Father’s Table

It seems to the girl that her father works all the time. He is absent when she gets ready in the morning. She walks to school alone and she makes her own way home. She puts herself to bed. But father is always sure to be at home for an hour or so in the evenings to make dinner. The girl appreciates this time with him but, unfortunately, father is not a good cook. Their meals come from tins, or from frozen plastic bags. They are bloated and swimming in sauce, or they are dry and crusted with breadcrumbs. They are processed animal parts. They are reshaped potatoes. Tonight’s meal though, is not father’s usual fare.

“Now come on honey-pie, sit,” he says, patting the chair-back. “Sit down and eat up.”

The girl looks at the meal as she presses and twists her lips together. On the fold-out formica table in the corner of his kitchen, father has served her a dinner comprised of three stones. Their surfaces are uneven, and of a similar size and shape to eggs, but eggs with two rounded ends and no point. The stones speak in dull, hollow clicks. They move with every step she takes, rocking back and forth, drumming at the chipped porcelain and reverberating through the laminate.

“These are rocks, dad,” the girl points out, taking her seat.

Father breathes out slowly and places one hand on the back of her chair and another on the edge of the table.

“Now, honey-pie,” father says, “none of your silly games. You eat up like a good girl.”

The girl narrows her eyes before picking out a knife and fork from the many stacked in the world’s #1 dad mug that sits tucked into the table’s corner.

“Honey-pie, don’t be silly,” father repeats, impatience beginning to crease the corners of his eyes. “You eat these with your hands.” He mimes, raising his hand to his mouth and letting it drop three times.

The knife and fork clatter against the laminate, leaving dull marks hidden amongst a lifetime of wear. Father nods in encouragement. She reaches out and takes the nearest stone. Gritty and cold, it presses into her palm. She looks up at her father, desperate to see some sign that this is a joke or a prank, but father is still nodding. His eyes are fixed on hers, his pupils move up and down in their sockets as he nods and nods and nods.

“That’s it, that’s it,” he says, opening his mouth wide with every vowel.

The girl places the stone against her lower front teeth. Her hand is shaking and the coarse surface of the stone grinds at the rampart of her incisors. She feels the scrapes running through her jaw and into her ears. She closes her mouth and pins the stone in place. Father nods some more.

“I can’t!” She mumbles around the stone before pulling it from her mouth.

“Damnit Sarah!” Father shouts, slamming his fist on the table.

Once the rattling of the stones settles down, she hears the chair-back creak behind her. Sarah had been her mother’s name. When father gets upset, father often gets confused. The girl places the stone back in her mouth.

“Good, good,” Father says, colour slowly returning to his knuckles, “now you just go on and take a bite, ok?”

The girl suddenly has a thought. This could be a test, like in the bible. If she trusts her father, she’ll be rewarded. The stones may even be shells filled with sweets. With a new-found brightness she screws her eyes shut and bites down as hard as she can. She feels sweat prickle at her brow. She feels her father’s breath on her cheek. She feels the pressure in her teeth and in her jaw and in her gums. She hears a crack, a crunch.

The girl finds that the stones are filled with pain and with blood and with the splinters of teeth.

And father smiles.

Advertisements

Red Bricks

It had been some kind of factory once, in the decades before the boy and his friend had found it. The grass and the weeds had moved in since then, bursting between the bricks and growing to cover the collapsed walls. The red bricks had once been home to some mysterious, mechanised creation and despite the weight and wear of time, some parts of the crumbling factory still stood. Almost three stories remained near it’s entrance, with an uneven, ever-decreasing sprawl stretching away behind.

The boy and his friend would race through the archways that leaped about the crumbling factory’s once-grand courtyard and they would explore the mouldering spaces within. Dank, red-bricked caves that shaded them from the summer sun and kept the wind from the fires that they set in the winter. There were shadows that moved in the corners of those damp, dark spaces. Shadows that sometimes whispered to them while the wind howled. Shadows that would frighten them back into the daylight, where they would pass the time by climbing the disembowelled heaps of bricks that had spilled from the crumbling factory. Loose piles of faded crimson, spreading low and uneven along the valley’s slope in squared and jagged dunes.

The boy and his friend learned to tell time by the shadow of the chimney that rose proud and straight a short way back from the crumbling factory. A home for birds now, roosting in the broken brickwork that towered precarious over where the boy and his friend played. They would occasionally harry the birds, hurling rocks high and clumsy towards the bird’s roosts, when boredom or the mood for violence took them. And the boy and his friend were harried in their turn by older ones, by Not-Yet-Men that would gather in that place as the daylight began to leave it. On some evenings, girls would join those older ones, after they’d dislodged the boy and his friend with their insults and threats. On those evenings, the crumbling factory would become home to awkward, adolescent fumblings. Excited, clumsy explorations that had a habit of becoming their own accidental acts of creation.

The boy and his friend were terribly afraid of those older ones. Afraid that the threats of terror and shame would be visited upon them, should their flight from the crumbling factory be too slow. But that fear eventually gave-way to curiosity. They set themselves to finding a place to hide, a vantage from which they could watch the mysterious goings-on in the crumbling factory at twilight. Searching the upper levels, around the old production floor, they eventually settled on a room that suited them, the wall and floor on one side of it having fallen away to provide a clear view of the space below. The cavernous room beneath was littered with old mattresses and abandoned car seats, beer bottles and cigarette butts, and all the collected detritus of bored adolescence. From the corner in their room, the boy and his friend would be able to survey, in secret, the site of the older-ones’ evening rituals.

The boy and his friend worked the day transporting piles of the old, red bricks up to their new hide-away and they worked the afternoon stacking them into a rough wall near the edge of the room’s fallen floor, leaving gaps here and there through which they could view evening’s activity. And as the sun fell, the older ones came. Shouting their threats and warnings while roaming the crumbling factory’s exterior, before making a lazy search of the spaces within. The boy and his friend held one another tight as the older-ones stalked and called out to them. But their reconnoiter was half-hearted and they soon quieted, settling into their appointed places. Before any activities began in earnest though, the boy, growing a little too curious and leaning a little too far forward, disturbed his makeshift bunker. The wall give out with a painfully-slow, grinding moan while the boy and his friend crouched, frozen as their world fell away before them, disappearing with a clatter into the room below.

In the short silence that followed, the boy and his friend did not wait. They turned and raced through the nearest broken doorway, scrambling together, deeper into the crumbling factory. They heard footfalls and threats from a corridor behind them as they spun wildly in the gloom, looking for an escape. The boy saw a staircase at the end of the hall. Rough concrete stairs with an iron scaffold railing spiralling down. The boy grasped his friend’s hand, rushing onward and down. Together they fled from the terror behind as the stairs twisted deep into the dark.

The boy lead his friend at random, desperate to put some distance between them and the older ones. The gloom soon grew too dark to see and they were forced to stop. The boy felt out a corner in which to settle and to soothe his crying friend. He held his friend in a tight embrace, both for comfort and to stifle the sobbing. Time passed slowly in the dark but the consistent silence assured them that the older ones had not braved the factory’s bowels. The boy grew bored and brave while his friend sobbed. He decided to scout out the darkness in search of a way out, promising to return and lead his friend to safety.

The boy fumbled at the walls, guiding himself away from the sound of his friend’s tears. Onward into the dark depths of that crumbling factory, he stumbled, turning this way and that, going forward then back, growing increasingly convinced that he was lost. Eventually, tired and afraid, he came to a stop, leaning back and sliding down the wet stone wall. The boy rocked back and forth, hugging his knees. And then he began to cry.

After a time, between his sniffs and sobs, the boy heard a voice. It was a voice of many whispers and it seeped out from the shadows that wrapped themselves about him. The voice scared him at first but he soon calmed himself enough to listen, straining to understanding the hissing cacophony. And within that whispered static the boy heard promises. The darkness said it would show him, said it would open itself to him and lead the way out. The darkness would deliver him to the surface, but at a cost. He must give up his friend. That other must remain, a sacrifice to the darkness.

The boy knew his answer immediately. It had settled in his mind as soon as the offer was presented. But he pretended think. He made a show of wrestling with his conscience, set to building himself a more noble memory. So that, in time, when the boy might recall this moment, he would be able live with himself.

O.G.B.

They were just trying to innovate, you know? To push things forward, to change things, to try. It was a place built for people who could change things. A place for these dreamers, these space-heads, these geniuses. All of them with wild, out-there ideas and, thanks to Our Gracious Benefactor, the means to explore them. That’s how they liked to be addressed: Our Gracious Benefactor. Each word capitalised. They could totally tell if you didn’t pronounce it in capitals, if you were thinking in lower case. That got to be a saying with the white-coats, thinking in lower case, if you weren’t willing to go far enough; weren’t pushing things all the way out there. That wasn’t me, you understand, I wasn’t trying to mess with fabric of stuff or break into some higher reality. I’m not to blame, is what I’m saying. None of this was my fault. I was just writing press releases, trying to make the rest of them sound less like off-brand Bond villains, trying to figure out marketing strategies for these things that fucked with reality, that twisted humanity. Just a hired geek trying to sell the end of the world.

It was the white-coats. They were the ones that actually did things. Your Emmett Browns, your Professor Morriartys, your Doctor Dooms. They’d been tempted away from studies or tenures, from cushy government jobs. These wannabe Einsteins, these Oppenheimers. From every discipline, every industry, all living and working in Our Gracious Benefactor’s gleaming, futurist paradise. Far from government oversight. Far from petty protesters. No funding applications. No interference. No questions. Our Gracious Benefactor assured them they’d be free to explore their own unique brand of crazy, fully funded and unfettered. Most didn’t even care about money, not really. They just wanted the acclaim. So Our Gracious Benefactor got in people like me, creatives, to play yuppie-troubadour to the white-coat’s scientist-knight.

A few demanded that their work not be used in any military capacity. Your hippie type’s mostly, your pussies. So there were complicated contracts drawn up by lawyers, then checked by other lawyers, then chewed up and shat out by some all-powerful lawyer’s lawyer, by God’s lawyer. And finally these hippies and these pussies, they’d sign on the line that was dotted, their worries soothed, their consciences absolved. A lock-stock, death-free, guarantee. Benevolent applications only. For their disintegrator ray, or their temporal compressor, or their (no word of a lie) mind-control suppository. Come to think of it, butt-hypnosis guy came on board without any stipulations at all. Dude just wanted to work.

It couldn’t last though. Things can only take so much messing with before they turn to total bullshit. You fold and unfold the world enough times and it’ll start to fray, start to tear. And that’s everything now. A world of bullshit. Loose and lawless and falling apart. The big-hitters managed to escape the bullshit in time, of course. In their ships or portals or pods. A few ascended into some higher state of bullshit, leaving the normal people behind, neck deep in it. And that’s us now. Stuck in the hot-suite, while the outside world splits and twists and fractures. A bunch of pen-pushers, safe and sound, watching the end of the world.

Terrible Opening Lines Challenge

After a long day at the Porn-O-Matic shop, the LittleGuy was tired. He stood with his shoulders and chest just visible over the counter, his palms flat against it’s polished steel surface. His face was still but his eyes followed Barb as she walked the edges of the shop, checking the cabinets and display cases, locking the wire mesh shutters and switching off the rotating displays. She was about to lock the shop’s entrance when the room filled with a blast of grinding static.

“Alright, alright,” Barb called out.

She went to the counter, dropping the keys onto the steel with a clatter as she lifted the flap. The LittleGuy leaned forward to allow Barb behind while continuing to emit his crackling, atonal buzz.

“It’s alright,” Barb cooed, “it’s been a big day for you, my darling. You’ve been quite the draw, haven’t you?”

The LittleGuy turned his head and smiled.

“I’m wiped,” his low growl buried in the blare of modulating static.

“That’s a poor choice of words, dear,” Barb said, frowning, “now look straight ahead for me.”

She began to work her fingers through the bristly black hairs at the base of his skull. After finding the round outline of the catch, she gripped his neck, pressed her thumbs into the soft tissue there and then lifted her hands away as the LittleGuy’s head split along the hairline. The back of his head opened, delorian-like, displaying a tangle of translucent, pulsing red wires over clusters of flickering golden lights.

“I’ll just pop you on a little snooze cycle, dear, let you get yourself together.”

She turned a dial, pressed a button and then closed up the LittleGuy’s head. He fell slowly forward, coming to rest on the counter top as the static wound down to a low, almost unnoticeable drone. Barb stepped out from behind the counter and picked up the keys as the bell above the shop’s entrance rang. Two men, one short, one tall, both in neat, black suits, walked in from the street. The tall man moved with a smooth liquidity, his upper body a gliding statue, while his legs flowed beneath. The short man shuffled and stooped, pressing his hands together, stroking and squeezing his plump fingers, as if working them though a series of permutations.

“I’m sorry gents but I’m about to close,” Barb said.

“Close?” The short man lifted his arm and looked at the skin on his wrist, frowning, “so early? Well miss, let me assure you, we shall be but a minute.”

He moved towards Barb, while his tall friend turned away, bending over to inspect the glass cabinets of bondage pieces along the back wall.

“I was just saying to my friend here what a singular establishment this is,” he said, massaging his hands as he spoke, “my friend is of the opinion that it should take quite the specialist to work in such a niche boutique. Isn’t that right, sir?” he called out while winking at Barb.

“Yeah, real special,” the tall man said without turning.

Barb threw up a pained smile, “I am the proprietor of this establishment, Mr…?”

The short man held up his hands, waving in exaggerated apology.

“Oh! I’m so very sorry, Miss. Allow me-”

“It’s Ms,” Barb corrected, “Ms Garrett. And again, who are you gentlemen?”

“Of course, of course. I,” the short man squashed himself into a bow, holding one hand to his chest, “am Mr Quick-”

“I’m sure you are,” Barb interrupted, “and your compatriot?”

“Oh!” Quick smiled wide, displaying neat rows of small, yellow teeth, “compatriot! Very fine. Very fine indeed. Well? Do introduce yourself, sir!”

The tall man straightened stiffly, as if hinged at the waist; pivoting away from the cabinet in a graceful arc as he rose.

“I’m Sharp, me. Mr Sharp.”

He spun away again, folding over as he did.

“There you are Mzzz Garrett. Now, as I was saying, it must take someone very…” he paused, pursing his lips, “affable to work in such a specialised market, yes?”

With his face pressed against the glass of the display, Sharp let out a low, rhythmic chuckle.

“Gentlemen,” Barb sighed, “I collect and sell historical objects of a sexual nature. These pieces,” she gestured to the cabinets and displays, “have facilitated generations of sexual activity, ensuring the perpetuation of our species,” she looked from Quick to Sharp and back again, “and not only through simple reproduction. They have allowed people to satisfy compulsions and desires that may have otherwise driven them to who-knows-what. People who, thanks to such works, have been able to live rich, full lives.”

“Indeed, indeed, it’s all very admirable,” Quick chimed, his hands wrestling one another all the while.

“The history of sex is the history of arguably the most powerful drive in humanity,” Barb continued. “This is a repository of antique sexual objects, not some neon pink, kink-tech emporium. My collections capture the interest of many an upstanding and distinguished-”

“Oh, I don’t doubt it Mzzz Garrett,” Quick interrupted, flashing his yellow smile, “it’s all very impressive.”

“Quite,” Barb seethed, “now, as I’ve already told you. We. Are. Closed. You gentlemen will have to come back another time.”

We?” Quick, shot back, “we are closed? Do you have some compatriot of your own hidden away somewhere?

“That really is none of your-”

“Or perhaps you include the little gent behind the counter, there?” Quick said, stretching out to look over Barb’s shoulder.

“LittleGuy,” Barb corrected.

“What?” Sharp spat, spinning around once more to face Barb.

“That,” Barb pointed a finger over her shoulder, “is a LittleGuy. It’s a one-on-one fuckbot of diminutive stature with a substantial penis,” she paused relishing the men’s discomfort. “A LittleGent is a statuesque model with, I’m afraid, rather lacklustre equipment. LittleGents are designed for straight, cis couples experimenting with multiple partners,” her voice fell to a slow whisper, “men tend not to want the guest-star to show them up.”

“That’s it! You kink-tech fuck,” Quick shouted, reaching into his jacket.

Barb flinched, squeezing her eyes shut while turning and dropping into a crouch. But instead of a gunshot she heard a series of loud clicks, layered over one another, followed by a high pitched whine. She eased open one eye and turned her head to see Sharp bent over, almost double. His one hand flopped to the floor, while the other laid still cradled in his jacket. His head nodded jerkily and as Barb stared, it began to smoke. Black curls seeped from his ears gradually pouring out into greater flapping ribbons. As the smoke began to billow upwards, Sharp’s head creaked open, the back falling forward with a clunk to reveal the charred remnants of an artificial brain.

The sound of a cough dragged Barb’s attention to the left and she saw Quick standing with his fidgeting hands raised above his head, folds of black smoke wrapping about him. His face was turned away from Sharp, his eyes screwed shut as he juddered and shook, letting out blunt, rattling coughs that expelled the smouldering mind of his late partner.

Barb turned to the counter, surprise stretching the length of her face. The LittleGuy stood with his right arm extended ahead of him. The hand hung, dismantled; fingers dangling elongate; the palm split along the metacarpals to the wrist, revealing a gleaming, chrome cannon. A red glow pulsed at the point where the weapon emerged from the LittleGuy’s arm and crackling blue sparks arced over it’s barrel. Barb noticed the sharp tang of ozone in the air behind the smoke. The LittleGuy ran his still-assembled hand through his hair and scratched at his neck. He turned slightly towards Barb while keeping his eyes fixed on Quick.

“I’m so very sorry about all this Barb,” he said, in his pleasant, low growl. “I fear I’ve attracted quite a bit of bother.”

“Well aren’t you just full of surprises.” Barb cooed.

Chandler is a Girl’s Name

My mind was filled with the mess of papers stuffed inside the filing cabinet. Brace had called from the phone-box downstairs just moments ago and wouldn’t be dissuaded from coming up. There was barely time for me to scrape together my clippings and notes, to get my less-than-sane looking research out of sight before he made it up the stairs. I’d been pouring over my investigations into, let’s call it my condition, when Brace had interrupted me with the telephone’s rattling dance. Now, that documented part of me sat in a crumpled wad at the bottom of that dull, steel tower in the corner. Years of asking and looking and digging and hunting, left cowering in the dark because of this impatient, entitled prick.

Brace’s panicked footfalls barely slowed as he hit the door, flinging it into the bookcase behind. My bookcase, though, does not take any guff, especially from the likes of Brace, and it gave him the door right back. He took a good hit to the leg, cursed under his breath, and closed the door with a hard smack. The door did not respond again.

Brace brought in the smell of too many cigarettes and too little soap. His had the beaten, washed-out look of a failing salesman. A man who sold carpets or vacuum-cleaners. A man who told himself he was doing just fine, that good days were just around the corner, while he remortgaged a rat-hole shop and worked seven-day weeks. A man under-slept and overweight. A man with haemorrhoids and a stomach ulcer and, perhaps, a gambling problem. His shoes were polished but his suit, tight around the paunch, fit badly. His hat, with its water stains and crumpled brim, topped off an ensemble that looked as if it owed a little money to a lot of people.

“Well?” his voice, panic stirred with accusation.

“Well what, Mr Brace?”

“You said you’d found her!”

The poor bastard. I felt pity creeping up my chest before I remembered the time it would take to wade though the screwed-up mess in the filing cabinet. I took my feet off the corner of the desk and turned to squarely face him.

I have completed my investigations and you will have a full report by Monday,” I rattled off the message I’d left in a flat monotone, “does that sound like demand to see me immediately and don’t take no for an answer to you, Mr Brace?”

“Less of the cheek, lady. You’ve done what you were hired for. Just tell me what you found.”

We stared at one another for a moment but Brace did not blink, nor did he look away.

“I’m going to need my fee before that, Mr Brace.”

“You’ll get your money, woman! Just tell me!”

His palm slapped down onto my desk.

“Now, normally I wouldn’t demand payment like this,” I continued, ignoring him, “but you strike me as a fairly hot-headed individual and there’s a concern that you won’t want to part with money in exchange for bad news.”

“It’s bad news?” he blurted, his hand still flayed on desk, sweaty condensation growing between his pale fingers.

“My fee, Mr Brace,” I said, while reaching over my shoulder and fishing an invoice from the tray on top of the filing cabinet.

I placed it on the desk and he slid his hand over to take the slip of paper.

“£165, Mr Brace.”

His jaw tightened as he looked the paper over, his eyes falling to the bottom line.

“You’ll see that’s including expenses.”

Brace grunted and shifted in the chair, working his hand between the seat-back and his arse. With his wallet successfully extracted, he began thumbing clumsily at the leather and notes. Once he had selected an appropriate assortment, he pulled out the currency, folded it once and held it out over the desk. As I leaned forward to take my money, Brace lifted it out of my reach, while our eyes paired off once again.

“Where is my wife?” his voice quieter now, calmer.

I stood up, Brace’s eyes still held in mine, and I relieved his hand of it’s burden. My desk drawer squealed open and I swapped out the notes for a stack of photographs. The drawer closed with a dull groan and I tossed the photos at Brace.

“I tracked her spiritual adviser to a farm in the dales,” I said, sitting back down as he reached for the photographs, “he’s some kind of priest now, charitable tax status and everything. Runs a commune with a bunch of strays. Some missing kids, that sort of thing, but they and your wife appear to be there of their own accord. No kidnapping.”

Brace had been busy flipping through the photographs, his eyes soaking up the leaves of flat truth, but he’d stalled at a particular picture. And I knew just the one. A small room. One bed. Two people. A frame filled with sheets and skin and sweat. The kind of picture you don’t want to get caught looking at, let alone taking. People talk about free-love and liberation, but most still want it in the dark, behind a locked door, away from prying eyes. I do find parts of my job distasteful. The stacks of filth I’ve squirrelled away, the piles of fermenting transgression, but I’m afraid private lives and dirty secrets are my bread and butter. And I can’t afford much by way of a conscience.

“She’s with that goddamned hippie?” he stammered, “but I loved her! I gave her everything she ever wanted. She wouldn’t have anything if it wasn’t for me!” shouting at the photograph now.

“As you say, Mr Brace, she’s conducting an affair.”

He didn’t look up.

“That, along with your separation over the past few months, should see to a quick and inexpensive divorce.”

“Divorce?” he echoed, eyes still on the photograph.

“I did tell you to prepare yourself for this very eventuality, Mr Brace,” my best attempt at a conciliatory tone.

“But,” he finally looked up, “that’s just something you say to everyone, surely?” his voice now equal parts desperation and defeat.

It could still go either way.

“I do, Mr Brace, and do you know why?”

He eyes were still on me. Looking out over his wife and her hippie, holy man lover.

“I say it because, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that’s the way it is.”

I turned away from his wet eyes, just to check if the filing cabinet was still there. I remembered the bottle I’d put in it, and then remembered the stuff that made the bottle necessary. When I looked back, all of Brace was still there, salty and pathetic.

“At least now, you know,” I added.

Brace avoided catching sight of his wife as his head fell, the photographs flapping their way to the floor along with his gaze.

“I’ll have the completed file posted out to you,” I said, standing, “I suggest you pass it on to your solicitor.”

Brace was defeat piled in a chair, bent over himself like a beaten question mark. He’d now ceased to move or speak and I had come to the decision that it was far past time he should leave. I stomped around the desk, slamming my fist on the filing cabinet for punctuation as I went. No reaction. I rattled the door knob and flung the door open, the bookcase knocking it back with a clatter into my hand. Still the sad heap in the chair. I kicked the chair-back gently and then again, hard. The third kick nearly spilled Brace onto the floor but he caught himself as his head jerked up to attention.

“Good evening, Mr Brace.”

He exit was slow but, thankfully, without fuss. And with the wretch gone, I could at last liberate my mess of papers from the filing cabinet. Along with the blessed bottle. With any luck, he’d be sad and broken for the rest of his days, but better that than show him what his wife and the priest were actually up to in those desolate hills. The desk drawer squealed before giving up a tumbler, which I quickly filled, then emptied and filled again. With the alcohol’s jagged, soothing chill both calming and jump-starting my mind, I set about, once more, to make sense of my crumpled life.

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. Meanwhile, at the front of the house, the geometric tracery of Galescar's oppressively tall gothic windows considered the precipitous, rock-strewn slope that fell away behind Yvonne: the 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 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. Able to take in the whole of it from this vantage, 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 having thankfully worked as planed, I had unfolded at some external point, from which I was able to survey, as best I could, this immense heaven/hell machine.

I was somehow able to view the continental, perhaps even planetary, engine as a complete, colossal 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 maddening 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, damed and divine 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.