over mountains and forest planes. I didn't have any eyes so I had to trust that we were surrounded by beauty whenever my captor/protector let out an awe-inspired gasp. After two weeks I couldn't wait to get to some more ordinary landscapes.

    "Bonjour". Oh my goodness, my Frenchman had finally found somebody who would immediately understand me and end the demonic madness that had stolen my life.

    "Ja?" Jesus Christ.

    "Parlez-vous anglais?" I felt a morsel of hope rise within me that they did in fact parlez anglais.

    "Nein!” That hope was very quickly diminished. Onward we went.

    "Bonjour!” One iota of hope.

    "Si?" Diminished.

    "Bonjour!" Hope.

    "Oui?" Diminished and destroyed. I started to think that all English-speaking humans had been eradicated and that my dying pleas of desperation were set to fade into oblivion.

    The Frenchman's steps grew weary. We were both losing hope and gaining desperation and I knew we were close to simply giving in. The sound of an approaching car crept in from the sides and edged closer and closer as I attempted to muster all the hope in the world.

    "Bonjour."

    "Yes?"

    "Ah! Parlez-vous anglais?"

    "Yes. Can I help?"

    I was thrust into the hands of our newest companion with a desperate gusto. I was crumpled and my scribbled letters had started to fade under the unforgiving sun. After all we’d been through, however, my words still read true. My English saviour looked down at me with distrusting eyes and started to read aloud, an uncertain tremble underlying the cadence of each word.

    "If you are reading this, then I am dead. I have been held captive here, on Codfish Island since I was a small boy. There are many others here who I do not know. I have no idea if my family is alive but you must find them. You must let them know what happened to me and you must alert the police to the demonic devastation carried out by Dr P-"

    Wait, what? Where was the rest of me? Suddenly I felt half-complete. A scrappy rip cut through my mid-section. How did I not know I was torn?

    "What kind of weird joke is this?" My English saviour was as confused and as furious as I was. I was violently thrown back towards my original friend, crumpling and tearing even more en route to the dusty ground. Whatever remaining hope I felt had been well and truly depleted.

    As I gently fluttered down to the floor, in a careless manner that did not reflect the earth-shattering scenario I had fallen from, my Frenchman sighed a long, exasperated breath, stepped over me and started the long journey back to his home. I gathered dirt as life continued around me. Passersby oblivious to the severity they were passing by. I resigned myself to a life spent biodegrading into the earth beneath me.

    As my resignation sank in, my Frenchman too sighed once more with his whole body and his hands slunk into his pockets, gently caressing a stray piece of paper. I felt his touch. It was my other half. He stopped in his tracks and spun back around in my direction. He looked down at the second half of me, the half that held the key to this mission. He started in a run towards me as tremendous gusts of wind picked up between us. Against my will, I was lifted and started to rise and spin upwards. I could dimly hear the cries of my Frenchman but could barely make out a word.

    “Arrête ce papier!” Nobody around understood him.

    I willed my Frenchman to shout louder but the sound of the roaring wind was too much.


    The rain had been heavy all week.

    josh

    The rain had been heavy all week.

    It had been getting worse with each passing day. I checked the pans and buckets that had been scattered throughout the house. They were propped up against leaking walls and they sat underneath dripping ceilings. They were all close to overflowing, but I couldn't seem to swap them out quickly enough. It was relentless, and my frantic hands didn’t have the same speed they used to. As I turned away from one receptacle with a resigned sigh, I knocked over another with a careless foot. Too tired to do anything about the spillage, I slumped into a heap on the floor and held my fragile head in my weary hands. I simply wanted this downpour to stop. It was too much. It had been too much for months. I had had enough.

    I couldn’t remember what life was like before the skies had split, what dryness felt like, what clear air in my lungs felt like. I felt myself on the verge of something monumental. Letting out a prayer to the New Gods, I gave myself wholly to them, despair and desire mixing in an unholy combination. A gust of air tickled my forearm and slid its way over my exhausted bones. I opened my eyes and saw a bird sweetly float past the rain-drenched window. It seemed that the winds were turning.

    ***


    With the drought in full swing, he found himself longing for the rain, for the heavy monsoon that had once caused so much despair but was so much less brutal on the human body. For months now, the sky had remained clear, nothing but an endless path to the sun. It wasn't even that hot, but the Earth beneath him felt barren, desolate of any comfort. It itched. He could physically feel it. Vegetation had stopped growing, and the wildlife had started to change. With such a sudden end to natural hydration, the trees grew differently - they were mangled, and cruel. Animals that once ate what grew from the ground were forced to turn on one another. He sensed the world caving in on itself.

    He got onto his knees and clawed at the Earth, pulling up huge chunks of dirt and dust and soil. It got under his fingernails, caking his arms and clogging his pores.

    ‘Is this helping?’

    He screamed to the skies and he cursed the New Gods he had given his life to. Thinking back to that day, he thought of the delicate thread of regret that had tugged at his conscience from the second the prayer left his lips. That thread had steadily grown to a gargantuan tangled mess of yarn that consumed his every thought. He knew what he had to do to set the world right once more. He made promises he couldn’t keep to a set of Gods that were no longer his own.

    ‘Is this what you need?’

    He opened his dusty eyes, and looked up as the first grey cloud came into view and slowly blocked out the sun. A new thread formed and delicately tugged at his conscience.

    ***


    We haven't dared look upward for fear of what could come down. Stolen glimpses of the heavy abyss as we ran from shelter to shelter were all we dared. Since that awful day where torrents of devastation poured down, the great expanse above us filled us all with dread. First the hail fell for a solid week, then came the hurricanes, then barren nothingness, and that cycle repeated itself daily. After a few weeks, when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, gravity started to get stronger and everything started to drop. Within six months, all the stars had fallen to earth, the moon no longer lit up the night sky, and our usual cycle of day to night fell out of sync. It truly felt like we were witnessing the end of the world.

    We sensed where the blame fell. We knew who had caused it - rumours of an alchemist in our midst who had torn their soul in two had been whispering their way through the desolate streets. After these months of torment, we were resolved in our desire for revenge. We plotted during the few stolen moments where we could safely gather, scattered among the spare hours that weren’t filled with natural phenomena. On the agreed night, we closed in on the culprit, swept them up and laid them bare for the skies to witness. We called on the Gods, both Old and New, and begged them to undo what the alchemist had so carelessly brought into our reality.

    An energy was growing before our eyes. Winds picked up in the East, a torrent of hail was forming in the North, scorching heat poured in from the South, and frozen snow clouds were quickly moving in from the West. It was all charging forth to join in one culmination that was getting closer and closer. For a second, we wondered what we had done. Then, as all four corners of the Earth met, a single bolt of lightning shot down from the chaotic sky immediately above our sacrifice. It hit the ground, through their body, and flames erupted in front of us. We were in such shock that we couldn’t appreciate the calm all around.

    ***


    You were taken, and you knew you needed to be taken. You had caused so much anguish, so much irreversible damage to the Earth, there was nothing else that could have been done. The world is a better place now - you understand, don’t you? If you had stayed, if you hadn’t allowed yourself to be sacrificed, humankind would have collapsed in on itself. But now the winds have returned to a velocity that doesn’t deal such destruction, new stars have exploded and the moon has never been so bright.

    You can be seen, on occasion, in moments where seasons collide and Mother Nature’s children cross paths. You are acknowledged. You are blamed. You will be revered and feared for eternity.


    tom

    The rain had been heavy all week.

    It drummed incessantly on the windows, drowning out the news anchor I was trying to listen to. I fumbled with the remote but the volume was already at it's maximum. I strained forward to listen.

    "...even more rain set to be coming in from the... worst storms in years.... to you Gerald. Thanks Samantha.... top stories... flooding on highway 1 causing tailbacks... trapped in their building... landslide on Patterson Hill... stay safe and." I switched it off. A grumble of thunder echoed wearily across the sky.

    I got up and looked out from my third story window, I could feel the cold radiating as the warmth of my face condensed against the cool glass. Patterson Hill. I could see it in the blurry distance, the raw earth facing me, exposed by the torrential rain. I hope no-one was hurt.

    I cleared up from breakfast and braced myself to head out again into the storm. I was running low on food so had to see what was left in the barren supermarkets. Everyone panics when it rains for more than a few days here, since the floods in '76.

    I headed out from my apartment and the rain clattered against my hood as soon as I left the cover of the building, my feet sliding uncomfortably in the oversized rubber boots. They used to be my dads. Water ran in streams down the slick pavements.

    The supermarket was busy and pickings were thin. People stared uselessly at lists in empty aisles, wondering what to do. I just picked up what I could, as long as it would fill me up it would do for now. As I wandered the aisles, my boots squeaking against the tiled floor, I kept thinking of Patterson Hill. My mind drawn back repeatedly to that exposed hillside. I shivered, the damp chill getting into my bones.

    That night I had a dream. I was in a dark tunnel, heading down at an angle. In the distance a faint light appeared, no more than a speck. I headed towards it. As I headed down the air got warm, hot, sticky. In the dream I know I needed to keep going. I needed to reach the light. I was wearing my thick raincoat, but it was suffocating so I tore it off, my skin rejoicing at the coolness that cascaded upon me. As I got closer to the light it began to fill my vision, but it did not illuminate the tunnel around me. All I could see was the light. I knew I must get to the light.

    I awoke standing in my bedclothes in the middle of the street, shivering violently in the bitter rain.

    ---

    The next night I had the same dream; again waking in the street. After that I double bolted the door, hiding the key under my kitchen sink. Again, the same dream, but this time I awoke standing by my front door, my nails bent and bloody from scratching at the lock.

    I wanted someone to guard over me while I slept, but I didn't know anyone in town. I had recently moved and my parents lived many miles away and access to the town was cut off with the flooding. I contemplated calling the police but what do I say? I need you to stop me sleep walking into the street?

    I saw on the news that workers were reinforcing the hillside to stop it slipping further and they discovered something of archeological significance. Then the military arrived, to help sandbag houses around town and evacuate those who were vulnerable. The sound of the helicopters whirring blades adding to natures thundering cacophony.

    I stared listlessly out of the window, towards Patterson Hill. White tents studded a small area halfway up, with people milling around in yellow, like ants - it must be the ruins they found.

    ---

    I finished my coffee and looked at the time on the kitchen clock - 1am. Despite the caffeine, sleep tugged at my eyelids. I didn't know what would happen if I let myself sleep again. I got up and paced around my small apartment.

    I paused by the window and stared at the ravaged hill for the umpteenth time. Why did this hill occupy my every thought? I noticed something. I turned off the lights in the apartment and returned to the window, opening it to get a better look. There was definitely a faint light coming from the archeological site. The faint yearning of the last few days morphed into irrepressible hunger. I had to go to the hill.

    My body moved against the weak protest of my mind. I knew it was insane going out in the early hours of the morning to look at a hill, but these rational thoughts had no bearing on my actions.

    I found myself standing on the slick mud of the landslide, police tape baring my path. I ducked under it and navigated the slippery slope to the white tents I could see up the hill, silhouetted by the faint light I could see from my apartment.

    The tents were surrounded by hastily erected barricades, to prevent prying eyes. I slipped through a gap between them and entered the compound. Rain rattled noisily off the roofs of the tents. I peered inside the closest one.

    Scientific equipment was stacked up and strewn about. A large table dominated the centre of the room, with a map of the area laid out across it. A circle was drawn, radiating from the hill. Exclusion Zone.

    I skirted around the tent towards the source of the light. At the centre of the makeshift camp was the ruin of a small building. Through the collapsed walls you could see an opening in the floor with steps leading down to the entrance of a tunnel. A faint light radiated from within, bright without illumination.

    I walked down the steps and entered the tunnel.