Work and Income Gothic
Jack Remiel Cottrell
You approach the door. In place of a security guard there is a sphinx. She asks you a riddle. You answer it correctly but she pretends she cannot hear you.
The receptionist asks for your name. She asks for your client number. She asks for your most painful childhood memory. She asks for a sliver of your soul.
You wait. Your name will be called. Hours pass. Days. Years. When they call your name you no longer recognise it.
In the waiting area you see a man drinking a beer. You see a man drinking a can of Woodstock. You see a man drinking the blood of the damned. He has very clean fingernails.
A poster states ‘The only disability is a bad attitude’. A man using a wheelchair touches the poster. Immediately he levitates out of his chair, then begins to glow with a pulsing white light.
Your case worker asks if you are in a relationship. You start to say no. Before you can, you are suddenly in a relationship. You are the bride of an eldritch horror whose name cannot be uttered by the human mouth.
A bell rings. A column of flame erupts and engulfs the person next to you. The staff applaud in unison.
You sign a form stating you understand your rights. You sign a form stating you understand your responsibilities. You sign a form stating you understand how the universe will destroy itself. And then you do understand. You begin to scream.
You still need a suit if you want to go outside.
And most people don’t. Except those few extremists who choose to live that way; except hikers, geologists, miners.
Except today. Today, when you put on a suit, when you step out onto the red ground, when you look up at a muddy red sky and a soft blue sunset. On one horizon there’s a cityscape, full of lights and lifts and offices. On the other: rural, rustic, rust-stained, is the Mars of old, the true red planet, the dust and red rock, and emptiness.
It flashes in the sky. And this is one Hell of an achievement. Right now, there are third generation Martians living, breathing, and working. Looking back on that eye-ball Earth, knowing it only as a foreigner, belonging to the night sky, a piece of their past.
A Fourth was born last week. Mother, grandmother, great-grandmother all born amongst the red. A living great-great-grandma to tell tales about rivers, and green grass, flowers, seas, beaches; about running over sand with the wind in her hair, in bare feet, unsuited, bare-legged. A forgotten kind of free.
And now the lights go down.
“They use chemicals,” your best friend told you, before coming out here. “Belched out en-masse by the drones, just enough to make a patch of thicker upper atmosphere.”
Just enough, and it fades in minutes. But you stand there, flag-waving, awe-struck, while just for this short time the whole sky becomes bright blue.
Mistook the first one I saw for a real creature, but it was too silent, too smooth. Loping around this alleyway, feral under shadow, teeth all wrapped up with shredded plastic bags and beads of polystyrene. They’re bright orange when first manufactured, but this one looked brown, obscured by accumulated grime. All programmed to avoid people, to scatter, so I was excited to see one out like that.
A pack was released in New Delhi first, a few years after being unveiled at some robotics summit by their local inventor. “The logical continuation of our work on marine pollution,” she said, but everyone was more concerned about the Pariah-Dogs than the Algivores. The ocean is an uninhabitable chaos, whereas land is dominion of man.
However, New Delhi was cleaned in a matter of months and most governments got on board, ordering Pariah-Dogs by the hundred. No casualties whatsoever, across the whole eight years they’ve been roaming. With acidic saliva only capable of dissolving plastics and teeth too weak to pierce flesh, it’s much more dangerous to encounter a real stray animal nowadays.
Yet kids still go out of their way to catch and dismantle Pariah-Dogs, smashing their carbon fibre bodies and breaking their legs as they cry for help in apathetic beeps. I’ve only seen a couple which are still operational, bounding out of my eyeline fearful, but dozens of broken models litter the streets, some still writhing. We always find joy in killing our saviours though, don’t we?
The Cherry Tree
The frail man gripped the rough fountain ledge, his head drooping down into the dusty, cracked bowl. Each cough rattled and echoed, down desolate streets, through shattered windows and open doorways.
Thick blood trickled down through the cracks. He cleared his throat and spat, adding to the flow, and wiped the blood from his cracked lips.
Overgrown weeds and plastic filled the park. A sound like a clock echoed faintly.
Tap-tap… tap-tap… tap-tap…
The cherry tree lived alone among wooden skeletons. Green leaves had emerged beside its flowers. Vibrant petals littered the dirt.
White-eyes hopped between branches eating cherries, chirping.
He plucked a ripe branch. The birds flew away.
Cars lay dormant, covered by freshly fallen and decaying leaves. Preserved in time.
Outside the house he stood, cherry blossoms in hand. The door was wide open. Leaves like brown paper bags littered the entrance.
Inside, remnants of the past lay scattered.
He slid the ever-fading photo out from the shattered frame. A woman and two children sat on the edge of the fountain, their feet submerged in cherry blossoms.
Untidy beds. Drawers ripped out. Posters peeled.
He lay the picture and flowers on the mantelpiece, before closing the door behind him.
Tap-tap… tap-tap… tap-tap…
It drew nearer. He glanced up the street.
He spun around. Something lurked behind the car.
A deer emerged.
He crept towards it and reached out.
His lung erupted. The deer darted back down the road.
Tap-tap… tap-tap… tap-tap… tap-tap… tap-tap…
He trudged up the road, beyond the red zone sign.
When I turn away, you take the baton
“Are there real witches?”
“Mm,” I say. In space, it’s too late to talk about thumbscrews. Or a sweet house. Or a starving woman leading her children by the hand into the dark.
We are pioneers: The Chosen and The Children. Our slipstreams flow behind us like trunks stretching to the earth. I can’t look back at the fathers and that sharp, slicing curve.
Now Vera holds up her cracker, a pale moon in front of her eye.
“Broken or not?” she says, and snap.
She’s pushing it together but I can see the hairline crack. It’s one of her favourite games. Stretching to show me, she slips out of her harness, loses balance and floats through the air, a silver thing flying. Impossible.
“Grab the handle,” I say, but nose-first she bumps into the hatch. Her face puckers and she shrieks a curse and the world splits and my heart rends. Tears bubble in the corner of her eyes. I leap upwards and cradle my daughter close tight to my breast and spread cool fingers across her head.
“You’re alright. There’s nothing there.”
Locked together, we float across the West Chamber. And just like that, she’s healed.
We are not the women cleaning breweries with broomsticks. Those herbal healers and sacrificers. Yet we have their hearts.
“Am I good enough to go?”
Brokenbrokenbroken. It’s broken.
But I’m talking about my own tale of survival. Next time, I stay behind.
And hope the crumbs of stories lead our children home.
I look at my hand… as if it is alien, not me, yet another something not seen before. Stretched skin elasticity gone an old hand. I flex it this way and that, sensitive to the play of oblique light on tight skin, looking for the wrinkle that is the life line. So many wrinkles. maybe that one there or that one. Affection sweeps in, a warm flood, for the briefest of moments replacing accusations of age with compassion a rare event, it seems.
But then, the vision fragments, my hand is no longer clear but pixelated at first subtly, hardly noticeable like the onset of a migraine but rapidly a swirling mass of colour replaces meaning. Something is wrong. Compassion replaced with panic, horror! I feel I am falling.
Blackness. A voice I think it is a voice. Not much more than white noise but it is saying something.
Words emerge. “Be calm. You have done well. Test complete. Reboot.”
The air lock opened and the crew stepped out and saluted me. I watched First Officer Angelina drag out a duffle bag that bumped, leapt and rolled behind her.
“What have you got there?” I asked, relieved the crew had returned, seemingly safe.
“No Idea. It’s large, hairy, ape-like – and tries to bite.”
“Any casualties?” I ran my gaze over the small group. All limbs intact, all upright – but Jonesy was nodding more than usual. I pointed at him and raised my eyebrows.
“Jonesy now has a problem. When he talks it’s all nonsense,” Angelina said. “Not sure why, could be an allergic reaction to something.”
A suspicion crept into my mind. “Who caught the beast?” The bag thumped and skittered on the floor.
“Jonesy,” Angelina said.
“I beckoned him. “What’s the matter?”
“I habbywaller seemly diffi-diddy,” he said.
To test my theory I said, “Everyone – except Angelina, go to the hospital and wait there for an injection.” When the room emptied I asked her to open the bag.
“But sir, it’s wild.”
She undid the ropes and eased the top open. The creature sprang out, screaming abuse and pointed at Angelina. It was a jabberwocky, male, young – and very angry.
“Murky feetingham interholey Christmas,” she shouted.
My suspicion was confirmed.
“You can’t mess with me,” I said. “I’ve been inoculated against jabberwockies. It’s compulsory for all space travellers and writers of science fiction.”
“Fuggerly-buggerly-thumb-dumb-hiss,” it said.
“Quite,” I agreed. “You can go home tomorrow.”
Capture, Ad Infinitum
“Do you remember you gave me your sundae?” she asks.
As quick as Oscar on uppers but thinking you’re Dorian fading, you whisper, “I’d say you’ve given me every day there is.”
That pun is based on a guess. You’re accorded life each time arrayed in memory’s rags, sensing that you’re a control pair in experiments.
“They keep recycling us,” she murmurs.
“I reckon we’re patsies in filmmakers’ memes,” you laugh.
“Movie trailer trash?”
“I’d say auteurs’ catches.”
Tragedians’ quips are the segue to a romcom montage: flounces through simplicia; forward rolls across one another over manuka. The sequence is a virtual rerun. Tumbling against you, launching huffs that mesh into yours, the girl comprises an exclamation point.
Seconds left for reintroduction have lapsed. In feeding your cryptomnesia, it’s only the denouement that matters.
“Do you know how this finishes?” she tries gently, as though exhaling might immolate you.
You can’t recall the outcomes They’ve set for this imbroglio. Contingencies have vanished in a mind refreshed until it lost clarity. There isn’t any memory, just love. She kisses you again, trying to stay this instant like a forever of two hearts’ making.
Her lovely face has segmented. You dissolve into each other. An nth attempt at getting it right is nearly upon you. Coated under a lunar tan, your embrace makes jetsam of dreams. The cotton in which she has you enmeshed layers a trap to value.