Gone

In the early hours of a dreary Monday morning. I awoke with a dryness in my mouth and a pounding in my head. Rain crashed against my window and a flash of lightning briefly illuminated the room. I rolled over and grasped for the bottle of water I kept at my bedside for just this occurrence. Thunder boomed as I gulped down the stale water. How long had it been since I changed it? I rolled over again, back into the warmth of the bed and tried to fall asleep. Outside my door I heard the shuffling of a jacket being pulled on and the front door open and close. As the warm embrace of my own dreams began to pull me in again, I heard the familiar sound of my father’s ute coughing into life.  

I finally stumbled out of bed properly at around twelve o’clock. The headache had subsided a little, but I still felt the dryness in my mouth, as though I’d spent my dreams wandering a desert, trying to eat sand. I was alone in the house, as I knew I would be, so I made my way to the kitchen in just my shirt and briefs. I opened the fridge. There was a variety of condiments strewn about, three cartons of eggs, all half filled. I checked the date on them, one month out, close enough to take the risk. I passed them over in favour of something easier. The milk bottle in the door was on its last day and there was plenty of cereal in the cupboard, but I had a yearning for something hot. I closed the fridge, chucked on the same pair of jeans I’d worn the night before, straightened out my hair a little and headed for the shop.

An electronic chime heralded my entrance. The man behind the counter, the owner, didn’t even turn to look at the door. He stood engrossed in the TV above him. I paid him no heed and headed straight to the fridges. I grabbed a large can of energy drink, cracked the top and took a couple big gulps. The sound of the can opening caught the attention of the owner and he turned to berate the idiot helping himself to a drink in his shop. He stopped when he saw me, smiled and said, ‘Oh, I didn’t see you come in.’ I didn’t know his name and he didn’t know mine, but we knew each other all the same. He turned his attention back to the TV. Must be something important. I stocked up on snacks, a packet of chips, a couple chocolate bars and a big fizzy drink for later, sugar free. I placed everything on the counter, including the open energy drink, and grabbed a pie from the warmer. The wrapper crinkled as I tossed it on the counter. Without taking his eyes off the TV, the owner scanned the items one by one, placing everything but the pie and can into a plastic bag. I pulled out my card to pay. The owner motioned to the screen.

‘You seen that?’ he asked.

I looked up at the TV hanging from the wall. It was set to an all-day news network. The TV was muted but the subtitles told me what it was about. A spate of random disappearances had been happening all over the world. People leaving for work and never making it. They just vanish with no trace. It had been the hot news story for a week now.

‘People go missing all the time,’ I said.

‘But this often?’

‘Sure, it’s just that the media talk about it more. Anything to drum up a story, keep people watching.’

‘Nah, this feels different,’ the owner said. He looks around the store, as though he’s afraid he’s being watched. ‘I think it’s aliens.’

I laughed. ‘Sure thing, man.’ The Eftpos machine beeped its acceptance. I gathered up my things and began the walk home. I unwrapped the pie, a mince and cheese, as I walked. A hot meat pie was one of the best things for a hangover, nothing like a bit of fake cheese and dubious meat to satisfy a nauseous stomach. I scoffed it down and followed it with a deep chug of the rest of the energy drink. At home, I flopped down onto the beanbag in my room and started up my PS4. I checked the time, twelve-thirty. I had a good five hours before my dad came home from work, I planned to get a good gaming session in beforehand. We’re gonna discuss some things tomorrow. He probably thought I hadn’t remembered our conversation. I was slurring my words, barely able to keep my head up; it had been a good night. He’d lectured me about responsibility and jobs before he’d hauled me into bed. But the drink had never once taken my memory from me.

I didn’t notice anything was different until night began to fall and I still hadn’t been interrupted by the croaky engine of my dads ute pulling into the driveway. I peered out the window. I checked my phone, thinking something must’ve come up at work. He hadn’t called or texted, but that wasn’t totally out of the ordinary. I shrugged it off. My stomach rumbled and I hoped he’d get home soon, I needed his ute. With nothing else to do besides wait, I flopped back down on my beanbag and resumed my gaming session. It was around seven-thirty that I started to worry. Not a lot. Once or twice before he’d stayed out really late. He’d met up with an old friend and lost track of time, or something really serious had happened at work and he’d had to stay. But he’d always called to tell me before. I pulled out my phone and sent him a text. Just a simple, ‘where you at?’ to hopefully get some response from him. After an hour passed and I hadn’t heard anything, I sent another. My thoughts wandered back to the news report the shop owner had been watching. I shook them from my mind. Dad’s an adult, he can take care of himself. Then I thought, he’s teaching me a lesson about responsibility. Of course, it was the sort of thing he would do too, the bastard. He had plenty of friends he could stay the night with and leave me alone to fend for myself. He’d be back in the morning, he’d have to, he had work after all. I shook my head and laughed at the realisation. I’d just order pizza or something, I didn’t need to drive anywhere. I knew just the place I wanted to order from. A local shop, no internet ordering. Usually it’s better to pick up. They had just a single delivery driver who got to you when he could. Sometimes the stuff would get to you colder than you’d like, but it was still the best place in town. I searched for the phone. I don’t usually use the landline, we only kept it around because my dad was a stickler for old tech. But I found it tucked away in the cushions of the couch. The light on top flashed red and the LCD screen indicated it had three missed calls. I hadn’t even heard it ring. I played the messages and held the phone to my ear. The robotic voice told me that the first message was left at eight in the morning.

‘Hey, Joe.’ I recognised the voice. My dad’s boss, Larry, he’d been over a few times before for parties, he’d even been at my sister’s wedding. ‘Just calling to see where you’ve got to. I tried your cell, but you ain’t answering that either. Call me back.’

Odd. I could’ve swore dad left super early in the morning. What time was it? I never checked. Did he seem like he was in a rush? I couldn’t remember. The next message was left at ten. Dad’s boss again.

‘Come on, man. Look if you need some time just say. Your daughter isn’t answering her phone either. Get back to me.’ His voice sounded irritated. I felt my mouth begin to dry up again. As far as I knew, Larry didn’t have my number, had never needed it. I knew my sister was his emergency contact, she was his eldest child, and with Mum gone… But why wasn’t she answering her phone. I flicked her a text too, asking if she’d seen dad. If this was some plot to make me take more responsibility it was an elaborate one.

The third message had only just come through, about seven o’clock. ‘Hey ah, Markus? I think that’s your name. Joe’s boy. If you get this, maybe you’ve seen the news already, maybe not. I hope your dads just off somewhere, drowning his sorrows or whatever. But if he’s one of them, those who, ah, you know, went, I’m sorry.’ The beep that indicated the end of the messages blasted my eardrums. I stood for a moment, frozen. What the hell was he talking about?

I flicked the TV on and changed to one of those 24 hour news channels. The top story, the only story, was the disappearances. They’d ramped up all over the world in the last day or so. People had been disappearing en masse, sometimes leaving behind young children and pets. In places, entire neighbourhoods were suddenly abandoned. Power was out in many countries as workers simply left their jobs, saying nothing to anyone before they left. And then, mid sentence, the anchor stopped, and her eyes glazed over. There was a sullen silence for a moment before she suddenly stood, turned and walked out of shot. The broadcast ended shortly after.

I stood there stunned. I called dad’s number, straight to voicemail. I called again, straight to voicemail again. I didn’t know what to do. I called my sister. One ring, two rings, three rings and an answer.

‘Hello?’ a panicked voice, not my sister, a man.

‘Cam,’ I said. ‘Have you seen Sarah? Or Dad?’

‘I was about to ask you the same thing,’ Cam replied. ‘I just got home from work, we had a bunch of no shows, and she’s not here. She left Andrea alone.’  

My heart sunk in my chest. What the hell was happening? I sat down on the couch, the phone still to my ear.

‘Have you seen the news?’ I asked.

‘Yeah.’

‘I need you to come pick me up, something’s wrong.’ I never heard an answer from him; just as I finished the sentence, the power shut off and I was left alone in darkness.

Overclock

A dozen limp robots were propped up against the walls of the dilapidated hall. Ricky stepped between the legs of one, being careful not to trip. Their design wasn’t uniform, it had been a long time since that was the case. Bodies of mismatched arms and legs and heads. Copper and steel painted in a flurry of colours. Ricky would’ve thought they were powered down if it weren’t for the symphony of air from overworked cooling fans erupting from their heads. Junkies, Ricky thought. What did he expect? He was walking into the den of a known drug lord, but somehow still his hairs stood on end. He tiptoed through metal legs to the end of the hall. A solid steel door barred his path. A keypad to the right flashed red and waited for input: 6578. With a flash of green the door hissed open. Ricky glanced back down the hall. None of the robots moved, their fans still spinning in the dark.

The apartment spanned half a floor and was broken up only by two pillars. The room didn’t have much. At one end a lounge suite and entertainment center. At the other a kitchen. A robot in a chef’s hat chopped onions on the bench. Two seven foot tall robots met Ricky as he walked in. Their sleek chrome bodies shimmered in the light of the apartment. They looked him up and down and let him go. Sitting at a desk underneath a massive window was a man in a blue suit. His black hair parted down the middle. Nick Price was a man who dressed as if he was always in a business meeting. Ricky had never seen him in anything else. He studied something on his desk as Ricky approached.

‘Not a welcoming sight out there,’ Ricky said, half joking.

Price looked up at Ricky without moving his head and resumed his intense study. A circuit board; Price gripped a soldering iron in one hand and a length of solder in the other. ‘They get so eager to take the Overclock they wait only until they get outside my door,’ he said. ‘Caesar, Brutus clear the junkies.’

The two security bots left the room, the door hissing behind them. Even through the thick steel door Ricky heard metal on metal as the two behemoths wrangled the junkies.

‘I hope, Ricky,’ Price said, ‘that you’re here to take up my offer?’

‘Afraid not,’ Ricky said. ‘Haven’t lost my dignity yet.’

Without looking up Price said, ‘That’s a shame. What can I do for you Detective?’

‘Two days ago a group of robots attacked a downtown apartment building. Revolutionaries, claimed to be working for Alpha Omega.’

Price placed the soldering iron back in its holder and gave Ricky his full attention. ‘I read about that. That was Alpha Omega? The media is suspiciously devoid of that detail.’

It was true. The last thing the department wanted to do was incite a panic. Alpha Omega had done enough in his revolutionary war to strike fear into humans everywhere. That dead robot revolutionary needed to stay dead, even in name. Ricky glanced at the chef robot. ‘Have you seen anything suspicious?’

‘Does the robot make you uncomfortable?’ Price asked. ‘If it makes you feel better you’ll be able to pull that zapper from your boot faster than he could get to you.’

Ricky shot a look down at his book to check the gun wasn’t hanging out. Designed to take down robots in one shot, he rarely had it on him. Due to the nature of his current assignment he felt it necessary. Price laughed. ‘Not much gets past me.’

‘Is it sentient?’ Ricky asked.

‘Hard to find one that isn’t these days,’ Price replied. ‘Say what you will about Alpha Omega and his methods. He didn’t leave many stones unturned.’

‘Any of them harbour a grudge against humans?’ Ricky asked.

‘Plenty.’

Ricky pulled a notebook and pen from his pocket. Old school was the only way to go here. Price had proven multiple times his ability to wipe data from electronic devices. ‘Can you give me a list of names?’

Price chuckled. ‘I don’t ask for names.’

‘You don’t know the names of your robots?’

‘They’re not my robots. They’re free, and they’re junkies. They come in begging me for Overclock. If they do a job, they get some. No names. I don’t ask, they don’t tell.’

‘Why so defensive? Got something to hide?’

‘Do you? What was really in that apartment building?’

‘Do you have anything or should I just leave?’ Ricky said.

Price sighed and shook his head. ‘I’ve heard rumors.’

‘What kind?’

‘Sometimes the junkies that come in, they try things on. Say things they think might scare me. A couple of junkies a while back were talking. One of them mentioned Alpha. It was hushed, but loud enough so I could hear. Deliberate no doubt.’

‘And you didn’t get their names?’

Price paused. ‘No, but this one was a new release. Still had his tag sprayed on him, IS443.’

Ricky scribbled the number unto his pad. ‘This could be helpful.’ He almost turned to leave but something caught his attention. A smoke trail sauntered up from Price’s left hand. The soldering iron was burning a hole in his skin. Price followed his eyes and jerked his hand away when he saw it. ‘Accident a while ago, nerve endings are shot.’

‘I can take you to a hospital?’

‘No no, it’ll be fine.’ Price’s voice shuddered.

A sudden hissing sound caught Ricky’s attention. The chef bot was staring at him, it’s hands clasped into fists. The pot on the stove boiled over, its lid chattering.

‘Your chef seems tense,’ Ricky said.

Price covered the hole that had burned in his hand and stood. He looked over to the chef and nodded. The chef resumed its cooking.

‘Don’t mind him, he worries.’

A crash at the door shifted his attention again. Caesar and Brutus burst through, almost stumbling over each other. They had guns raised like they were running into a firefight.

‘What’s going on?’ Ricky asked.

Price sighed and looked across Ricky’s shoulder to the security bots. They sprinted at him, their metal legs crashing against the floor, gouging out chunks of concrete. Ricky dived out of the way and in one motion pulled the zapper from his boot. He fired a shot off and the barb nailed Brutus in the head. The robot sputtered and jerked and crashed into Price’s desk as it fell. Ricky scampered back and managed to gain his footing, jumping over a couch. Caesar followed but Ricky managed to fire another shot. With a clunk the barb dug into Caesar’s arm its whole body suddenly became a wrecking ball, smashing into the couch that Ricky had found refuge behind and nearly taking Ricky with him. When he regained his balance he caught the chef bot sprinting across the room at him. As it dived over Caesar’s limp body Ricky fired off another zapper shot. The barb dug into the robot’s neck and momentum threw it into the wall behind Ricky. With the robots taken care of Ricky turned his attention to Price, who no longer held his hand. Burnt wires jutted out of a small hole in his palm.

Ricky raised the zapper. ‘Talk or I’ll take you down like the rest of them.’ Price stepped forward not seeming to care about the zapper at all.

‘I mean it! Who are you?’

‘I am the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’

Ricky fired the zapper, the barb lodged into Price’s chest.

He kept walking.

Ricky fired another, this one hit Price’s shoulder.

Nothing.

‘How?’ Ricky asked.

Price grabbed Ricky’s neck and pushed him against the wall. Ricky grabbed at Price’s arm, trying to pull himself free, but he wouldn’t budge. Price was cutting off his airways. Ricky could feel himself fading.

‘I’m more like you than you know,’ Price said.

And Ricky’s world went dark.

Drawings

Every night a man sits alone in the Orion corner bar. Navy blue suit, tie undone, just a hint of evening shadow on his chin. I know this because I’ve drawn him 355 times. I’ve taken an interest in him over any of the other regulars because only I remember him. If I were an ordinary guy this wouldn’t mean anything, but I don’t remember in the traditional way. My brain’s broken, doesn’t make new memories like it should. So I draw.

This one man. He shows up in my sketchbook more than anyone else. I once asked Tracey, who I’ve drawn 275 times, who he was. I figured the bartender might keep an eye on things. She said she didn’t know, had never seen him before that day. My drawings say otherwise. In fact on the first day I drew her they were talking. I can see it in the book. I showed her but she just laughed and looked at me funny. ‘Maybe that was someone else?’ she said. Maybe.

I don’t know what made me draw him the first time. I figure there must be a reason. I don’t draw everyone I see. Just the ones I’ve drawn before, and the important ones. Like Tracy and the other bartenders. Those that seem out of place here. The ones I need to remember. I never wrote down why I started, I just did.

He’s not here today, but I still drew him. He’s too important to forget. The man in the navy blue suit, tie undone, just a hint of evening shadow on his chin. There’s something special about him. I have to keep drawing him. Even when he’s not here.

***

Every night a man sits alone in the Orion corner bar. Navy blue suit, tie undone, just a hint of evening shadow on his chin. I know this because I’ve drawn him 356 times.

First

In front of him, John Fitzgerald could see all the stars of the milky way, spread out over the void, mocking him. An alarm droned over and over from the speaker in his helmet. There was no way to turn it off, his suit had long run its main power supply dry. Auxiliary power kept him warm, and alive for now, but it couldn’t run the motors required to use his limbs. He was useless. A flaw in the design he thought, though he never considered this situation. Drifting through space as an alarm pecked at his skull like a woodpecker. He wondered what would happen first. Would he run out of oxygen or…

He wanted to be the first to reach another star. To be among the great names that adorned the history of spaceflight. Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, names that lived on in history. He had worked his whole life for the chance, established a fortune, started his own company. Everything he did was so he could be the first to reach another star, and he was so close.

The stars in front of him began to move, slowly at first. The alarming moment passed when he realised he was the one that was moving. Somehow he began to turn, toward his fate. Slowly the stars were replaced by nothing but a pure black void. John chuckled, his name wouldn’t be among the greats, but he was the first to make it to another star.

It’s just that this one was dead.

Feasting With Wolves

Inspired by Crusader Kings II.

The table was fat with pig and deer, hunted especially for this occasion. The fruits and wine sat between platters of thick, crusty bread. Some of the bottles had already been emptied. The fire in the wall sconces shifted and danced, casting shadows over the bright eyed councilmen who had joined for the feast. Countess Arianhod had been invited, only a week after the death of her brother, so that the king could offer his condolences in person. Or so that’s what he said.

Arianhod ate only the food the others had already eaten, drank only the wine they had already opened and never let any servant near her cups. She watched the king as he sat, laughing, at the head of the table. He tore into the meat in front of him between laughing fits. Food fell from his mouth, half chewed and wet, whenever someone made him laugh. Arianhod smiled when he looked over, and laughed when he directed a joke at her, but the mask she wore was one of survival, and it was cracking. It wasn’t long before Dwyfan noticed her apprehension, and he called for the table to silence. He raised his cup.

‘To Countess Arianhod of Gwent, shall her life be long and our relationship be strong!’

The councilmen raised their cups in unison and mimicked the blessing. Arianhod nodded in false appreciation.

‘I wish to offer my condolences,’ Dwyfan said. ‘It is a shame about your brothers, gone so young, and so close together too. Sickness…’ He paused and let the air hang. ‘…really is a terrible thing.’

‘Thank you, your majesty,’ Arianhod replied. She raised her cup and nodded.

‘You seem tense,’ The king said. ‘Weary from your travels?’

Arianhod saw her way out there in that statement.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘And I don’t like to be rude, but perhaps I need to lie down for the night.’

‘Ah of course,’ the king replied. ‘A lovely lady like yourself can’t be up all night carousing. Get your rest, we will talk business tomorrow.’

Arianhod stood and curtsied. Her footsteps echoed throughout the room as she walked away from the table full of food and wine, and she felt dark eyes watching her as she left.

The hall outside was dark. Arianhod’s heart smashed against her ribcage, perhaps she had made a mistake in leaving early. Suddenly, like a ghost, a shadow in a cloak darted around the corner and Arianhod stopped in her tracks. She watched it, the cloak swaying in the night breeze. Every sound seemed to be louder now, the wind whistling through the trees, the distant sound of wolves howling. The shadow looked to the left, then the right and pulled back its hood. A young woman, not an assassin, not death himself, but a young woman. And when she came closer to Arianhod she recognised her. King Dwyfan’s, very young, third wife.

‘Martha.’ The name sounded more like a breath of relief.

‘He’s testing you,’ Martha said, without introduction. ‘He wants to see whether you’re loyal.’

‘I don’t see that I have much choice in the matter,’ Arianhod said.

‘You need to prove it to him, show him you are trustworthy.’

‘Why are you telling me this?’

‘All we have in this world are each other,’ Martha said.

Before Arianhod could ask what she meant by that, the sound of footsteps echoed behind them.

‘Martha, I did not know you were still up.’ The distinctive voice of King Dwyfan felt like it speared Arianhod in the back. ‘What are you up to? Sharing womanly gossip? Everything she tells you is a lie.’ His words were jovial, almost playful, like he revelled in the hunt.

‘I was just telling the Countess here about that exotic eastern wine you just acquired.’ Martha’s eyes, fixed on Arianhod’s, were trying to tell her something. Arianhod thought she knew, but she wasn’t sure she could pull it off. Everything went quiet again, and another wolf howled in the distance. When the howl had trailed off into silence again, Arianhod took a deep breath and spun around to face the King.

‘Did your mother not tell you it’s wrong to keep exotic things away from a lady? You break that out and maybe we’ll have a party after all.’

The King smiled his toothy smile, but his eyes burned through Arianhod. She held her ground.

‘A party it shall be,’ The King said.

And Arianhod followed the King back, wearing her mask for protection, stitched up and stronger, into the den of the wolves.

T.R.I

After all these times, it’s the scream that’s the hardest to block out. You can look away from the dread on their faces, you get used to the sight of blood, but no matter how many times you watch the event unfold, the scream breaks through every barrier you have.

The woman, victim, crashes into a cabinet, shattering the glass doors. The assailant is on her in a second, knife in hand, ready to cut her up how he sees fit. He grabs her by the hair and lifts. He drags her down the hall toward me, kicking and flailing. He doesn’t see me as he comes closer. He phases through me and I feel nothing. The image seems as real as life, but it’s not. I’m watching a torture and murder as it unfolds, as it did twenty years ago.

They called it revolutionary. A new age in crime solving. T.R.I, Trace Remnant Imaging, the technology of the future. I was told how it worked once, but I couldn’t tell you now. I just use it.

The assailant takes the victim into her own room and tosses her on the bed. I’ve seen this all before, hundreds of times. The assault lasts two hours and forty-five minutes, down to the second. By the end, the victim has gouges and cuts all over her body, and carved into her chest are the words: ‘Thanks for watching!’. The assailant leaves out the front door with the victim’s phone to his ear, a call to us. I watch him go. Just before he turns left at the end of her driveway he tosses her phone to the curb. Fifteen minutes later my team arrives. I watch myself stride up the driveway, with every bit of confidence in the T.R.I.

The simulation stops and I’m standing in an empty white room large enough to encompass a house, large enough to encompass a crime scene.

I still haven’t solved that case.

The door opens and standing on the other side is my partner. He’s young, new to the job, and to the world. He’s a bright spark and I’m not sure how long he’ll last.

‘We got another call,’ he says. ‘Mike’s already making his way there.’

My techie’s always quick off the mark, it’s the reason he’s still with me.

‘Let’s hope he slips up this time,’ my partner says.

He won’t, but letting my cynicism show gets me nowhere and I swallow it. Just like my pride when I sit in a briefing with yet another unsolved murder in my files.

So I make my way to another scene. I already know what I’ll find. A random victim, mutilated beyond recognition, played up for the T.R.I. He will have written on the walls, and I will watch as he does. He changes up the way he does things. Sometimes he’ll use a knife. Sometimes he’ll use a saw or a bat. Only two things stay the same: ‘Thanks for watching!’ and his call to the police, so the T.R.I can capture the whole grisly thing. Like morbid clockwork.

When I get there I’ll do a quick scan of the aftermath, but it’s the T.R.I footage I want to see the most. If he does slip up, it’s the T.R.I that will find it.

***

The victim crashes into a cabinet, shattering the glass doors. The assailant is on her in a second, knife in hand, ready to cut her up how he sees fit. He grabs her by the hair and lifts. She kicks and flails. He doesn’t see me as he comes closer. He phases through me and I feel nothing.

He takes her to her own room, but I’m in a different place now, standing in the corner. I can see him making the cuts. I can see the blood pooling. I don’t usually watch this closely, I can’t.

He stops and looks directly at me, the mask he wears warps and twists. He laughs.

I tear myself from the dream. The sheets have twisted around my legs and my duvet is on the other side of the room. My pillow is wet with blood and my head is pounding. They tell me excessive use of the T.R.I can have side effects. I clean myself up, pop a couple painkillers, and stay awake watching crap on the internet, trying to free my mind from the nightmare.

But I still haven’t solved that case and the nightmare lives on.