Monday, February 22, 2021

SHORT STORY: Uninvited Guest - A Home Invasion Story

My name is Charlie and this is the story of my little sister’s abduction.  It all started many years ago on a day like any other.  I attended the same school as my sister Agnetha, who was two years younger than me.  I was 10 and she was 8. 

James Patrik Uninvited Guest - A Home Invasion Story


My relationship with Agnetha wasn’t always perfect.  Like any little sister, she could be annoying.  The two of us had disagreements, but they were always petty and of little consequence.  The kinds of things only siblings argue about.  Nevertheless, even when we quarrelled, I never lost sight of the fact that I was her older brother, and as such, it was my job to protect her.

Our school was like any other in the prefecture.  A government institution, administrated and funded by the Ministry of Compliance with the express goal of generating young adults ready to assume positions in the labour force.

Our neighbourhood was by no means affluent.  Most of the kids at school were in a similar position.  Both parents working full time, typically manual labour roles.  Every day, we each wore our standard issue school uniform, designed specifically to foster group cohesion and a sense of community.  All except for Sandoval.

Sandoval was the “weird” kid.  You know the type.  Every school has one.  Pale and mostly silent, as a child Sandoval cultivated a mystique few adults were capable of.  He often appeared dishevelled, and on more than one occasion appeared at school with large sections of his head shaved.  Once, during swimming practice, I caught a glimpse of the much talked about surgical scars that adorned his extremities.  Though I wasn’t able to articulate it back then - Sandoval scared me.  I think he scared all of us, and so, unsurprisingly, we kept our distance. 

Then one day, an incident.  While waiting in line for our lunchtime allotment, poor Agnetha bumped into Sandoval as he held his tray.  It was an accident, plain and simple, but it scattered his food all over the floor.  I remember vividly watching the whole affair unfold, as if in slow motion.  Sandoval’s tiny milk carton upended on the floor, the grey liquid slowly soaking into the carpet.

I was sat a few feet away with Alex Vasquez and his second cousin Antoinette.  As soon as I saw what had transpired, I rushed to Agnetha’s side.  She was frozen in terror as Sandoval simply stared at her with his cold, unblinking eyes.  Without emotion, or almost any inflection at all, he brought his mouth to her ear and informed her that she would be taken from her home.  It would occur in the next few days, and most likely at night.

I grabbed Agnetha by the arm and guided her to one of the cafeteria tables as she apologised profusely to Sandoval.  Her offence was nothing more than quite literal spilled milk, but Sandoval’s chilling threat seemed disproportionate and quite frankly, insane.  Among the kids, there were all sorts of rumours about Sandoval’s home life.  His parents were apparently deceased and he was now a ward of the state.

Over the next few days, we tried to put Sandoval’s menacing words out of our minds.  He was after all, only a child and his reaction was more likely the result of social exclusion rather than some pathological need for revenge.  Mundane normality resumed, until that one Friday in April.  That day I’ll never forget.  The day the Fox appeared.

Returning from school, Agnetha and I let ourselves into our house.  “Latch key kids”, old Mrs McGorgom next door would call us.  I never understood what that meant, or what precisely a latch key was.  Mrs McGorgom would do well to mind her own business. 

Mother and Father worked double shifts, so we didn’t see too much of them during the week.  I never knew much about their work, except that it was difficult, exhausting labour.  Venturing downstairs for a glass of water one night, I caught sight of them both dressed in their jumpsuits, stinking of hog fat.

Coming home to an empty house was second nature for Agnetha and I, and of course, we had a daily ritual.  After school we would sit in the kitchen with some snacks and watch the afternoon programming for a while before attending to our homework and chores.  That day, we were halfway through the daily telecast when we heard a knock at the door.  Before I could check the security feed to see who was there, the front door exploded open.

Extending a long, spindly leg past the threshold, a giant Fox appeared.  Humanoid, about seven feet tall, he had to crouch just to make his way inside.  Serpentine, his movements were slow and deliberate.  Bizarrely dressed in a pin striped suit, complete with waistcoat and polished shoes, the Fox appeared attired like an old-fashioned gentleman.

Simply standing there in the front room of our house, Agnetha and I could only stare back at him, our mouths agape at the mere fact of such a creature’s existence.  The Fox did not speak, nor utter a sound; he just stood there, staring at us with his cold, yellow eyes.

In a flash, it was as if the most primitive parts of our brains took hold – components inherited from primitive humans who lived in fear of predation from animals in the wild.  We both ran, Agnetha first, up the stairs to our bedrooms.

The Fox gave chase - he moved quickly, using his long legs to traverse a few feet at a time.  I pumped my calves as quickly as I could, catching sight of the Fox’s glistening serrated teeth.  Agnetha slid into her bedroom and slammed the door shut. 

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I ran straight into my bedroom and hid under the bed.  My heart pounding, I tried my best to control my breathing, but I could barely catch my breath.  All at once, I resisted the uncontrollable urge to piss my pants in terror at the thought of that awful Fox suddenly finding me.  What would he do to me if he did?  I imagined his fearsome teeth, tearing through my flesh.  Why was he here?  What was happening?  I closed my eyes tight, silently praying, willing for the moment to be over and for him to be gone. 

Then all of a sudden – nothing.  Silence.  I was alone in my room under my bed, surprised at the hot tears I found streaming down my cheeks.

“Charlie!!”

Agnetha’s voice, crying out.  I slid out from under the bed and sprang to my feet faster than I thought my body capable.  Freed from my fear, I raced down the corridor and descended the stairs.  I moved so fast my feet barely touched the ground. 

Then, something else, something more my senses became aware of.  A smell, old and familiar.  Acrid and heavy.  Smoke.  The scent of burning wood.  The smell of fire.

As I came screaming downstairs, I saw the Fox throw a lit match onto the living room carpet where a small fire was already crackling.  Slung underneath his left arm was Agnetha, kicking and screaming louder than I have ever heard another human scream before or since. 

“Let my sister go!” I roared, as I ran at the Fox consumed with rage but still unsure of precisely what to do. 

Spinning around to regard me he issued fourth a swift kick, his bony foot landing squarely upon my chest and sending me hurtling across the room.  Agnetha under his arm, the Fox calmly strolled out the front door, casually tossing Agnetha through the side door of an unmarked white van that had been apparently waiting outside, its engine idling.  The Fox entered the vehicle himself, collapsing his spider-like mass into the small space as the door slid shut and the van drove off.

I never managed to get a look at the driver, but there, sat smugly in the passenger seat was Sandoval.  He had watched the entire ordeal unfold, and had most likely orchestrated it as some form of twisted retribution.

Still reeling from the Fox’s assault, I chased after the van, but it was no good.  It was too fast, and soon enough, it disappeared over the horizon.  I stood there, alone, in the middle of the street once again gasping for air as my house burned behind me.

Through her upstairs window, I could see Mrs McGorgom watching wordlessly from her wheelchair – too afraid to call the local constabulary for fear of being labelled a ‘subversive’.  Evidently, someone cared enough to eventually summon the fire suppression services.  I could hear their distinctive sirens blaring in the distance, the sound growing louder as they grew nearer. 

As hot tears streamed down my cheeks, I summoned the courage to place one foot in front of the other and slowly began walking back to the house.   Tall flames now burst through the windows of our front room, peppering the front lawn with shards of shattered glass.  In that moment, I had no words.  I wondered what had just happened. 

What would I tell my parents? 

What would I tell myself?





Tuesday, February 16, 2021

SHORT STORY: Waste Management

As a young girl, I revered my mother.  We lived together, just her and I, in a plain looking house nestled in a sleepy outer suburb.

‘Good morning, starshine’ she would say each morning as she energetically drew back my bedroom curtains, filling the room with sunlight.

James Patrik SHORT STORY: Waste Management


I idolised her, though childish pride prevented me from verbalising my feelings.  She was a woman of immense contrasts, and I wanted to be just like her when I grew up.  At once, strident yet demure.  Educated, yet still of simple tastes.  Some days, as she moved about the house, I’d study the elegant way in which she moved.  I’d try my utmost to imitate her graceful gestures precisely, often failing.  It was only due to my diligent observation that I was able to discern a subtle change in her fa├žade.  She seemed suddenly stressed, guarded.

Each night, after dinner, Mother would excuse herself and go down to our basement.

‘Just catching up on some laundry’, she’d say, typically emerging half an hour later with folded clothes. 

One night, things felt different.  It was just after my ninth birthday.   Gone for only a few moments, she returned empty handed, her face looking flushed.  Was my perfect mother hiding something?

I’d been raised to abhor secrets, so I resolved to investigate for myself.  That night after bed, I crept from my covers and into the hallway.  Up past my bedtime, the house was a strange, nocturnal place – one I was never supposed to see.  Confident I wouldn’t be punished for my infraction, I nonetheless armed myself with a white lie.  If caught, I’d claim I’d awoken for a glass of water or some other such thing.

Clad in my pyjamas, I crept past Mother’s favourite chair.  Working on her computer, her face was the picture of concentration illuminated by the harsh light of her screen.  Sat beside her was a half empty bottle of the dark liquor she’d once forbidden me from tasting.

After slipping through the basement door, I cautiously descended the wooden staircase, activating the tiny flashlight I’d brought.  As I reached the bottom, I used it to scan the room.  The circular spotlight danced about, left to right, revealing the washing machine, dryer and the other sundry items we’d abandoned there.  Suddenly – movement.  A darkened blur caught in the periphery of my vision.

‘Who’s there?’ I managed as my heart rate jumped.

Slowly piercing the circle of light was the unmistakable outline of a woman’s bosom.  I moved my flashlight slightly to reveal a woman – completely naked, her body covered in an unusual coating.   Resembling clay or thick chocolate, her dark blanket accentuated the smooth contours of her hips and made her appear slimy to the touch.

‘Good morning, starshine’, croaked the naked lady in a tone both terrifying and familiar.

‘Who are you?’, I demanded, somewhat stunned by my bravery.

‘Don’t you recognise me?’

‘You’re a naked lady in my basement!’

‘Look closer.  I am your mother’.

Instantly my mind conjured the image of my Mother upstairs.  I’d seen her with my own eyes not sixty seconds ago.

‘I am she’, continued the naked lady, ‘That part of herself she discards.  That which is unacceptable.  It is a blackness she must release in order to be your mother’.

Alarmed, I began moving towards the staircase, but before I’d moved a muscle, I felt the naked woman’s hand close around my bicep.

‘In nature, everything has balance.  Perfect people exact a price.  I am the skin she has shed.  Erupting from her subconscious.  She has done this deed for you, child’.

‘Don’t hurt me’, I pleaded.

‘Hurt you?’, the lady seemed to take umbrage, ‘I am as much your mother as she is, I am simply her shadow.  I still recall her feelings your first night home from the hospital.  Such resentment.  Her revulsion at the very sight of you, knowing she’d have to sublimate her needs for another.  As you soundly slept, I watched her resist the urge to smother you’. 

‘It’s not true!’, I spat as I tried to twist my arm from her grip, unsuccessfully.

‘Deny me all you like, but all relationships are this way.  We discard those parts of ourselves we deem distasteful so we can summon kindness and compassion.  Everybody does it.  Those feelings have to go somewhere.  You might call it a form of…waste management’.

‘I have to go’, I declared, struggling more forcefully this time, still to no avail.

‘You cannot leave.  Not now that you have seen me’.

A moment of silence hung between us as we acknowledged the uncomfortable impasse.

‘There is a way - only one - for you to ascend your stairs and return to your delusion’.

Before I could respond, the lady pressed her filthy hand into my chest.  Her fingers were ice cold and the sticky substance covering her clung to the fabric of my clothes.  Within seconds, I felt the uncontrollable urge to cough.  The naked lady released her me as my body convulsed and crumpled.  I fell to my knees before her and hacked up a terrible quantity of what looked like phlegm.  The vile, black globule presented itself on the basement floor, writhing and moving of its own accord.  Had that come from inside me?

My coughing fit complete, I jumped to my feet and bolted up the staircase, dropping the flashlight as I went.  I fully expected the naked lady to give chase, but she didn’t.  She seemed much more interested in the phlegm I had produced, inspecting it with fawning adoration.

‘A mother does what she can for her child.  Never forget your shadow, dear.  It will always be waiting for you’.

I never saw the naked lady in the basement again, nor did I tell my mother what I had seen.  I decided to allow the memory to atrophy, and so it did.  The decades passed.  I finished school.  Got married.  Got divorced.

Now I am a mother myself, with my own child - a boy - a bitter avatar of my own disappointment.  I’ll never forget the day I brought him home from the hospital.  After Mother’s death I inherited my childhood home, the same one with the basement.  I lived there with my son, just him and I, in a perfect symmetry of circumstance.

Every now and again, I would look down upon him sleeping in his cot, his tiny face a scrunched up blank canvas of limitless possibility.  I’d heard many a new mother gush about the bond between mother and child – an unspoken, immediate connection - primal and ancient.  I’d watch him sleep, and feel cold inside.  Empty.  As if the very sight of him filled me with hatred.  I swallowed my venom and vowed to fulfill my obligation.  As he began to grow into a young man, I became determined to be for him no less than the perfect mother.

I never told him what I keep hidden in our basement.  The black waste.  A disgusting biproduct of human relationships.  I hope he lives as long as possible before he too learns the truth.

 

 

 

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

REVIEW: There Is No Comparison: Remembering Star Trek The Motion Picture

Star Trek The Motion Picture ranks quite highly on my personal hierarchy of Trek films (Just behind The Wrath of Khan and First Contact respectively).

In Australia, the extended 1983 TV version of the film often found its home on local TV stations, ably filling the slot assigned to the “midday movie”.  Its protracted run time would easily consume a sizeable portion of the afternoon - perfect for lazy, rainy days stuck indoors.  During Coronavirus lockdown, it’s in a similar context that I’ve had cause to revisit the film - its soothing tone a balm for isolation and boredom.

James Patrik There Is No Comparison: Remembering Star Trek The Motion Picture

As a younger fan, I often overlooked the merits of The Motion Picture, preferring instead the glorious motion control starship warfare of its sequel.  It seems the most common criticism of the film is its slow pace.  Stylistically, the film shares an obvious kinship with 2001: A Space Odyssey as opposed to the broad accessibility of Star Wars.  Caught in the shadow of that pop culture juggernaut, it’s easy to imagine how fans in 1979 would have been deeply disappointed in the film.  Its slow, ponderous pace is decidedly at odds with the kinetic, brightly coloured tones of the series upon which it is based. 

However, there is something to be said for exercising patience with a story that refuses to rush and unfolds at its own pace.  This idea is immediately exemplified in the overture before the opening credits.  Already a fading tradition of cinema in 1979, it has been preserved on the home media releases.  Unhurried and deliberate, The Motion Picture is an outlier in the film series.  If you approach it in the right mood, the film is almost hypnotic, calming even.

Depending upon your personal taste, the oft derided reveal of the newly refitted Enterprise is a prime example of the film’s measured pace – five minutes and forty seconds of pupil dilating starship pornography.  Despite the length of the sequence, it reinforces an idea that Trek rarely serves well – the Enterprise itself as a character.

The story itself is a surprisingly hard slice of science fiction.  An old NASA probe – having gained sentience wandering the galaxy – returns to Earth seeking its human creators, erroneously contextualising them as “God”.  The premise is quite similar to the original series episode The Changeling and finds Trek wading through metaphysical subject matter far more successfully than Star Trek V would a decade later.  It’s a cerebral story – typically Rodenberry in tone – and featuring many of his favourite storytelling motifs.

Pretending the ten years between the series and this film is, in actuality, a mere two requires extraordinary suspension of disbelief, but the cast revisit their characters effortlessly.  It’s a story in which Kirk and Spock bear complex motivations.  Kirk is ambitious to the point of forcing Decker out of his job, while Spock is cold and distant after his unconscious mind is touched by the arrival of V’Ger. 

James Patrik There Is No Comparison: Remembering Star Trek The Motion Picture

Shatner – svelte and resplendent in dark hair – is immediately engaging, tempering Kirk’s zeal with an explorer’s curiosity.  Regretting the acceptance of a promotion to Admiral, the character is a man reinvigorated by being in command of a starship once more.

New crewmembers Decker and Illia provide viewers with an insight into the defunct Phase II series (themselves both characters from the aborted show).  Persis Khambatta (a former Miss India) delivers a suitably bizarre performance, cementing her as one of the standout guest performers of the film series.

As ever, it’s not a perfect film.  In the 2016 documentary For the Love of Spock, actor Leonard Nimoy describes the making of The Motion Picture as “a painful experience”.  He openly criticises what he deems “a bad script” and laments the loss of character development at the expense of visual effects.

As can be said with most of the original series films, Takei, Koenig and Nicholls are present and accounted for, but have minimal screen time.  The seventies aesthetic that permeates the film can be both a virtue and a hindrance.  McCoy’s bushy beard, gold medallion and white leisure suit are a pleasure to behold.  Not quite so pleasing are the pajama-like Starfleet uniforms.  Allegedly chosen by director Robert Wise who felt the brightly coloured uniforms of the TV series were not appropriate for the silver screen, these sartorial nightmares come in depressing shades of brown, beige and white.

Despite these flaws, I look at the film with a fans affectionate gaze, anticipating my many personal highlights with each re-watch.  The wormhole malfunction, Spock’s psychedelic spacewalk and poor Commander Sonak’s grisly death at the hands of a malfunctioning transporter (“What we got back…didn’t live long…fortunately”).

Accompanied by a sumptuous score (and a thunderous main title sequence) by the iconic Jerry Goldsmith, The Motion Picture is, in my opinion, the only entry in the film series that feels truly cinematic.  I can still recall the old VHS copy of the film I had as a child.  On the back of the box, the film was aptly described as a “special effects bonanza” – and that it is – delivering big screen spectacle in a way that no Trek has ever approximated.

Its difficult to believe that it is 42 years old, but it seems there may still be life left in it yet.  As recently as last year there were rumblings of a potential 4K release – we can only wait patiently for such plans to materialise.  It is my hope that the 2001 Director’s Cut of the film (still trapped in standard definition) will be included in any high definition re-release.

I, like many fans, have grown to appreciate The Motion Picture – not for its deficiencies, but rather for its virtues, the audacity of its ambition and its legacy as the film that ignited the film franchise. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

SHORT STORY: Why Are You Alive?

(Part Two Of Two)

Soraya walked up the hill, her dark locks trailing behind her.  The warm breeze of the early morning whipped across the long grass and forecast a temperate day ahead.  Casting a quick glance backward to the village below, she continued her ascent.  This had always been a daily ritual.  It was hardly a secret, but she sometimes wondered if anyone knew that she did it. 

James Patrik SHORT STORY: Why Are You Alive?


Somehow, the importance of this simple practice had been magnified in recent weeks.  Her new responsibilities as Archon of her village gladdened her heart, but the days could prove taxing.  Often tightly packed, they were filled with meetings with citizens and council members, not to mention the formidable quantities of paperwork commensurate to official office.  But before all that began, there was this moment – just her alone – at the start of her day atop the peaceful hillside.  She slowly inhaled as she watched the first golden rays of sunlight touch the horizon.  Moving almost imperceptibly, it illuminated the rooftops of the village and coursed its way up the hillside to the place where old Allozade was buried.  She never tired of the spectacle, enraptured as morning blue ceded to the oncoming day.

After savouring the scene for a few moments, she took out her notebook and recorded the time and wind direction in anticipation of the strange phenomenon.  Just like clockwork, there it was – the low rumbling she’d been hearing.  Without evidence to determine the exact cause and no obvious place to investigate, she did what any decent scientist would and collected observations.  Despite her level headedness and a lifelong commitment to reason, the small portion of her heart that permitted irrationality was filled with a sense of dreadful foreboding.

***

“Unhand me!”, shouted Moon as she struggled with the Prospector. 

Having relished the sight of the two girls being cast into spinning turbines, he was now determined to send Moon to a similar fate as he brought his considerable bulk to bear down upon her.

“You are tender meat – younger than most”, he leered as he pushed her ever closer to the blades, “But pretty girls are only grist for the Mill!”. 

Jerking her right elbow backwards in one sudden movement, Moon cracked the Prospector across his face as he released his grip.  Remembering that one good turn often warranted another, she let fly with a swift kick that caught him again in the face, causing a stream of blood to spill from his nose.  He fell on all fours, stumbling about in shock as much as pain, as if no girl before had dared attempt defend her life.  Trying to stand, the Prospector lost his footing and fell forward into the large blades where his corpulent body was ripped to shreds.

Still dumbfounded by the sheer quantity of viscera sprayed across the walls, Moon was barely conscious of the alarm that sounded as the Prospector was ground up.  Adrenaline coursing through her body, she tried her utmost to steady herself, wondering what Percival would do in her stead.

He wouldn’t panic - he would think, she chastised herself.

Leaving the frightful turbine room, she rapidly moved down the hallway looking for another section of the house.  Another room, or even a door.  Finding only edifice, she finally located a small hatch at waist height which she promptly opened and entered.  Inside she found a steel conduit large enough for her to move through.  As she crawled, she could feel the rumbling intensifying along with the thrumming noise from the turbine reverberating through the walls. 

Pushing open a hatch, Moon arrived at a spacious room with a giant window – the view from which appeared obscured by dirt and rocks.  The space was dimly lit by strips of unnatural light Moon had never seen before, and its surfaces were smooth and composed of strange materials.  Save for the window, the space contained only a single computer console, alive with buttons and busy blinking lights.  Before the console was a chair.  From behind, Moon could make out the vague outline of a man sat upon it.

“Hello?”, she asked bravely.

Immediately, she saw the man’s fists tighten upon the armrest.  His skin appeared unusual, oily and with a silver sheen.

“Why are you alive?”, asked the man in a voice both deep and malevolent.  Moon froze - the man’s dreadful tone indicating his question was more a statement of frustration.

“Your life at this point is a gift, one I suggest you take with you as you leave this place immediately”, he stated as he rose from his chair.  Standing a few feet taller than Moon, the man’s movements looked pained.  He inched towards her, a silhouette until he chanced upon a pool of light which revealed his cumbersome body.  It was artificial, not made of flesh.  Dirty, battle scarred and pockmarked, the man gazed at her intently with two unblinking red eyes. 

He was a Metallic Man.

***

“Steven will not forsake me!”, cried Prune as the rumbling beneath her feet became an earthquake.

Astounded by the woman’s intransigence in the face of disaster, Percival rushed toward her and grabbed her wrist as the Preparation Suite buckled and collapsed into the earth.  From up high, rocks both large and small began to rain down upon the village as the harlots frantically sought cover.

“We must flee, dear lady”, Percival cried, “Can your Steven be worth your very life?”

“Release me rodent, I take no heed from the likes of you!”, barked Prune as she stood steadfast amidst a maelstrom of dirt and debris, protected only by her faith. 

Percival felt her arm go limp as a rock struck her square upon her head, splitting her skull wide and spilling its contents across the ground.  Feeling meaty hands upon his shoulders, he turned to see Trevor who’d sprang from his hiding place.  Together with the harlots, they ran as fast as their feet would carry them, seeking safe harbour.

Once clear of the showering rocks, Percival turned to see an awesome sight.  As his lungs burned from the breathless run, he could barely believe his eyes when he witnessed great chunks of the mountain give way to flashes of steel.  Natural lines acquiesced to hard symmetry as a great machine emerged from the ground.  Standing near 50 feet tall, it was squat and cube shaped, with four tremendous legs protruding from each side like a dog.  This was, evidently, the Mill in its truest form.

Percival watched, horrified, as it’s lumbering limbs took their first steps, marking the surface beneath and making a thudding sound that reverberated through his belly.  Great sections of vegetation were cast aside as if the mountain itself had been a hollow prison for the terrifying contraption.  As the machine sauntered away, its purpose unknown, Percival’s could only think of one thing.  In spite of the extraordinary circumstances which presently befell him, his only concern was for the little girl he’d promised to protect.

***

Moon had heard tell of Metallic Men from the people in her village.  They were known as harmless things, carving out an easy reputation as helpful men of cheerful disposition.  This particular example however, seemed far from jovial. 

Black oil leaked from his orifices like tear stains and his joints made a creaking sound as he moved about the room like a predator.  Slowly, he inspected her.  Parts of him appeared to be missing, not least of which his right arm which left a gaping dark socket where it once resided.  Then there was his face.  Metallic Men’s faces consisted of a single faceplate that sat upon the front of their heads.  Moon presumed their creator had constructed them thusly to give the appearance of a human face, or to conceal their inner workings.  It was akin to the manner in which the skin of a human face concealed muscle and tissue.  Whatever the original aesthetic intent, this man’s face had been scarred as if someone had etched into him with a sharpened blade.  The deep markings crossed his face in a zig zag pattern, debasing his once neutral expression into something ghastly and horrific.

“I ask again”, came the man’s voice, “Why are you alive?”

“Because I had the will to live”, replied Moon without thinking.

As the floor tilted one way, Moon looked to the giant glass window and watched as dirt and rocks gave way to fresh white sunlight.  The machine had ascended and was moving across the landscape.  The sparse room was now illuminated, and even in broad daylight the Metallic Man’s eyes still glowed red with rage.

“My reactor must have reached it’s critical mass without you.  Organic matter always makes for such efficient fuel”, he sneered.

It didn’t take long for Moon to realise that she was in a device of some sort, powered by the crushed-up bodies of the people from the valley.  “The Prospector…he fell in.  He attacked me; I didn’t mean to…”.

Seeing the anguish on her face the Metallic Man understood what she had done.

“Pay him no mind”, he said, absolving Moon’s guilt with a wave of his hand, “He was dead long before today.  A bottom feeder I enlisted from the town of Creeg.  I castrated him myself, yet his appetites…persisted”.

“What happens to me now?”, Moon asked after a moment of awkward silence.

“Now?  You were not supposed to be alive!  But you are here for some reason.  You may witness my great work firsthand”.

Moon could feel her heart rate slowly return to normal as she summoned her concentration and took a few tentative steps towards the glass viewscreen.  They were high above the ground, and Moon could see the bleached landscape of Simian Sands.  Two prehensile, flexible tubes extended from the machine.  One latched onto a Twilo tree and drew in a group of birds while the other vacuumed up a family of primates and conveyed them to the turbine room.

The Metallic Man watched the gruesome process, intoxicated with excitement “Now you see the purpose of my great machine.  Whatever excess remains will be discarded as excrement – the inevitable destiny of all life”.  He turned to face her, his face aflame, “This is my art, and my vengeance.  The world – dining upon itself”.

“But…Why?”, breathed Moon, rendered silent by yet another display of barbarism.  Her mind could construct more cogent arguments against such destruction but they escaped her. 

“Why?”, shouted the Metallic Man, “Why?!”, he added a second time, incredulous as his eyes grew ever redder.

“People are often quick to ask “Why” but fail to ask themselves “why not?”  I’ve spent months in hiding, building this obscenity.  I concocted the myth of Steven and took immense pleasure in doing so.  Rather than procure them by force, I invited them to kill themselves.  Flesh is so easily corrupted and they were free to leave at any time”, he laughed heartily.

“Now my great machine has life and can sustain itself ‘till its mission is complete.  Soon, the veil will be lifted and the world will be revealed for all to see”.

“And what world is that?  Your world?”, challenged Moon.

“I think it be a world you know too well if I read your eyes correctly.  I was once like you, an innocent”, he began, “There is something amiss with this place.  It is wrong, polluted.  Life is nothing more than trial and suffering followed by death and darkness.  As was revealed to me the moment by hand was used to take a life.  That day I saw no less than the face of God”. 

Hearing his terrible tale, Moon suddenly ached with compassion for the Metallic Man.  Though his actions were unconscionable, his heart was clearly tormented.  It was something she could relate to.  Gently, she reached out for him and placed her hand on his forearm, it was cold to the touch.

“I’ve taken a life as well”, she whispered, “My stomach was sick to do it.  Though he acted like a troll, he was still a man, and I think I shall see his face each time I close my eyes”.

Taking her arm and twisting it, the Metallic Man suddenly lunged at Moon.  “Sympathy?”, he raged as he clenched a fist full of her dress and shoved her backwards, violently pinning her against the wall.

“In the inventory of your mind, when you look back upon deeds visited upon you, do not the scales tip downwards in favour of depravity?  You and I are nothing, grains of sand among millions.  Made for manipulation by a God that cares not what we do.  Meat or metal, our components are bound for rot and decay, so I will spare you all the struggle.  You may forfeit the difficult part and just die”.

***

Outside, the great machine trundled across the landscape, uprooting trees with its arms and raping the earth with its heavy stride.  It traversed Simian Sands, past the place where poor Raymond fell, and levelled the clearing where the Metallic Man first met Kevin.  Severin’s bones, still rotting in his home, were crushed into powder as the machine marched on, relentlessly.

Upset by the commotion, Mrs Gale appeared on her balcony just in time to see the great instrument of destruction.

“I suppose this is all my fault”, she sighed to herself as a giant mechanical foot descended, killing her instantly.

***

“Watch closely - from this vantage point you’ll have an excellent view of the earth as it is reshaped”, breathed the Metallic Man as he pressed his disfigured face against Moons.

Locating resolve, she managed to struggle free one of her hands.  She reached for her assailant’s face, curling the tips of her fingers underneath the outer edge of his face plate.  Involuntarily, she yanked the plate backwards, removing his entire face.  The Metallic Man screeched in agony as he held his hands up to the naked gash, now revealing a horror unlike any Moon had ever beheld.  Maggots in lieu of circuitry, worms instead of gears and mechanical components – a foul den of insects and muck with two glowing red eyes nestled deep within.

The man continued howling, recoiling and releasing Moon from his powerful grip, collapsing to the floor in exquisite pain as his awful assemblage of maggots began to lose cohesion.  The disgusting creatures spilled out onto the floor and onto Moon’s clothing, writhing and squirming. 

“What are you?”  Moon gasped.  She backed away in revulsion, but could not deny a quiet fascination.

“I don’t even know any more. I had hoped one day to be a man, but that feels so long ago.  Instead I became this.  A punishment, I think.  Not for my anger, but by my anger”.

Satisfied that he was helpless, Moon knelt by his side.  The Metallic Man’s insects grew fewer and fewer and he became too weak to move.  She had seen this behaviour before in animals and knew full well what came next.  Tenderly, she took his hand and held it as his life slipped away.  His mouth opened, but there only came a hoarse whisper.  Moon moved closer, bringing her ear to his mouth.  The last of the maggots and worms disappeared leaving only a headless corpse, and a pair of faded, glowing eyes.

“What do you think happens when we die?”, he asked with his final breath.

And with those words, he was gone.  Moon looked upon his body, now motionless, painfully aware of the passing of yet another life before her eyes.  Just a few moments ago, he’d posed a serious threat.  He’d been so fearsome - so vital and imbued with energy.  Now he was an empty husk, little more than a sorry pile of scrap metal, his battered body bearing testament to a lifetime of madness. 

Is this what the future holds for me?

Moon wondered to herself as she sat in the dead man’s chair.  Through the viewscreen, a ghastly montage of destruction played out before her as the great machine marched on, casting its arms outwards to consume the fleeing, frightened citizens of a village that looked distinctly familiar. 

It was her village – her home, the cradle of cruelty from which she had fled.  Numb, she watched as the Sisterhood of the Face made a valiant last stand.  Watched as the machine cut a swathe trough roads and buildings, sucking women and children into its twirling mass of tubes.  Soraya too met her end with quiet dignity among the books she treasured so well.  They too were lost along with all the knowledge contained therein.

In relative terms, Moon had just escaped this place, but it gave her no joy to see it ravaged.  Even so, a small part of her could not resist the call of the Metallic Man’s words.  Her life thus far had been marked by ever increasing amounts of blood and the presence of those who would deceive her.  Her mother, the villagers, Allozade – even the harlots had led her to peril.  Perhaps the Metallic Man was right, his lunacy notwithstanding.  He had discerned a sacred truth, a universal constant that Moon had always feared true.  Life would be this way forever.

Why not simply let it happen?

She mused as she sat back in the chair, a literal front row seat to the end of the world.  With a dead man’s blood on her hands, and a cadaver by her feet, she finally capitulated – surrendered to the growing kernel of blackness within her and the imminent end of her life. 

In the inventory of your mind, when you look back upon deeds done to you, do not the scales tip downwards in favour of depravity? 

The Metallic Man’s scornful wisdom replayed in her mind, drifting towards the surface of her conscious thought where it conjoined with an image of Percival and the brief but happy life they’d shared. 

And like lightning - in an instant - she knew what she had to do.

***

The ocean spread out across the horizon as the lazy waves lapped against the coast.  She was taken by the sheer enormity of it, its immense size bestowing a profound feeling of smallness.  As the clouds grazed the sky like cattle, pinkened by the setting sun, she was taken by her own sense of ease.

“Moon?”, Called Percival’s voice from behind, “Was it as you expected?”

“And more”, she beamed as Percival sat quietly upon the dunes nearby.  She’d never imagined her first visit to the ocean would provide such a potent olfactory experience.  The salty brine in the air danced upon her nostrils as she closed her eyes and listened to the sound of seagulls.

The idyllic vista was broken by the great machine, slowly being swallowed up by the tide as it lay crumpled and half submerged.  As she dipped her bare feet into the foam, she marvelled at the cleansing power of water, the ocean having washed the blood from her hands.  Untrained in the use of machinery of any type, a random mashing of the controls had yielded sufficient results.  The so-called great machine and its builder’s legacy of pain now in shambles, bound to fade away as though it had never existed.

In those final moments of surrender she’d changed her mind, opting to gamble upon the chance for happiness.  Spurred by the memory of kindness, she determined that the meaning of life was whatever stopped her from killing herself.  Now, as she looked out over the gently bobbing ocean, Moon prayed her thoughts would one day be as calm.

Sitting down next to Percival, she heard of the harlots and Trevor who were headed away to find for themselves a new life.  Their minds had been addled, but much like the landscape which had been so convulsively assaulted, the passage of time would heal them.

“Do you think the world will end?”, Moon asked Percival as the two sat abreast admiring the sunset.  Pink and red streaked the clouds like strokes from a painter’s brush as the golden sun withdrew beneath the horizon.

“I thought the world was ending when I saw the Mill rise up out of the mountain”, confessed Percival.

“The metallic man thought destruction a form of creation.  Was he wrong?”

Percival thought carefully before offering a response, “There are many perspectives; it’s up to you to judge which one you’re best able to live with”.

A moment of amicable silence hung between them.

“Why are you alive?”, asked Moon with the same innocent eyes Percival had first seen that day in the woods.

“I don’t know”, he replied as he rose to his feet and extended his hand with a smile, “Let’s find out together”.

 

 

 

SHORT STORY: The House Always Wins