Aphelion excerpt #1

When Hal awakes, a woman is sitting beside him. It takes him a moment to realise it is not the woman from his nightmare, but Miranda, another technician from his team. She looks up from the tablet she’s reading when she notices his weak movements.

“Hal,” she says. “I’m glad you’re awake.”

How long was I out? Hal wants to ask. “But it’s meaningless,” he mumbles, groggily. “I don’t remember…”

“I’m not surprised,” Miranda tells him. “Mild concussion from the crash couch. It could have been a lot worse. You probably saw what was left of Argento.”

Hal remembers the dark room he was trapped in, and the bloodstain around the wrecked pod. He shudders, feeling nauseous again.

“Try not to move too much. You’ve got some recovering to do.”

He nods, numbly.

“First things first. Do you remember your name?”

“Hal,” he replies. “You… called me by it less than a minute ago.”

“Excellent. Either your short term or long term memory is functioning fine. I’m slightly worried by the sarcasm deficit in your response, but we’ll chalk that up to having survived an interstellar starship crash.”

“Try not to give me too much credit,” Hal groans, his voice sounding weak to his own ears. “I might not have figured that one out.”

“There we go. Much better.”

Hal shuffles his arms, making to try and sit up, but his limbs feel weak and he quickly gives up. “So… what the hell happened, Mir?”

“Great, you remember me. I wasn’t sure if you were just being rude. So we carved you out of that room with cutting torches. One of our spidermechs – we lost more than a few, but enough are still functional – carried you through the ship. Now you’re here, in the infirmary, with all the other wounded we’ve recovered so far.”

Hal looks around. The pallet he’s lying on is surrounded by towering high shelves stacked with metal and plastic crates of uniform dimensions, each with neatly printed labels. Miranda shrugs.

“Infirmary, cargo bay, whatever. We’re making do here, Hal.”

“How bad was the crash?”

“Bad enough. The Gaia came down hard. It’s a real big ship, and it’s not designed to so much as kiss atmosphere.”

“Skip the obvious stuff, Mir. My brain isn’t leaking out my ears, is it?”

She shrugs again. “No more than usual, chief. Look, we don’t really know how hard she hit. The primary network is offline. We don’t even know how many people are online. The rescue parties are literally making lists as they find people.” She looks down at her tablet and frowns. “There’s the good list, and the bad list. You’re on the good one. The other one makes depressing reading.”

“How… many?”

“About six hundred alive so far. About half of us are injured, maybe fifty incapacitated.”

“Six hundred?” said Hal. “Jesus Christ.”

“Yeah,” replied Mir. They were silent for time. The Gaia’s Disquiet had a crew complement of more than six hundred, and had been carrying thousands more passengers.

“It’s slow going,” she continued, eventually. “There’s a lot of structural damage. A lot of doors auto-sealed during the crash, and pretty much every single one needs cutting through. We’re trying to get the primary network back online, but whatever got fucked up is sufficiently fucked up that we need to take a look at the actual hardware.”

“And we’re at the wrong end of the ship for that?” guessed Hal.

“We’re at the wrong end of the ship for that.”

“So what’s our plan of action?” said Hal. “Rescuing survivors… sure. What about after that? Where are we? I don’t even remember where we were when… well, I don’t remember much. Working. Then the orders to get my arse into a crash couch.”

“Yeah… a plan. About that.” Miranda put a hand on his shoulder. “How are you feeling? Up for a short walk?”

[This is an early scene from a novel I am (slowly) working on. The setting is actually shared with several vignettes I’ve posted here in the past.]

Vignette #12

Gloria’s hand is warm in his, feeling alive and vibrant against the sharp cold gusts of wind that carry across the seafront. They stand side by side, looking out at the waves, which glisten and shine in dappled sunlight.

“It’s beautiful,” he says. He steals a glance sideways, drinking in her face in portrait, glowing radiant in the bright light. “You’re beautiful.”

She laughs, tilting her head back as he admires her. “Stan, you’re too pure for this world.”

“I prefer to think of myself as a dedicated observer of universal truths.”

She looks at him and smiles. Their gazes meet, her brown eyes sparkling. “A speaker of universal cliche, more like.”

“Classics, not cliche,” he challenges. He sweeps his free hand toward the vista before them. “Is the sea cliche? Has it been done too many times?”

“We could have gone to the dump instead. Picked through some romantic detritus.”

He shakes his head. “No, I took you around the second hand shops yesterday. It’s been done.”

She laughs again and shoves him gently. He leans back, putting his weight gently against the counterbalance of her grip, still soft and warm, then pulls gently back. He almost leans in for a kiss, but she has turned her face back to the sea.

“You could have found the beauty in broken old toasters and rusted bicycles,” she tells him. He looks out at the sea once more, hunching his shoulders against the cool wind, and explores what lies before him.

“I’d rather find it in mottled seagulls and discarded instant barbeques. The true icons of the British seaside.”

“No, the over-priced pubs and fish and chips are the true hallmarks of the seaside.”

“The former is why people eat barbeque, and the latter is why the seagulls mass here. QED.”

“For a foreigner, you really have grasped British culture quite well.”

“I don’t understand,” he says, looking at her again, eager to gauge her reaction. “No one here is watching reality television.”

She laughs once more, and looks at him again. Her skin glows in the sunlight, surrounded by loose hairs that wave in the wind. “I love you, Stan, you romantic idiot.”

[This was a writing exercise, challenging me to match setting and mood in a scene of dialogue.]

The Mountain Speaks

In the town at the foot of the mountain, men descended on the ethnic group not like a marauding tribe of raiders and pillagers, nor like a conquering army. They did not even come at night like assassins.

They came openly, as if daylight made them innocent. They came with paperwork, and orders, and steely-faced men with rifles who stood behind them. They came with authority backed by violence.

They dragged into the street, through apologetic words or unapologetic force, all adult men of the ethnic group. These men, distant rulers had decreed, were traitors to the nation.

The men who resisted were beaten by those who dragged them out. All the men were put in chains. Then they were marched away, in long lines like ancient slaver trains, escorted by soldiers with guns instead of guards with whips.

Incessant gunshots could be heard throughout the night, distant echoes from not-so-distant valleys. Children wept. Above the town the mountain stood impassive.

The soldiers returned the next day. The men of the ethnic group were not with them.

The men with the paperwork went to the houses once more. This time they took the women. Some soldiers leered at the women, their faces less steely now the men were gone. We will not speak of the women who were defiant.

The women who were taken from the houses were put in chains, like the men before them. The people of the town who were not members of the ethnic group watched from their windows. Their thoughts were private for no words were spoken. Only the soldiers spoke, and laughed.

The women were marched away. That night there were no gunshots, but the children wept again. The mountain watched in silence.

Neither the soldiers nor the women returned to the town the next day, nor ever again. But the men who had commanded the soldiers went to the houses once more, and this time they took the children.

The children wept still. Some screamed and wailed. They could not put words to their loss and grief. They did not understand, but they feared.

The men put the children of the ethnic group into carts. The carts were filled with crying children who clung to each other. The town had never known so many tears to be shed.

Maybe that is why the ground shook. Maybe that is why the children stopped weeping. Maybe that is why the men with the orders fell still in fear. Maybe that is why the people of the town who were not of the ethnic group looked to the mountain.

For the mountain spoke.

Vignette #11

Kenji’s tshirt was displaying an infinitely looped three-second video of a cat misjudging a jump and falling, suddenly graceless, like a dropped log. It was mesmerising, holding the attention once captured: a meme in the viral sense, an eyeworm that would just not let go. Parvati felt she could have watched it a thousand times, and on the train she probably had.

Elsewhere the shirt might have seemed gaudy, but in the context of New Shinjuku it was a drop in the ocean of visual noise. Around them towers soared upward into a cool night mist. Every surface seemed plastered with at least one layer of screens, and every one blared advertisements forth, desperate to attract eyeballs. Night was transformed into neon day, the streets lit with artificial light of every conceivable colour.

On the largest screen Parvati could see, a truly vast display that stretched hundreds of metres away from her and Kenji, stylised human figures trudged along, and as they walked their backs straightened and smiles grew on their faces. The backdrop changed from dull and muted greys and browns into brighter and warmer tones as the cartoon walkers approached their destination: a shopping centre named ‘The Palace of Dreams’.

Above, below and past the ends of this colossal invitation were a myriad other demands on her attention. Without even moving she could see a dozen shoe advertisements, including several brands that she had never heard of before, each suggesting the luxurious lifestyle that only that brand could provide. Motorbikes and ecocars cut their way elegantly but ruggedly across panoramic landscapes. Suspiciously well-groomed young men howled and bellowed and wept in superimposition, as behind them the videogames they played challenged and rewarded and betrayed them. Smiling mothers and housewives turned to their children in their dozens, arms laden with sumptuous foods of every possible cuisine and variation.

“You’re drooling,” said Kenji. Parvati knew he wasn’t looking at her, that he too was entranced by the sight that had struck them like a lightning bolt the instant they stepped out of the train station, but she shut her mouth anyway. She didn’t want to look too much like a yokel, although – standing amidst a gaggle of similarly goggle-eyed onlookers – that ship had already sailed.

At the foot of the unbroken formation of towers could be found an endless myriad of shops, seemingly carved into the concrete footprint of each skyscraper. Most of the names were meaningless to Parvati, but here and there she saw something she recognised: the big grocery and electronics chains familiar from the town she had visited every weekend for most of her life, here appearing like minnows darting between the toes of giants. Products spilled out of the shops in waves, out onto the street, as much a riot of colour and form as the advertisements that hung overhead.

The ranked products mingled with the stalls, which sometimes sold goods like those in the larger shops but more often food. Parvati’s eyes finally relinquished their stranglehold on her brain, allowing other stimuli to draw her attention, and she realised that the smells were overwhelming. Not like at the harbor, where the powerful scent of sea and salt and fish were unavoidable. Nor even like the intense perfumes and aftershaves some of the men and women Parvati had known wore, the ones which made her eyes water and left her recoiling apologetically. This was such a combination of scents that she couldn’t process them, could not unpick the densely woven fabric of smell and identify anything. She was left relying on her eyes once more, taking in stalls selling noodles, falafel, rice bowls, flatbread wraps, spiced meats, skewers, baked fancies, breads, salted fish, jerky…

Parvati felt herself suddenly jostled and she looked around, disoriented. A short boy with spiky hair turned to meet her gaze and grinned from not two feet away. He face and clothes were filthy, but his teeth were neat and gleamed a brilliant white. “Hey,” the boy said to Parvati, then nodded at Kenji.

“Hey,” said Parvati, at the same time that Kenji said “What do you want?”

“Rude,” said the boy, slouching, hands in his pockets. “It’s not about what I want. It’s about what you want.” He nodded backwards sharply, gesturing behind him at the maelstrom of markets and marketing that framed him. “Maybe about what you need.”

“We don’t need anything,” said Kenji, his eyes narrowing. “Come on, kid, clear off.”

“You don’t need to be rude,” Parvati broke in. She put a hand on Kenji’s arm, trying to be comforting. She knew that Kenji was trying to seem tough and worldly, but moments before he’d been staring slack-jawed at the ten-metre tall image of a lingerie model, so it wasn’t going to work.

“Glad you said that, missie,” the kid said, flashing them another grin. “Like I said, it’s maybe about what you need, and what you need’s a guide.”

Parvati frowned at that, thinking about how little money they actually had. At least until they got settled, she told herself, at which point things would turn around. But right now they couldn’t afford to spare anything.

“Penny for your thoughts,” said the boy. “Although… no, I wouldn’t ask you two cutters to spare a penny.”

He pulled his hands out of his pockets, and a pair of moneytabs came with them. Parvati gasped, immediately recognising them as hers and Kenji’s. Kenji growled something unintelligible and balled his fists.

“Hey, hey,” said the boy, grin gone but face composed. “I’m actually just making a point here.” He reached out to offer the moneytabs to them. Parvati took hers carefully and Kenji snatched his from the boy’s hand.

“You need to watch out for thieves,” said the boy. “As you just learned, they’re really quite adept around these parts. You’re welcome, by the way. I discouraged everyone else who had you marked the moment you stepped out onto the street. You’ll find nothing else missing.”

“You offered to be our guide?” said Parvati. “Why? Why are you helping us? You already said you know we don’t have any money.”

The boy shrugged. “I have a good heart. You’re both cute. I like making friends. Maybe I have an ulterior motive. Take your pick.”

He waved down the avenue in the direction the cartoon shoppers still trudged toward the Palace. “You could try and make it on your own. Or you could let me show you the ropes and a place to stay that won’t rip you off or rob you. No strings attached, you can walk away at any time.”

He fell silent and watched them then, waiting while they contemplated his offer. Parvati and Kenji looked at one another. Parvati frowned. Kenji raised an eyebrow. He still looked angry, but just regular-Kenji angry, not furious-someone-just-tried-to-rob-him angry. Parvati shrugged.

“Okay,” she said. “You can be our guide.”

The boy grinned once more. His teeth flashed in the night. “You won’t regret it.”

Readers Like You

CANDIDATE AE67FE-001101: Male. 31.9 cycles. Region: ‘North America’ { 37.7749° N, 122.4194° W }. Tracked disciplines: folk audio, digital play, musician { strings, digital }. Status: monitoring.

CANDIDATE JD93UY-101000: Female. 11.2 cycles. Region: ‘East Asia’ { 37.8735° N, 112.5627° E }. Tracked disciplines: play, social observation. Status: monitoring; administering neural accelerators.

CANDIDATE BA89IV-011100: Male. 78 cycles. Region: ‘Australasia’ { 35.2809° S, 149.1300° E }. Tracked disciplines: none. Status: close monitoring, neural degeneration.

CANDIDATE UI59DE-111011: Male. 36.0 cycles. Region: ‘South Europe’ { 40.8518° N, 14.2681° E }. Tracked disciplines: social exploitation, trade interactions, domination. Monitoring: sociopathy. Addendum: active study { ‘Proximate Relationships and Social Hierarchies in Terran Economic Systems’ }.

CANDIDATE II49AH-011010: Transitional. 19.1 cycles. Region: ‘North America’ { 47.6062° N, 122.3321° W }. Tracked disciplines: electronics. Status: monitoring.

CANDIDATE UJ02XV-110011: Male. 26.4 cycles. Region: ‘Africa’’ { 26.2041° S, 28.0473° E }. Tracked disciplines: communication, information composition/dissemination. Status: monitoring. Addendum: active studies { ‘Hepatic Disease Rates in Cultural Producers’ ; ‘Non-Binary Theory and Obsessive-Compulsive Tendencies: Terrans’ }.

CANDIDATE Y6D8J1–110111: Female. 21.1 cycles. Region: ‘North Europe’ { 51.5073° N, 0.1273° W }. Tracked disciplines: none. Status: monitoring. Addendum: manual monitoring { station #6399 }.

{ BRK: INITIATE READER PROTOCOL Y/N ? }

Clara sinks her face into her hands and sighs deeply, shudderingly. Her fingernails press into her forehead and for a moment she focuses on the pain. But it is transient; she cannot ignore this.

What a fucking ridiculous day, she thinks. And now this.

She drops her hands and opens her eyes and looks at her car. It’s parked where she left it. It’s still a battered navy blue Vauxhall Corsa. It even still has the Bagpuss plushie stuck to the rear windshield. The only thing is that it is now upside down.

She approaches and pushes the car with her foot. Nothing. And now that she’s closer, she can see that it’s not just upside down: the roof has fused with the tarmac beneath.
She tries her keys in the door, just in case. It unlocks, so she locks it again.

There are people around her, walking to their own cars or just passing by. No one looks twice at her or her inverted car.

“Is this some kind of joke?” she asks, voice raised. A few people glance her way but there’s barely a question in their gaze. It’s as if a neatly parked upside down three-door hatchback is a perfectly ordinary sight.

“Fuck it,” she says, to herself as much as anyone else, and starts walking, leaving the car behind.

Her entire day has been off-kilter. Frittered with unexpected, off-putting and often outright odd events, it has been a chore to live through.

She fishes a packet of B&H from her handbag and lights up. She blasts thick, dry smoke out of flared nostrils and glares without direction.

It began when she stumbled from bed to bathroom this morning and tried to brush her teeth, only to find a viscous fluid pouring from both taps. Tasting it was perhaps not the best idea, in retrospect, but she had been half asleep and besides, it turned out to be caramel.

Later, on leaving her building she’d been greeted in Italian by the postman, who was in the process of folding letters into a variety of origami birds. They were lined up on the wall outside, each turned 45 degrees from the last. She had pulled a face at him, and sworn to herself that she’d never drink on a weeknight again.

The bus driver had initially seemed normal, until he turned fully to face her as she paid and she saw his two cheap glass eyes. She had hesitated, about to turn and disembark, until she glanced about and saw the bored faces of other passengers. She stayed aboard, convincing herself that he perhaps had some rare glaucoma, and was not blind at all.

Her subsequent journey was uneventful, although every time she looked out of the window she had a fleeting impression of something vanishing out of sight — into alleyways and sidestreets, into shops and other buildings, even underneath cars and trucks.

At work her phone had rung once only, exactly on the hour, all day. She found a cake with her name on it in the breakroom, the carpet coated in glitter and confetti, and a banner celebrating twenty years of service hanging overhead. No one else entered the room all day. She had joined the company just seven months ago.

Shortly after lunch — during which everything she tried to eat threatened to summon long-lost childhood memories — her manager, Ivan, had begun questioning her on her current project. She initially responded with some relief, clinging to this rational behaviour exhibited by another human being, until the questions began to drift further and further off-topic, and she noticed that he was playing a child’s game with her: each of his questions began with a homonym corresponding to the final syllable in her previous answer.

“Are you f- …are you kidding me?” she’d spluttered. Ivan widened his eyes in response, face otherwise expressionless, until his eyebrows vanished beneath his fringe. As far as she could tell they were not coming back.

“This isn’t appropriate behaviour,” he had intoned, deadpan. “And you can expect it to be raised in your next review.” Then he’d walked away, back to his office, without breaking eye contact. Five minutes later an email dropped into her inbox; he had emailed his manager, CC’ing her, and recommended her for a promotion.

It had been a relief to escape at the end of the day. Exhausted, physically and emotionally, she’d clasped her car keys like a protective talisman and sought to seal herself safely inside her vehicular cocoon. And there it had been, upended like an abused turtle.

So now she is walking home, chain-smoking cigarettes. She ignores all the people around her, even where they try to attract her attention, through sheer force of will. Once or twice she is forced to slip around people using the dance of the crowded pavement, but even during this she does not make eye contact. She just wants to get home.

She’s so intent on ignoring the world around her that she almost misses the truck that is heading straight for her.

It doesn’t sound its horn, so the sudden squealing of brakes is the only thing that alerts her — that and the intrusion of its bulk in her peripheral vision. Her heart rate leaps and she starts, turning her head toward the threat. It’s too late of course, for the juggernaut is mere seconds away and her reactions are too slow. The flat face of this diesel-driven monstrosity may be the last thing she sees.

Except that it is not. In the final moment she braces herself for collision and oblivion, but the truck passes straight through her. It’s a strange feeling, like being dusted with fine flour in a wind tunnel, as all that metal and plastic and oil washes around her. As it passes she turns and sees it harmlessly travel on, straight into a Morrisons Local store.

After that, Clara is hardly surprised when no one around her reacts at all. Ghost lorries, pah! Londoners have seen everything. Paranormal vehicular events barely register the bat of an eyelid.

She is, at least, almost home now — so she hurries on. The rest of her trip is uneventful, although as she walks up to her front door there is a soft crunching underfoot. There are so many origami birds placed on the steps and path that crushing them is unavoidable.

Once safely inside Clara continues operating on autopilot. Kettle on. Teabags from cupboard. Mug from the tree. Wait. Pour. Brew. Clasp the mug. Blow the steam. The ritual is soothing, and the part of her deep inside that wants to start screaming and never stop is grateful that it is just a cup of tea she holds — not a mug of pureed kelp or broken promises or who knows what.

Soon enough she has begun to calm, and Clara turns to the second step of her recovery from a tough day. In her bedroom, beside her bed, is a cabinet. Inside the cabinet’s drawer is a diary — a teenager’s diary, locked with a simple metal clasp.

Clara has always diarized her life. It helps her to process feelings and ideas, and looking back over it provides fuel for reflection. A day like today certainly deserves immortalising. Perhaps she can look back on it in a year and think “today was my first step on the road towards being committed.”

She picks up her pen and sets its tip to the page. Dear Diary, she begins, and does not stop.

Slivers of iridescent chitin wave like the fronds of deep-sea anemones. Long, hooked talons beat an idle tattoo on plastometal surfaces. Double sets of compound eyes regard their surroundings; no expression could be read in them, even were the onlooker of a shared species.

This is an autonomous being of a long-established starfaring species that we shall, for convenience, refer to as Second Technician Picasso. It is not, as far as we can tell, an artist, but the blues and greens that can be seen in light reflected from its carapace recall the artist’s Blue Period, and it is as good a name as any.

S.T. Picasso is situated before an array of screens, each imperfect in its dimensions as though cast by hand. The screens display a variety of human beings in a variety of locations. Among them is Clara, frantically committing words to page in her diary.

Other screens write swirling patterns in dense hieroglyphs, conveying information in a language we cannot possibly hope to understand. The inscrutable Picasso takes it all in, barely needing to move its bulbous head-thorax in order to do so. Those eyes absorb everything.

Oddly, we can hear little. Periodically there are muffled clangs or thumps, and sometimes rhythmic little pulses or shudders can be heard, as though much were going on around Picasso’s pod of screens, but distantly. Then there are the small noises Picasso itself is making, apparently restless despite its equally apparent focus on the task at hand. But from the screens, nothing: only the footage of humans going about their little lives, and the endless hieroglyph patterns.

Then those patterns shift and alter, the change apparent even to narrators and readers who cannot comprehend what is signified. Something new is suggested. And so it is: the complex patterns end, and become simple and looping. The screens displaying humans begin to blink off, one by one.

Picasso reaches out with one long talon and scrapes its tip softly against the screen on which Clara has frozen, pen in hand, diary pinned beneath it. Then its balloon-shaped head pivots, looking at what might be glass, through which a woman can be seen. She is lying on a flat surface, hooked up into a riotous tangle of tubes.

Picasso hesitates for a moment, then fiddles with some knobs and sockets and other tangibles around its bank of screens. A nearby machine hisses into life, and tiny lasers begin to dance within its delicate superstructure. An object is being assembled. It looks like Clara’s diary.

After a further moment of hesitation, Picasso prods a few more objects around it. The tubes hooked up to Clara begin to retract, detaching themselves from her and coiling up below. Once the last has removed itself Clara’s back arches and her eyes shoot open. Then she coughs and retches and cries out.

Meanwhile, Picasso has reached into a container and pulled out a tiny object. We recognise it as an iPhone 5C. The alien struggles to but succeeds in holding it. It pulls a tendril from below the bank of screens before it; although fibrous and alien, there is an Apple-patented Lightning connector at the end of it, which it plugs into the phone. It prods a button below the window through which we can see Clara, and begins to carefully type on the iPhone’s screen.

Clara tries to throw up but her stomach is empty. She feels the acid presence of bile and fights to control her nausea.

Her eyes are blurred and her head feels groggy. She cannot make out her surroundings, but she feels a cool surface below her, against her skin. The air is a comfortable temperature, although it smells faintly like a fishmonger’s. She cannot hear anything distinctive.

A frisson of fear is running through her, and as her senses acclimatise to her surroundings this sense deepens. She does not recognise where she is, except perhaps from the sets of horror and science fiction films. The room’s walls and ceiling don’t look like any material she knows, and there are no uniform edges. Everything looks a little organic. There is, however, a flattish pane of what looks like black glass set into one pseudo-wall. She shivers as she looks at it.

All of a sudden a woman’s voice is audible, emanating from all around her. “Hello,” it says. The voice is faintly robotic. “Please be scarred.”

Clara draws her knees up against her chest and wraps her arms around them. “W-what?”, she stutters.

There is a long, pregnant pause before she hears the voice again. “Sorry. Wrong. Please don’t be scared.”

Clara’s brow furrows in concentration. Then: “Is that… is that Siri? Like on the phone?”

Once again, there is a long wait before there is any response comes. “Yes. No. Not relevant. I must make a request.”

“Who are you?” Clara asks, followed breathlessly by: “And where am I? And why are you talking to me through a- a- a fucking iPhone? Just what the hell is going on?”

After a while the responses come. “Not relevant. Information ship seventeen. This is the most effective and efficient method. I must make a request.”

Clara closes her eyes and takes deep breaths. The last thing she remembers before waking up here, she was… in her flat, at home, drinking tea and writing in her diary. Writing in her diary about the weird-as-fuck day she’d been having. She opens her eyes and looks around the room again. Compared to spectral trucks, this isn’t actually that strange, she tells herself — unconvincingly.

“Let’s exchange questions and answers,” she tells the disembodied voice. “I’ve got questions, and you’ve got a request.”

Another pause, and then: “Acceptable.”

Clara tries to concentrate, tries to ignore her fear, and thinks back over the words exchanged so far. “What is information ship seventeen?”

“Interstellar vessel tasked with research and specimen collection.”

“On… Earth?” she asks, haltingly.

“Yes. Earth. My request: complete your diary.”

This throws Clara off balance. She chews it over for a second. “You want me to… finish writing my diary?”

“Yes.”

“What I was writing before… I woke up here?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Another long pause hangs in the whiffy, extraterrestrial air.

“Our research requires written artefacts. In the language of the specimens.”

“Then why not, um — why not collect books? From libraries?”

“Knowledge repositories have been exhumed. Exhausted. Folk sources required for fully understating. Sorry. Understanding specimens.”

“Folk sources?” asks Clara. “So you collect diaries? Why not just watch people while — hey! Wait a goddamn minute. New question: how did I get up here?”

“You always have been. ‘Up here’.”

“Bullshit,” Clara says. Her fear is subsiding, turning to anger at her mysterious interrogator. “I was down there earlier… I don’t know, today. Whenever. I was there.”

There’s another pause whilst her statement is digested, which Clara interrupts. “Were you… were you doing weird stuff to me? Like my car? All the people who were just wrong?”

“Wait. Too much. No. You were not there. You have always been here. Yes. We enacted experiments. You recognise them.”

“Experiments?” Clara repeats. Her face flushes. “Why the hell were you doing experiments? And what do you mean I’ve always been up here?”

She’s talking rapidly now, her voice raised. Her heart has not stopped racing; in fact it is accelerating its tempo, and she feels it thumping against her thighs.

“So that you would write about them. You are not… ‘Clara’. You are candidate Y. 6. D. 8. J. 1. Dash. 1, 1, 0, 1, 1, 1. Please finish writing your diary.”

Clara’s nausea is growing once more. The room is beginning to feel stuffy and its oppressiveness looms around her, as does the blank screen behind which, she assumes, is her interrogator.

“Why do you read our diaries?” she asks again. In a smaller voice, she adds: “I am Clara.”

“Your actions do not make sense. But your language we can understand. We read everything. We catalogue you. We understand you. You are not Clara. We made you to be read. Please finish your diary.”

Clara’s head is throbbing. Red and black now intrude at the periphery of her vision. “Why are you doing this to me?” she whispers.

“The study has been completed. We have what we need. But I want to finish reading your diary. You are an interesting candidate. Please finish writing your diary.”

Clara is now struggling to breathe, and her vision is fading fast. “Candidate… for… what?”

“Another chance. Please finish writing your diary. I want to read it. It might make a difference.”

Now almost blind, heart pounding in her chest, pressure building between her ears, Clara gasps out a few final words before unconsciousness takes her.

“Nobody… needs… readers… like… you.”

Clara is awake just long enough to hear the response: “Everyone gets readers like us.” And then she is gone.

{ DISPLAY EXPEDITION PRECIS Y/N? }

WARNING: Full report to be available to stakeholders following full analysis of expedition findings. Conclusions should not be derived from raw data.

DATUM: All Candidates discharged following conclusion of studies as per Reg 739.2.45.

DATUM: Extinction-level event recorded. Events played out within projected parameters.

DATUM: Re-seeding status: no candidates selected. Specimens archived indefinitely.

{ ENDS }

Originally written in 2016 for the Idle Fiction Jam and posted on Medium.

A Guide to Criticism

Pieterlub shifts uncomfortably in the cold air of his cell, drawing his robes closer. His breath mists, lit flickering by the few candles that dot the shelves and bureau.

“Don’t delay!” squawks the pale yellow bird perched on Pieterlub’s left shoulder. “Nightmares sense fear!”

“Hush, Huginn,” he replies. He fishes a seed from the recesses of his robe and passes it up to the parrot. He passes another to the green parrot on his right shoulder, which ululates softly in his ear.

Pieterlub’s fingers tighten around the journal he clasps to his chest. The focus of his gaze remains, has always been, the watercolour before him. It has been painted onto a simple two by three foot canvas. It makes good use of colour and light; the techniques used are fashionable but executed with confidence.

“This is a most dangerous work,” says the green parrot. It nips at Pieterlub’s earlobe, but keeps an inscrutable eye on the watercolour.

“I’m inclined to agree, Muginn,” says Pieterlub. “But there remains a problem of interpretation.”

“Not for some!” squawks Huginn. Pieterlub ignores it.

“The Abbot has entrusted us with this particular work, and I will not permit us to commit a lazy or incomplete understanding to parchment.”

Huginn hops off his shoulder, flutters down to the bureau, disturbing papers and scrolls. A candle flickers and is extinguished in the flurry, and Muginn clacks its beak in irritation.

“Be sedentary, stupid bird!”

Huginn ignores its featherfellow and uses a foot to push papers about as it searches. Pieterlub finally tears his attention away from the painting and toward his suddenly industrious parrot.

“What are you looking for?” he asks.

“Inspiration” comes the reply. Muginn squawks dismissively. Pieterlub looks back at the painting.

“I say,” he says. A few moments pass. Papers rustle and, somewhere outside Pieterlub’s cell, he hears the sound of a sibling kritikmönch going about his or her duties.

“Is it just me, or has the… focal point shifted here?”

Huginn stops scrabbling about and pivots its head to stare back at the painting. Muginn stretches out its wings and caws in distress.

“This is an extremely sophisticated work,” says Pieterlub, slowly. “I think we need to look at the source.”

He stoops, cursing as his knee joints click and protest, and slides a wooden box out from beneath the bureau. From the box he produces a smaller box, ornate where the larger is utilitarian, as well as an artist’s palette, a set of brushes, and a sheaf of loose canvas scraps. He places each of them on the bureau. Huginn obligingly hops onto a shelf above the desk and watches. Muginn glides down from Pieterlub’s shoulder and hops toward the painting, turning its head this way and that as it scrutinises the artist’s creation.

Pieterlub begins with the canvas scraps. Each of them bears at least one pencil sketch: a great auk with wings spread, a gap-toothed deep sea monstrosity, a feminine silhouette, a pear with a bite taken out, the awning over a market trader’s stall, a moon shrouded in cloud. He studies each for a few moments then carefully sets them aside.

“These early forays are suggestive,” he tells the parrots, “but may mislead. The creative mind can be labyrinthine.”

Next he picks up the artist’s palette and brushes, which he begins by sniffing. The brushes smell of the spirits use to cleanse them and he quickly loses interest. The palette is another story. He dabs a finger into various swatches of colour, which retain a tackiness, and puts that finger to his nose and lips.

“Hmm. I’m not the finest geschmackritik, I will happily admit, but even so — these flavours are striking. A lot of power has been concentrated here. The artist’s process of refinement and reduction is most impressive.”

Huginn clacks its beak a few times, watching intently as Pieterlub works. Finally, he turns his attention to the small box.

“And of course,” says Pieterlub. “We come at last to the most important piece of the pre-puzzle, the artist’s-”

He is interrupted by a violent commotion and a series of squawks. He whirls back toward the painting and drops the box in shock.

The canvas has warped, its surface no longer flat with the illusion of depth but deep with the illusion of flatness. Something has reached out and coiled itself around one of Muginn’s wings, and is attempting to withdraw itself back into the canvas.

“Fool bird!” cries Pieterlub. “Never approach the works so closely!”

He takes a step toward the easel but halts as talons dig into his shoulder.

“No!” hisses Huginn, close in his ear. “Too late!”

Pieterlub takes another step forward regardless, but Huginn is right. The tendrils are relentlessly drawing Muginn in, the parrot’s talons unable to find purchase on the polished stone slabs of the cell floor. Worse, the canvas has begun to distend itself in new ways, and the gaping face of a great flatfish, eyes darting this way and that, is bulging into view.

Muginn screeches one long, last desperate cry before its head is submerged beneath the canvas’ surface. Pieterlub mouths a silent apology to the unfortunate bird before he sweeps up as many papers as he can from the bureau and flees the cell. He pushes its heavy wooden door closed behind him, retrieves a key from his robes and turns it in the lock. It is only as he hears the heavy mechanism click into place that he breathes a sigh of relief.

“Poor foolish Muginn,” he says. Huginn bobs its head, staring at the keyhole.

“We’d better tell the Abbot that this work is not for the archives,” he tells the bird, feeding it another seed. “And we’ll need the Grand Inquisitor to… have his people do what they do.”

“And the interpretation?” asks the parrot.

“That will remain with us and us alone, my friend. We will not commit to parchment. It will perish with us.”

This was written in 2016 for a writing exercise drawn from the Wonderbook. You can read the exercise and see the illustration that inspired the story.

Apologies to German speakers for my probably-terrible compound words, and thanks to my friend Dylan for the silly compound name “Pieterlub”, which popped into my head whilst thinking up this short tale.

A Person-Shaped Thing is a Person

Your hands ache and torn cuticles bleed. Callouses are beginning to develop on your fingers, but you still envy the English workers, who work with gloves. Your back also aches, and you wonder how many hours you have spent under the hot sun.

For a moment you pause and surreptitiously look around you, stretching out your spine. To your left and right are long lines of workers, backs stooped, reaching down to grasp cabbages and haul them from the earth. You see white workers, perhaps English, perhaps European. It is hard for you to tell, because you do not share any common language.

You turn your head further, glancing behind you, trying to spot the gangmaster. He is stood fifty yards back, mobile phone to his ear as usual, looking toward the other end of the line. His woman isn’t around - probably off having her hair done again in the town. You wonder if you’ll have the time to wash your hair in the river tonight, or if you’ll just be too tired to do more than eat and sleep after today’s shift.

The gangmaster’s head begins to turn, and the Yi man next to you hisses in warning. He had also taken a moment to rest on his haunches and watch the gangmaster. You both set back to work, grasping the fat round cabbage heads and working them loose from the ground’s embrace.

Your parents used to tell you that the Yi were no good. They were a plague on Guangxi province, your father said, taking good work from Han like you. That lack of work was the reason your aging parents paid to send you overseas, to work and send money home for your family. The Yi were not liked, and you and your parents pretended not to notice as they were harassed on the street, by citizens and police.

But here in England you and this Yi find yourselves in the same situation. The gangmaster is Han, like you, but that hasn’t made him any kinder. If anything, the way his eyes linger on you alarms you, and you try hard to avoid being alone with him.

You murmur to the Yi, “thank you, brother.” He nods and grunts, and drops another cabbage into his basket. Minutes pass. “Later, little sister,” he eventually replies, his voice low and accent thick. And then he glances sideways to meet your eyes, and the hint of a wry smile ghosts his face. “Welcome to England,” he says.

‘Delivery, man?’ comes a cheerful voice. You glance up from your clipboard, smile and wave the vegetable delivery man in. Always exuding cheer, Tom; a towering Jamaican man whose imposing stature is nothing before the irresistible waves of his personality. Even you warmed to him eventually, a man mocked by his very children for his severity and humourlessness.

You tick items off your checklists mechanically: cleaning, stock take, resupply, facing, wastage, opening. The week’s profit/loss looks acceptable; not great for a summer week with thousands more people pounding pavement past your door, but not bad either.

The bell rings as Tom walks back in with more pallets of fresh goods, bright cabbages bouncing, singing softly to himself, skin glistening from heat and exertion. Then it rings again, as a local walks in and up to the counter. “Forty Rothman,” she says, looking not at you but at her purse as she fiddles with the clasp. You slide the tobacco cabinet open, grab the requested cigarettes, and place them on the counter. “Eight sixty-two,” you say. The old lady counts out her change, picks up the cigarettes, leaves.

Time was you were comfortable with such brusque exchanges. A lot of the British are very reserved people, uncomfortable around strangers and unwilling to engage in any form of conversation with them. Coming as you did from a quite different world, one with a childhood rooted in the terror and dashed hope of Intifada, that mutual self-silencing suited you just fine.

But now… now not so much. As Tom strolls past once again, drumming a tattoo against his stomach, you glance out through the window by the counter. Even through the posters, advertisements and pre-paid phone cards plastering the interior of the glass, you can see traces of the spraypaint you spent the dawn hours of the day scrubbing off. “Paki go hom”, it said. Your family is not Pakistani, and is more literate than this vandal, but you doubt either fact matters to such ignorant children.

You drum your fingers on the counter and rub at your mustache as you stare without seeing through the glass. The bell rings again as a young couple wander in, heading towards the back to peruse the wine and beer. Your thoughts turn to your own children. You don’t want them to grow up like you did, friends and family brutalised with bullets and teargas and checkpoints, hopes smashed by weakness and duplicitous institutions. England, your own parents had hoped when they emigrated, would be better. And it was, to a point, although now faceless strangers are using your shopfront as a message board to confuse your identity and express discontent at your presence. Is this how it begins?

The young couple come up to the counter, placing three chilled bottles of wine before you. Tom leans in through the front door. “That’s your lot, Sam,” he says, mangling your name in the way he good-naturedly knows you hate.

“Thanks Tom,” is your flat reply. “See you Thursday.” Tom grins and leaves, presumably hoping that Thursday will be the day he finally gets a retort out of you.

The young man pays for the wine, and you hand him his change. He flicks it over his palm, tallying up the sum, before dropping the whole lot in the worn Gaza Appeal collection tin by the till. He makes eye contact and smiles and thanks you. You shrug in reply as they turn to leave.

You turn back to staring out the window, where a few people have started to loosely gather around a couple of young people with a camera and a microphone. How hard is it to smile, you ask yourself.

You’re nervous in front of the camera, refusing to direct your eyes straight towards its bulbous lens, any more than you can maintain eye contact with the woman holding a microphone towards your mouth. The cameraman is dark-skinned, and you don’t know where he’s from, but his hue makes you more nervous than you already are. But you need to say your piece.

You open your mouth and it all comes spilling out. They’ve come over here and they’ve taken our benefits. They’ve come over here and they’ve taken our jobs. They’ve come over here and used up our healthcare. They’ve come over here and taken our houses. The British will soon have nothing left.

Your heart is racing as you speak, shifting your weight perpetually from one foot to the other. In the back of your mind you hope your family will be proud of you for speaking up and defending them. They’ve all been abandoned by a government that refuses to fix the problem that is so clear to you.

There are no jobs in this town. Your father hasn’t worked in two years. Your mum does a few hours a week in a call centre. It’s what they call a zero hours contract, where companies ring you up on the day if they need you. They usually don’t. Your grandad calls it a crying shame.

“They won’t do anything about all the immigration,” you’re saying. “And it’s not racist to say it. All these people, they aren’t British, they’re not from over here, they’re immigrants and they’re taking what belongs to the British.”

And that’s it. You’re done. The presenter pulls the mic back, opens her mouth to speak, to reply, probably to tell you you’re wrong. TV people are part of the problem, they don’t understand what it’s like to have nothing, so you’re already shaking your head, hands up, walking away. You’re done here.

You can hear distant chanting outside, and the sound of that humanity, distant as it is, makes you smile. It’s a reminder that there is kindness and hope outside these walls and bars.

You run your fingers absent-mindedly over your belly, feeling the warmth and life that lies within, the child who must be. You hope that she will come into this world elsewhere than here, this ugly place with an ugly name.

You think back to your own childhood, raised in a large house with generations of women bustling about, arguing with and assisting one another in the business of living. If your child is born here, at Yarl’s Wood, she too will be surrounded by women, but there will be none of the warmth and love of a family home.

“Asylum seeker”. This is the officious term by which the English categorise you and the other women here. It does not translate well into Dari, or your native Pashto, but you understand the meaning well enough. It is the venom beneath the words, evident on the faces of too many of the officials and guards with whom you must deal, that is less clear.
It is a terrible thing, it seems, to pursue a better life. But then that attitude has been evident wherever you have been: from the fighters who kill themselves over control of your home, the border guards with their rifles and questions and bribes, the smugglers who took you into Europe. One of the women you have befriended, Hasti, a girl from Kabul, tells you of the posters that have appeared around the city, sternly instructing Afghanis not to come to Europe. “The German government paid for those posters,” she said, her eyes fierce and voice sharp. “Truly they must hate us.”

Hasti and several other women embarked on a hunger strike a week before. It is for them that people have gathered outside the imposing razorwire-topped fences around this place, chanting and holding up posters and calling for justice and dignity and other things you cannot yet translate.

You think back on something else Hasti told you, her voice urgent and insistent. “This place… it is Barzakh, purgatory, a place between places. We have escaped hell only to be denied entrance into heaven!”

You close your eyes and lay your head against the cool wall of your dormitory. The faint smells of grass and concrete meld with the muffled chanting as your mind drifts away. Your imagination dances through a succession of dream images, a question at the heart of each such painting: can heaven really be found outside these gates?

It has been a long shift. Eleven hours on your feet, assisting patients, processing paperwork, taking blood and ECGs, screening patients and, of course, advising patients to let the cigarettes go. That everyday reminder of how self-destructive people can be.

You’re sitting quietly on the number 29 bus as you reflect on another day, processing what happened partly because you must, to learn and improve, and partly because this little ritual helps keep you awake so that you do not miss your stop.

This ritual is more difficult today.

For some months you have been experiencing a growing sense of… unbelonging. It began with odd little glances, patients avoiding eye contact, even some colleagues growing slightly colder. Such things were easily ignored in the frantic daily life of an NHS nurse, but you found them disquieting nonetheless.

Three and a half weeks ago, though, the pieces clicked into place. A middle-aged woman interrupted you, as you discussed her options for the surgery she required, to ask: “Where are you from?”

Taken aback, you replied “Sofia,” and a moment later, seeing the lack of recognition in your patient’s face, you added “Bulgaria.” And she looked away, and tutted.

You felt embarrassed, of course, but also confused. It was only as time wore on, and you began to notice the headlines on the newspapers in the waiting room, that you realised what was happening. The British were turning against people from the European Union, particularly Easterners, even those who worked to help save their lives. It is ridiculous to you, but here you are.

Today saw the worst event so far. You called out a name in the waiting room, and a man looked up but did not stand. Instead he looked at you and refused to come. He would wait for another nurse, he said. His appointment was with you, you replied, taken aback. But he said he did not care, that he would not be seen by ‘people like you’. You felt humiliated, and retreated, your face burning. No one else said anything.

Now you feel trapped and afraid. You have dedicated your career, your life, to helping those in need. Your parents taught you that you should help those who are the most vulnerable, that such dedication is where nobility of spirit lies. But now you feel vulnerable, and alone, and you do not know who will help you. Instead you sit quietly on a bus, thinking over how a day’s hard work can turn sour, and avoiding the sideways glances of fellow passengers.

It’s a hot summer’s day, but here in your home there’s a stuffiness to the air, the rank moistness of ingrained damp. A cursory glance around the living room would reveal the telltale grey-black circlets of mould infesting the upper walls and ceiling, and that’s one reason why your gaze rarely strays above head height. The other is your physical frailty, a byproduct of those debilitating nerve and bone disorders that long ago robbed you of the ability to walk. Frankly, you tell your infrequent visitors, it hurts to look up.

Today should have been a contact day, a day when someone from social services came by to check up on you, to provide a few kind if inadequate measures to make your life a little easier. A phone call earlier in the day took that away. The young woman on the other end of the phone sounded apologetic and sincere in a wearily practised sort of way, as she explained that they were simply over-stretched, that they didn’t have the resources this week, that a bout of sickness absence had disrupted everything. You clucked and synmpathised along as was expected until you exchanged goodbyes.

Social services have been inadequate for some years now, worsening since the Tories and their turncoat coalition partners, Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, began harping on about austerity and Labour overspend and the need for everyone to knuckle down and get through the recession together. You and the friends you’re occasionally in touch with call bullshit on all that.

You reach with one faintly trembling hand over to the curtains and pull them gently aside. The sun’s warmth instantly licks at your timeworn skin, and for a moment you close your eyes and remember better days. Time was, in your youth, you and your parents would’ve been out on the streets against Tory cuts to Britain’s social safety net. “We didn’t fight and die in Europe and stick Labour in power after the war so the aristo-fucks could increase their profit margins once the blood washed away,” your dad might’ve said. He hated the old British upper class, not least because he’d served under a few of them himself in wartime.

Of course, getting out on the streets poses quite a few problems to a severely disabled man living in a social housing flat in a run-down estate, and that’s just the baseline. If the lift is broken, as has been known to happen every few months, you really are trapped indoors. And indoors, ironically, is what they want to take from you. You can barely stand, let alone walk twenty feet, and whilst your mind is sharp your joints and muscles aren’t. But you’re not disabled enough, according to the corporate sharks to whom disability assessment has been farmed out. Which means your disability benefit is to be reduced, which means your other benefit payments might be recategorised, and which collectively means you may no longer be able to afford your ‘affordable’ rent.

You peer down out of the window, toward the streets, along which crawl the shiny beetle shapes of cars, gleaming in the sunlight, and the brightly coloured spots imitating Brownian motion alongside them, people weaving this way and that as they go about their business. You envy them, but only because their social contracts have been bound in such a way as to not exclude them. How cruel it is to be forgotten.

Originally written in 2016 for the Idle Fiction Jam and posted on Medium.

Vignette #10

I trust my techs. I trust my team. I trust our processes. I trust our traditions.

I trust in divinity, and in the grace of the ineffable angels. I trust in that which watches over me. I trust that which nourishes me.

I trust my armour. I trust my helm, my visor, my gauntlets. I trust my systems. I trust my cables. I trust my rigging.

These are the three pillars of trust for a helldiver. In each we must hold firm. Where trust fails, a pillar crumbles. When a pillar crumbles, a helldiver does not return.

Many helldivers fail and fall. I no longer count the comrades I have lost. The faces of so many are lost to me. I am old. Old enough to remember when they still called us Void Hunters. Old enough to remember the face of Maximillian Harkonen, the first Void Hunter and the founder of our order. Old enough… to remember when Maximillian himself did not return home.

So now I am the oldest of our order. A symbol. A relic. A leader, unwillingly so. My trust must hold firm. My trust must never waver.

Now I feel a faint impact on the back of my inches-thick armour. My lead tech has kicked me, letting me know my team’s work is done. They have checked, and prayed, and checked again. I am ready.

I turn to them to lock eyes with each man and woman, and we gaze deep into one another. This team is the best team. This team is my team. We all know what we are charged with. Not one of them breaks eye contact until I move onto the next until, at last, I have shared this moment with all present.

I activate my visor and it polarises. I still see well enough, but now I am protected from ultraviolet rays, from the brightest lights, and the most unimaginable deformities of reason and being. My eyes rove over the runes carved into the visor. Each is complete, its lines unbroken. Another layer of protection from what is outside.

I stand atop my platform, and ritualistically tug each cable in turn. Each pulls firm, as I know it will. This is only tradition. An acknowledgement of the efforts my techs have already gone to. The cables are good. My rigging is attached. My systems report back positive. It is time.

Below the platform, a field snaps into being before the station’s hull irises open. The void lies farther below, and the field keeps our breathables in. There is always a wall, as there must be.

I raise an armoured hand in salute. The other grips my safety cable. The locks release, and the platform drops. My team vanishes upwards, out of sight. The dive begins.

Vignette #9

My mouth turns dry every time I enter slipspace. I don’t need a firsthand view of spacetime cloven in two, of the pure mathematics which lies beyond. I don’t even have to know when we’re transitioning. I can feel it on my skin, like a a static charge, and in the pressure inside my skull. Sometimes I even feel it in my bones, a sharp and thankfully brief pain like nothing I have felt elsewhere.

I’ve probably become conditioned by the pain and discomfort, and my mouth turns dry because of fear and anticipation. So now when I think of slipspace I think of how my mouth turns dry, because my body knows before my consciousness does and that’s the harbinger of what is to come.

Today, however, I have that firsthand view that I don’t need. I actively don’t want it, but here I am, newly promoted to ‘Science Officer’ – ha! – and stood on the bridge in a stained old uniform, like everyone else playing the part of someone still serving a greater cause than ourselves. God damn it, but the shadow of five hundred years of Imperial rule hangs long, even long after its violent dissolution. Our Captain has, at least, removed the Imperial eagle from his peaked cap, and replaced it with the insignia of our ship, and our home; the Last On My List.

Look, we don’t name the ships ourselves, okay? And most of us who are just struggling through life in a fucked-up universe don’t exactly choose where we end up, either. So here I am, stood about with a dry mouth on the bridge of the Last On My List, with a bunch of other tired women and men, waiting to violently rupture geometry.

A front-row seat for when spacetime is cloven, and we see the nothing and everything that lies beyond. But this time when the slipstream window opens, something comes out.

Many things. Hundreds of things. Then thousands of-

Sharp intakes of breath across the bridge. My mouth goes drier. The Captain looks at me. His knuckles are white. “The hell is… those?” he barks. The words fall out like half-chewed bread.

My mouth is so dry I can barely speak. I masticate my jaw a few times, forcing moisture from salivary glands. In the time it takes me to do this, thousands more have emerged. We’re so far away, and the slipstream window is so large, that it looks as if they are spreading like fine dust in a soft breeze.

“Trouble?” I finally manage. I feel like a desiccated corpse.

Vignette #8

Pressure.

It’s all that’s on Hal’s mind: pressure.

Millions of tonnes of water overhead constantly press down on the submersible. It’s built to an existing specification; a design iterated upon and propagated across human space decades before. What they call a standard template machine. Proven.

The raw materials that compose it were scraped together by the involuntary colonists from the scraps of the wreck and what few minerals their other haphazard equipment has been able to liberate from beneath the ice. But the fabricators took in what the colonists had, and what they output fell within all the standard minimum safety parameters for the planned depth.

The submersible’s cabin groans, terribly slow and even, as the beast’s tentacle tightens its grip. Someone whimpers. No one else hushes them, even as they all hold their breath.

Pressure.

Hal wishes the submersible had met more of the standard safety parameters. Although nothing is designed for this. Although none of the colonists now trapped with him in this tiny reinforced bubble of metal and glass expected to find something like this down here. Or, more exactly, to be found by it.

The tentacle – or perhaps the arm, if this creature has more in common with terrestrial cephalopods than superficial appearances – shifts again. Hal watches in appalled silence as hundreds of suckers pucker and undulate, rippling across the glass bubble of the submersible’s cockpit. In the gaps between its labyrinthine flesh there is only darkness.

Pressure.

They are going to die down here.