Sometimes it’s Hell Just Getting Out of Bed

It’s the second clock that wakes the thing. A slant, warped box of thirteen crimson letters set about a chipped, slate face. Infernal, arrhythmic punctures, steel striking bone, dancing between the pendulum’s metered silences. The manic, staggered metronome somehow resonating, layering tick over stop over tick over tock over is over not.

A breath crawls up the thing’s shrivelled throat. Ribbons of rotting tissue flutter between the jagged ivory jutting from its maw. A mob of sleep-stuck eyes writhe under tallow skin. Misfiring piston coughs shake the meat of it and rattle the iron bed. Tender flesh snags against the rust-peppered springs, galvanising the putrid mass into full waking. Its flank of crust-glued eyelids strain and, oozing, tear themselves open to the gloom; goat/squid pupils snapping at the thin, grey morning, edged flame by the streetlight that peers through the barricaded window.

Then the thing begins its screaming.

Cold Statues

It’s too early and too cold. Pins and needles twinkle on the frosty ground as I try to stomp some feeling into my numb feet. The sodium street lamps pour out a flat, heavy light, dotting bile-yellow pools throughout the morning darkness. Half-dead but almost awake, I’ve wrapped myself up as best I can, the layers of thin clothes now somehow less than the sum of their parts. I’ll have to raid the lost-property at the bar if I’m to survive winter. At least one of my eyes is open but I haven’t gathered enough energy to lift my head, tucking it instead into the folds of scarf tied around my neck, thin streams of smoky breath crawling out through the folds and trailing behind me. Fortunately the walk to the bar is not a long one. Very convenient, especially for my boss who calls me whenever she needs someone last minute. Busy night. Low on beer. Emergency delivery. So in I go. Way too early and way too fucking cold.

The bar’s just off the main strip, tucked into a back street behind a glitzy cartoon of a hotel. I’m across the street from the hotel’s entrance when I see the brewery truck pulling out onto the main road. The fiend is trying to leave. I make a break for it, sprinting across the street and waving my arms to get the driver’s attention. Frigid air creeps up under my clothes and wraps around my chest. Something collides with my leg and clatters behind me. My breath catches as my legs slip out from under me and I almost stack it face-first into the road, only managing to stay upright thanks to my flailing arms. The bastard driver laughs. I give him the finger through a cloud of relieved breath, then point down the ally. He nods and begins to back the truck up.

Behind me stretches a trail of scrap metal, wires and springs. And there’s somebody stood at the far end of it. A clockwork somebody. It’s staring at me from behind a pair of small mirrored sunglasses, wearing a suit of cogs and wires and metal plates. Stretching out behind it’s left shoulder is one gleaming copper and brass wing, dense overlaid shards of twisted metal feathers and a series of gears and cogs set about it’s joint. The thing’s face is gold with a bulky lower jaw hanging from it’s bolt ears. A tarnished machine underbite and a human nose looking out over the jagged parapet of cruel metal teeth. There are wires and cables in place of hair, parted in the centre and hanging straight in the still, clear morning. It must be some street performer getting set up. One of the human statues. It’s just staring like they always do, but there’s just it and me in the cold yellow dark. I realise I’m staring right back, panting. Clouds of my hot breath tumbling through the crisp air. Not a hint of movement from the clockwork thing.

“Sorry.” I say, pointing at the scattered machine parts, then the street behind me. “I had to stop the guy. The truck. Emergency delivery.”

It just stares back, unmoving. Slices of street light reflecting from it’s clean contours and dissecting the thin air. It’s head is hung low, so that it’s Frankenstein bolt ears are level with its shoulders. Like it’s waiting to charge.

I take a step towards it to help pick up the scattered junk when a blast of noise clamps around my head. I jump, nearly spilling into the road again. The truck’s horn. He’s getting impatient. The clockwork thing doesn’t react.

“I gotta go.” I tell it, taking a step back. “Sorry again.”

As I back away, it’s head begins to turn, following me down the street. There’s a terrible noise like twisting, tearing metal that minces the inside of my head. I turn and sprint to the ally, the shrill, metallic scream rising as I run. A wave of relief hits when I round the corner and the noise stops. I don’t look back.

A Setting for a Suicide Note

Galescar House sat low, battered and alone on the uneven horizon, the fading sky threatening to colour the whole scene a uniform grey. Yvonne scanned the hazy silhouette of the house, her eyes running along the rough rooftop of the squat servants quarters that made up Galescar’s west wing, rising slightly as it gave way to the main house with its heavy oak doors, imposing windows and clawing eaves, then up once more to Galescar’s single, lonely eastern tower and its octagonal roof, monocled by a circular window and constantly surveying the suburban sprawl far below. Yvonne suddenly had the notion, with Galescar’s grander parts somehow unfavourably distributed to the one side, that perhaps the abusive western wind had beaten and shaped the house into some great, cresting wave littered with flotsam and slate, rising above and to someday crash down upon that dry, heather-strewn shore.

To the rear of the house were Galescar’s neglected and overgrown grounds, the gnarled, skeletal hedges and low, tumbled-down walls sketching the outlines of its once-grand gardens, now violently cut short a few yards to the north by the cracked earth and chipped fissures of the Splintered Cliffs’ increasing trespasses. While at the front, the geometric tracery of Galescar’s oppressively tall gothic windows considered the precipitous, rock-strewn slope that fell away behind Yvonne, that juddering, rocky decline of Wolfhound Ridge.

Yvonne turned away from Galescar, away from that husk that had once been a home, and looked down over the crystal spires and shimmering rooftops that sat below, connected to one another with a complex cats-cradle of silver threaded walkways and the electric blades of humming mag-highways. The gleaming, prysmatic architecture built up steadily to the south, growing to join the vast city-state of The United North. It had all once been part of the larger, old kingdom, and in that kingdom, the glittering metropolis below had been a small town. Long before that, at the boundaries of Yvonne’s memory, that town had been a village and in that village she had once been a child. She had lived in that town and finally, in Galescar House on Wolfhound Ridge, above those impossible spires, Yvonne had grown old. She looked back at the gritty, blue/grey silhouette of the house one last time before opening the slim leather-bound ledger on her lap. She took up the pen in her right hand while stroking the length of the crisp page with her left, the paper and her hand a pale, raw-clay yellow in the thin light that spilled from the windows behind. Then Yvonne put pen to paper and began to write.

Notes From an Early Reconnaissance Prior to The First Celestial Conflict

The workings of the machine, if you could call it that, were intricate to the point of being maddening. It was made up, not of physical parts, but of what seemed to be translucent, ghostly shards, each one, a single three -dimensional edge or fractal facet of some ethereal, vaporous matter. They shimmered and flickered as they moved, collapsing, shattering and coalescing as they each worked to dismantle the recent dead, striping away their guilt, their shame and indeed their very selves, in order to fuel and people this horrific contraption. It was a terrible mockery of an afterlife promised from pulpits, an amalgam of heaven and hell, of peace and annihilation, this industrialised, postmortem punishment/purifier. Taking in the whole of it, I had the realisation that, on my previous visits, I had been deposited somewhere inside the swarming iterations of the thing itself. This time, however, the amygdalial inhibitor had thankfully worked as planed and had caused me to unfold at some external vantage point, able to survey, as best I could, the immense heaven/hell machine.

I was somehow able to view the continental, perhaps even planetary, engine as a complete whole. The sight of it, along with the crushing strain that its size and complexity placed on my transient from, was almost debilitating. I was awestruck, not only with the intricacy and delicacy of it, but also its compete lack of scale. I struggled to take in the extra-dimensional vastness of it, the colossal thing somehow twisting and compressing perspective, causing my gaze to splinter and multiply and blend. I saw in kaleidoscopic visions that shifted and folded throughout and around and inside that sprawling soul-machine, giving me a total yet incomprehensible sensory experience of its structure, its instrumentation and its processes. 

All at once, I could witness any and every facet of its jagged, soul-spalling mechanisms, I could see into its deepest components and ingredients and products. It was as if my awareness of it was not one of a passive viewer, but that I was, myself, a part of of it, while also set apart from it, spread around, and diluted throughout, the whole of that immense, etherial and diabolical engine. I was somehow intrinsically vital to the impossible contraption’s ability to function, as if, for it to operate while I viewed it, the machine had to amalgamate my senses into itself. I realised then that the fleeting glimpses gleaned on previous expeditions had not been cut short due to improper dosages or imperfect regression as we had first thought, but that my presence there had been dismantled, eviscerated even, by the engine’s undulating, gyrating and unfolding mechanisms. As they had stripped away the sins and selves of the unlucky dead, they also unraveled my own, transient ghost and sent me out and off and down, back to our own lower order of being. 

But now, having finally arrived outside of it, this time I could stay, I could see and I could study.

It Will Help if the Presentation Feels Somewhat Familiar to Them

So Carl wants us to go through some of the lingo again, this vocabulary here, just so that we’ll be as comfortable with it as possible. It’s got to be slick on the day so let’s use English the whole time, ok?

-No problem.

Great. So, first things first, there have been a few changes.

-Changes?

Yes. Not too many though, mostly cosmetic. The meat of the destabilisation is essentially the same, they’re just changing up some specific words. See here? We’ve got to call the humans earthlings now, plus they’ve changed the names for most of our gear, our ship, our home and a bunch of other little things.

-What things?

Well, like this. We’ve got to call our phones communicators now.

-Why?

Carl just said that it’s what they’ll think we’ll call them. We’re all high-tech and futuristic to them, remember. Phone will sound too mundane apparently, sends the wrong message.

-But our phones aren’t futuristic, they’re just like theirs. Theirs were even better until we saw them and decided to put that immersive display on ours. We didn’t even think to have a screen until we started checking theirs out. It’s stuff like their phone ideas that we want the humans for, right?

Earthlings, remember, and I know but Carl said communicators is just better. As it turns out, they dreamt up these future phones years ago, ones kind of like they have now, in stories and stuff, and in those stories they called them communicators, so that’s what they’ll think we would call ours.

-That’s bollocks. They’ve actually got these communicators now, don’t they? They all do, they’re on them all the time. They’re probably even better than whatever each of them imagined when they were younger and they’ve all decided to keep calling them phones, haven’t they? They don’t go around all day on communicators saying hello fellow earthling, do they?

I know it sounds stupid but, I’m telling you, it’s what Carl said they’ll be expecting.

-What do you mean expecting? The humans? No one else has tried a full disclosure manipulation before, right? They’ve not been approached by anyone else?

Earthlings, remember, and no.

-Well there you go, no expectations then, surely.

You’d think so but the weird thing is Carl says they’ve been sort of fantasising together about meeting people from other planets for ages.

-So? Everyone does. Happens all the time. There’s all these crazy ideas they have and then we pull the reveal and they’re all Oh! Er, you’re just like us then, I guess, and we have a good laugh while they tell each other the odd things they’ve been dreaming up. Then we get to business.

Well that’s the thing, you see, they all kind of dream things up together. Carl tried to explain it to me and it’s like, well, remember when we were first learning English and we thought it was a bit odd, it being so full of all the esoteric poetic imagery, those historical and literary references and what have you?

-Yes, bloody nightmare!

Well, Carl says it’s like that because they all sort of decide to have their imaginations agree on certain things.

-How do you mean they all agree? There’s a fair few of them, aren’t there? They can’t all agree. We’re counting on a bit of confusion, aren’t we?

And there will be, Carl’s sure of it. There’s just this general consensus, apparently, on certain concepts anyway, without them even realising it sometimes. There’s these certain things that just become standard for them. Archetypes, Carl said. They share all these ideas, you see, and then the good ones just kinda become the way whatever it is, well, is.

-What? And they all just go along with it?

Mostly. Look, it’s like this: Someone thinks something up, like a story, you know? And everyone thinks it’s a good story so it sticks with them and they all sort of keep it in mind. Then, if they think up any stories of their own, like a new story but along similar lines as that first one, that story they all liked, then they copy the bits they liked from that first one and mix them about with a bunch of stuff they’ve added themselves. Even if they change something big, it just ends up getting defined by the way it’s different from what was decided on before by this collective imagination. Then the whole thing, it all sort of compounds and crystallises as things go along, so that you end up with this sort of general agreement on, say, what a thief looks and sounds like, or a hero, or what the afterlife is, or what little bearded guys living underground might be like, even people from other planets. It’s got something to do with why they’re so inventive, like an organic growth of ideas, you know? The big stuff building up over time. Upstairs think that if we go along with these expectations, at the start at least, we’ll get a good foothold nice and early that we can exploit later. Get it?

-Not really.

Look, it doesn’t really matter why. This is just something that Carl says he and the boffins upstairs have decided on. He says that the huma- sorry, earthlings. The earthlings will take this all a lot better if it fits in with the stuff they’ve decided on already, the stuff in their stories, that’s all.

-It just seems a bit inefficient to me, is all, us spending so much time getting good at English and then having to relearn a bunch of stuff just because they all go around copying one another’s dreams, just because they’ve got these plagiarist imaginations.

I know, I know but like I said, it’s the way Carl and the higher-ups want it, so we’re just going to have to go along with it. Ok?

-Ok, fine. Whatever. So humanity is a bunch of earthlings now, great, and we phone each other on our communicators. Totally normal. What else?

Possible Justifications for the Murder and Mutilation of a Colleague

You remember that guy? You know, the guy from work. The one with the face. You do. The weird guy. All fidgety and quiet. He had that creepy, double-jointed walk. Dressed like a charity shop mannequin. The guy from last week.

Yes, him.

Well, don’t you think he looked kinda like he might have been a space alien? He never said hello or anything, at the office. Like he didn’t want to get noticed or something. And he was always writing things down. Yeah, you all do that at work but he did it all secretive like. As if he was having a proper scout about, making plans or something. That terrible skin too. Like crusted marigolds, it was. A skin condition or something. It looked totally fake though, that skin. Might have been a suit. Like a man-suit, you know? So he could walk about, planning how they were going to make you all into slaves for their galactic empire or whatever. Yes, like a scout for some space-crabs or something. Put a stop to that though, didn’t you? Yes you did.
But…
You did get a good look inside though, remember? Afterwards? And it was most definitely not a crab in a suit, was it? No it was not. What then?

Might he have been a vampire? His car had those dark windows, didn’t it? And the car park at work is under the building. He’d never have had to go outside, would he? House with a door to his garage and then he’s in the car until he’s underneath and safe inside the building. Nice and convenient for a vampire, that is. He wore those shitty shades inside that time too. Looked like an absolute dick. Never saw him eat or drink anything either. He didn’t even have any cake on Julie’s birthday. Oh! And remember when he made that face after you spoke to him with garlic breath? He looked properly freaked out then. Classic vampire.
But…
If he was a vampire, and they’re all super powerful and undead and stuff, and with what you did, well, vampires probably wouldn’t let you do that to them, would they? They’d have something to say about that. And very loudly too, I should think. So, probably not a vampire then, no.

He must have been possessed. Demon possession, you know? A crazy demon took over his body and it was going to make him kill loads of people and mess about with their corpses or whatever. The weird behaviour bit makes sense with that. And he wore that t-shirt with the inverted cross that time. A band he liked, my arse. Walked like a fucked up marionette too. Mobility issues or whatever. Perfect cover for a demon getting used to walking in a meat suit. Yeah, some blood crazed demon controlling him, that’s it. It would have gone on a mad cannibal death spree if you hadn’t stepped up. There’d have been folk torn apart all over the place. Much worse than what happened last week. That was just one, after all, instead of a bunch of folk all shredded and emptied and chewed up. All butchered by some hell-thing. Well not on your watch. No way. You put a stop to that, didn’t you?
But…
A demon could probably still do some damage inside a corpse, right? It could likely make a dead man move around if it wanted, like if it was angry or something. And, well you’d be angry with what happened, wouldn’t you? And he never did put up much of a fight, did he? No no no. Something else then.

What if he was a member of some cult? Like a cultist? The cross thing and the never socialising fits in. He was in some cult and they were planning to let a giant spider/lobster god or whatever into town. Never worked Saturdays. Even when we switched to that new software and we all had to come in and convert the old specs. A right bloody pain. Not him though. Saturdays must have been spider/lobster church day or something for him. They all go and do some ritual or whatever, making sure that the pincers and claws leave the members be when they finally get round to waking up the horrors.
But…
You’d think that he’d have tried a curse or something. At the end, you know. Or at least threatened you. My death is meaningless and arachnoclaws will rise and eat your head or whatever. But he just kept sobbing and begging and gurgling, didn’t he?
Not like a cultist at all, no sir. What then?

A child molester! Yes. It’s perfect. That’s the worst thing, anyway. Worse than all that other stuff. What a horrible bastard. All the weirdo business still fits. A freaky loner, riddled with guilt and horrible urges. A sick predator that hunts little kiddies.
But..
He didn’t have any pictures on his desk, did he? Of kids or family or anything. Well, think about it. If you were gonna cut up kids, mess about with them or whatever, if you had something inside you that made you want to do all that grim shit, well, you’d have a couple of pictures out, wouldn’t you? Oh these? What? This picture? Oh, that’s my niece and nephew. So cute. I love them little terrors. Because folk wouldn’t think it of a doting uncle, would they? Perfect cover you see? And when the little body parts start piling up in the mortuaries, you could just act super concerned for all those kiddies, the ones that you’ve been secretly fucking about with and tearing apart, and no one would suspect a thing. 

Ah, but that’s you with the fake kids, remember? If you were doing it. You’ve got social grace or whatever. Him? He was all creepy and solitary and stuff. It would have looked really peculiar, a creepy quiet guy having pictures of kids out on his desk and never mentioning them. He wouldn’t have been able to pull it off, all that caring uncle business. A proper red flag, that would’ve been. So, there it is. No pictures works for him. It all fits. Definitely a paedo. It makes sense, after all. That’s probably why you started where you did. Could have looked a bit odd otherwise. Hacking away right there, straight off the bat. Could’ve been a sign of some subconscious urge or something, latent homo-whatever. It’s ok if he was a kiddie fiddler though. He was a paedo and you had to save all the children. That grizzly action downstairs at the get-go was just in case you didn’t get to finish things properly. He wouldn’t have been able to do any sick shit after that, would he? No way. Good thinking you! Still, there’s no worry about him doing much of anything now, is there? You managed to see the whole task through, didn’t you? No half measures for you, no sir. Got all the important, wonderful, messy work done. Got all the horrors scooped out. Got him all open and emptied and organised, good and proper. Very thorough, you were. Yes sir.

Well now. That nicely settles things, doesn’t it? There’s no need to go worrying yourself about that silly business anymore, is there? You’ll most likely be able to drop off now and get some sleep. Big day tomorrow, after all.

Those Unwelcome Things Others Leave

The van’s gear stick required a firm and persistent hand. Grinding it home caused the clutch to respond with a gnashing of metal teeth followed by the release of a gritty, acrid scent, not dissimilar from an electrical fire. The gears soon quietened but the smell hung around, seeping up and back from the engine as the van lurched on. This did not worry Natalia. There was a sharp chemical miasma that pervaded the van at all times, so much so, that she could imagine petrol-slick rainbows floating, faint and spectral in the air around her. The petrochemical haze was reinforced regularly from her battles with the transmission or from the slow, rough coughs that accompanied the engine’s clawing, desperate attempts to drag itself uphill.

With the effort of shifting gear, Nat’s grip on the steering wheel had tightened, her right hand clamping down so that the plump pads of skin sitting below her finger’s joints were mashed between squeaking faux-leather and the tarnished rings that wrapped themselves about her knuckles. The pressure and friction resulted in a warm, dull ache that worked itself into her fingers and through the flesh of her palm. She released her grip, unfurled her fingers and forced the heel of her hand against the imitation leather, stretching and working the joints to coerce the blood through and out. Her knuckles undulated in repeating waves as the pain and stiffness began to recede, allowing her attention to snap back to the passing features of the roadside while her hand settled gently on the wheel.

Nat’s eyes ticked back and forth rhythmically, snapping forward to each street sign and then drifting across the windscreen, following their names as they arced past and then fell back to join the many others in the van’s wake. The repetition of signs bearing names other than the sought-for one, caused Nat’s agitation to build once more. Her hands again gripped the clammy steering wheel tighter and tighter causing a thick, hot ache to surface and coalesce into clusters of fiery needles, breaking through from mild discomfort into a gnawing that dragged her attention back to her hand. Nat realised that she was no longer reading the street signs.

The van pulled up at the side of the empty road and Nat’s good hand reached over to the plastic file on the passenger seat. She flicked it open and leafed through the papers inside, eventually finding the one containing the additional directions. These often useless instructions were given by vacant-minded arseholes and copied down by dispatchers with, by the look of this one, gnarled claws in place of hands. The claw-writing was the low uneven sprawl of a loose but twisted hedgerow, squat and sparse, sitting on an uneven landscape, punctuated with deep, irregular fissures.

“Jesus” she though, “I might have to actually call them.”

Nat hated calling. Trying to get clear instructions over the phone was like pulling teeth, or changing gear come to think of it. And having to be grateful for their help. Bloody hell. Thanks so much. See you soon and sorry to bother you. No way. Not today. Not on her first drop.

“Fuck” she muttered, drawing the word out into a long, low growl.

Nat decided to brave the tangled hedgerow of instructions one last time. Closer inspection revealed the words post and office sitting together, just this side of legible, towards the end of the twisted claw’s scrawl. There had been one at the foot of the hill. 

Tossing the papers in the general direction of the file and then gripping the gearstick firmly once more, Nat swung the van around and demanded the full attention of her faculties. Muttering the names of the streets and cul-de-sacs out loud, she forced her discomfort and irritation into the back and managed to eventually spot a possible suspect, just before she reached the post office. The sign hung, half-collapsed, filthy and splattered with both mud and drippy graffiti so that, at first glance, it read “Shitous Drive” rather than its given name.

Nat pulled down on the wheel and apllied the brakes, the van wheezing with relief as it turned and rattled to a standstill. She noted the drop’s reference number, grabbed its paper work and swung the door open. In one fluid motion, she gripped the wheel with her left hand and, swinging her legs out to the side, slid off the seat and onto the pavement, then bounced into a quick turn and kicked the door shut behind her. She resisted the reflex to turn and look, a dull crunch satisfying her that the door had hit home. After trudging around the van, she wrenched opened the back doors, wincing at the screech of straining metal as they swung out. A tumble-down, scattered pile of parcels greeted her inside, reminding her of the hasty u-turn moments ago. Her hand clamped the edge of the door in frustration and that hot ache again pulsed in her palm.

Nat began to methodically work through the jagged landscape of dull edges and right-angles, gradually imposing order on them while hunting for the appropriate package. When she eventually came across it, a cube about a foot on each side, she noticed one edge had taken a hit and buckled. Part of the cardboard had torn, the frayed but regular corrugated furrows laying exposed, and toward the corner it had begun to come away, threatening to reveal the package’s contents. Nat lifted the box and gently bounced it in her hands while turning it to check for any further damage. Then, satisfied with its structural integrity, she gripped the box under one arm, keeping the troubled corner upright, grabbed the paperwork and slammed the back doors closed. With the paperwork pocketed and the box held firmly in two hands, she headed towards the drop.

Walking up the cracked flagstones of the pavement, she noticed the odd shifts of weight within the package. It was as if there was some fluid inside, flowing left and right, almost in pace with her steps, but the redistribution of mass occurred with a slight delay, as if the innards were incredibly thick and retained an unusual amount of momentum. Nat’s imagination conjured up the unwelcome image of a writhing albino octopus struggling against the confines of its prison, contorting itself and its appendages, wildly seeking a way out. Her thoughts lingered on those undulating tentacles, puckered cables twisting against the tangled mass of themselves, running, turning, looping and constantly insinuating themselves around and through one another. A living knot of muscle and motion; a multitude of organised discrete intelligences thrashing and plotting in the dark. Her eyes wandered to the curl of cardboard at the corner of the box, beneath her chin. She could probably see a little of the something that moved about inside. If she held it close enough. Tilted it just right.

“No” she thought, and with a jerk of determined professionalism, she jutted her chin out and up, defiant against her own curiosity.

“As if I care what’s in some box.”

The delivery must have gone smoothly, as Nat was sitting in the van and slipping the key into the neck of the steering column before she knew it. That was how it went with the simple drops. Autopilot. She didn’t really remember any of the mundane personal interactions with which her job afflicted her. Nat’s apathy resisted the mind’s attempts to store and replay those tedious exchanges. So long as a drop went smoothly, she couldn’t tell you much about the person other than their name and address. It was an automated process, its details unworthy of recollection.

The van started and pulled away easily but it was another battle to work up into third gear. Again, pain ignited in her palm. Nat held her hand up and flexed the fingers to pump the stiff ache away. Then she noticed something sitting on the back of her hand. A small black cube that was the dull, matt texture of worn rubber, about the size of a pea,  embedded in her skin just behind her first and second knuckle. The skin curled up slightly as it met the black cube’s edges, as if her hand had opened itself to this thing planted into her. She though that she must have knocked the hand, and the black cube had been pressed into into the flesh and stuck. Looking closely, Nat thought she could almost see faint, grey tracks at the corners, as if dark veins were spreading out from the points of the black cube that lay under her skin’s surface. She turned the hand, tilting it this way and that, to reassure herself that these were merely shadows playing around the cube’s edges. After pressing at the puckered skin and finding that there was no soreness there, she began to pick at the black cube wallowing in her skin. With her finger-nail scratching over it, she could feel it rubbing against her forefinger’s tendon, inside the hand. As she worked at the black cube, that taught cable slipped under and around it, with almost audible gristly clicks.

Suddenly the space between her ears was twisted and yanked down by the blare of a screaming horn. She tasted metallic sparks of adrenaline in the back of her suddenly dry mouth as her eyes flicked up, fixing on the impossibly close truck pressing towards her. Her hands instinctively shot down and pulled hard on the side of the wheel. The van swerving and threatening to tip as it arced across the road, narrowly avoiding the truck and  riding wide, the front wheel striking the curb. The horn wailed past while Nat was thrown forward and then forced back, her seatbelt jerking her down into the seat as the van mounted the curb and slumped to a standstill.

The van had settled at a slight angle to the pavement but, surprisingly, it was more or less parked. Nat’s hands were still clamped around the wheel, her knuckles white and her eyes wide, jaws clenching tightly behind thin, pale lips. Her head shook slightly as she stared ahead, vacant, her gaze fixed on nothing. Nat returned to herself, forced her head to turn and examine each mirror, as well as the road ahead. She found it to be deserted apart from the truck shrinking slowly behind her. There was time and space for her to breathe.

Nat forced her grip to relax and her jaws to part, then took two deep, deliberate breaths. She nodded slowly and squeezed her eyes shut as she filled her lungs one more time. Her eyelids snapped apart and she reached down to open the van’s door and tumbled out to inspect the damage. The tyre had blown and the curb had gouged a deep fissure into the wheel’s rim.

“Call the office” she said to herself. “Get it done. Get it over with. Just get home”

A few questions later and the call was done. Help was on the way. One hour, maybe two. Nat got back into the van and played the incident over in her mind. That thing in her hand! She pressed the palm against the window and leaned in to examine the small black cube but it was no longer there. An indented square sat where it had been, a small white recess with raised skin around it. The cube must have fallen off during that almost-crash moments ago. It knocked itself loose when she had careered into the curb and was thrown about in her seat. She had a flash then, in her mind, of the black cube sinking into her hand, the skin accepting it into her body and closing up around it. This foreign geometry, dense with malevolent potential, planted within her right now, sitting with a determined patience and filled with some dreadful purpose, slowly insinuating itself through her body toward some terrible end. She shook the thought from her mind. It had fallen. It had worked it’s way loose and fallen off. Whatever it was, it was gone. No use being curious about a little thing like that. It was silly for her to entertain such dark fantasies. She focused on deep breaths again.

By rhythmically filling and emptying her lungs, Nat soon relaxed and, settling back in her seat, she began to absently stroke the back of that hand. While she waited, the black cube slowly worked its way up her arm, its undulating, elongate corners trailing a smoky wake. It had settled itself on her spine when the rescue van pulled up and, as she was driven home, the tendrils began to writhe and reach, wisps of inquisitive determination, spreading throughout their new home.

Payback

Dear Ms Elizabeth H. Tannen (circa 2019, timeline ref#8658grqx1),

We at Philanthropic Trans-Temporal are very happy to inform you that you have received an inheritance from one of your possible future selves!
We appreciate that this may be hard to believe, but if you check your bank account (******65) you will see that funds totalling $209,680, left to you by Ms Tannen (circa 2087 Timeline ref#8658gqrx0), have indeed been deposited into your account from the future! *

Please read through the pamphlet enclosed for a full explanation of the PTT Pay-It-Back Donation and Self-Inheritance system.**

We hope you enjoy the lifestyle and peace of mind that such a substantial windfall affords you and please be sure to keep Philanthropic Trans-Temporal in mind for any future payments or transfers to the past.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Amanda Dane

CEO and Founder
Philanthropic Trans-Temporal

*If funds are not present, please contact PTT client support on 0800 555 1984.
— We regret that this number is only active AFTER 10-21-19. If your inquiry occurs before the above date, please leave a voicemail message with Abe’s Fishin’ Tackle & Tobacco on 555 1623 814 (be sure to state the date and time to avoid any mental fragmentation due to causal-reverberation triggered by pre-event resolution) and PTT will get in touch as soon as our customer support centre is up and running.

**PTT strongly urges all clients to make themselves familiar with the ‘What Next’ section of the enclosed pamphlet so as to be fully prepared for the physical effects and/or mental strains caused by any retrotemporal branchings, annihilatory convergences, extradimentional geneses and/or any other such paradox-like complications, known or otherwise, that the client may experience due to this fiscal/data temporal redistribution in their timeline.***

***All clients should be aware that a client’s future agreement to any services of PTT or its subsidiaries is retroactively binding under the Temporal Trade, Transfers and Communications act of 2020. As such, PTT cannot be held legally responsible for any injuries, ailments, psychoses, or other effects resulting from PTT’s retro-temporal vector-shift of information within a client’s timeline, on that client’s future-self’s behalf.