Flash Fiction Month 2018, Day 16
This is Professor Granham of the Department of Xenobiology at King’s College London, recorded July 16th, 1930. I leave this message partly because others will doubtless come looking for me, and partly because the…the [inaudible] compels me. There will be those at the University who know the nature of my latest avenue of research and may be able to retrace my steps. Please do not attempt to do so. If you were to see what I had seen…such glory, such hideous—
[Here there is a knot in the wire where a length has been excised. Staff are reminded to check all wastepaper baskets thoroughly before emptying.]
I have wrestled with the possibility of making my discovery known. Part of me wishes to reveal what I found, to allow my colleagues the opportunity to…to make it safe somehow. To stand against the horror I could not. But I know that at best this is foolish. At worst, the will of… Continue reading
Flash Fiction Month 2017, Day 20
Challenge #9: Write a story featuring every sense but sight. It must have a palindromic word count and not use any adverbs ending in “-ly.”
“Bugger. There go the lights.”
There were a few seconds of vigorous clicking while Harper tried the switch.
“Oh well. Absolute last resort I suppose…”
I fished about in my pocket for the lighter. What I found instead was most disconcerting.
“Harper, there’s a hole in my pocket.”
The silent dark of the Alterworld was polluted by a string of graphic obscenities. Continue reading
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.
“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?”
The hammer of the revolver clicked as it was drawn back.
We always joked that having gone down the rabbit hole, stepped through the mirror, one day we would walk right into Alice.
Well, one day we did.
~Pvt. John Reynolds, Alterworld Expeditionary Force
It’s been a while since I posted anything Alterworld-related, largely because I’ve been working towards writing stories to go in the collection. However, there’s been one development I’m more than happy to share:
I’ve got in touch with Thomas Venner, a local artist whose work is absolutely spot-on for this setting. The scene above–from Never Look Away–should hopefully give some idea what a difference this could make to the stories themselves. Dealing with a world in which there is no light, and where seeing or not seeing can be the difference between life and death, having something visual alongside the text seems especially significant.
I’d also just like to point out that I didn’t ask for this scene specifically. Despite writing the thing, I couldn’t even imagine what this creature looked like, so it seems like a particularly ambitious thing to tackle. Seeing it done, though, it all works so well: there’s just enough visible to suggest something entirely alien, but at the same time not enough to build up an complete idea of what it looks like, or even what it is.
Fun fact: at exactly this point while writing this post, my internet connection cut out for five days. So much for getting this out there straight away!
Thomas has told me quite a bit about the thinking behind this image–particularly the quality of light emitted by the lantern and how it interacts with the creature–but I’m really not qualified to pass any of it on. Visual art isn’t my strong point, which is one reason it’s so nice to be able to work with someone who properly understands it. Still, even just at a glance I feel like it all works. Having the creature’s “face” partially obscured by the character’s shoulder is a particularly nice touch: again, it provides enough detail to suggest something really creepy, but not enough to give away the complete madness-inducing view.
We lost Jerry when he went out to feed the generator. At first, it just seemed like one of those sad, unfortunate things that comes with working in the Alterworld. We figured his lantern must have cut out. He’d stepped away from the safety line for just a moment, then realised he’d left his emergency flare back in the hut. With the door closed and the blackout shutters dropped all the way, there was no way he could have found his way back. Everyone knows that wandering off is the last thing you should do. Everyone knows that if worst comes to worst, you stay put, you wait for someone to come find you. But in practice, it’s hard. The total darkness, the total silence…it gets to you. Jerry wouldn’t have been the first to lose it, just walk off into the dark with his arms out in front of him like there was something to touch out there. But he didn’t. At least, not because of the dark.
They say there’s nothing alive out here in the third layer. They say that there’s not enough energy to support it. That the background ALICE is high enough the place is sterile. But none of us really believed it. They said the same thing about the second layer. And before anyone had actually broken through the ether, they’d said it about the first. If there’s one thing you can count on in the Alterworld, it’s that there’s always—always—something alive in the dark. That’s why none of us were surprised when we saw what Jerry had scrawled in the damp earth by the fuel store:
“He was seeing things,” Ernest had said. “You see those white patches when there’s no light at all. He panicked. He just panicked, that’s all.”
I didn’t say anything. Neither did Rupert.
“He just panicked,” Ernest said again, “and that’s it.” Not one of us believed it. Not even him.
Ernest left no message. Just a lantern, still lit and glowing brightly, half-submerged in the mud.
“He was here,” Rupert had said. “He was here just a moment ago. I just turned around and…he was gone.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but where?” All around us, the darkness was crushing. What little warmth there was rose from the ground. I looked around, hoping to catch a glimpse of the reflective seams on Ernest’s uniform, but spotting nothing more than the dimly-lit wall of our nearby hut, rippling faintly under the influence of the ALICE in the air.
Suddenly, I spotted something. Out beyond the generator, beyond even the capacitive gate leading inwards, to the second layer, there was a speck. It was only a glimmer, like a red star on the horizon: but there were no stars. There was no sky to hold them.
“It’s the flare. He lit the flare.” Rupert squinted out at the wavering dot of light, but didn’t move. I didn’t either. Ernest’s lantern was sitting upright. He had put it down. Nothing had carried him off, and that was the most unsettling thing.
“We have to get him back.” We both knew it was a question, not a fact. Neither of us knew what was out there. Neither of us knew if Ernest could even be saved.
“Yeah,” answered Rupert. “Yeah, we have to.”
Under any other circumstances, I would have felt proud. It was a tradition of this place that you never let a flare go ignored, because that way, if you ever found yourself out there and alone, you’d know your mates would do everything to find you. There was also an unspoken rule that you didn’t light your flare if whatever trouble you’d run into would get the rescue party killed. Unfortunately, that part wasn’t guaranteed to be observed.
“This probably isn’t the best time to mention this, but there’s something I’ve been wondering.”
“What’s that?” I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know, but the prospect of not knowing felt slightly worse.
“What Jerry wrote: ‘eyes.’ There’s no light here. There never has been. What kind of creature could he have possibly seen?”
I struggled to laugh. It didn’t sound as reassuring as I’d hoped. “It is quite strange. I suppose that’s why he bothered to mention it.”
The flare was closer than it had seemed at first. As we drew closer, not sure what to expect, I could even pick out the line of Ernest’s arm stretching back into the darkness, the seam of his sleeve lurid through the smoke. Then, the flare dropped. He turned and pressed further on into the dark.
“Ernest!” I called.
“Don’t shout, man!” Rupert hissed.
He was right. Ernest already knew we were here. Calling him would do no good.
“We should go back. I’ll put out the flare.”
I started back, fearful that Ernest’s lantern might cut out before we got back to the hut. I hadn’t got far when I heard Rupert swear. Immediately, there were shots. Drawing my own pistol, I rushed back towards the place I’d last seen him. He surprised me by suddenly appearing in my lantern’s light—his own switched off. I nearly shot him.
“Cut the light!” he shouted. “Cut the light!”
I fumbled for the switch, trying to manage it without letting go of my gun. Rupert grabbed the handle and shut it off himself. We stood there for a moment in the absolute darkness, utterly alone except for the thin iron handle we both clutched.
“What was that?” I whispered. Talking seemed dangerous, but as with all things in the Alterworld, not knowing was worse.
“I saw it,” Rupert breathed. “I…I saw the eyes.”
“Can it see, then? Can it see the light?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then what?” I snapped, despite the danger. “Does it hunt by sound? By heat? What organs does it have? How does it move?” It bothered me that Rupert had suddenly become so useless. It scared me too.
He said nothing.
“Blast it all, I’m switching on the light!”
“No!” After a couple of false swipes, Rupert grabbed my wrist.
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“Because the eyes…oh God, I can feel them on me now. I can feel them inside my head! But we’ll be safe as long as this darkness never ends.”
I cast a glance back towards the hut, Ernest’s lantern the only thing that could lead us back. “If we don’t find our way back to that light,” I said carefully, “we’ll die out here.”
Rupert finally saw sense. “Alright.” His voice was trembling. “But if you see something from the corner of your eye, don’t look at it. And if you look, don’t meet its gaze.”
We made our way back to the hut in darkness, the unlit lantern still held between us. As we passed the light Ernest had dropped, I picked it up, and we marched eyes-forward to the door, as though we were at the centre of some silent parade.
Inside, things were calmer. There was no need to worry about the light in here, when we had four sturdy walls to hide us. I boiled the kettle for tea.
“It’s…fed now,” I said. “Or whatever it does. It’ll forget about us.”
“Not about me.” Rupert shook his head. His face was pale. His hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat. “Not about me. It’s still watching. I can still feel the eyes.”
For just a second, I thought I could feel them too. Then I looked around. At the dull concrete walls. At the blackout shutters, still buttoned down tight. “It can’t see in here. There’s no way.”
“It can.” Rupert shivered. “It can because I feel it. And because…I can see it too.”
It was the middle of the night when Rupert shook me awake. Or at least, I was mid-way through that day’s sleep. Time, like distance, was not the same in the Alterworld: it stretched more and more the farther outwards you went. When that had been discovered, they thought they’d found the fountain of youth. Then they’d discovered ALICE, and realised the fountain was poisoned.
“What is it?” I realised I should have been more concerned, but I was exhausted, and as far as I could tell there was nothing going on.
“I can’t take it anymore.” Rupert’s tone jolted me awake. “I have to get out of this place. I have to get where that thing can’t follow.”
“That’s desertion.” I pointed it out only to be sure: it sounded like Rupert already knew what he was saying. “There’ll be a patrol here soon. They’ll sort everything out. You’re trading a couple of weeks here for years in prison.”
Rupert laughed, or tried to. His attempt was even more pathetic than mine. “That’s an easy trade. I’ll never last two weeks.” He paused. “I’ll send help. They wouldn’t leave you here alone.”
I wasn’t so sure. But even so, I fancied my chances better with the creature outside than the command post on the second layer. “Don’t worry about me.”
“Then…you wouldn’t mind operating the gate?” Rupert’s eyes were wide and sunken. In this condition, I wouldn’t have trusted him with that apparatus even if he’d been trained to use it.
“I don’t really have a lot of choice.” I smiled, trying to make it sound light-hearted. “At the very least I’d have to shut the thing down once you’re through.”
I made my way to the gate while he made sure the generator had enough fuel to keep running while it primed. He called softly to let me know the generator was okay. The gate, however, was not. I stared at the row of conspicuous rectangular holes in the base. We had spares for maybe half of them. We needed them all. Ernest had done this, or possibly Jerry. If we were lucky, they’d done it before they’d walked out into the black. It was hard to imagine it happening any other way, but here in the Alterworld, here in the third layer, I couldn’t rule anything out.
Rupert came to stare at the gate too. All of a sudden, he was unusually calm. “Could you…hang onto this for me?” He held out his emergency flare.
“What are you going to do?”
His mouth twisted into an apologetic grimace. “It’s the eyes. If I can’t get away…” he unfastened the strap on the sheath knife at his belt, “I’ll stop them.”
I didn’t move, though I was well aware that the thing was out here with us in the darkness, that it could appear at any time.
Rupert shoved the flare into my hand. “Best get inside now, eh? You haven’t seen it. You can still just wait this out, hold on for the patrol.”
I opened the blackout shutters a crack half an hour later. The lantern was still there, but Rupert was gone.
I woke gradually, thinking that I could hear one of the others getting dressed, preparing a meal, perhaps fiddling with the radio that never made a sound. It took me a minute to remember that I was the last one left. It took me a minute longer to realise that, nevertheless, there was still a noise. I switched on my lantern—the generator had long ago run down to empty, and so the light overhead would not work—and stepped into the centre of the room, turning around slowly to determine the source of the sound. With a creeping dread, I realised it was the blackout shutters. The bottom-right corner—where Jerry had accidentally knocked through the glass with the back of a shovel—was rattling, as though probed from outside.
Breathing heavily, I took the revolver from beside my bed and cocked it. The shadows from the single lantern exaggerated the tiny movement of the shutters, and the backdrop of total silence made the noise seem deafening, like the entire window could explode inwards at any moment.
“Rupert?” I whispered. “Is that you?”
I knew it wasn’t, but I couldn’t shoot unless I made absolutely sure.
No response. I knew where the creature was. A hail of bullets could end this here.
The rattling stopped. My chance was gone.
Suddenly, I was gripped by what I could only assume was the same fear I had observed in Rupert. The thing outside had not forgotten. It would not forget. And now it was trying to find a way inside. It would be almost two weeks before the patrol arrived. To think how many more hours I would have to sleep in that time, how many hours the creature would have to work its way inside the hut…
I could bear it no more. Hardly pausing to listen at the door, I tore outside and into the fuel store. We may not have had a complete set of fuses, but we had plenty of wire: I could short the connections of any I could not replace. A can of fuel in one hand and a bag of scrap in the other, I turned.
And there it was.
The creature’s face was not a face. It was shiny and pitted, like the hard shell of a very black beetle, yet at the same time it was not quite opaque, so that there seemed to be a vast space behind the…behind the…and that was the strangest thing. Despite what Jerry had written, despite Rupert’s fevered raving, there were no eyes. As I continued to stare, I began to see the white blotches that Ernest had mentioned, as though, despite the light of the lantern, my eyes were still in dark.
After a minute or so—perhaps longer, for time is strange in the Alterworld—the creature slunk away. I dropped my lantern. I dropped the bag of scrap. Still the creature’s gaze formed spots of white within my brain. Still the touch of its sight lingered inside my head. Because that was its nature, beauteous and terrible: it had no eyes to meet, and so I could never look away.