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  1. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Current Contest November 2017 Short Story Contest

    Discussion in 'Monthly Short Story Contest' started by Tenderiser, Nov 1, 2017.

    Prompt Option 1:

    [​IMG]

    Prompt Option 2: This story, headline 3-Billion-Year-Old 'Lost Continent' Lurking Under African Island. You can change any details that you want - the story doesn't have to be true to the facts! Thanks to @Robert Musil

    Requirements
    • 1,200 - 5,000 words
    • Any genre
    • Any style
    • Polished to the best of your ability
    • One entry per person
    How to Enter

    Post your entry as a reply to this thread. It will be automatically anonymised. Please title the story and include the word count.

    You will be able to post entries until 14 November at 23:59 GMT.

    Voting

    Voting will run from 15 - 30 November. There is no fixed voting criteria: voters will choose the story they think is the best.

    Winner

    The winner will be announced on 1 December. He or she will get a shiny medal under their avatar, automatic entry into the annual Hall of Fame contest, and their winning story featured in the WritingForums annual ezine.

    Get writing!
     
    Robert Musil likes this.
  2. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    Testing the anonymiser
     
  3. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    Devil Dinosaur (3515)

    Gliese 625C is located 200 hundred light years from the interior of human space, but truly lies 60 million years in its past. Having traveled all that distance to be hung on a conference room wall, a motivational poster showing a human and chimpanzee ‘fist bumping’ declares: We're on the Same Team! Sabon Mafari and Nature! Serious faces, staring at me from across the table, expect serious answers from a warden sent by the Department of Planetary Resources. I’m tempted to suggest that they show the poster to the dinosaurs attacking them.

    “This mission is the reason H.A.F.T. was formed, Mr. Wekesa.” I smile at the company CEO. He does not smile back. “This is why Sabon Mafari pays corporate taxes to the Cooperative, Warden Mata’afa.” “Call me Mata.” Names had been formally exchanged after we were ushered into the base headquarters upon arriving. Mr. Wekesa, his executive assistant Mr. Mwanajuma, and their staff represent the Sabon Mafari Corporation. I and my team leaders, Alienist Dr. Von der Spee and Security Chief McGregor, are the Cooperative Government’s Hostile Alien Fauna Team.

    “Like I said, that is why we are here. But, the safety of you and your personnel is our first priority.” Hearing his cue, McGregor talks the Sabon Mafari through our deployment protocols and security procedures. The chief may have a block head topped by a lonely shingle of red hair, but his voice and body language is that of a poised professional. When the ceiling lighting brightens, Mr. Wekesa and his staff are visibly relaxed. They accompany us through the hallway, sliding doors and into the foyer; the straight-cut of their kaki short-overalls contrasting with our own ill-fitting Marine flight-frocks. The outer doors open. Despite the overhead blower, humid air floods in and sheens appear on the Sabon Mafari’s dark arms and legs. Mr. Wekesa urges us outside, politely smiling and gesturing—“KURPACK! KURPACK!” We rush out onto the metal deck as rifles shoot off like firecrackers. McGregor stops and cocks his head. I motion everyone else to be quiet. I’m already a big man and my pony-tail dreadlocks make me look even taller. Plus, my arms benefit from a uniform that is almost a size too small. “KEEER-RUNCH!” rattles the deck. “That’s came from the lift field!” Running down the ramp, I hear “ZHUT- ZHUT- ZHUT!” of a military grade coil-gun. I hop onto the guard rail, slide, and jump. McGregor lands right behind me. Footfalls ring on the ramp as we crunch through the crusty soil, racing the shoulder high maglev rails towards the Materials and Handling building. “ZHUT-ZHUT! KURPACK! KURPACK! KURPACK!” I cut left, ducking under the rails. The lift field swings into view, McGregor’s yells “10 o’clock!” Scaly legs and a tail, straddling the high wall, drop out of sight. Spee catches up. She bends over, hands on knees, red face and gasping. I straighten her up, “All that time in the fitness bay is paying off.” McGregor rolls his eyes. Armed men, the quick reaction team, run to the wall. The Edith, our old Marine orbital landing craft, sits skewed on a collapsed landing skid. Resting a coil-gun on his shoulder like an ancient two-handed sword, Maintenance Sergeant Michel waves at some lift field technicians hiding behind a blast barrier. McGregor throws up his hands, “Did you even hit anything?!” Michel points at a slick trail of—Spee screams for a blood sampler. Watching her take off, I elbow McGregor, “We’re having an influence on her.” He shrugs.

    “What’s the damage?!” I ask Michel. He points to the bow, “Hit the pilot’s cabin like a cannonball.” The bank of modules lining the sides of the ferry like OLC each begins with a two man cabin. The port side cabin now resembles a stomped flower.

    Wekesa’s calling my name. His deep voice adds bass to Spee and her assistant’s high pitch chatter. People are moving all around us, shadows sliding across empty flechette sleeves gleaming against the grey gravel. Depending on the charge and the ammo, a coil-gun can handle anything. Yet, this creature took a hit and still jumped a wall. What in the hell are we dealing with?

    “It was Streaky, sir!” I turn to face the guard. “You know this one?” The boy’s not even blinking, “It’s the one with the”—he traces a line down his nose—“blaze streak. I call him Streaky. We believe he’s the pack leader.”

    Mr. Mwanajuma whispers in Wekesa’s ear. The CEO swallows. “Perhaps we should convene at the dining facility in…fifteen minutes?” I answer with a nod. Michel’s directing a crane over to the Edith. Spee turns to the shade a small dustbuster shaped device, pushing her jaw length pale gold hair out of her face, chin tilting down. A red light begins winking. Looking like a little girl in that oversize Marine uniform, she now fusses like one. McGregor's staring over my shoulder and I realize the young guard hasn’t left. “Anything else?” He motions at the Edith, “I thought all the Avco-Lycoming OLC 101-E’s were armed?” Avco-Lycoming? How did he say all of that in one breath—

    “They were when we were fighting the corps.” Every second McGregor stares the temperature drops. The young guard hurries away. Swearing, Spee storms towards me and now it’s McGregor stepping away. “Coward,” I whisper. He winks, “You’re in charge.”

    “It’s worthless!” She waves the sampler in my face. I snatch it from her. “What happen?” “An enzyme was released in the blood that destroyed all the cell components. The anti-coagulate was useless. I’ve never observed anything like this!” “Margareth,” I fold her fingers around the sampler, “It’s an alien. What are you expecting? You are an alienist.” She jerks her hand out of mine, grey eyes glaring. I let out a long sigh. “Now, let’s go see Mr. Wekesa.”

    McGregor leans into my ear, “Are you going to hold his hand too?” I elbow him in the stomach, “Make sure the Erma and Esther come down armed.”

    The XXI Gliese Survey Base sits under a canary sky atop a high plateau surrounded by a jungle ocean. The DFAC's tunable wall allows an impressive view of a world painted in the most amazing greens and yellows. Now, the wall is a slate grey and we bask in the flickering glow of vid footage showing little more than bad angles, shadows, and blurs. I study the 3-D computer generated model of the 4 meter tall creature nick named Rex by the Sabon Mafari researchers. The serpentine tail and toothy head balancing on long hind legs reminds me of the Egyptian goddess Maat's scales of justice. The beam’s tipping towards Ammit’s jaws. Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. It’s more reminiscent of a man dressed in a rubber suite from an ancient earth vid than an actual dinosaur. On Gliese, someone has put a kangaroo is in the suite, complete with the beefy pentadactyly forelimbs. Computer simulations of alien lifeforms assembled from existing data always look strange. Here, we’re shown umber alligator skin lined with hob nails and smeared with bloody stripes. Throw in red eyes under pointy brows and it’s downright nightmarish. No wonder the corporates are acting scared.

    Spee’s asking the safe questions, keeping the conversation in the well lite corridors. My mind begins venturing down the unlit hallways looking for locked doors. Despite the ferocity of the attacks and loss of equipment, there have been no deaths. Ammit has devoured no souls. Wekesa’s taking long breaths and avoiding eye contact. Something is bothering him besides fear. Listening to Spee talk about G-Factor Intelligence and the Neo-Acheulean Development Scale, he sighs and looks away. I know the lock door he’s afraid will be open.

    “You’re concern that the Rexes are sapient?” Wekesa nods. “These creatures will not stop us. But, if they are certified as sapient, your government will.” He’s right. Because of its rarity, the Cooperative places a high valve on any sapient life, bestia or creatus. They will buy the rights to Gliese from Sabon Mafari and recompense them for all incurred expenses. Mr. Wekesa and his company will never reap the riches that would have come from developing Gliese C.

    “I don’t think we’re dealing with sapient intelligence,” I say. Wekesa’s definitely a man who looks a gift horse in the mouth. “So, Warden Mata, what are we dealing with here?”

    I take a moment to make eye contact with each of the corporates before settling my gaze on the Sabon Mafari CEO. My tone is soft, wanting to draw people closer, not push them away. I ignore McGregor’s subtle head shake.

    “Have you have heard of Kakichi Hirase’s Theory of Natural Suppression?” McGregor groans. Wekesa glances over his shoulder, his scientists give him a collective shrug.

    “Hirase published his theory in 2183 to explain the lack of sapient life in the universe.” Wekesa looks back again and a scientist throws up his hands. He studies me, eyes narrowing, “I thought you were a soldier?” “I’m a former officer. I attended—“

    “On an athletic scholarship!” McGregor snaps. I lean forward, “The University of Karueein. I have a degree in herpetology—”

    “Warden Mata is one of the leading proponents of Hirase’s theories,” Spee says. “And very respected in his field.” Wekesa concedes with a bow of his head, “Please go on…scientist Mata.”

    “Between the times Hiase’s presented his initial theories and now there has only been five creatus sapient species discovered amongst the hundreds of thousands of worlds spanning the explored sections of the Milky Way galaxy. Three species we’ve only detected by radio signals. One shoots at us whenever we try to talk to them. And the Frava'ika? In the years since first contact we’re still struggling to construct a mutual language. Why is that, Mr. Wekesa?”

    He shrugs, “You are the…scientist.”

    “The universe doesn’t want us in it. Nature doesn’t like creatus sapiens messing up their worlds with wars and…developments. But, accidents do happen. Earth’s suppression species, the dinosaur, is removed. The origin of man does not”—I motion to another one of those damn posters—“begin with the primate. Our true origin is the extinction of the dinosaur. We’re not supposed to be here, on earth or Gliese, and that is giving the Rexes fits.”

    Wekesa tilts his head, “So, you are saying that the Rexes are some sort of…god intelligence?” “No. I’m saying the universe is.”

    The CEO stares. McGregor sighs. I raise my voice, “You can't ask the normal questions with the normal answers! Have the guts to ask the questions you don’t understand! Don’t be afraid of answers that sound crazy!” Now, that stare becomes angry—

    “We’ll take care of the Rexes.” McGregor tells them what they want to hear. ” That is what Warden Mata will do. He’s the best.” He brings them back into the lighted hallway where everything is safe. Even if all that separates them from the locked doors are shadows.

    We exchange a few more pleasantries and then walk out under a starless sky. McGregor shakes his head, “Respected, huh?” Spee shrugs. I put my hand on his shoulder, “If you’re going to bring up the athletic scholarship at least tell them I was MMA.” “Then I would have to tell how you kept getting your butt kicked.” He shakes my hand off. “You were a good soldier, Mata. You’re crazy about animals and that has made you a good warden. But, you’re not a scientist. Remember, when you embarrass yourself you’re embarrassing us. You can’t go off spouting nonsense to Coop clients. If the Bureau ever hears where will you be then?” He motions back to the three OLC’s surrounded by busy figures. “Where will they be without you? Do you really want me leading this circus?”

    I am blessed a good friend. “Let’s go get Streaky.”

    The dawn's dim gold seeps into the jungle below, turning the darkness green as it spreads. Our first sunrise on a new world and I’m the only one who stops to observe it. The Sabon Mafari security force watched with jealous eyes as we completed our pre-mission checks. Their neat corporate logos mocking the bald spots of removed Marine patches. Like our uniforms, all of our equipment consists entirely of Marine hand-me-downs; from the decommission Chariot class orbital assault ship Colonel Killigrew docked above to our Terrapin protection and carrying system body armor. They hold their slim barrel rifles while eyeing our long, slab bodied coil-guns. This is as close to military grade gear that they, or any other corporation, will ever get. I catch Spee staring. Normally she looks away before we make eye contact. Today she flashes me a little smile.

    It’s time to get to work. Turning my back on the morning sky, I motion for everyone to center on me. Mr. Wekesa and his staff join our safety and mission briefing. We’ll take the Edith down into the valley where the Rexes have been detected. Set up a web of ground and air scanners that will track and collect information on them. Everything will be networked into the command centers at the base and on the Killigrew. Once that is done, the next stage will be observation, study, and capture. I look at the hastily patched cabin on the Edith and hope we get ‘Streaky’.

    The sun burns through the morning haze, growing brighter as we’re descending down the side of the plateau. With the OLC already at max capacity, I tie off to the bow's railing with McGregor and his fire team. Holding our coil-guns at the high ready, we look like a scene from a war vid. Its makes a far better impression on Wekesa and the Sabon Mafari than my little talk the night before did. The jungle grows closer as the plateau climbs away. Champagne bottles uncork behind me. My helmet’s virtual retinal display shows the com-drones launching but I still glance over my shoulder at the cloud of silvery balloons streaming into the air. We’re bringing the modern world into the Rexes’ prehistoric one. A waterfall, jumping from cliff to cliff, leads us to a split in the jungle canopy that reveals a swamp. The little picture of Spee begins blinking, “Warden, we’re detecting a faint power source below.” A yellow blip appears among the red blips on the area map, “Take us to the ground, Sergeant.”

    Michel sets the Edith down in a swampy clearing at the cliff base, the fern jungle becoming a Carboniferous cathedral of brown scaly columns with a vaulted ceiling of green fronds rising hundreds of feet high. Looking around, ‘Streaky’ doesn’t seem so big anymore.

    The com traffic between the Edith, Sabon Mafari and the Killigrew intensifies. The power source has only grown stronger. I’ve suspended the Esther’s drone laying mission and rerouted her to our location. Nine-foot long dragonflies buzz overhead like a bomber escort as our little expedition travels deeper into the swamp. Spee announces that the power source is artificial. I alert the Killigrew to prepare First Contact protocols.

    The Edith calls out visual contact. I ignore their frantic description and focus on the VRD displaying a bent white shape rising beyond the trees. “Remember your com discipline, people. Keep eyes on target, Edith.” We came looking for dinosaurs and find a spaceship. “I’m initiating First Contact protocols.” The intercom crackles with too many voices. The thick trunks of the giant ferns begin to thin out and the light becomes brighter. My suite’s circulation system keeps me somewhat cool in the steamy air, but it can do nothing about the drums beating in my ears.

    The ship ahead crouches on ivory wings, an abstract sculpture of a bird of prey ready to take flight. I shout at Spee, “What am I looking at?!” She’s shaking her head at her assistant while adjusting a scanner. The two begin arguing. The assistant grabs the device and taps frantically on the pad before Spee snatches it back. What the alienist sees causes her to freeze. She murmurs something and waves me to her. “Hailey pulled up the astrophysics program.” Her voice is filtered by the helmet, “The power source has a massive electromagnetic force with no electric charge.” I still hear disbelief. “It’s some sort of…confined singularity.”

    “It’s a starship.” Now Wekesa calls me crazy. “Starships cannot make planetary landings!” He believes he’s right. Beliefs can be dangerously wrong. Human starships use a Krasnikov FTL drive that creates superluminal tunnels in spacetime to 'tube' from one point to another. Direct-to-orbit ships, like the Killigrew, have to be specially constructed to survive the gravimetric buffeting of tubing inside a solar system. I glance up at the alien ship, “Human starships can’t.” McGregor’s yelling at me to move. I wave everyone towards him. “Mr. Wekesa, an alien…starship has landed in the Rexes territory—“ “The Rexes are all gone!” Spee yells. The red blips have vanished. ‘Streaky’ is smarter than I gave him credit for. “We should follow their example.” We’re almost back to the tree line, “Prepare your personnel for immediate EVAC. I say again, prepare for immediate—“

    “Velcome, human!” the voice booms from behind, “You vill enter zee ship.” The accent is strange, but—

    “The Alien speaks Pangloss! I say again, the Alien speaks…“The Frava'ika, after years of contact with humans cannot speak our language. Spee’s pulling on my arm. McGregor deploys his men into a firing line. I hear coil-guns charging. Suddenly, white flashes turn my visor black. Voices shout over my beating heart. My visor clears. McGregor’s men are looking around confused. Their weapons are gone. The voice booms, “Zat is a transmatting beam. Zis a simple utility technology used for transportation. I can beam you aboard but, it has not been calibrated for your physiology. Still, I am villing to give it a go...”

    Everyone’s looking at me. I hand McGregor my gun, announcing “Chief McGregor is now mission leader” and take off my helmet. H.A.F.T members do not salute. But, Marines do. I look my old friend in the eyes, then turn to the rest of the team and drop the salute. A helmet flies off. Spee crashes into me, words rushing out, “I’ve never ever worked out in the fitness bay or read obscure theories…” our hands intertwining. I squeeze, desiring to feel her skin instead of the shield silk gloves, “It’s going to be ok. I’ll be—“ “How can you be so calm?!” She pulls away. Now I rush my words, “My mother was schizophrenic! Craziness, love…” Glancing over my shoulder at the waiting starship, "You just need courage to accept the confusion.”

    McGregor pulls her away. They struggle as I step into the shadow. A ramp emerges. I’m reminded of jaws as it lowers. Ammit’s judgement it is then. I put my helmet back on. “Warden Mata’afa to Killigrew, I’m entering the ship.”

    My suit’s systems failed as I ascended the stairs. I take off my helmet and look around at the huge white corridor of round walls and bevel panels. Feeling like a child walking along the nave of some giant cathedral, I enter an immense room with a concave ceiling and curving wall columns. Standing in the center on a two tier dais is the Rex with the familiar blaze stripe running down its face. “Streaky?!” It stops tapping at floating discs of colored light. There’s a chuckle over what I assume is the ship’s intercom. A silvery disk flies down and buffs the facial marking away. “All varfare is deception.”

    I look up into the black inkblots of red Rorschach eyes. Beliefs can be dangerously wrong. Jaws split into a joker’s smile of dagger teeth, “Repairing mein ship vith your primitive technology vas zee equivalent of vorking vith stone knives and bearskins.” The head tilts side to side, shadows pooling around one eye and then the other. “Ve found zis message long ago.” Claws stab at the lights, a black and white 3-D image of a uniformed human shaking a fist and shouting in an unknown language appears. “Ve did not realize its zignificance until I forced landed on zis vorld.” The man’s ranting fills the chamber, speaking with the same grating consonants...

    “You both—“

    “It takes you a long time to vocalize your zoughts. Your conversations must be very tetious.” He snorts, I jump, and the ship laughs. “I vill tell you a story…” It's the story of Dr. Frankensteins from a faraway galaxy creating the ultimate soldiers who fight in hundreds of thousands of wars over millions of years. “Like all zoldiers, ve long for home.” Claws dance along the colorful pattern of lights. A quiet blue world replaces the raging man. Though it no longer has any economic or political significance, earth has lost none of its sentimental valve. It is still home to humans who left it for the stars, “At last, the Deviath have found our…home,” and the dinosaurs stolen by those stars.

    END
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 17, 2017 at 3:53 AM
  4. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    Black Desert (4421)
    (warning: language)


    “Why are you here?” she asked in Herero.

    The girl was tiny, her clothes were ragged and grey. Her wooly and coarse hair was dyed a clay red, matching her smooth black skin. She was leaning on a staff, a polished branch really, and Johann could tell she was annoyed at his presence. Me or the two big jeeps he thought. A couple of goats were milling behind her but Johann could see more in the thorn bush.

    Just a Himba herder he thought. We had to encounter more of them at some point.

    “Move goats. Clear road” he said in broken Herero.

    The girl kept gawking at him with vacant eyes and Johann felt cold sweat forming on his neck. The men back at the jeeps were not the patient type. He didn’t think they were the Warlords men but he had the distinct impression they were with one of the mercenary groups operating in central Africa. And that meant trouble for little girls, goats, and local guides.

    “This land is Himba land. You go” she said with the high pitch voice teenagers from every corner of the world seemed able to produce at will.

    “Tell the bitch to hurry up” yelled Grimm from the jeep, clearly annoyed. “The convoy will be here in thirty.”

    These are my people thought Johann, or were. If the money wasn’t extremely good he would have never agreed to come back here. He didn’t know who Grimm worked for but they definitely didn’t represent the interests of the Government or the UN Peacekeeping force. Johann knew violent men. He grew up surrounded by warring tribes and warlords, but Grimm scared him to the bone. That only leaves mercenary groups. Black Sky most likely thought Johann.

    “Get goats to village. Meet elder. I come.” He hoped he sounded more confident then he felt. He imagined himself clearing the path of bullet-ridden little girls and goats and sighted. “Go village. Now.”

    The girl kept the vacant look on her face but slowly nodded. Not that she had any choice thought Johan. That bastard Grimm and his buddy Delong were killers. I hate killers he thought. But he hated poverty more and he knew it. The paycheck awaiting at the end of the week was more than enough to buy him months of alcohol filled stupors.

    Johan turned around and switched to English. “I’ll go to the village elder and explain the situation,” he told Grimm. “Stay here and guide the trucks through the pass. Use the path I’ve outlined.” And let’s hope you don’t meet any other herders on the way though Johann. You trigger happy maniacs. He thought about the three-man group they had met the day before and how Grimm and Delong just shot them when they became belligerent and couldn’t move their ass fast enough out of the way. Johann hadn’t been present but by the moment he arrived the only thing left to do was clear the path of bodies.

    “Fuck if I care. Just be sure to get to the campsite by nightfall. The boss might have a word with you” answered Grimm. His smile was menacing as he put the jeep in gear and bolted off in a cloud of dirt.

    Johan didn’t move until the dust trails from the two jeeps disappeared in the distance. When he finally got his senses back the little girl was already moving. He started following her in the silence of his own thoughts.

    Fucking mercenaries. He knew the Himba people. His own parents had been from a more nomadic branch of the tribes. He also knew this branch of goat herders were a lot less nomadic and quite territorial. To tell the truth Johan stayed clear of the Himba as much as possible considering he made a living as a translator and guide in their land. Memories started to flood, of a childhood spent on his mother’s chest, on the road, close to the warmth of campfires, of herding goats when he could barely walk. He tried to skirt around the edge of awareness. The night his whole family was killed always brought fresh pangs of pain. In a recruiting drive, the Warlords henchmen happened upon their little campfire. As far as he knew he was the only one who escaped from death or enslavement that fateful night. The following days were the hardest that little boy of seven had endured and if another tribe of nomads hadn’t stumbled upon him he might have just died on the plains. I need a drink he thought.

    He shook his head and focused on the horizon in front of him. They were not his people but they came close. And damn if he was going to let them get killed just from wandering into the path of greedy mercenaries. The Himba had nothing the world at large deemed precious, even the land they inhabited was mostly worthless. Savannas, jungles, and deserts had little use besides their biodiversity. And that attracted TV crews, foreigners and travelers. Kind spirits usually, that didn’t interfere with the natives more than they had to. Then what the fuck does Black Sky want here? he asked himself. Heavily armed, throwing around cash and threats on useless lands and poor people.

    He tried to think about the details of his first meeting with Grimm. The fact that at the time he was drunk out of his mind didn’t help his recollection of it. Grimm found him in a tavern in the slums of Okamatapati. His usual spot to drown his life in cheap alcohol was a place few foreigners dared travel. Two thousand American dollars for a week of trekking though Himba lands. Grimm wanted to know how to get a convoy of heavy-duty trucks in the middle of nowhere and meet as few people as possible. Nice cash for an easy job that seemed a perfect fit. Go as fast as possible and avoid all contact with the natives or anyone else. Grimm and Delong were in civilian clothes when they came to me and not armed for a fucking war he thought.

    He stepped up the pace when he saw the ramshackle huts from a distance. The girl was now following him in silence and behind her, the two dogs kept the small heard tight with the occasional bark. Goats and dirt and grass is all these people have thought Johan. What the fuck does Black Sky want here?

    A couple of tribeswomen were milling around a central grindstone. They were dressed in similar rags as the little girl and their hair was dyed the same clay red. A tall woman with a necklace of shiny stones around her neck got up from the stone as she noticed the girl and the goats.

    “Tukuka early, why you back…” the conversation turned to expletives and yelling and Johann lost them. His Herero was not so good as to keep up with the two women, though he did notice the little girl point at him and back at where they came from several times.

    “It’s not … Tukuka’s fault” he intervened. This types of verbal contests between tribe members could take a while.

    “The road east is not … safe. I must speak with the Elder” he said and hoped he got the message across clearly. He couldn’t tell them that a bunch of murderers will be traversing their lands but at least he could leave a warning with the village elder. I wish someone had warned my family when I was little he thought. What the fuck does Black Sky want here?

    The tall woman looked at him as if seeing him for the first time. He eyed him up and down and snorted.

    “You. Why you make Tukuka go?” she said in broken English.

    Johan cleared his throat in surprise. “There are some foreigners headed for the mountains. The east road is the only clear pass through the ravine north of here.”

    “Foreigners concern us not. Other roads. Go there. Leave Himba alone” she said and pointed west.

    Yeah, the west road is better thought Johan. Not that any of them deserve the title.

    “They need to get to …” fuck what is the name of that valley thought Johan, “… to … eh … the deep valley by tonight. Big hurry. The west road too long.” He knew the GPS coordinates but these people hadn’t seen a satellite phone before and Johan doubted they understood latitude and longitude.

    She considered him for a moment and yelled a command at Tukuka who was already ignoring them while she played with one of the dogs. Tukuka stood up annoyed and started rounding the goats who were milling about. At least I got her out of the way thought Johann. What the fuck does Black Sky want here?

    The tall woman snorted again and raised her hands in exasperation “Umbi Tok tell and go” she said as she pointed at one of the huts on the edge of the village.

    The hut was even smaller than Johan thought as he entered it. A black man with colored rings of burned clay around his arms and throat stood on his knees in front of a fire. A wisp of smoke was coming from the incense carrier above it. The aroma was sickly sweet and Johann fought down the urge to cough. He paused unable to think of what to do next. The man looked like he was in some deep trance.

    “Why does this brother visit us?” the man asked in Herero, his voice a deep bass. His eyes opened and he made a sweeping motion with his hand inviting Johann to sit down.

    No chairs, or even piles of straw in sight so Johann sat on the ground cross-legged. His emotions were a jumbled mess but he tried to sound as serious as possible.

    “Foreigners revered … err … elder. Observe terrain. Animals. Plants. Not bothering you or them.” It was a weak lie and Johann knew it. But that was the line Grimm fed him up with when he had recruited him. Johann hadn’t cared back then, the money was too good to pass on to. What the fuck does Black Sky what here?

    The elder looked sad at him, his eyes fixed. “We rarely see foreigners. They never care for the sun the rain or our flock. They carry a different path. They sometimes bring gifts.”

    Johan looked embarrassed at the elder. “Apologies elder but I came here with a request not … err … gifts. Himba people must stay close to the village. Until the … the strangers leave.” He hoped the lie worked or there could be a lot of bloodshed. The elder didn’t need to know how dangerous Grimm and his buddies could be. What the fuck does Black Sky what here?

    The elder took a pinch of dried leaves from a pouch at his waist and put them in the brazier above the fire. The sweet smell intensified and almost choked Johann but the elder didn’t seem to mind it, in fact he took a deep breath, nostrils flaring.

    “Hmmm. I will tell my children to stay away from foreigners for a time.”

    Johan nodded sheepishly at the elder. I can’t believe this worked. At least that gets them out of Grimm’s line of fire.

    “Thank you,” he said and started to get back up when a bony hand gripped his arm in a tight squeeze.

    “A time of sorrow is coming,” the elder said. “The black spirits have been seen and they are restless.”

    Johann froze. “Black spirits?” he asked and hoped the elder didn’t mean more mercenaries.

    The elder closed his eyes and nodded. “More every day. Floating between the sun and the moon. Bad omen.”

    Johann sighted with relief. He didn’t care about superstitions. Before their death, his family had plenty of superstitions and when the Warlord’s men came they had offered no protection.

    Johann thanked the elder again for his warning and got out of the hut as quickly as possible. Compared to the inside of the hut, the warm air of the savanna was refreshing. The sun was dangerously low on the horizon and he had to get to the camp before nightfall. These parts of the savanna weren’t dangerous during the day but during the night it was another matter. He felt good about warning the Himba elder of the danger but his mood turned dark when he remembered he had to meet with Grimm’s mysterious boss. What the fuck does Black Sky what here?

    The four kilometers of underbrush and savanna passed quickly and Johan made it to the valley just in time to see a beautiful red sun dip over the horizon. He could see in the valley below him, hidden at the edge of the jungle, the seven trucks that made the convoy. One of the articulated behemoths had its guts strewn all over the place, in form of tents and crates of equipment. Equipment for what? Study wildlife my ass he thought and descended into the ravine.

    He was greeted at the makeshift camp’s perimeter by a black-clad mercenary. Black fatigues with a black armor vest full of pockets, a black face mask with night vision goggles pulled up above the head. The AR15 in the man’s hands made Johann nervous. How can they stay in all black in this heat he asked himself.

    “STOP.” The voice was commanding. Flat and steady. Definitely Black Sky thought Johan and tried to not sound too scared.

    “I’m Johann the local guide” he sputtered. He could feel the sweat dripping on the side of his neck turn cold as the mercenary looked him over and cocked his head to the right and started mumbling.

    “You may enter. The second tent on the right” said the mercenary and made a sweeping motion with his gun.

    At close range, the camp was quite big. Crates stood staked up neatly near tents and a lot of black-clad mercenaries roamed around them. There was no fire, though Johan could smell the aroma of food and the whispered voices of hushed conversations. He spotted the tent he was supposed to go in. It was the only one with a guard at the entrance, though this one had his mask half off and was having a smoke. The guard didn’t move as he approached but scanned him intensely with bright blue eyes. What the fuck does Black Sky what here?

    Johann stepped inside the tent and was attacked by the aroma of stale sweat and cigarette smoke. He recognized Grimm and Delong on his left as he entered. In front of him, behind a field desk with two laptops on it, stood two men he hadn’t seen before. The conversations stopped as he entered, all eyes on him.

    “Ahh … this must be the guide” said the man that now Johann could see was wearing a business suit. A suit in this heat? The man stretched his hand and grabbed Johann’s. “I am Michael Azov,” he said in unaccented English. “And this gentleman here is Stephen Bozgorov.” Johann looked at one man than the other unsure of what to say next. “I can see your confusion, Mr. Johann,” Azov continued, “I understand your interactions as of now were only with our colleague Mr. Grimm.” He pointed at Grimm and Delong who were having a chuckle at Johann’s discomfort. “From now on though, if you still wish to work for us, you will report to me or to Stephen,” he said and glanced at the large man to his right.

    “Mr. Azov, … err … sir, my contract is for one week only, and …”

    “This will be a longer term of employment,” said Azov, “and I can understand your hesitation.” When no word came out of Johann's mouth Azov continued “I represent the corporate part of this venture Mr. Johann. My grandfather is the CEO and de facto owner of AZV Industries. Stephen here has been our man on the ground here in Africa for a while now, and though we haven’t used his abilities to their full extent we might just have to for this operation. As you might have guessed Stephen is in fact colonel Bozgorov of the Black Sky Initiative. He and his men have been in our employ, on or off, for about a decade now and while they represent a civilian corporation that “dabbles” in protection duty, they are in fact very well organized and trained. I think they could easily surpass the local armed forces in both training and equipment” he said with a grin.

    Johann looked stunned from man to man and he could hear the now loud laughter from Grimm and Delong behind him. Azov was THE Michael Azov, industrialist, philanthropist and nephew of the CEO of AZV Industries Inc. one of the five most powerful and rich corporations on the planet. The other man didn’t look familiar to Johann but he did look menacing. He was wearing the black fatigues with bulletproof vest all of the Black Sky mercenaries were wearing but without the usual weapons. In fact, the only things Johann could see different were the big long bush knife at the man’s waist and his black cap which he was wearing a little bit tilted on the side. He certainly looked the part of a mercenary leader as far as Johann could tell.

    “For more information, you must agree to not reveal any information about what happens from now on. The penalty for any transgression on your part will be severe.”

    Johann could feel his knees give in. What the fuck does Black Sky want here? “I don’t know if I can…”

    Azov interrupted him. “Of course, you will be more than fairly recompensed Mr. Johann. How does a double weekly rate sound?”

    The thought of working for more than the week stipulated in his initial contract hadn't crossed Johann’s mind. In fact, he wanted to get as far away from these people as possible. The job was done. He got the convoy to the valley as fast as possible considering the circumstances. He had even satisfied his conscience by warning the Himba elder. And what if some other nomads stumble upon them? These people seemed perfectly capable of killing anyone who saw their operations. What the fuck does Black Sky want here? the thought kept nagging at him.

    Azov turned and looked at the burly mercenary. “If you will Stephen?”

    “What information you receive from now on is extremely sensitive,” his voice was deep, like the rumbling of rocks down a hill “there are certain parties we wish to keep in the dark for as much time as possible.

    Johann looked at the men gathered there for a few seconds and nodded slowly. “I can sign another contract …”

    “No need to sign anything,” said Azov. “Your understanding and acceptance of the facts are all we need. We are all men of trust here are we not?”

    Johann didn’t know if it was a question or a statement, but he nodded more enthusiastically.

    “Good,” said Azov. “Stephen?”

    “I presume your visit to the village went well?” said Stephen and Johann nodded again. It was getting to be a habit.

    Stephen grunted in satisfaction. “Good that means or operations won’t be discovered too soon by some local.” He bent himself over one of the laptops, punched a few keys and turned it facing Johann.

    “What do you know of the continent buried beneath Africa?”

    Johann looked stunned from Azov to Stephen, his mouth hanging open.

    “Look for yourself Mr. Johann” intervened Azov and pointed at the laptop.

    Digital maps superimposed on landscapes familiar to him appeared. He knew he was looking at a geo-map of the region with an added deep recon of subterranean sites. And in the middle, a deep silvery scar.

    “Gold?” he mumbled.

    “Better,” said Azov with a grin. “Platinum!”

    “You … You want to mine here?” asked Johann and wished he had a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his brow.

    “Yup,” said Azov rocking back and forth on his heels.

    Johann took a step back reflexively “But what do you need me for?” he asked. He didn’t know a thing about mining.

    “As you have seen Mr. Johan, the region the veins cover is huge. The bad part is only a fraction is reachable in timely and profitable fashion. That fraction lies just north-east of here in the Oktapa valley.” Azov paused and looked Johann in the eye. “As I understand it, you are the only guide in the region, that knows the local language, and has intimate knowledge of the terrain. We need someone who can talk the locals out of wandering and seeing our operations. The fewer the eyes that see us the less chance it has of being discovered ahead of schedule. At least until we establish a permanent base and start mining. Of course, at some point, someone may come and wish to separate us from our hard work, but that’s why we have Stephen here. Until such time, and seeing that we are the first ones to arrive, you will work as a scout and guide for Stephen’s men.”

    Johann looked back at Azov a shadow of doubt crossing his face “But you are not the first ones here. This is Himba land and part of Angola.”

    Azov frowned “the Himba are nomadic Mr. Johann. The small village to the east of here is not representative of their kind. They use the land but they don’t OWN it. We will, of course, provide aid to them in the future when our position is strengthened. What I do not want in particular is to see more misunderstandings as those that happened on the road. The world will find out about the riches buried here and if they find out we went in and “mistreated” the locals the publicity will make the profitability of the endeavor drop. That is your job, Mr. Johann. You will negotiate with the Himba to stay well away from our operations for as long as we require them. And per your second observation let’s say that the Angolan government is well aware of our little convoy and steps have been taken to dismiss their concerns.”

    Azov paused to catch his breath and looked straight at Johann “It’s not likely for them to develop or buy the technology required to mine the platinum and the quantities available here WILL attract the world’s attention.” He smiled at Johann “but for now it’s first come first served and AZV Industries came first. It’s time to be served.”

    Johann looked stunned at Azov but a thought kept nagging at him. “The village elder said … you are not the first ones here.”

    Azov looked unhappy. “As I explained Mr. Johann … “

    “No, no it’s not the Himba.”

    “Explain,” said Azov.

    “The village elder told me his people had seen black spirits. For the Himba, that means some form of calamity is coming. Or at least brewing,” said Johann with a shrug.

    “The superstitions of locals do not concern us,” said Azov.

    “At first I thought nothing of it as well, but now that I think about it black spirits is not something that the Himba see or invoke very often. The only other time I heard them being spoken of was when I was found after my own tribe had been decimated.”

    “I still don’t understand how this affects us.”

    Johann measured his next words carefully “when I was found, starving in the savanna, the herders who helped me kept speaking about black spirits and bad omens. The night I escaped the slaughter of my own tribe I had seen two things and none of them had been black spirits. The first was Imbutu Nasi’s men. The Warlord. His men killed my family, my whole tribe. To my knowledge, I was the only one who escaped” said Johann and paused, his eyes a little misty.

    “And the second thing?” said Azov, and Johann could sense he was getting impatient.

    “What I did see were helicopters,” he continued. “Black Helos riding the evening winds. They were very far away but I can distinctly remember seeing them at dusk, their sleek figures against a red sunset.”

    The room got silent for a moment, as Johann finished his tale. They were all looking at him incredulously, and then, all at once, several things happened. An explosion rocked Johann and Azov off their feet, and only Stephen managed to keep on his toes with the help of the desk in front of him. Grimm and Delong were thrown back off their camping chairs and out of the tent with yells of surprise, and staccato bursts of gunfire ripped through the savanna outside.

    Before Johann could get a grip on his senses, a second explosion rocked them again, this time much closer.

    “They're going for the trucks!” yelled Stephen at no one while trying to protect a fallen Azov with his own bulk.

    Johann managed to get back up on shaky legs and stepped out of the collapsing tent just in time to see a third explosion obliterate the truck closest to him. It threw him down on the ground again and memories of the night his family got murdered started to flow like a river. Not again, not again! His throat refused to make any sound except a gurgle, his vision was blurred by the flashes of gunfire and he could taste copper in his mouth.

    The yelling and screaming, the jungle burning with intense heat, the red blood flowing freely on sandy soil all mixed with sweat and fear, the pain in his lower abdomen all made any attempt to get up a futile endeavor. He tried to crawl, to scrape to some safe corner. His thoughts were fixed on a little boy of seven, all dirty and ragged, running alone in the night. But he was not a boy anymore and he couldn’t run. His thoughts went to the little girl and her goats, to the village and it’s elder, and to what the riches buried beneath him meant for the Himba. My people. At least I’ve warned them was the last thought before a stray bullet found his chest. Bathed in the last rays of sunshine, more black helicopters descended on this once beautiful valley.
     
  5. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    The Great Return (4090)


    Danny stared through the elevator doors when they glided open. “Sorry buddy” a workman said, holding the handle of a pallet jack which supported a stack of orange pipes. Other workmen glanced at Danny as they waited for the doors to close. The elevator went down and re-appeared two minutes later, welcoming Danny inside.


    On the third floor, body odour washed through the doors as they opened. Men and women with white shirts and black trousers rushed about, talking on phones, oblivious to Danny’s entrance. A series of colourful computer screens sailed past as he dodged his way to his own desk, overgrown with papers.


    “So what’s your story?” came the voice of his office neighbour, who was poking at a keyboard. Danny had to think and grapple with indecision. He didn’t like talking about his projects, especially to Steve, with his blabbering mouth; “No story yet. Hey, what’s going on downstairs?”


    “Ripping out the basement. Too old.” Danny sat, leaning back and spied through a gap in the partition. The back of someone’s head partly obscured an image of a rocket in a launch pad. A caption rolled across the bottom of the screen, not quite slowly enough for Danny to catch. “…. India prepares nuclear missile for operation. Tests to follow….”


    Steve frowned at his keys while speaking; “Wasn’t it you who did that African island article? Ya know, the fossils. What’s that place again?” Danny got distracted by the memory. His mind flashed through the event; the greenish black cone shapes with long limbs. Then the team of scientists that decided the limbs weren’t limbs, but unconnected creatures that had appeared to be joined, probably snakes or some other reptile. The ridicule came back, too, like a toothache. He wished he hadn’t got involved, not without doing the investigation for himself. Never rely on someone else for your material, not that kind of story.


    “Mauritius. It was Mauritius,” Danny huffed. “What’s it to you?”


    Steve didn’t look up. “That’s it, rishus. Baxter wants someone to take a different job there. I think it’s the same place. Something about a lost continent.”


    “No thanks. You can.” Danny sat forward and tried to concentrate on his own article, to organise and piece together some sense of the pieces. He needed coffee to think. Strong coffee. Pulling out a cabinet draw, he lifted folders in search of printing paper. “Got any paper, Stevo?” Steve shook his head.


    In the stockroom, a head high stack of boxes wobbled as Danny brushed past. The shelf had a gap where boxes of paper normally sat. Danny wasn’t happy to go down to the basement to get paper. He’d always noticed a sewage smell, whenever he needed anything from storage. Perhaps that’s partly why they were doing it up. The offices needed doing up, too; in fact the whole building was getting on and perhaps had had its time.


    He made his way along the corridor to the elevator and jabbed the down button. It arrived empty, but the floor was littered and smeared with dirt. When he reached the basement, he was met with the usual smell. To add to that, the normally deserted space was busy with banging, drilling and men with overalls. Some shiny new pipes lined the walls. Danny went straight for an island of racking and grabbed what he needed.


    On the way back to his desk, he got coffee from a machine, spilt some on a stained carpet and slumped into his creaking chair. But neither the coffee nor the new paper did much to help. His mind kept wandering while Steve kept chatting; the creative process was blocked, like the downstairs sewers must have been. He was relieved when five o’clock came, though disappointed at a wasted day.


    Next morning, Danny arrived at the office half an hour late. Steve was hurrying to collect things from his desk, stuffing them into a large bag on his shoulder. “Take it easy, Dan. I’m off to Rishus, by order of the boss. Looks like something good after all. I’ll keep in touch.” Good luck to ya’, was what Danny wanted to say, but was left hoping he hadn’t lost an opportunity. Much as he had been annoyed by Steve’s presence, he felt his absence that morning, despite the hum of the office.


    It wasn’t until 8pm the next day that Danny heard from Steve again. A text message read “Hi pal. Just to let you know, might need your help on this one. Check your post in the morning. It’s like magic dust. Explain soon. Steve.” Danny didn’t lose any sleep over this, but was more concerned about his current job and what his boss will think.



    Danny overslept until his phone roused him. It was humid and he had to get up to drink water. A huge cloud the shape of a balloon was visible from the kitchen windows, until it broke up. Children were rolling boiled eggs around the table, instead of eating them. Danny ignored them, leaving his wife to deal with it. He crunched on a slice of burnt toast while he read his texts.


    The first two were from Steve. “Hope you got it. Don’t tell anyone. Don’t know what you can do with it, but scientist I spoke to here seemed impressed. Maybe Skype you today?” Then, “Story’s getting big. Bit of competition here. I’ve been lucky, but now reporters are being turned away. Well, what do you think? Skype soon.”


    Danny finished breakfast, then checked his doormat. No sign of a parcel, only letters. He took his own up to his office. One was handwritten and clearly contained something other than papers. As he ripped it open, he cut his finger, but on inspection, realised he was mistaken. However, the migraine that he could feel coming was very real, though far too early in the day.


    Inside the bulging envelope was a thin clear packet of something like coloured sand. Danny felt sure it wasn’t sand, given the colour and the large size of the particles. He slid out an extension from his writing desk, on which sat a laptop computer. Some letters were broken, but he still managed to start it up and login, before starting Skype. The tone beeped and a voice answered so soon that Danny was surprised.


    “Hi, Danny boy, glad you called at last.”


    “Hey, Steve. So what’s goin’ on? What’s in the packet?”


    “Ahh, you may well ask. Well, that really is the question, isn’t it. In short, I don’t know. But I’m sure it’s sumin’ special. I’ll start at the beginning though. The guy I spoke to, he’s a geologist from South Africa, he told me he don’t understand it. Those crystals, zircons I think, are samples taken from rocks under Mauritius. He reckons they’re billions of years old.”


    “Interesting, but still, is it worth a story?”, Danny commented, doubtfully.


    “Well, what this guy don’t understand is these crystals, which I’ve sent a few to you. He says, under an ordinary microscope, the shapes appear to be perfect tetra-suminks. The sides are perfect equilateral triangles.”


    “Tetrahedrons? So, is that unusual?”


    “Yeah, tetrahedrons. He says it’s impossible that such perfect shapes could ‘ave occurred naturally. You get it?”


    “Well, as I say, very interesting. So what did you do, steal some?”


    “Aaah, yeah, don’t worry. But don’t tell anyone. Keep ‘em safe an’ try an’ get them analysed, if you can. I gotta get closer to the site, take a few pics. Speak later.” Danny acknowledged and closed the call. Perhaps he hadn’t slept properly at all; the conversation felt distant and unreal, and it might explain the migraine. He stuffed the packet of crystals into his work bag.



    When he reached work, he was over an hour late and found Jack Baxter sitting at his desk, looking at his papers. “I hope this isn’t going to be a habit, Dan. Are you on schedule?”, peering over half-moon reading glasses and drumming his fingers on wood. Danny reassured him, and beckoned him away from his chair. As soon as he’d gone, Danny pulled out the crystals and threw them into a draw. The bright office light caught them, making an iridescent sparkle, just before the draw closed.


    All morning, Danny felt like he was a million miles away. Even coffee didn’t help him focus, but seemed to make him even more sleepy. He thought some fresh air might do some good, so had lunch in a café overlooking a park. As he sipped more coffee, he daydreamed about being in Mauritius, enjoying the sun and the sea. He imagined how it might have looked a billion years ago, before the dinosaurs roamed, when the continents were nothing like today and only the most basic organisms existed. He had never given it much thought before, but the more he imagined it, the more it frightened him. Now he needed something to take his mind off it.


    Danny was poring over photos and newspaper clippings, struggling to stay awake, when a commotion caught his attention. A few colleagues had gathered around a nearby desk and stared at a screen. He had to get closer to hear the report above the general office hubbub. A serious looking young lady was talking. “It's official. A 3-billion-year-old ‘lost continent’ lurks beneath the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, new research confirms.”


    Danny wondered whether Steve might have been too late to get the story first, but by the end of the report, decided it wasn’t anything special after all. The final words did, however, make him think about what Steve had said. “The researchers found sparkling iridescent flecks of rocks, known as zircons, that date back billions of years, to one of the earliest periods in Earth's history. But just in case you’re wondering if they’re valuable or might look pretty as jewellery, people in the area are being warned that the crystals may be radioactive, and to notify the authorities if any are found or if they hear about anyone who may have any.”


    Danny noticed there was no mention of the unusual shape that Steve was so excited about, but was more worried about the crystals in his draw. Could they be the same things that the woman warned about? Was he in danger of radiation poisoning? He walked casually back to his desk, but when he opened the draw, the packet was gone.


    He sat down to think, but chattering around the office and ringing phones seemed to be purposefully stopping him. He felt a rush of blood to his head as he stood up again and grabbed his jacket. Sod it, not my problem - was playing on his mind as he left the office.


    It was raining quite heavily and a vague smell of sulphur touched his senses as Danny jogged to the underground. The greasy pavement slipped underfoot. On the train, he checked his phone, but the signal was dead. The insistent on and off flashing of the lights made him dizzy. When he emerged from the tunnel onto an over-ground platform, his phone made him jump. It was a text from Steve.


    “Dan. Can’t talk. This will sound weird. Sure team of investigators here are hiding something. Wouldn’t want to say conspiracy, but you’d know more about that kind of thing, right? The news said crystals are radioactive. I don’t believe them. No one talks about the strange shapes. That scientist denies he ever mentioned it. Now reporters are being turned away. Did you analyse them? Hope to be back in few days. Steve”


    Then as he arrived home, another text came. “Follow up your article about fossils. I think there’s a link. That guy you once spoke of, Liver-something. Check him out.” Danny was getting worried about Steve. This wasn’t like him at all. He remembered the name; L P Livercroft. He’d written a book about a bizarre theory, that related to the cone-like fossils Danny had investigated in Mauritius. That a civilisation of intelligent plant-like creatures had existed millions of years ago. He called them the Great Race of Yith. Danny had decided it was all nonsense, just some guy trying to make money out of naïve people with spare cash.



    Danny must have slept well that night, and by morning, had a clear head, as if a mist had lifted. He felt a new lease of life and knew what he must do to finish his article. The office, however, was another matter. He noticed how quiet it was as soon as he entered the building. On the way up, there was no sign of workmen anymore, suggesting they had finished working on the basement. His floor seemed far less busy than normal and people were talking quietly, rather than the usual aggressive exchange of people under pressure.


    In a manager’s office, people were standing around a table, watching a computer screen. He glimpsed the words “India, condemned by UN” and “outcry” scrolling across the bottom. As he sat at his desk, a girl walked past, wearing something shiny around her neck. She cast a furtive glance at Danny, before hurrying off. He couldn’t help noticing her odd gait as she went, with some sort of limp in both legs at once. Another thing that surprised him was that Steve’s desk had been tidied, more so than he would ever have done himself. Even his computer had disappeared.


    Danny had the opportunity to make good progress on his article, despite apprehensions at the back of his mind. At 1pm he decided to go out to eat. For several minutes after pressing the button, the elevator didn’t respond. It arrived empty, but smelled of fish. He realised that he’d probably pressed the wrong number, when it dropped to the basement, instead of ground floor.


    He was right about the workmen. The place was empty and the lights were switched off, which seemed strange to Danny. He’d never been there without seeing the lights on. He noticed how dark it was, and thought it was just as well that he didn’t need anything, since he would have had no idea where the light switch was. At least the sewage smell had gone. He pressed the ground floor button and the doors closed, though not so quickly that he didn’t catch a tiny flash of light in the distant blackness.


    Danny sat watching crowds pass by the window of Giovanni’s Café. He wondered why Steve hadn’t sent any more messages. Maybe he should give him a call. Then his mind was suddenly pulled away by a man running past, into the road, and getting skimmed by a car. He wasn’t hurt, but ran off up the road. A police car sped by, a minute later. Danny’s pie was getting cold. He finished quickly and headed back.


    He thought he was near to completing his project, when a colleague with a bowtie interrupted him. “Hey, Danny. What about it, huh? The worlds gone crazy.” Danny was blank and shook his head. The guy frowned. “India. Ya know. Ya didn’t hear! They’re testing nukes now. Shot one into the ocean. Why the ocean? Everyone’s protestin’.”


    Danny was about to excuse himself to finish his job, when the guy pulled up a seat and sat close by. He leaned close enough to share his halitosis. “Somethin’s going on, Danny. Here I mean. Did ya’ notice Baxter’s not in his office? An hour ago, I saw him and a manager go into the elevator. They’re not back yet. Baxter never goes out for lunch. He’s always keepin’ an eye on everyone. Then just now, one girl pushed a trolley inside. It was covered with a cloth, like she was hidin’ somethin’.”


    Danny didn’t speak; his mind was busy trying to piece it all together. He remembered the packet of crystals that had been taken from his draw. And the news of the radioactivity. Have people in the office become ill? “Well, what do ya’ think? Will ya’ come with me to the basement? Just check it out,” the guy whispered. Danny agreed. He thought about the flash of light he saw earlier. “We might need a torch. The lights were off.”


    “I don’t know. I only have my phone. Don’t worry.” Danny watched the guy look up and down the office area, then followed him to the elevator. He felt nervous to be sneaking about, like he was doing something he shouldn’t. He also wasn’t keen on very dark places.


    The doors opened into the basement. The far walls were altogether unpenetrated by the small amount of light from the elevator. Danny peered into the darkness while the other guy stopped the doors from sliding shut. He had to leave the elevator to see clearly, but still couldn’t see any switches on the nearby walls. He did see something glinting, further along, and had to stare to make it out. It was only a reflection from the newly installed pipes, which ran along a side-wall.


    The other guy was starting to get restless, holding the doors. “Listen,” he whispered. “You’re right, we need a torch.” Danny wasn’t paying attention. He noticed a pale light at the far end of the basement. It looked like the outline of one of the doors in the back wall, perhaps a storeroom. He started to move closer, but stumbled on rubbish which littered the concrete floor. Some of it was slippery and looked wet, in the dimness. He also noticed a fishy smell.


    Suddenly, the dirty floor disappeared. The elevator doors had closed, cutting off the light, leaving Danny enclosed in a sea of darkness. He froze on the verge of panic. He felt a pocket for his phone and pulled it out, but the light did little more than make a small patch of floor glow. The elevator doors and the wall were no longer visible.


    He called out softly, but heard only his own voice swallowed by darkness. He paused for what seemed like a long time while trying to steady his breathing. Concentrating on the floor, he started shuffling towards the distant light which glowed around the edge of a door. As his feet brushed against the concrete, he wasn’t sure if he heard other, muffled sounds, too. Then, he thought, muffled voices. Something appeared to flicker near the far door, but a scurrying sound distracted him, quite near to his left side. Then a squeak. He crept more quickly, towards the pale light and the flickering.


    Holding his phone close to the floor, it still seemed to take too long to reach the far end of the basement. The flicker was coming from a small window near the closed door. Danny put his phone away and went slowly to the far side of the glass pane. From this angle, he could see into a large room where a TV screen was lit up. The outline of at least three people was visible, and beyond, an open door revealed another room which was dimly lit and also occupied.


    Nobody appeared to speak, but stood watching the screen. A woman was talking while captions read - “Earthquake follows India’s launching of Agni-VI ballistic missile with nuclear warhead into sea, 5 miles from island of Mauritius. Tidal waves hit island. Devastating floods.” One man switched on a shaded lamp and another figure turned off the TV, then opened a laptop.


    The others watched while he made a few clicks, before a voice started to come through. It was hard to hear, but Danny thought it didn’t sound English. On the screen, a bearded man appeared to be on a ship, judging by the sea in the background, which moved up and down and rocked considerably from side to side. A brief and incomprehensible conversation ensued.


    As Danny watched, subtle movement in the basement got his sudden attention. This time he was sure it was more substantial than a rat. While he fiddled with his phone, he found himself blinded by a bright light. A voice came from nearby and starting shouting. Danny began walking away, but was in between the light and the wall, leaving him little choice of where to go. He panicked and his mind stopped working, before he could react to the door opening and two men coming out.


    A light appeared from the window, revealing the large man standing next to him, in security guard clothes and holding a torch. As he came towards Danny, he realised he was surrounded. He didn’t resist as the guard took hold of his arms. He was much bigger than Danny and could have broken his skinny wrist with ease. One of the other men was Baxter, but it was the other one, a short bald man, who spoke first; “Bring him in quickly.”


    Danny followed them into the room, where they immediately turned off the light, leaving only the shaded lamp to see by. Danny was scared and realised how dry his mouth was. The bald man seemed to be giving the orders. “Tie his arms.” No-one spoke a word, only followed instructions. The man reached into a draw and pushed a necklace towards Danny. “Hold the stones.” It was dark, but Danny could tell the chain held a small cluster of crystals, the same as those he lost.


    Danny didn’t react, but only asked what it is. The man’s face was all the time calm and empty of expression. “You don’t need to know.” He paused for a moment. “This is how we come. It’s painless. It’s quicker if you touch the zircon.” Danny didn’t know whether it was radioactive or poisonous or what, but could not bring himself to open his hand.


    Every so often, the bald man looked round at the laptop screen, where the caller was still waiting. “He’s coming. We have dreamed it.” Danny saw the rising waves of the grey sea behind the bearded man. The rocking made him feel dizzy. The bald man drew closer to Danny. “We were here first. We were here for millions of years, long before your ancestors came out of the trees. Your kind has had its chance.”


    The large man standing nearby pulled Danny’s arm straight and tried to open his hand flat. Danny tried to keep a fist, but he felt weak and his hand was shaking. The bald man looked back at the screen, then at his necklace. He held the chain open and lifted it over Danny’s head. “Not to worry. It just takes a bit longer. Hold his arms back.” Danny squirmed while his wrists were gripped roughly and held behind him. The necklace fell coldly around his neck, the crystals touching his chest.


    Everyone turned to the screen, which showed the bearded man holding onto a railing, overlooking the growing waves. Far in the distance, through a cloud of spray, it was just possible to see the crest of a large wave, jutting up from the sea. It appeared to be coming to a point, forming a rising tower of water. A round shape was pushing up through the wave as the sea swelled. Danny thought at first a hot air balloon was emerging, until the huge balloon opened its bulbous eyes. Danny couldn’t look. He had to close his eyes before any more of the titanic shape became too clear. He screwed up is face, refusing to accept whatever he may have seen, adamant not to look any more. Perhaps it wasn’t even real. Anything could be achieved with special effects and digital manipulation. Why should he feel so terrified?


    People whispered in the room, often audibly, but still in some alien language unrecognisable to Danny. He felt something placed around his neck, much the same as the necklace, yet he tried to concentrate on something else, something sensible and real.


    At first he thought he was dreaming, when his eyes started to open without his own volition. Then, it was as if his eyes were slowly falling down, with a will of their own. At the same time, his entire body felt absurd and out of proportion. It was now very dark and all he could see was something wet and living, just before his vision. It breathed and rippled while making a soft rasping noise. Eventually Danny realised he was also breathing, in perfect time with the creature. He screamed, or to be more accurate, made a sloppy trumpeting sound.
     
  6. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    I wasn't (~2000)

    Graham left his room and walked down the corridor to the department reception.

    “Lisbeth, I need you to investigate what options there are to fly to South Africa this week, probably tomorrow.”

    “Is this for the Geology department of Durham University, or are you taking me on an improvised holiday?”

    She stood up from her chair and came towards him, smiling. He and Lisbeth got along very well and she sometimes flirted a little with him. He usually played along as Lisbeth was one of the very few women that Graham felt comfortable with. They had even met outside the office, and next week they planned to see a movie together.

    “No, this is faculty stuff, but I might ask you out for dinner when I am back.”

    “That would be nice,” she said, “so this is not some woman you are meeting?”

    “No, a few days ago I got an e-mail from a former student. He sent me a picture of a fossil embedded in limestone. He had gotten it from his uncle. I told him what it was and I wrote something about how nice it is that he is still interested in Geology. I also told him that his uncle was pulling his leg, no way that fossil could have been found in a mine.

    “But, look at this”, he handed Lisbeth a printout.

    Fredric.Remert@coldmail.com
    To Graham Tillson <grati@dur.ac.uk>

    My uncle is a very trustworthy person. He knows I am very serious about Geology and wouldn't fool me. He is an engineer and works for the Corland Mining company. He was inspecting the rail system for heavy equipment in the Mogamasi gold mine. It was in one of the support shafts at the very bottom of the mine he found it. I tried to find out more but he only told me everything about the rail system.
    /Fredric

    “So,” said Lisbeth.

    “I’ll have to go down that mine.”

    “There are tons of limestone fossils in the cellar. Why do you need more?”

    “The fossil is not important. It’s where it was found that's important.”

    Lisbeth smiled at Graham.

    “Sit down and I will explain,” he said.

    Graham remained standing, looking down at Lisbeth.

    “Let me give you a little lecture. In the 1920s there was a German scientist, Alfred Wegener, that proposed the idea that the continents as we know them today once had been a single continent. This initial single continent is named Pangaea.”

    “You mean it was named after the large conference room downstairs?”

    Graham looked puzzled at her, but when he saw her small smile he laughed.

    “You are something,” he said.

    “At that time we didn't know enough to explain it, but now we know that the continents are slowly drifting around the earth.

    “Then in the 1970s the Belgian geologist Bertran Whaler was investigating the ocean bottoms. He studied their geological megastructure and posed a theory that the initial Pangaea must have been larger than we now see. There must have existed an additional piece. He called it continent X. It should now be located east of Africa. Whaler’s idea was controversial, and no traces of continent X have ever been found. Nevertheless, everyone studying geophysics will have heard about it.

    “Personally I think the idea of continent X is a scientific fairy tale. Like the legend of Atlantis.”

    Graham was silent for some seconds.

    “But, if this finding in the South African mine is real then we might have found continent X. It would be fantastic. Somehow Africa, during millions of years, slid over it.”

    Graham had talked with his whole body. All the time he had been looking at Lisbeth and had made gestures with his hands.

    “You are excited about this. I hope you don't forget our dinner,” said Lisbeth.

    Graham sat down at the edge of the desk. He breathed out completely.

    “It also means that my last 4 years of research may have been wasted.”

    “It’s only your theory that gets scrapped. Your analyses of the 260 rock samples will be used to prove something else. You will be in the footnotes.”

    That teasing smile again, Graham shrugged his shoulders.

    He gave her the printout, “will you please find out how I get to that mine. I’ll try to contact the mining company. Then maybe we can have lunch together.”

    **

    They had agreed to meet at the campus lunch restaurant. Graham was a few minutes early. He had called the mining company, but he hadn’t gotten further than a secretary at their PR department. She had promised him that she would try to get someone that could call him.

    When Lisbeth arrived he noticed she had put on some lipstick. She was a very nice woman, really.

    “You are something,” he said.

    “Thank you,” she smiled, “any luck with the mining company?”

    “No, and I have mailed Fredric but no answer yet. ”

    “So you aren’t going then?”

    “Oh, it has to be this week. I have three very busy weeks starting next Tuesday. What about transport?”

    “There are several daily flights from Heathrow to Johannesburg. You do have a driver's license?”

    Graham nodded.

    “It’s difficult to find out about local transportation. I suggest you rent a car. The mine is about 110 kilometers from the airport. I have found two nice hotels, and both of them have internet.”

    “Try to get me something tomorrow, lunchtime, with an open return. Email me all details.”

    “Ok.”

    “As a small compensation for your help, this lunch is on me. Let's go to the counter and see what they have.”

    Wednesday

    “Geology department, Lisbeth Ander.”

    “Hi Lisbeth, I am calling from Heathrow. I finally got mail from Fredric. Do you have a pen and a pencil?”

    “Hmm.”

    “Write down Rose Remert.”

    “Yes.”

    “Rose is Fredric’s cousin. She is studying at Durham University. She chose Durham because Fredric recommended it, and she is the daughter of Jerome Remert.”

    “Am I supposed to know who Jerome is?”

    “He's the uncle.”

    Graham can hear a small laughter from Lisbeth.

    “What's so funny about this?”

    “I was just going to say it's the butler.”

    “What?”

    “It’s the butler that has hidden continent X.”

    “We don't have time for silly talk.”

    “I understand, inspector Graham.”

    “Fredric has no way of contacting his uncle. We must find Rose.”

    “You won't find her at Heathrow. So what you actually say is that I must find her.”

    “Please Lisbeth, I have no idea where Rose is staying and I don’t know what she is studying. You must find her. My future depends on you.”

    **

    It was a long flight down to South Africa. Graham had downloaded everything he could find about both Wegener’s and Whaler’s theories. Unfortunately, this was old stuff, before internet and electronic documents. Whaler’s mathematical models were beyond Graham’s basic knowledge of mathematics. He couldn't find anyone that supported Whaler’s ideas, but he found nothing that totally discredited his hypothesis.

    When he finally reached his hotel he continued his search for information. He browsed the internet and found a scanned copy of Wegener’s paper, but it was in German. In a Japanese research report, badly translated into English, he found iron concentrations in African coal mines that couldn't be explained, but the report mainly dealt with the formation of granite under various pressures. It would take months to make sense of all this.

    He would have liked to call Lisbeth but he hadn't got her private number. He fell asleep with a big smile on his face. This could be good, really good. And Lisbeth was a very pleasing woman.

    Thursday

    At 08.30 he called Lisbeth.

    “Geology department, Lisbeth Ander.”

    “Good morning my dear Lisbeth. First, I need your private phone number.”

    “You can always reach me here.”

    “I wanted to talk to you yesterday evening.”

    “I only give my number to serious gentlemen.”

    Again Graham could see that teasing smile, and he suddenly realized he was serious about her.

    “Did you find Rose? How should I get in contact with Jerome? What can I say to make him understand this is really important?”

    “I located the girl in the student database, there was a picture of her as well, she is beautiful. Are you sure it’s not her that you are interested in?”

    “I don’t give a damn about what she looks like, what did she tell you?”

    “You know this wasn’t easy…”

    “Ok, I'll buy you a box of the finest chocolates in the tax-free.”

    “I had to call 5 institutions in order to find what she was studying. And I had to find her teacher...”

    “Two boxes of chocolates.”

    “I got hold of her after her afternoon lessons. But you know it’s difficult to persuade someone you don't know-”

    “Lisbeth, what did she say, what should I do?” said Graham.

    “What can a poor girl do in such circumstances? How could she proceed? I had to lie.”

    “Hmm. ”

    “She got a call from her boyfriend as I started talking to her. She is in love, a hopelessly romantic girl in love with this young man.”

    “He is not going to get me down that shaft,” said Graham.

    “I told her you were my boyfriend, and that I had to help you. Your future career depends on this. As girlfriend to girlfriend, she understood I must do anything to help you.

    “She would call her father. But you must not tell him about her boyfriend.”

    The telephone beeps. Graham looks at the display.

    “Hang on, I got a mess. I have to read it.”

    Graham taps several times on the display.

    “Yes!”

    Graham lifts the phone towards his ear.

    “Lisbeth did I ever tell you that I love you.”

    “No.”

    “Jerome says we are going down tomorrow”.

    Friday

    “So you are getting married,” said Jerome.

    They walked towards the shaft building. Graham was so excited that he only heard what Jerome was saying. It did not register.

    “What,” said Graham.

    “You scientists are crazy. My daughter told me your fiancee is a beautiful woman and she loves you so much. And still, you find going down a mineshaft more interesting than talking about your marriage.”

    “Hmm,” says Graham.

    “You will have plenty of time to tell me. It takes a long time to get us all the way down.”

    **

    Graham had a 15 minutes drive from the mine to his hotel. He couldn't think straight and he felt lost. He had to call Lisbeth.

    “Geology department, Lisbeth Ander.”

    “I have seen continent X.”

    “What,” says Lisbeth.

    “It’s there, I know it. There are deposits and minerals that shouldn’t be at that level. It’s fantastic.”

    “Will we get a conference room named after it?”

    Graham could hear her smile, but he tried to sound a little irritated.

    “Lisbeth, what did you tell Rose about us. Jerome thinks we are getting married.”

    “I might have told her we are engaged or something. I don’t remember exactly. I had to tell her a convincing story.”

    “Well I had to come up with quite a story,” said Graham.

    “Tell me.”

    “We both want a seaside wedding.”

    “Hmm.”

    “And you want 21 white roses that will be perfect for your light-lavender colored dress.”

    “No way I will have that.”

    “It took us more than 40 minutes to get down, and Jerome is such a romantic guy. I just had to tell him everything. We are first spending 4 days in Paris, and then two weeks somewhere in Africa. You always wanted to see lions early in the morning.”

    “I hate cats.”

    “I tried to sate his curiosity the best I could, but when he started asking about our wedding night I chickened out. I said you had promised it should be something I never forget.”

    Graham could hear her giggle.

    “I’ll start planning right now,” said Lisbeth.

    They laughed together.

    “Of course Jerome didn't ask about the wedding night. I was just kidding,” said Graham.

    “I wasn't,” said Lisbeth.
     
  7. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    Banana, Rosa [3,468]

    It’s not right for an animal to be caged. You can’t keep a creature in captivity just so a bunch of kids can be disappointed to find it isn’t the anthropomorphic best bud Disney/Pixar has trained them to expect. But Rosa had read a book about the conservation work zoos do, and persuaded me to go with her to Hanning Grove Wildlife Park.

    Rosa loves to read and she always gets carried away. Five years before, she read a book about algorithms, and the next week enrolled on a computing degree.

    “You have a degree,” I told her.

    “Well, I only studied English Lit because I was good at it in school,” she said.

    “So you’re going to become a computer programmer or something?”

    She looked puzzled. “No.”

    After she graduated with her baseless BSc she did an aimless MSc – not in computing, that would make too much sense, or even in literature – in South American History. She read an article somewhere about Peruvian archaeology. That was all it took. Reading is rocket fuel to her. She learns a little and instantly wants to know it all.

    Her new thing was conservation. I had more sense than to check the statement from our joint account to see how much she’d spent on the slabs of academic endeavour that had landed on our doormat almost daily for a month.

    “So, where first?” Rosa scanned the map handed to her by a teenager dressed as an emperor penguin.

    “I don’t know. I’d kinda like to see a bear rubbing its muzzle against the bars until all its fur has come off and it’s covered in festering sores.”

    “Yeah, well they don’t have that here, so try again, smart arse.”

    “I could go for some big insects. Insects in a glass box doesn’t seem so bad.”

    “So we’ll start off easy?”

    We walked along the cutesy, winding paths separating one ‘zone’ from another. The verges were dotted with four-foot wooden cartoon animals offering facts about the species they represented. “Did you know that cuttlefish can change the colour of their skin to hide or to communicate?” “At night time you can hear the kookaburras ‘laughing’ – they’re actually shouting to other birds to mark out their territory!” “How do bats find each other in the dark? They can’t use their eyes so they use echoes and calls to tell each other where they are!”

    “Did you know: a shed in the West Midlands isn’t the natural habitat of the giraffe?” I said, stretching out my neck as we approached the enclosure.

    “Did you know, firstly,” Rosa said, “that they’ve come into the shed voluntarily to meet the humans, and that they have access to a large field at the back of the shed which allows them both freedom and privacy, and secondly that without opportunities for children to interact with wild animals we will be unable to train the next generation of conservationists, who are very badly needed as we head deeper into the anthropocene with its associated mass extinctions?”

    I decided to dial it back a bit. Rosa doesn’t get angry easily, so I knew I’d crossed a line. She’s almost pathologically sunny, which is just as well. I guess I’m a bit of a cynic. She keeps me from dismissing most of what the world has to offer.

    We ambled through the rest of Africa: the zebras, the rhinos, the lions. Even I wanted to poke the lions with a stick to make them more entertaining. They were behaving exactly the way a cat would if you put it on display: sitting sullenly, very deliberately not looking at you: “Fuck you. I won’t acknowledge you. Get out of my house.”

    “Ooh, great apes!” Rosa thrilled, jabbing a finger at the map. “Literally around this corner.”

    “No,” I said. “No, I can’t.”

    “But they’re so human!” she said.

    “Well, that’s the point. I’m going to look at them and think it could as easily be you or me behind those bars. Would you want to be a zoo exhibit?”

    “Have you seen any bars since we got here?”

    “I’ve seen some mesh,” I said. “That’s basically the same thing.”

    “Ugh,” Rosa rolled her eyes and ploughed on to the ape enclosure.

    “Ha!”

    “What?” Rosa stopped and turned to see what I was laughing at.

    I nodded towards to the cartoon chimpanzee who pointed the way. The speech bubble where its species fact should have been was covered over with a laminated sheet that read, “Today is the 57th birthday of our oldest mountain gorilla, Rosa. Join us from 2pm to sample our special gorilla cake and see the birthday girl open her presents!”

    “Happy Birthday!” I said. “You know, you don’t look a day over 40.”

    “Oh bloody hell, really? I wonder whether if I tell them I’m Rosa too they’ll give me a present?” she smiled. “You coming to meet her?”

    In the ape enclosure it felt more like we were the exhibit – surrounded on all sides by habitats looking in on our darkened viewing bay through towering glass partitions topped off with mesh that met the ceiling.

    “Which one is she?” Rosa wondered aloud. She followed the lead of a nearby eight-year-old and pressed her nose to the glass to get a better view.

    Parents and children, some wearing party hats, milled about - waiting for the gorilla cake, I guessed.

    “Are you looking for the birthday girl?” a zoo keeper asked.

    “My girlfriend’s name is Rosa,” I wasted no time in telling him.

    “Another Rosa! Your girl is the one over by the boulder there,” he pointed.

    Gorilla Rosa sat on her haunches hitting a small shrub with a leafy twig. Between whacks she stared intently at the plant. After a while she scratched her belly.

    “The dead spit,” I said.

    “Rosa!” Rosa – my Rosa – approached the glass. “Do they respond to their names?”

    “We don’t think so. But if she’s interested, she’ll come over,” said the zoo keeper.

    “Rosa!” Human Rosa squatted on the floor right by the glass and put her head on one side. She made a sort of tutting sound, not far off the noise she would make to call her mum’s cat. She patiently waited.

    “Hey, Rosa!” I shouted, and rapped on the wall of the enclosure.

    “Jesus, Doug! ‘How would you like be kept in a zoo?’” she mimicked my earlier question. “How would you like some idiot banging on the wall of your house?”

    “Here,” the zoo keeper held out a banana. “You tie it on there,” he said, indicating a piece of string that hung down either side of the glass through part of the mesh at the top of the enclosure, “and, er, she’ll come and get it – well, one of them will come and get it.”

    Rosa took the banana and tied it to the string. She waved it at the gorilla.

    Catching sight of the movement – or so I suppose – the animal cast a glance in Rosa’s direction. Turning back to her entertainment, she raised the twig to her mouth, wrapped her lips around it, and stripped the leaves at a stroke. She chewed slowly, still holding the twig in front of her.

    “Rosa!”

    The gorilla turned to look again. She dropped the twig and got up onto her fists.

    “Rosa!” My Rosa waggled the banana again.

    “Oh! That was a grunt,” said the keeper.

    “Mum! He’s coming!” a kid behind us shouted, running up to the glass.

    Gorilla Rosa pulled back a little as the child ran forward, then ambled towards us, hips and shoulders swaying powerfully. She stopped a few feet away and regarded human Rosa and the banana. She lowered her haunches and shuffled on her behind until she was almost up against the glass. She grunted again.

    A child roared in the gorilla’s direction before her father pulled her away. “Now that’s not nice, is it? You’ve got to be friendly with the animals, Lottie.” The animal was intrigued but not troubled.

    “Give the string a pull,” the keeper told my Rosa.

    When the string on her side of the glass moved, the gorilla seemed to remember her mission. She reached out a hand and took hold.

    “Aah!” The kids behind us screamed in delight as the ape quickly and skilfully reeled in her prize. The banana got stuck in the mesh on the first couple of attempts but gorilla Rosa persisted until she had dragged it through and it fell by her side in the grass. She grabbed the fruit and freed it from its skin faster than I’ve ever seen any human do it, crammed the peel into her mouth with one hand and then began to break off chunks of flesh.

    “Did you see that? Dad, did you see what he did with the skin?”

    “I did.”

    “He ate it.”

    “I saw.”

    Rosa the ape shuffled round to face us more directly. She searched the gallery of human faces until she lighted on her namesake, giver of the banana. She grunted and pressed her knuckles to the glass. Without hesitation her new human friend brought her hand up to do the same. I thought, “If she looks at me with half as much joy and affection on our wedding day, I’ll be a very happy man.”

    + + + + + + + + + + + +

    “Doug, hi. It’s Karen. Rosa’s alright but she’s in the hospital. The doctors say it isn’t serious but they aren’t too sure exactly what it is yet. They’re going to run some tests. She’s on ward 9 right now. She’s having a little trouble speaking – just to warn you. But they said she will be alright. Give me a call when you get this.”

    + + + + + + + + + + + +

    “Which entrance do you want?” asks the taxi driver.

    “She said ward 9. I don’t know which one is nearest.”

    “Ward 9 is the stroke unit, right?”

    I lose my breath. “I don’t know.”

    “That’s Senwright Street entrance, is stroke.”

    “Okay.”

    “I’ll go in Senwright Street, drop you at reception.”

    “Thank you.”

    We drive past the crumbling staff housing, past car park G, F, E, past signs for Area 7, Areas 5 & 6, around mini-roundabouts and over speed bumps every ten yards. The complex goes on and on: a suburb I don’t know though I’ve lived in this town my whole life. I think I did come once when I was small, when my aunt gave birth to my youngest cousin, but nothing looks familiar.

    We pull up by a set of automatic doors. The driver turns on the light, reaches up and presses a button on the meter. “£6.20,” he says.

    I dig around in my wallet for change, give up, hand him a tenner and get out. I walk through the doors.

    Inside the hospital, everything smells wrong. And everything looks wrong: the high seating, the large, simple letters on the signs, the plastic floors and the wipe-clean fabrics. It screams of challenges and struggles, of anything pleasant forcibly sacrificed to utility. I do remember from my previous visit how bedraggled and sweaty my usually immaculate and business-like aunt looked, sitting up in her metal-framed bed with hospital sheets, a blue balloon floating from the bar at her feet. People aren’t themselves in hospitals: they’re actors behind the scenes, sitting in the make-up chair, out of costume. I wonder how Rosa will look.

    I follow the signs to ward 9. I’m about to approach the nurses’ station when I hear Karen call, “Doug!” She is sitting in a high-backed, vinyl-covered armchair by the side of a hospital bed, partially obscured by a curtain. She looks calm. “We’re here,” she says. “It’s Doug,” she tells the occupant of the bed.

    I get closer. At last I can see her: weak and pale but otherwise my Rosa. She smiles at me, and I know it will all be okay.

    A doctor barges past me and stands at the end of the bed. “Miss Henshall, we know the drill now don’t we?”

    Rosa rolls her eyes, and I smile. It is good to see. That’s my Rosa.

    “Right arm,” says the doctor. Rosa raises her right arm. “Good. Left arm. Smile for me. Good.” He holds up his biro. “And what’s this?”

    “Line,” says Rosa with great certainty and clarity. “Argh!” She thumps the bed with her hand and tries again, “Line. Gah!”

    Karen looks at me. “Doctor, this is Doug, he’s Rosa’s partner.”

    “Doug,” the doctor holds out his hand to shake. “She’s going to be fine. We think it’s a stroke but it’s only a mild one. There looks to be a little weakness on the left side, but barely any really, and we’re having a little trouble with some of our words, but it will be fine. We’re just waiting for a scan now. When we have that we’ll know more.”

    “When will she be able to come home?”

    “Let’s see what we learn from the scan,” he says and moves on to the next bed.

    As he leaves, Rosa glares after him and says, “He’s underbucket.” Hearing her words, she adds, “Damn!”

    “We still have most of the swear words,” Karen says. “We’ve been through them all in the last few hours.”

    “Fucking rope shirt,” says Rosa, still looking at the doctor.

    “He is a total fucking rope shirt,” I agree. Rosa looks furious. I move to kiss her, which goes down equally badly. I put my hand on hers and tell her, “It’s only for a little while. He said you’re going to be fine.”

    “You don’t tell me how I’m America,” she says angrily.

    “Sorry,” I say.

    “It was just a bit annoying at first wasn’t it?” Karen says, for my benefit but addressing her daughter. “But it’s getting more frustrating as it goes on.”

    Rosa doesn’t reply.

    “I’m going to go and make a call,” says Karen. “Will you be okay here?”

    “Yes,” I say. “Thank you for looking after her. Did you call the ambulance?”

    “No, she did that. They heard her…” she searches for the word, “babbling and they knew what had happened. Paramedics found my number in her phone. Oh, and they couldn’t find keys to lock up so... you might want to look at that.” Karen leaves the ward.

    I sit by Rosa and hold her hand. After a few minutes she turns to look at me. Her face has softened slightly, her anger abated. “Banana,” she says softly.

    I smile at her.

    “Banana,” she repeats more insistently.

    “You want something to eat?” I ask.

    She sighed. “Banana,” she says again.

    “Water? I’m sorry I don’t know what you mean.”

    “Arrgh!”

    “I know, I know. It’ll get better. Just be patient. How about you write it?” I hand her my phone. Rosa stares at the keyboard for a few seconds and starts to cry. “Hey,” I say, trying as best I can to hug her in her awkward half-lying position.

    “Marble! All bloody marble!” she screams and throws the phone across the ward.

    + + + + + + + + + + + +

    When Rosa comes home from the hospital, I will make up a bed in the spare room. Her mobility still won’t be great and that room is closer to the bathroom. It will be strange, her being up there – always up there – the living room without her, the kitchen without her, her coat never moving from the hook in the hall, her shoes never missing from the shoe rack.

    I’ll bring Rosa breakfast first thing and head off to work. Karen will come by late morning, make them both lunch and stay with her till mid-afternoon. She’ll try to run through the verbal and physical exercises the doctors have set, but Rosa will always resist.

    The most difficult part of my day will be coming home. I’ll open the door and there’ll be no one there. I’ll shout “hello” up the stairs so she’ll know it’s me. I’ll be aware that she’s heard the door, and I’ll think how scary it must be to lie alone up there above the world, disconnected. I’ll think how it must frighten her that if it isn’t me at the door, it will take her minutes to cross the room, and how if she calls the police, all she’ll be able to do is shout incomprehensible panic at the operator.

    Every day will become the same: I’ll feed and water her, help her to the toilet, learn a little of her language – “paper” for “toast”, or “curtains”, depending on context – and fight about her exercises.

    “The language therapist is coming on Thursday,” I’ll say. “Do you want me to tell her you haven’t even tried any of it?”

    “Fucking rope shirt. I don’t have to be heaving the mango.”

    “No, you don’t but wouldn’t it be good if you did? Don’t you want to communicate ever again? Don’t you want me to know what you’re trying to say? Don’t you want to read? All you ever wanted to do was read! Do you want to be stuck in this room forever watching fucking daytime television?”

    “Rope shirt.”

    “I’m out at a work thing tonight, so your mum will be by around eight to make sure you’re okay,” I’ll say. “Do you need to use the loo before I go?”

    “Fuck you.”

    “Is that a ‘no’?”

    She’ll look at me like she wants me dead.

    “It’s a ‘no’?”

    There’ll be no response.

    “It’s a ‘no’.”

    When I get back, Karen will be there, in the living room, crying. “That’s not my daughter,” she’ll tell me.

    “She has bad days,” I’ll say.

    Karen will snort at that. “Does she have good ones?” She’ll stroke her hair and look at the floor like it knows the answers. She’ll dry her face. “Do you never look into her eyes and wonder if she’s even in there any more?”

    “Do you want a coffee?” I’ll ask.

    “You know what I mean.”

    “It’s going to be instant,” I’ll say. “It’s too late to put a pot of proper stuff on.”

    “It looks like her, it sounds like her, and sometimes – just once in a while – you see some combination of gesture, tone of voice… I don’t know, and it’s Rosa. But most of the time…”

    “You don’t want coffee?” I’ll look her very directly and confidently in the eye.

    “I’m going home.” Karen will pick up her bag. “You take care.”

    Rosa will only be able to keep up that initial level of fury for a while. As the months pass, the rage will subside and a profound melancholy will take hold. We won’t fight about the exercises anymore. We won’t fight about anything anymore. The closest we will get is when she soils the bed and, as I help her to clean up, she whimpers, “It’s rude! It’s rude!”

    “It’s me!” I’ll tell her.

    Karen will suggest a couple more times that the woman lying in my spare room isn’t our Rosa. I’ll understood what she means but I’ll always be given pause by those flashes of something familiar, and know that if there is any small chance my girl is still there I would not be able to forgive myself for not treating the stranger the way I would the woman I love. In the stranger’s most tender moments – her most ‘Rosa’ moments – she will often repeat the word “banana”, and I will decide I know what it means.

    “I love you too,” I’ll tell her: a response that will never result in me being called a rope shirt or having anything thrown at me. I’ll know I’m on to something.

    “Banana.”

    “I love you too.”

    One day, Rosa will grab my hand and, in the clearest phrase I’ve heard since the morning of the day that ended on ward 9, she’ll tell me, “I want to be dead.”

    I’ll go back to the zoo and wander along the enchanted pathways, past the cheerful painted characters, that share information that makes children shout, “Wow, Dad, have you read this?” and run ahead, even though the rules say they shouldn’t, to see the animals.

    Gorilla Rosa will be in her enclosure, and the keeper will point her out for me. “My girlfriend is called Rosa,” I’ll tell him. The ape will come over to take the banana from the string, and when she’s done eating, she’ll press her knuckles to the glass, and I’ll do the same.

    And when I get home, and open the door to the empty ground floor, I’ll shout “hello” and climb the stairs, sit by the bedside, take the stranger’s hand and tell her, “I love you, Rosa.”
     
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