Gone

The ground is still scarred from the launch – baked earth and glassy sand, blackened and skeletal trees. In the end, panicking, the ships took off from wherever they could. This used to be a park. On the edges of the scar the grass is straggling back, poisoned-yellow.

It would never have worked, of course, if there had been more than a few million of us left. There was plenty of space for me, if I’d wanted to go; we built to excess like we’ve always done, everything going into the ships so we could flee the wasted planet like the crime scene it was. We’d killed the birds, by that stage. The ships took the zoos’ stocks of DNA, but we won’t see a tiger again.

We couldn’t all have stayed – not enough air or water or food for even our tiny remnant of population. If the ships succeed it’s only because they made their rendezvous with the comet and stole its massive core of water ice. We had no ice left: the polar caps went decades ago.

The joke’s on them, though. Crammed into the metal hulls, they can’t be sure they’ll ever find a new home to vandalise, even if we deserved it. I, and the few dozen like me who stayed, have had it no harder; scant air and water, enough food to cover the time it took for the plants to re-grow from the piles of bones. But for us, now the skies are clear, the temperatures dropping; the other morning the rain was almost clean. The sparrows, hardiest of human-adapted birds, are back, just a few, but chirping cheerfully. Today, on the edge of the scar, a daisy has opened its yellow face to the sun.

I like this world a lot more with its people gone.

Settler’s Way

The road’s an arrow shooting at the land’s heart, an arm reaching out to grasp the north. It bears the ceaseless sweep and swish of tyres and the moulded gleam of metal bodies in the newest thrilling shapes. Once these were plodding hooves which trod the years’ ruts in the dust as the wagons creaked their northward way amid the rawhide crack of whips. Even now, in the steel and plastic rush whose tempo makes redundant the long days of stubborn toil, I still feel across the years the ceaseless tread which wore this conquering track into a continent.

There’s a break in traffic. With a sudden, sliding shift across my vision, the cushioned hustle of my modern life suspends. The century’s roar abruptly muffles, and the rasp of dust and heat invades my air-conditioned chill. Ahead, the dusty wagon shimmers in the gap, still slogging north, swaying while the stolid cattle twitch their tails at flies, or at the passing cars.

In my charmed and floating hush I draw abreast; our paces match. The child is silent on the wagon seat, her faded dress and bonnet wan under our modern sun. She turns her patient gaze to mine, but doesn’t smile.

I don’t know what exchange we make. The yoke pulls obstinately north, forever. The silent world resurges in a roar of sound. Child and wagon and their patient span dissolve and fade, frail as the smoke which rises from the shantytowns to drift to fragments in the hurtling traffic’s wake.

Stopper

The door jangles closed behind you as you move into the shop’s dusty, junk-cluttered aisles. You’re mentally tallying the pitifully few notes left in your wallet after food, rent, bills. The evening’s party looms before you, a menacing imposition, but you’re here now and may as well find a cheap gift. Necessarily cheap – this month you’ve skipped four days of the grey grind with no excuse save the usual uncaring haze, and you’ll be out of a job soon.

The junk isn’t interesting. Old books, battered furniture, threadbare clothes. A tray on a painted dresser holds medals, a tangle of jewellery, a meaningless muddle of useless things – just what the birthday girl deserves. Behind them stand coloured glass bottles in stupid, fanciful shapes. You pick one up idly, thinking of bath salts, and in its green and purple depths something moves.

You look more closely. The bottle is tightly sealed with wax, and full of whirling cloud. Vivid mists roil in the confined space, flexing energetically against the ornate stopper: the smooth curves of the flask vibrate in your hands, somehow tinglingly alive.

You know what this is, how it goes. The inhabitant of the bottle, his gratitude at his freedom, the wishes. Whatever you want. Yours, if you remove the stopper. Money, friends, success, happiness. Everything you don’t have.  Everything you are not. You read the tag around the bottle’s slender neck: it demands only the few coins at the bottom of your purse.

You place the bottle carefully back on the dresser and move to the door. You’ve changed your mind about the party, anyway. You never go to parties. Nothing ever comes of them: you’re still alone.

The door jangles as you step out of the dusty interior into the dreary street.

Spanner

Our grandfathers wouldn’t recognise it. Theirs was an unassuming chunk of alloy, solid matter specialised to address a particular shape. Mine is a more fragile thing, a plasteel package of intricate circuitry and tiny teeth which morph to interlock with a spaceship’s fanciful nubs.

The limitations of my grandfather’s spanner were defined by the sinew of his arms. My nut-analogues are finer, their challenge not in torque, but in specificity. The ancestral spanner’s forty sizes have bloomed: four thousand varied combinations mate my wrench with every iteration of the myriad impenetrable locks stapling a standard drive to itself.

Like my grandfather, I bend my body to the needs of this machine. He craned headfirst into engine blocks; I employ my tools halfway up ladders into loci of imponderable force.  His hampered rotations created brute couplings to assist the combustions of motion. Mine are tiny tweaks, caressing the ego of the fine-stretched fiery spring which winds this craft into heat and air and gravity as well as speed.

A fumble dropped his spanner through the engine and onto the oily grass: if the grass swallowed it, other tools would serve. Failure brought him sullenly in from the yard to be revived with supper, the squatting diesel beast to be tamed another day.  If I drop mine, as I do now, from sweating hands urgent with need, it rebounds from a bulkhead to vanish, in a spray of sparks, into the heat-death of the drive. It leaves ungentled the hiccup which afflicts the life support and threatens to grow into paroxysms of failure. Frantic, I ransack the stores for the spanner’s missing twin, while the lights flicker and the air grows stale.

My grandfather’s oath, like his spanners, was a sturdy thing. It still serves. Fuck.

feathers

The house is a cave of echoes, the kitchen table masked in dust. I’m restless, displaced: my skin itches. In the still and empty rooms a single black feather drifts in a shaft of sunlight.

The cupboards are bare save for a heel of bread. I close the front door gently behind me and  wander down the path, breaking the crust onto the ground as I go. The starlings, elegant in glossy suits, chatter sociably as they peck at the crumbs. Their haematite eyes watch me sideways, knowingly. They don’t even startle as the gate clicks behind me.

The path is treacherous with stones, but it’s not far to the chasm. It’s deep, a cruel gash across the countryside; the sides are sheer and sharp with rocks, and dusty thorn bushes line the edge. Even here the starlings hop and peer. I crane over the edge, my skirts flapping in the wind, but I can’t see the bottom.

I tilt vertiginously for a moment, arms outstretched, then step carefully out into the empty air. Wind rushes past me.

The sky is filled with a sudden fluttering as the black birds surround me, tiny beaks and claws harsh but careful in my clothes and hair. They hold me up and I hang in space, astonished, while their cries beat on my ears.

The wind tugs my shawl from my shoulders. My arms are bare to the cold wind, and I feel the tingling pain of the feathers pushing through my skin in a sudden, urgent rush. My wings unfurl; I breast the air in startled flight, lofting into the opened skies amid a rejoicing of birds.

Bedtime

Well, here’s a nice turn of things. The bed’s gold and silver and ivory, the coverlets are glass. They may as well be ice. This wasn’t my idea: beds should be welcoming. There’s a piece of flax under my nail, a piece of apple in my mouth, a poisoned comb in my hair; the spindle lies next to the bed, bloodied. I am very beautiful, but this is not sleep, and I hate to think what I’ll dream about.

I am not safe in this bed. The briar hedge, the crystal coffin, the locked room, won’t protect me. I can feel the eyes out there. My lord will dig down through the fairy hill and demand my silent body. My prince will come. The falcon will find me, the old women betray me at every turn.  The stranger will bed me, kiss me, carry me away, lie with me for forty days and nights. Insensible, I’ll bear him children. This is not sleep. You can keep it.

How’s this? I will consent to wake up when the prince has wrapped himself in seven winding sheets and sleeps in his grave in the garden. When he bites the apple. See how he likes the spindle. It’s a test. Princes should be tested.

But I’m only pretending. While he lies here, pale and silent, I’ll be elsewhere, safe as nut-meat in a softer bed. Cotton sheets and a fire in the grate, or maybe tender grass and the moon through trees. Alone. Unwatched. Sleeping.

White Ships

He has flung out of the house in rage again, a tall man striding furiously through the sunset quiet of the streets. His anger marks him in the scant crowds of evening, and our calm-moving people glance at him and move aside, perturbed but respectful. It is the old argument: the white ships, the legendary promise. In his mind the pale sails will crest the horizon on any tomorrow, a thing close and real, as inevitable as cream into butter, as the sprouting of the corn.

The clack of my loom is stilled as I watch his going, troubled. I have grown up on the same tales: the white ships, the travellers more like angels, their wisdom and power. Down the hill, the bronze ship statue gleams between the pale buildings, shaded by trees. I look to the tales for a vision of possibilities, but to him and others like him it is more: a reality, a promise, an inevitability which makes our shared life hollow, no more than marking time. We have lost each other because I betray his faith. He will return through the quiet night streets, to kiss my cheek, and eat, and take up his life, but he will not forgive.

Even if the ships confound me by some day cresting the rim of the world, white sails spread in the sun, who is to say their occupants will be wise rather than bloody? I do not think the white ships will save us. I do not think we need saving. I hope they do not come.

Soup

There are elves in my soup. This is pissing me off: I chose the ingredients very carefully, and small green twittering things simply aren’t appropriate. Besides, one of them bit me when I grabbed them and tried to stuff them into the waste disposal – I should have worn gloves. Without them at least the soup’s gone back to its proper colour: dark, noir even, with the correct dirty glints from streetlights in the rain. The smell is a bit unwashed, smoky rooms with a hint of gunpowder and French perfume, but I think that’s within spec.

There are still problems: every now and then something bubbles to the surface and I have to be quick with the strainer. The spaceships are easy, they’re large and obvious enough to grab and the lasers are a bit fucked from all the garlic so they don’t really fight back. The garlic, of course, explains why I keep on finding the bloody vampire teeth, which are slippery, and tend to vanish back into the depths with a slight sucking sound when I grope for them. Annoying. Hopefully they’ll disintegrate.

Stir, stir, stir. The danger is if you turn up the heat too high and it bubbles over. I don’t want a damned apocalypse, it’s not appetising, what with the burned smell and the clouds of smoke. I’ve tried very hard to balance the flavours here; it’s not as if I’m working from a recipe, but there are traditions, after all.

Soup for you? I made it myself.

Breath

Morning cloud rolls down the mountain, clammy cold to the skin, and the trees loom out of it at random intervals like teeth. His breath frosts the air as he climbs, snow and dirt crunching under his boots. On his back, the great sword is a familiar weight.

The village is far below him now, its black-scarred timber gates firmly closed. They were open when he left, the elder standing bowed in the road, the villagers clustered behind him.

“You won’t succeed,” the elder told him. “You are a criminal, not a hero. You cannot save us: at best, you have another few thousand breaths before the death you deserve.” The compulsion is hot in his stomach, a roiling, irresistible knot. He could snap the old man with one hand and the village’s strongest man with the other – he’s already done the latter, which is why he’s here – but it would achieve nothing. The stick-like ancient is clearly a perfectly competent wizard.

He knows how these things end: his breath rasping in his chest, his muscles numb and slow, his armour scorched and the blood sheeting from his wounds. He can’t tell whether he will be finally helpless before the great claws piercing his ribs or the savage heat of that ultimate exhalation of poisonous flame. It doesn’t matter.

He sets his teeth in a fierce grin, and quickens his pace.