An essay by Roberta, as provided by Chris Walker
Art by Errow Collins
I am holding her close, whispering, when she disappears. The warm pressure of her embrace is gone, and my arms squeeze inward on the sudden emptiness. My words trail away into silence. The faint, familiar scent of her is already fading; I am left with only my yearning.
I wonder how long she will be gone this time. The waiting is what takes the toll. Waiting and not knowing. Of course, it is the same for her when I vanish, but she is better at dealing with it. She has always been the stronger of us.
The clattering of footsteps, like marbles rattling in an urn, echoes in the corridor outside. The fear of it jerks me into stillness, although my heart thrashes in its bone cage. We haven’t been gone long enough for our absence to be noticed yet. I think.
We are careful with our stolen moments, because a single mistake could cost us all our future times together. It is strange that we must measure the minutes like a miser coveting his gold coins, here in this place of no time. The days pass and pass but reach no end; we mark them against those who never come back.
I puff out a long breath as the footsteps recede and step away from the cold wall against which I am pressed. I am still in the same room, so I cannot have gone and reappeared myself. All who return do so in the Entrance Hall, although the Great Doors never open. No one has ever seen them do so. Old Maikula claims he knows what lies behind them, but he is mad and we do not believe him.
“Clarissa,” I whisper to myself, as if that will make her reappear. It never does.
It is time to go. I need to be at my station soon, or the Overseer will notice and punish me. It seems to enjoy that, as far as we can tell. The opaque mesh that serves as its face never changes, but the groaning noise it makes when it lashes us gets faster and louder.
Carefully, carefully, I pull the door open. The corridor is empty, quiet. I hurry along the drab passages that worm their way through the Castle and make it to my station just seconds before the Overseer appears. A few people sneak glances at me.
“You cut that too close,” Rasui hisses at me. “You’ll get caught again.”
“It’s fine,” I snap, but I know he’s right. Although he can’t see the sick feeling in my stomach or the bile that burns my throat, my shaking hands give me away.
The metronomic whirring and popping of the machinery helps to cover our hushed words as we speak, but we keep a wary eye on the bulbous frame of the Overseer as it floats around the long belts and glowing engines. Rasui and I are sorting wotjas and flippits today, easy enough work that doesn’t demand full concentration.
“Where’s Clarissa?” he mouths.
I shake my head slightly. “Gone again,” I whisper.
Rasui grimaces to show his sympathy, but his deep brown eyes are mixed. I’m sure that he is in love with me. Not that he dislikes Clarissa–I don’t think anyone does–but I get the feeling that he enjoys these times when she’s not with me. If I’m being honest with myself, I’ve thought about being with him, too. Just once or twice, when a long absence has gotten to me.
I wonder what he feels when I vanish. I think I know.
“After our shift, I’m going to wait for Clarissa in the Entrance Hall,” I say. “Will you wait with me?”
Rasui nods. “Of course, Bobby. You know I–”
A loud smashing makes everyone look up, the long rows of workers turning toward the discordance. Maladwa, the young boy who disappears the most, who doesn’t speak to anyone except Clarissa, has dropped a fragile wotja on the black floor.
The conveyor belts stop. The Overseer swivels around, gliding toward Maladwa, who cowers for a moment before trying to pick up the glittering glass shards. His frantic actions are in vain.
One of the Overseer’s tentacles whips out and coils around the boy. He shouts, and his feet jerk above the floor as he is lifted up. We are all silent, lest we attract its wrath too. The Overseer does something with its tentacle, making it pulse and vibrate with a harsh jangling noise. Maladwa’s cries become high-pitched and frenzied.
With deft, fast movements, Old Maikula grabs three wotjas and begins to juggle them. They sparkle in the glare of the lightstones above us as they rise and tumble and fall. The blur of intricate movement is mesmerising.
“Ha ha! Eh?” he beams at the Overseer. The old man nods with foolish, benign eyes, but his hands never stop.
The Overseer whirs, seemingly unsure about this development. Old Maikula inches backward. “Ah, yip yip,” he chuckles as Maladwa is dropped to the ground.
The terrified boy scuttles away; the Overseer’s full attention is on the spinning, flashing baubles. When Maladwa is out of reach, Old Maikula catches the wotjas, quick as that, and puts them down on the belt with a slight flourish. He grins, showing a mouthful of yellow cracked teeth.
The Overseer’s tentacle takes Old Maikula off his feet with the dull smack of metal on flesh. His wrinkled skin splits, scattering fat red drops that arc through the air. Without a sound, the Overseer glides away, tentacles retracting. The belts rumble into life again, and we turn back to them at once.
After a few moments, I look over as Old Maikula struggles to his feet. He resumes his work, the gash across his face streaming blood. He does not wipe it away, although he is careful not to let any of it fall on the wotjas. Maladwa touches Maikula on the arm when the Overseer is not looking, and I see the old man wink at him.
I think about going over to him myself. I must have started to move, because Rasui looks up sharply and takes my wrist. “Bobby, no!”
I sigh and stop. I am still shaking.
Clarissa would have gone.
The Entrance Hall echoes as we enter it. It is cold. It does not want us here. The Great Doors reach almost as high as the ceiling, a vaulted space far above us all but lost in the dust and the dark. When we sit on one of the hard benches, Rasui links an arm through mine.
“She’ll be fine,” he says.
“You don’t know that,” I reply. “What if she’s hurt, or doesn’t come back?”
He is silent for a moment, because I am right, then repeats, “She’ll be fine.”
I squeeze his hand and look out across the worn stone floor, waiting for Clarissa to reappear. No one else in the Castle is here, but I don’t blame them. This is always the first sight any of us see when we return from wherever it is that we go to. No one likes to spend any longer in this place than they must. Clarissa and Rasui and I always wait for each other, but that is unusual. Vanishing is like sleeping–oblivion, with the vaguest sense of time having passed, absent any memories or thoughts.
The cold coils around and through us. The stained, ragged clothing we wear is little protection against the chill tendrils. I press myself closer to Rasui, and we share a meagre warmth. He doesn’t say anything, but I can feel him smile. I am tired from the fear earlier, drained from the long shift standing up and the racket of the machinery. I can still hear it faintly, but I’m not sure if it’s echoing down the long corridors or just inside my head.
“I should’ve helped Maladwa,” I say.
Rasui shakes his head. “You would have been hurt along with him.”
“Yes. Like Maikula.”
“But you’re not a crazy old fool like he is,” Rasui says.
“A crazy young fool, maybe.”
“Hey!” I cry, giving him a reproachful slap on his chest.
He mock-winces and continues, enunciating each word. “A crazy, young, beautiful fool.” Rasui’s grin is wide, but his eyes–those pretty, dark eyes–are serious.
“That’s better,” I murmur and rub his chest where I slapped it. His breath catches.
“Bobby–” he whispers, and I hear his longing.
I go still. My other hand is holding his, our arms are entwined. I can no longer feel the cold.
There is a thunderclap from the Great Doors, as if a giant has just slammed two huge boulders together, although they don’t move. We leap up, startled, and I almost lose my balance. Clarissa staggers forward as she reappears, then drops to her hands and knees. As the echoing boom dies away, I hear her moaning and whimpering. The wretched sound evokes an ancient, animal response in me, and for a moment I want to shake her until she stops making it. Then I come to my senses and dash to her.
Clarissa turns a purpled, bloody face to me, one eye half swollen shut. “Bobby,” she croaks.
I cradle her. “Oh, my love, what’s happened to you?”
She swims before my blurred eyes. I hold her and blink until I can see properly. A mass of red-purple bruises covers her stomach where her top rides up, and her ripped leggings are stained with blood across her thighs and crotch. Anguish burns me inside, and fury forces the words through my choking throat. “What have they done? What have they fucking done?”
Rasui is by my side now, his mouth set thin and hard. He unscrews the top off a small water bottle, pouring the liquid on to a clean piece of linen. Gently, he wipes the blood away, taking care where strands of her blonde hair stick to her skin.
“You’re safe,” he soothes, “we’re here now. We’ve got you.”
Clarissa’s eyes drift across to Rasui’s, then back to mine. A smile flickers on her split lips.
“Who did this?” I rasp. “Who did this to you?”
She shivers and looks away.
Rasui stares at me. “She doesn’t know. How could she? We never remember where we go, or what happens, or who’s there.”
He clasps my hand. I know he means to comfort me, but I yank it away.
“Fuck them,” I scream.
I am not helping the situation at all. My anger and selfishness is just making things worse, and I curse myself.
“Bobby,” mumbles Clarissa. “It’s alright. I’m back. I’m alive.”
“I’m so sorry,” I say to her as my tears make swirling pink tracks down her face.
She understands, as does Rasui. Our helplessness against this unseen and unknowable enemy gnaws at all of us. We don’t even know if they–whoever or whatever they are–are just allies of the Wardens, Sentinels, and Overseers in the Castle, or the same as them. We hate them all, regardless.
“Come, let’s get out of here and get you to your room,” says Rasui.
Clarissa nods, jaw clenched, and we pull her slowly to her feet. I know she’s trying to keep silent, but she can’t stop herself crying out as she tries to stand upright. Rasui looks at me over her shoulder, a frown pinching his forehead. He’s right–it’s never been this bad before. Not for the three of us, anyway. And not one person in the Castle knows of a way to stop it.
Clarissa stumbles between us as we hold her up. I can feel her trembling, and it gives a purpose to my rage at last.
I will find a way out of the Castle.
“No.” Rasui shakes his head fiercely, and even Clarissa voices a protest from where she lies in her bed.
“Roberta,” she tells me, “you are not going.”
“Yes, I am,” I retort. “It could be worse next time. What if you’re crippled, or … or never return at all?”
“But the Wardens will catch you,” says Rasui. “No one’s even gone outside, let alone escaped. You can’t go, Bobby.”
Their insistence would have stopped me before. I glare at Rasui then Clarissa. “I won’t let them hurt you again. I have to do something.”
Rasui expels held breath. “You’re crazy.”
“Not crazy enough to wait around any longer and just watch while awful things happen to the people I love. I’m done with that.”
Clarissa looks at me. I think my defiance surprises her, almost as much as it does me. “At least wait until I’m well enough to come with you,” she pleads.
“No, I’ve got to do this now,” I say. Which is true, as I don’t know how long my resolve will last. There is something about this place that sucks the will from you. From me, at least. Clarissa never seems to lack it.
“Then I’ll come,” says Rasui.
I’m grateful to him, relieved I didn’t have to ask.
Clarissa closes her eyes. “Look after her, Rasui,” she says.
“You’ll be alright here?” I ask her. “We may be gone a while.”
“You’d better be back before the next shift starts.”
I nod. We should have enough time. I hope.
“We’ll find a way. I promise.” I lean over and kiss her on her forehead, as her lips are too cracked and painful. She still looks so beautiful. Still stops my heart.
Clarissa manages a smile. “My Bobby,” she whispers, touching my cheek.
Rasui whistles from the doorway. “The corridor is clear,” he urges.
I want to stay with Clarissa, lie down with her. It would be so easy. I force myself up, though, and walk over to him. Rasui takes my hand as we leave, and I only get a brief last glimpse of her before Rasui pulls the door shut. He does not look back.
The lightstones mounted in the ceiling burn with their cold, unwavering light, casting harsh shadows and highlighting the worry etched on Rasui’s face. I must look worse. The doors to other chambers are spaced at regular intervals down the corridor, all closed. No, Old Maikula’s is open a crack. I can hear faint singing within his room as we creep past and onward, listening for the tell-tale clatter of a Warden.
I lead us farther down the myriad passageways into areas rarely travelled by the inmates. The thick, ancient stone eats the sound of our feet and presses in. The corridor feels like a throat, constricting and swallowing, as the Castle consumes us little by little. I think of what might lie in its depths, and I shiver. I grip Rasui’s hand harder.
“Where are you taking us?” he asks.
“I was sent on an errand once, to a banquet hall,” I explain. “There were large windows down one side, but it must have been night-time because all I could see outside was darkness.”
“A banquet hall?” Rasui says, confused. “Who for?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. The table was laden with food that looked and smelled freshly-cooked, but there was no one there, and every surface was covered with thick dust.”
“Ah, real food sounds good. Better than that disgusting paste we get.”
“Don’t even think about it. We’re here to find a way out, not for you to fill that scrawny belly of yours.”
He sighs, and pats his stomach. “Maybe the next time I vanish, I’ll get a good meal.”
I almost smile at his feigned little-boy-lost look and finally do when he grins at me.
“Come on,” I say, poking him, “I think it’s somewhere around here.”
The surroundings have a touch of forgotten opulence, as if they were magnificent but have faded with long decades. Not tarnished or grimy, more that they are colourless and somehow dimmed, caught in the act of slow disappearance into distant memory.
A faint glow spills from a gap in the wall up ahead.
“Is this it?” asks Rasui.
“I don’t think so,” I reply, “I don’t remember this passage. We must have come from a different direction.”
I peer round the archway and into an almost spherical chamber, stopping at the sight. Rasui bumps into me.
“Who is that?” he says.
A man stands upon a raised platform in the middle of the room. No, not standing, I realise. He is floating just above it. A column of pale, steady light surrounds him, the only illumination in here. His eyes are closed, and he hangs there without moving.
A large round clock, splendid with ornate decorations, hangs above him on the otherwise blank wall. I see the longest hand ticking round, nibbling away at the seconds, but it makes no sound.
“I’ve never seen him before,” whispers Rasui.
I look more closely at the suspended figure. He wears long dark robes patterned with complex whorls of silver thread–rich clothes once, but they look tattered now. Although he is an older man, his face is lined and creased beyond his apparent years, telling of some deep misery.
When I glance up at the clock, its hands have changed their positions, though only a minute has passed. I turn to Rasui and nudge him, pointing at the clock. When I look back, it shows yet another time.
“Did you see–” I begin.
A familiar clacking and rattling in the distance spikes fear into us.
Rasui grabs my arm. “Which way?” he asks.
“But what about him?”
I rack my memory. “It’s this way.”
We sprint down the corridor, rounding a corner to see a large, metal-bound wooden door ahead.
“There!” I say.
We burst through it, spilling into the banquet hall. It is different now. The huge table is barren, and the room is spotless, with no trace of the smothering dust that I witnessed before. I have to stop myself shouting when I see the two seated figures–a man and a woman at either end, dressed in finery, staring at each other. If they see us, as they must, we are finished.
But they don’t move. Rasui does, striding up to the woman while I remain as motionless as them. He waves a hand in front of her, and then touches her cheek.
“Mannequins, I think–.”
His tone is one of relief, although his eyes narrow in puzzlement.
“It’s getting closer,” I hiss at him.
One of the larger Wardens, by the sound of it. This is bad. Rasui runs to the door and peeks out as I hurry to the large windows. They are elegant and well-crafted, set just above my head in the hard grey walls. It must be night outside again, as I can see only a dulled image of the banquet hall reflected in the spotless panes. I jump and grab the windowsill, scrabbling to pull myself up.
“Shit!” Rasui’s hoarse whisper snaps my head around as he ducks into the room. “It’s coming this way.”
I look over the room frantically, but there’s just the one door. No other exits, except for the windows. I struggle with the thick latch at the base of this one as my panicked face stares back at me. The utter darkness out there is impenetrable, and I can’t see any lights or clues as to what lies beyond. Maybe a drop to certain death; I realise I don’t even know how high up we are. Stupid. What had I been thinking?
My fingers refuse to work, and I curse and fumble with the simple task. We aren’t going to make it.
“Rasui, get up here!” I call, wondering what’s taking him so long.
Silence. I look round again. He’s standing in the doorway, lost in thought. The Warden’s racket is growing louder.
“I’ll lead it away,” he says after a moment.
“No!” I beg. “This way.”
“Too risky.” Rasui gazes at me. “Bobby, I–”
And then he vanishes. Not down the corridor. He’s just gone. For a moment I’m frozen, then something in me breaks, and I jerk the window up.
There is nothing outside.
The blackness isn’t night, it’s just a void. My mind recoils and spins near hysteria, sliding away each time I look into that null space. I can’t even see the anticipated masonry of the Castle when I look down, and I begin to feel faint.
I am nowhere. We are nowhere.
The clamour of the Warden fills the air with terrifying closeness. I’m trapped. What final choice do I make about how I meet my end?
I jump down and run to the female mannequin, yanking her out of the chair. I am surprised at how heavy she–it–is, but a desperate strength takes over. I heave it out of the window, which I then slam shut, expecting the Warden’s clapperclaws in me at any second. I throw myself into the empty chair and force myself to sit motionless.
The harsh jangling enters the room. My back is not quite to the door, but I don’t dare move even my eyes to look. My head whirls, and my heart gibbers like a mad beast as I hold my breath. A thunderous drumming fills my ears. I strain to keep my body immobile, fighting the urge to run, focusing every ounce of will I can to this unnatural inaction. It is the one chance I have.
The Warden sounds like a rain of metal skulls filling a steel coffin as it scuttles closer; it is right behind me. Perhaps the void would have been better after all.
I start to ready myself, even knowing as I do so that it is futile, when it moves off. A trick? But no, it is gone from the room, carrying its turmoil away down the passage. And I sit there, drained, unable to move where a moment ago I thought I wouldn’t manage to hold still. I don’t even have the energy to weep.
Then footsteps, before I can react. I do look this time and see Old Maikula striding into the room. He halts, and his face is solemn as he regards me. Then it splits into a wide smile.
“That was close, eh? Ha ha!” he beams.
“That’s ridiculous!” I scoff. “I don’t believe you.”
But Maikula just gazes at me, all traces of the foolish old man gone. Clarissa regards him, thinking, silent. A cold weight settles in my stomach.
After the hasty retreat from the banquet hall, we are again in Clarissa’s room, which is a risk in itself. My chamber is some distance away, and the chance of my being found missing from it increases with each passing minute. Right now, I don’t care.
“Haven’t you wondered why you never dream?” asks Maikula.
I start to answer, then stop as the word stirs a memory, faint and sluggish, a slow creature of hidden deeps. I try to grasp it, but it’s as elusive as a shadow.
“You’ve seen him already, I gather,” says Maikula, “the one who has imprisoned us here, forever apart from the world. The one who does not let us go onward to our rest.”
“That man who was floating in the light?”
“But he seemed … he wasn’t dead, but I’m sure he was more than just sleeping,” I say. “Why can’t we escape?”
“I shall start at the beginning, then,” says Maikula, “for after all, that’s what they are for.
“There was a boy who lived in a great city by the sea. He had, for a time, a comfortable and exciting life as the sole child of parents gifted in the arcane arts. They doted on him and took him with them wherever they went. He learned many things–of people, of creatures, of magic, of knowledge … and of power. As I said, his life was exciting. What few friends he had were certainly envious.
“But one day there was a terrible accident, and his mother and father were killed. He had their castle and wealth but was left alone, without their love. He began to see them in his dreams, and, as the boy grew, he became obsessed with sleeping so that he could still be with his parents. But their memory faded with time; he was young when they died, and the mind plays tricks with our recollections.”
“The poor boy,” says Clarissa. “He lost them completely in the end.”
“Yes, he did.” Maikula bows his head, then continues. “After many years, he became a sorcerer himself–master of the elements, of people, of things of metal and stone and wood–and, after a fashion, of death itself. He vowed that he would help others who suffered as he had, that he would try to bring some measure of comfort to them.
“However, his obsession held him in thrall. It was a slow and insidious poison that ate at him, perverting his noble intentions. He devised a method where, at the moment of their death, he could prevent the spirits of people from passing into eternal oblivion, and send them instead into the dreams of others as he chose.”
“But that’s horrible,” I say.
Maikula voice is sad. “He thought he was doing good, you see. He couldn’t–or wouldn’t–accept the pain he was causing, or that his actions were abhorrent. When the other sorcerers in the city finally learned of his atrocities, they denounced him. He was given the title ‘Slumber-Mage’ in mockery and contempt of what he had become. The people, outraged, rose up and tried to execute him. He fled to this realm, taking the Castle with him.”
“And here we are,” I say.
“How do you know all this?” asks Clarissa.
“I was his apprentice.” Maikula’s mouth twists. “When I found out what he was doing, I tried to get word to the others. But, before I could, he discovered my betrayal and … well. You can guess.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“It was very long ago,” he replies, shrugging.
“So all we are now are just figments in other peoples’ dreams,” states Clarissa. She has accepted it.
“You’ve seen outside,” says Maikula to me. “You know. Even if it’s hard to admit it to yourself.”
And I know the truth of it. I think I always did, in a way.
“But what is he doing now?” I ask. “Can we fight him?”
Maikula sighs. “No. His body is here and is protected, but he–that is, his spirit–isn’t inside.”
“So where has he gone?”
“I don’t know. It’s been many years, and he has never returned. Perhaps he still searches for his parents.” Maikula sighs. “I do know that after he left, everything began gradually turning to chaos. The arcane engines and mechanisms that he built to run this place are falling into disrepair, so are malfunctioning. We are being sent to dreamscapes that we were never meant to go to, into the minds of people–dreadful people–that we were never meant to be part of. And what happens to us there, what they do to us, has a real effect.”
Clarissa turns pale. “Can’t we fix things?”
Maikula shakes his head. “Even the Machinists don’t seem to be able to stop the decline.”
I stare at Maikula. “Then there’s nothing we can do.”
He spreads his hands. “I’m sorry.”
Clarissa looks at up me. “You’ve stayed too long here, Bobby,” she urges. “You have to get to your room.”
“Yes!” says Maikula. “Go!”
“But Rasui–I’m going to be on shift. I won’t be able to wait for him,” I say.
Clarissa starts to rise from the bed, and I press her back down. “No,” I tell her, “you need to rest.”
“I’ll wait for your friend,” offers Maikula. “Roberta is right. You should regain your strength. Things are going to get worse.”
“Thank you,” I say.
I kiss Clarissa in a lingering goodbye, reassuring myself that I can feel her warmth and softness, that she is still real for me, and I for her. Then I leave, slipping through the winding warren of passages that lead to my room. I lie there, spent and dazed, my thoughts as formless as the void outside, as Maikula’s words entwine me like blacksteel chains and pull me down into a dreamless sleep.
I smash my fists in useless rage on the Great Doors. “Give him back to me, you bastards!” I howl.
The sound is flat and dulled, swallowed by whatever lies on the other side of them. Clarissa pulls me to her, holding me, wiping away the tears that fall in hot streaks down my cheeks. We hug each other for long moments before Maikula speaks.
“I’m very sorry. Given the number of days that have passed since he vanished, it’s … no. Rasui is never going to return. I’m sorry.”
I grit my teeth to stop from screaming.
“Where is he? Is he dead?” asks Clarissa.
“Mmm,” Maikula frowns. “Snared in a dream-catcher, perhaps. Or maybe he’s been trapped inside a damaged mind or, more likely, one that cannot wake up. Not until the host dies will he die himself.”
“And that would be a blessing,” says Clarissa. I feel her tears on my face, mingling with my own.
“Yes.” Maikula nods once.
The thought of poor Rasui trapped and beyond escape crushes my heart, tearing a plea from my lips. “Let him die. Please.”
That the same could happen to Clarissa is too much to bear. I break her embrace and grab Maikula by his shoulders.
“I can’t go on,” I shout at him. “Not like this. Not wondering each time Clarissa vanishes if that’s the last time I’ve seen her. There must be something we can do.”
For an old man, he feels strong in my grasp. But then, he wasn’t the mad fool he pretended to be, either.
“Perhaps,” he says at last. He looks at me, his eyes flicking between mine. “Do you love Clarissa?”
“Yes. Her, always. Yes.”
Maikula gives a slight smile, although his eyes don’t change. “I know. As long as you know it, too.”
He returns me to Clarissa’s side and clasps his hands together.
“The things we make and sort during our busywork–the wotjas and flippits and whojams–do you know what they are?”
“Given what you’ve told us, I think they’re dream entities,” guesses Clarissa.
“Ha! Good!” Maikula beams. “This one’s a keeper,” he says to me, winking. “Yes. These are mutable, adaptable things. A genius creation of the Slumber-Mage, I have to admit. They get sent into people’s dreams and turn into whatever they need to be, shaped by the subconscious thoughts and desires of the host. Genius!”
“How will they help us?” I ask.
“Those can’t,” he says, “but there is another type that you won’t have seen–a klarojem. Rare. Stored in a special workshop. They allow the host to have lucid dreams, although I believe the Slumber-Mage had other aims in mind when he created them. But for us? Well, they let us dream.”
I can tell that Clarissa has thought of something by the way she gives a soft gasp. I’m lost, though. “So what do we do with them? And why don’t you use one to escape, then?”
Maikula nods. “I won’t use a klarojem because I have nowhere to go. Precious few here, if any, do. But you and Clarissa–you have each other.”
The meaning of his words flashes in me like fire, and I throw my arms around Maikula and then Clarissa. I can’t laugh, not with Rasui gone. Any happiness is consumed by his loss. But now I have hope.
The Overseer’s grapnel smashes into the side of the workbench where my head was an instant ago. I scramble to seize the end of its tentacle before it retracts and hang on with both hands. It jerks me off balance and on to the hard floor, skinning my knees and elbows.
Maikula jabbers at it, throwing a couple of whojams at its head with remarkable aim. The heavy objects knock the gleaming dome so that it tilts to one side.
“Yip yip,” he chortles, as the Overseer turns to him.
Another whojam finds its mark, denting its mesh face with a satisfying impact. It emits a wheezing noise and sinks to the floor. Clarissa dashes out from her hiding place, stone block held high in both hands. The back of the Overseer’s head is toward her, its exposed innards glinting and whirring.
As she throws the block, another tentacle lashes blindly at her. It catches her under her upraised arms; there is a sickening crack as her ribs break. She cries out in pain and collapses. The stone mass clips its target before caroming off and splitting on the floor.
The tentacle I’m holding goes limp, so I yank it under and around the sturdy metal workbench just before it returns to life. I brace my feet against a support, pulling with all my strength. The tentacle vibrates and a searing pain shoots up my hands, coursing through my body. I yell with the effort and agony of it, but do not let go.
Another whojam finds its mark, distracting the Overseer again, but they won’t be enough to finish it on their own.
“Hammer!” cries Maikula, pointing at a row of tools hung on the wall near Clarissa.
She scrambles to her feet, clutching her side and moaning, but manages to duck under the machine’s now clumsier attacks to grab the hammer from its hook. It is big and needs both her hands to wield. As she staggers toward the Overseer, I wrench its tentacle once more, just enough to tip it forward a little.
The hammer swings up, up, holds at the top of its terrible arc, then smashes down into the jittering intricacies that drive the inhuman mechanism. The Overseer’s howls mingle with Clarissa’s as she swings the hammer over and over.
And then it is finished.
I rush to catch her as she starts to crumple. We stink of metal and sweat, of anger and torment and animal panic. We are alive.
Maikula limps over, bleeding from the long gash in his leg, and looks down at the wrecked contraption. It twitches and rattles at our feet, erratic, slowing.
“That went better than I expected,” he grimaces, “but we need to move quickly. There’ll be more on their way. Sentinels, too. Come with me.”
He turns and hobbles over to a panel at the back of the workshop. He slides it up, revealing a compartment containing several blue-silver stars the size of his thumb. They sparkle with a light of their own. With great care, he takes two and hands one each to me and Clarissa. They feel so cold; I almost drop mine in surprise.
“Klarojems. Eat them,” he says.
“That’s it?” Clarissa asks.
“That’s it. You’ll fall asleep almost immediately.”
“But what about you?” I say. “What will you do?”
“Ah, don’t worry about me, girl,” he says. “Old Maikula will be just fine. Ha ha!”
The lined face crinkles as he gives me a last wink, eyes bright.
I take Clarissa’s hand in mine, and we smile at each other. I think of all those stolen moments leading to this point. However many we had, they were never enough. She was my refuge, I her light. Now we are something more.
Together, we swallow the dreamstones and vanish into each other’s tomorrows.
Roberta’s past remains unknown to her, despite the aching hours she has spent trying to remember where she came from. Hours … or days, or years? She is not sure, for these concepts don’t feel appropriate. Her wife, Clarissa, does not worry about such things and laughingly reminds her that the present moment is all they need. On occasion, the image of an old man flashes in Roberta’s mind; more than a dream and less than a memory. She knows, without understanding how, that he is from a place unimaginably far away, just on the other side of yesterday.
Chris Walker is a professional byte-wrangler and sometime astrodynamicist. He enjoys writing stories of other worlds and days that might be. Or will been going to had being, if it wasn’t for that pesky malfunctioning Time Drive. Yes, the one he swears he will read the manual for at some point. Chris lives in the UK and loves the liquid phase of what you humans call coffee.
Errow is a comic artist and illustrator with a predilection towards mashing the surreal with the familiar. They pay their time to developing worlds not quite like our own with their fiancee and pushing the queer agenda. They probably left a candle burning somewhere. More of their work can be found at errowcollins.wix.com/
“Ephemerene” is Copyright 2018 Chris Walker
Art accompanying story is Copyright 2018 Errow Collins