The air of the Alterworld was cool and moist. Hettie had to remind herself that it wasn’t nighttime. That this was simply the nature of the place. That the sun was never going to rise, though just at that moment a faint glow filtered through the misty air at the crest of a pathetic hill. A bulging creature with spindly legs, body faintly luminescent, paused to point its boneless head towards the heat and light of the paraffin stove. Hettie slowly reached for her revolver.

“It’s not dangerous.” Jeanne stabbed a fork into her can of stew, not bothering to look up. “Not valuable, either.”

The creature took a step closer, a pair of soft, quivering apertures flaring where its eyes should have been. Hettie could hear it breathing, a regular one-two hiss as the vents on its flank flapped open, drew closed.

“Are you sure?”

“Positive. They’re dead common, and they don’t do well outside of the Alterworld. Not worth the cost of bringing it back.”

A double-row of tiny appendages unfurled from beneath the creature’s head, like the limbs of a lobster. Hettie forced herself to stay perfectly still as the bloated head inched closer, closer, and then past her: the object of its attention was the stove, glowing with a blue light like its own. The vents continued to flap, and now she could feel its breath on her skin. It had a smell that, though not unpleasant, was totally unfamiliar, totally un-animal, as though even the constituent chemicals of its flesh were foreign.

Yet at the same time, this creature belonged to this place, while Hettie did not. Here in the dark, this creature was at home while she was a visitor. There was something marvellous about that. About how readily it accepted her, how content it was for her to sit by while it investigated the paraffin flame. The limbs hanging from its face quivered towards the light, occasionally snapping back in response to a sudden flare of heat. It was hideous, but it was beautiful too.

Then Jeanne hurled a slop of mud, and the creature fled. A scream escaped the vents in its flank and its light winked out, like a red hot match being stabbed into a wet teabag. Away from the stove, it merged with the darkness, a swirl of glowing vapour like ink from a squid the only evidence that it had ever been.

“Why’d you do that?” asked Hettie.

“You don’t let anything get that close here.” Jeanne wiped her hand on her trousers before picking up the fork again. “That’s the rule.”

“But you said that it was safe.”

“Not anything,” said Jeanne, in a tone that emphasised that this was not to be argued with.

Hettie wasn’t going to try. There was a silence broken only by the scraping of Jeanne’s fork around the inside of the tin.

Then, as an afterthought, she continued: “Those things are fine, but you don’t know what might come with them. Predators. Trigger-happy game hunters. ALICE contamination. You can get into trouble real easy out here.”

As if to illustrate her point, there was a pleading voice from the darkness: “Can anyone hear me?”

Hettie almost answered, but stopped herself in time. She looked to Jeanne.

Jeanne softly snapped shut the barrel of her shotgun and latched the hammer. She waited.

“Can anyone hear me?” the voice called again. “Is anyone there?”

Hettie squinted out into the darkness. With only the light of the stove to go by, she couldn’t see far, but the voice sounded close. Close enough that the man who was calling should have been able to see the stove.

Jeanne looked at Hettie, gestured to the revolver lying by her knee. Hettie picked it up.

“What do you want?” Jeanne’s shout rang through the permanent night.

Silence. It went on for so long that, had Jeanne not been crouching there, gun pointed out over the stove, that Hettie might have thought that the voice had only been the product of her own mind and the quiet darkness.

But then: “Can anyone hear me? Is anyone there?”

Hettie stared at Jeanne. The woman’s mouth was a flat, thin line as she crouched motionless in the dark. Then, suddenly, she broke the shotgun, swept a damp cloth over the stove. Hettie could hear the stamped metal clacking gently together as Jeanne packed the parts away.

“Pack your things,” whispered Jeanne. “Hurry.”

“Why?” Hettie wasn’t sure where she’d left everything. Couldn’t be sure she’d pick it all up. “What’s wrong?”

“Don’t talk. Just go.”

Hettie picked up her revolver, but once it was in her hand she didn’t know what else to do. She couldn’t hold onto it while she gathered her things, but at the same time, if they were in danger, she didn’t feel as though she could let it go. And then there was…

“Is anyone there?”

He was close. He was close enough that he should have been able to hear their whispers, but if he had he didn’t pay them any mind.

“What about that man out there?”

“Forget it.” Jeanne heaved something into her pack. Simultaneously, Hettie heard something else tumble onto the ground. “Just go.”

Suddenly, the whole situation seemed absurd, and Hettie knew why. Jeanne, so practical and collected in the face of whatever horror surfaced in this place, was now panicking. And why? Because all Jeanne knew was monsters. Presented with another human being who just needed help, she didn’t know what to do.

“Is someone there?” The speaker was so close. If the stove had been lit, they could have seen him.

Jeanne scrambled away, footfalls loud in the mud. Hettie stayed, however. Hettie switched on her lantern. The sudden glare—brighter by far than the paraffin flame—stung her eyes, but what greeted them was unremarkable. The man seemed to be a soldier, though his uniform was muddied almost beyond recognition: par for the course in the grubby dark of the Alterworld. His face was enclosed in a gas mask, also reasonably common, though of doubtful efficacy.

Echoes sketchCopyright Thomas Venner, 2014

“Take off the mask, please.” Hettie kept her revolver pointed at him. He was unarmed, but there was no sense taking chances.

“I think my mask is stuck.” He spoke as loudly as he had done when calling for help. “It’s attached to my skin. I don’t want to force it.”

“Hettie, get away from there!” Jeanne’s voice came from beyond the wide ring of light cast by the lantern. Suddenly she was the one in the dark, Hettie and the stranger the ones illuminated.

“He needs help!”

“Please, somebody help me.”

“Listen to me! You can’t help him. Just get away.”

“We can help him! You’ve got the apparatus: we can all just jump back to our…” but she was interrupted.

“Can anyone hear me?” called the man again.

Hettie stopped. She and Jeanne both waited for a moment.

“Can anyone hear me? Is anyone there?”

Jeanne spoke quietly. “Turn the light off, Hettie. Walk away.”

At last, Hettie did as she was told. Together, she and Jeanne began to make their way out through the dark.

“Can anyone hear me? Is anyone there?” In the distance now. They were leaving him behind.

“What’s going on?” asked Hettie, at last, addressing Jeanne’s footsteps. “What’s wrong with him?”

“It’s not a him,” said Jeanne. “It’s an it. A thing. Just something that happens out here, like Elmo’s fire or the Northern Lights.”

“The Northern Lights don’t call for help.”

Jeanne stopped. Sighed. “They call it ‘Echoes of the Eighth.’ Back when people first started visiting the Alterworld, the technology was unreliable. In those days, lots didn’t make it here. But the Eighth Expedition was different. They got…stuck halfway.”

“Can anyone hear me? Is anyone there?”

“So how is he—it—here?”

“He’s not. How could he be? Those expeditions took place years ago. Those people, even if they didn’t die…they couldn’t have survived. Not for that long.”

“Is anyone there?”

“I think it’s following us,” whispered Hettie.

“Can’t be,” snapped Jeanne. “It’s just that sound carries out here. Or maybe we just happen to be going the same way.”

“Is someone there?”

They continued in silence.

“I think my mask is stuck. It’s attached to my skin. I don’t want to force it.”

“There.” Hettie could tell from Jeanne’s voice that she was smiling in relief. “You can tell it’s not real. It’s just repeating itself. It really is an echo.”

Hettie stopped. “So why are we so desperate to get away from it?”

“Please, somebody help me.”

Jeanne stopped too, just ahead of her. “It may not be real, but it’s unsettling.”

Hettie felt the weight of the revolver in her hands. “So why don’t we do something about it? Why don’t we try to help?”

Jeanne breathed out slowly. “I don’t have an answer to that. But I can tell you this: I’ve been out here a long time. I’ve heard stories about the Echoes. I’ve met people who say they saw one and just walked away. But I’ve never met someone who tried to put one out of its misery. Maybe no-one’s tried. Maybe you don’t meet them if they do.”

Hettie waited and listened.

“Can anyone hear me?”

She hated the thought of going back to him. This walking, pleading figure that could not be alive.

“Can anyone hear me? Is anyone there?”

But more than that, she hated the thought of leaving him. This walking, pleading figure that could not be dead.

Hettie switched on the lantern once again, and Jeanne watched as she plodded back towards the voice. First she was a figure, then just a light, then nothing more than a glow over the horizon. But the sound carried.

“Can anyone hear me? Is anyone there?”

“If there’s any way I can help you…” Hettie’s voice wavered. “If there’s any way we can bring you back, just give some kind of sign.

“Can anyone hear me?” Is anyone there?”

Jeanne listened.

The hammer of the revolver clicked as it was drawn back.

Jeanne waited.


  1. 500woerterdiewoche

    Damn you and your Alterworld, I wanted to sleep tonight.

    But all kidding aside, I love your Alterworld stories. Each is different, but they all have the same eerie quality to their incomprehensibly alien world and the hints at a rich backstory. I always get the feeling that this world (both the Alterworld and the world where your humans come from) are very lived-in, if you know what I mean.

    Also, the way you end this story is extremely effective. A bit like the ending of Inception, with everyone – inside and outside of the story – is waiting for a resolution, and we all know that the resolution could be something terrible, and then you just stop. And we all know that this probably means everyhing terrible we fear is true, but you don’t even give us that closure. As I said, very effective.

    • Damon Wakes

      The regular world is actually what takes the most research: these stories take place in an alternate 1930s, which I find is an awkward blend of recent enough for living people to be familiar with (though usually through parents or grandparents), but old enough for the culture and technology to be totally alien to me.

      I was in two minds about just leaving this one hanging, but I couldn’t think of anything scarier than that. The Echoes of the Eighth might turn up in another story, but like so many people in this setting, these characters will probably never get a neat ending to their story.

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