The Sea and the Skylark

Author : Sam Clough aka “Hrekka”, Featured Writer

The wind is always cold. Or – I correct myself – the wind always feels cold. It’s usually about four degrees this time of year, but the wind makes it feel like minus ten. It’s heavily laden with salt. I’ve lived down here for months, but I can still taste the salt on the air. Obscurely, it’s a point of pride for the locals. ‘We have wind that can strip chrome’, they say, with a smug expression, as if expecting the visitor to try and best them. It’s not just chrome, though. The wind kills plants. Some people manage to keep pots of flowers, or sometimes trees alive for weeks and months, but they’re diligent. I tried keeping some flowers alive once. I didn’t manage it. The sea crashes against the beach, as if trying to drive it back. Most of the pebbles are gone, crushed to sand or whipped away by longshore drift. About half of the sea defences still stand.

Aside from the few straggling plants, the natural world has left as alone here. The last seagull was seen two years ago. Ever since, the seafront has been free of those avian pests. Funny thing, though, you don’t realise how much you’re going to miss them until they’re gone. I would kill just to hear that irritating squawk again.

Beach Street, the road closest to the sea, is actually pretty high compared to the rest of the town. The roads slope down towards the High Street – the town was built on the salt flats. As a result of that the High Street, and Middle Street, and all the way back until London Road are underwater. Since it’s close to the old High Street, Beach Street has become the town’s main thoroughfare. The rest of the town is pretty much just salt flats again.

Traders used to come down from London. When there were more animals around, some of those traders used to bring pigs and sheep and goats. I really liked the goats. Don’t ask me why, but they’ve always appealed to me. Might be something to do with the way they seem to eat everything. Smacks of efficiency, and I like that in people, so I like to see it in animals, too.

I had been walking along the old sea wall, as I liked to. Off land, (to my left) there was a block of flats. ‘Marina House’, or somesuch. Old, abandoned, and on the verge of collapse, the old building didn’t interest me. But something suddenly drew my attention to the decrepit structure.

I could hear birdsong.

I’ve never heard birdsong before, not live. The gulls, those most tenacious of the now vanished birds, didn’t sing, and I missed them plenty. But this was birdsong, real birdsong, the kind you hear in movies and on TV.

And finally, I spotted the bird. A lark, sitting on a railing, on a balcony of the second floor.

Behind me, I could clearly hear the sea, the tide ramping against the beach. These two sounds, both as old as the hills, and one that we had believed was lost for good.

“How these two shame this shallow and frail town,” I murmured to myself, quoting a poem from one of the few dry books I’d managed to save over the years. I was entranced by this delicate bird, who was singing so cheerfully. Not wanting it to fly away, I stayed motionless. I hoped I could stretch that moment on for days.

I must have been there for twenty minutes before the lark took wing and flitted away to the west, over the drowned houses, leaving me to the crashing and the silence once more.

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The Path Not Traveled

Author : Patrica Stewart

Kathryn Duncan sat in the waiting room of Alternative Realities, surrounded by her husband, her two sons, her four grand children, and her seven year old great granddaughter, Wendy. Wendy sat in her lap, while the others gathered around her recalling stories about their childhood (usually exaggerated, fabricated, or both). They were all laughing and poking fun at each other. Talking about everything except why they were there. Kathryn had just turned 75, and was now eligible for her one legal opportunity to temporarily “do-over” her life. For the modest sum of $1,999.99, she could enter the “chamber” for two hours and experience a lifetime of events and memories “as real as reality itself,” to quote the holocommercials. She simply chose a date in her life where she made some key decision, and the temporal computer would manipulate space-time to send her back (virtually) to that moment in time. But in this alternate reality, she could choose a different path. Then, she would live out the new timeline (virtually and accelerated) to the present date, unaware of the true timeline until she was removed from the chamber. Once revived, she would retain both sets of memories, and would know the answer to the nagging question the haunts most people…”What if…”

Wendy, who was somewhat overwhelmed by the gathering, innocently looked at her great grandmother and asked the question that no adult would. “Great grandma, what are you goin’ to change?”

The room suddenly turned silent. Nobody ever asks that question, primarily because the change could involve you (or more likely, their life without you). As it turned out, Kathryn hadn’t made her final decision, although she had narrowed it down to the standard options:

1. (Marriage) Marry Scott instead of Joe.

2. (Children) Finish my PhD before having children.

3. (Career) Accept the vice presidency in the Lunar office.

After all, these were the logical alternative timelines. Would she have been happier, more fulfilled, or more respected if she had chosen a different path? She looked into Wendy’s beautiful crystal blue eyes, then at her loving family, all staring at her expectantly. They had all been so supportive, especially Joe. He had “gone back” last year, when he turned 75. Kathryn had never asked him what he had changed. Only naive, innocent children ever do that. But he was not the same afterwards. Nobody else seemed to notice, but after being married to him for over 50 years she knew he was affected, at least sub-consciously. Maybe it was regret, maybe it was only her imagination. Kathryn couldn’t be sure. But it made her wonder why everybody was obsessed with going back. Maybe 90% of the people confirmed they had made the right decision, and 10% didn’t. Maybe it was 50-50. You either climb out of the chamber no better off than when you went in, or you had a lifetime of regret to deal with. It seemed like there was nothing to gain, but an awful lot to lose.

Kathryn wrapped her arms around Wendy, and stood up. “Yes, honey. I’ve decided to change…nothing.” Hugging Wendy like a life preserver, Kathryn left the waiting room, and headed home, content in the knowledge that she had made all the right decisions, including this one.

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Author : Robert Niescier

We didn’t know what to think when we first saw it. The case, shiny as a mirror, surviving down in the bottom of the ocean God only knows how long, resting in the shadow of some strange underwater mountain. We had never seen anything like it.

I caressed the rectangular box gently, searching for a button, a clip, any sort of seam that might signify a way to reveal the contents inside. Finding nothing, I placed it back down onto my desk and sighed. Three days, and still no luck. Our submergible had only a few days worth of fuel left, and it would be months before we’d be able to return.

I looked out at the inky blackness of the ocean floor, at the ominous jagged mountain reaching up towards the deep blue ocean sky, and placed my palm flat on the case, expecting to feel the chill of metal on flesh but instead a very warm tingle began to crawl through my fingers. My eyes shot down at the case and found that it had begun to glow red, like heated metal. I struggled to move my hand away but only succeeded in sinking it deeper into the mercurial shimmer of the red-hot case, the heat rising farther and farther up my arm, sinking behind my eyes and into my brain. I blacked out.

Cheers exclaimed in a foreign tongue rang out all around me, and I opened my eyes to find myself in the midst of a vast celebration. People dancing, laughing, screaming, pointing. A grand tower stretched towards the sky in front of them, so high it seemed to touch the heavens above.

Their cries abated as a vibration shook the ground beneath their feet. All stood still, their eyes transfixed on the bottom layer of the tower as it began to radiate a sky-blue glow; climbing story after story until the whole structure was ablaze, shining like the sun against a pale sky.

A loud BOOM echoed through the air as the light rose to the top of the tower, a pinpoint barely visible from the ground. Fervent cheers rose, then fell as winged men exploded like fireworks out from the top and poured down onto the crowd. No one ran, not until the first round of innocents was slaughtered by the angelic warriors.

I turned and dashed away, and found myself face-to-face with an old man, holding a shiny metal case like a refugee mother holding her child.

The history of our world.

Thirty years have passed since the history, the knowledge of our true ancestors was implanted into my mind. Into all of our minds. Conflicts have ceased. Cities have prospered, and risen up like leaves of grass on an open field. We are a people of one flag, one language, one ideal.

We are going to build the tower again, but this time things will be different. The weapons from the wars still work. We will be ready for Him this time.

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Something In My Eye

Author : Chris Court-Dobson

“Stop, there’s something in my eye.”

The spore had crash landed in his eye, and people were emerging. Light was blotted out as he rubbed, but the people were unharmed.

“I think its gone.”

The people had nuclei, flagella, membranes, thoughts, emotions, roles and beliefs. They screamed as bacteria engulfed the stragglers, but through their superior intelligence fought them off and then captured them. They began to farm the bacteria for their rich cytoplasm, then they began to build.

“My right eye is itchy, I hope its not infected.”

A city made of calcium grew out of ocean of tears. Bacteria swam in pens before their slaughter. The people were prosperous, but could not remember their home, the long journey in the spores had robbed them of that.

“Doctor will I be ok?”

“It’s just an eye infection, drop this in your eye.”

Deadly chemicals fell from the sky, but the people prevailed and reinforced their stronghold. Soon their civilization grew to encompass the entire ocean, except the middle where the ocean floor was dark, this was considered a holy place.

“It’s getting worse, it looks terrible.”

The city became overcrowded, there was civil war over whether or not to build over the black centre. The priests said it would anger the ocean and make the deadly rain fall again. The others scorned, the deadly rain was no match for them. Eventually the priests left the city and struck out across the desert mountain in search of another home. They were attacked by monsters and many fell to their deaths on the slopes, stragglers were left behind. Meanwhile in the city, the centre was quickly built over, to much rejoicing, at last they had they had thrown off the shackles of religion.

“I woke up this morning and I was blind in the infected eye, is there nothing you can do?”

“I have never seen this before, it seems to be a new disease. We’ll work on a cure.”

The True Believers came eventually to a new ocean of tears, the same as the last one. They rejoiced and began to build.

“The infection has spread.”

They built great buildings, statues and art.

“We’re working on it.”

The first city heard of the second and were jealous, with their violent ways they marched an army across the mountain and took the second city by force. Then they built over the sacred space.

“I cannot see, my sight has gone. Doctor, I’m afraid.”

“We’ve found a cure, genetically engineered micro-organisms, they’ll clear the infection right away and attack the cause as well.”

Monsters fell from the sky, they ate through the walls of the city and the bacteria flooded the streets. The statues fell and the museums were crushed. Soon the people were gone. With nothing left to eat, the monsters died. The peaceful bacteria reclaimed the ocean and continued with their peaceful existence.

“Thank you Doctor, I’m cured.”

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The Queen of Sparks

Author : Sam Clough aka “Hrekka”, Featured Writer

Molly padded along a short alleyway, and emerged out onto a wide street. She was approaching the centre of Night City. High above, the slow beat of the topcity’s vegetable heart could be felt rather than heard, one beat every few minutes. Night City’s pulse was carnivore, rapid and arrhythmic, like the city itself. The road never saw traffic. It had never been designed for that. A tight crowd were advancing down the street. They were coming Molly’s way.

Even if the glittering sparks had not lit up the air, putting a crisp, clean edge on the night, Molly would have known who was at the centre of that tight knot of life. Night City’s mascot. Night City’s Queen. The Queen of Sparks. Molly heard the laughs of the group, heard the sound of a single clap, and was bathed in the violent, vibrant golden light that emanated from that majestic figure in the middle of the road. She drew back into the alleyway, not wishing to intrude and only wishing to watch this spectacle. The Queen whirled round, laughing merrily, touching her entourage on the hand and on the head, and everywhere her fingers landed, a spark of colour stayed, casting bright electric blues and deep forest greens. She occasionally made a throwing motion, and up overhead, a tiny sun of orange or yellow flared into life. The entire procession, the performance, was redolent with life and joy – a celebration that could barely control itself.

They passed Molly’s shadowy hide, and continued on. One man, towards the back of the group, turned away from the shining figure that was so captivating to everyone else. A spark that had been planted on his hand flickered and died. And Molly saw him draw the gun from inside his jacket.

Without thinking, she broke from her hiding place, and ran towards the man at the back. He was walking towards the Queen, purposefully, without the smile that graced the faces of the rest of the group. Molly pushed herself faster. The man pulled someone else aside, clearing a sightline between himself and the Queen’s back. He raised the gun, steadying it with his other hand. With a kind of nerve that can only come from harsh self-discipline, Molly ran into him. A foot on his calf, a hand smashing down on the elbow of his gunarm, then a shove that sent him to the ground. It was all over in seconds. The gun discharged once, and then she kicked it away.

Everything stopped. The colours died, only to be replaced by an almost painfully bright, white light. Molly was kneeling over the would-be-assassin, putting pressure on the arm she’d smashed, making him wince in pain.

“What’s your name?” Someone asked, presumably addressing Molly.

The voice was smooth, and cultured. In those moments, in that light, neither the heart of the topcity, nor the heart of Night City, nor Molly’s own seemed to beat.

“Molly, highness.”

The Queen of Sparks looked down at her. Almost absentmindedly, she drew a knife from the sheath at her hip. A trio of bells tied around her wrist sounded as she moved her hand. A smile spread across her features, an idea blossoming into her mind. She quickly replaced the knife, and between thumb and forefinger, twisted one of the bells on her wrist. It came away like a ripe fruit. She closed her hand around it, and closed her eyes. She squeezed the bell, muscles all along her arm tensing. After a moment, she opened her hand again, palm up, and extended it to Molly.

From the slit in the bell, a soft purple light shone.

“The light will last as long as I do. Take it, with my thanks.”

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