Thursday, 27 August 2009


The sun bore down on the sandy concrete, dust blowing up from the wind that casually swept through the narrow buildings bringing a respite to the midsummer heat. A young girl, no older than maybe seven or eight, ran along the strip of shade cast down from the houses, smiling brightly to herself. Her feet skittered lightly, the patter of her sandles echoing on the bare walls, one hand trailing across the cool brick to keep her balance.

Her face shone, her happy eyes wandering around the road looking for a new toy for her imagination to bring to life. Boredom had given away to exploration that afternoon and she was determined to eke some fun whilst her mother did the chores.

She came to a junction where the alleys flowed into eachother, and stopped to reach into a bag she was carrying for an old plastic bottle full of water. She unscrewed the cap and gulped some down, scowling briefly at the sun for being so hot and pulled her headscarf further over her forehead.

Then something finally caught her eye. Up ahead in the distance, she saw a glimmering reflection on the ground. She popped the cap back on the water, slung it back into the bag and ran up to it.

The girl bent down and screwed her eyes up against the glare of the object that lay in the grit. A cylinder of golden metal reflected the sun back up at her. Slowly she bent down to pick it up, her hands curling around it before suddenly retracting as she realised how hot it was.

She stood up and kicked it back into the shade, where again she took out her bottle and poured the (slightly warm) water over it to cool it off. The cylinder was even brighter without the layer of dirt it had gathered. It was about the size of one of her fingers and bent in at the top where the hole was. She prodded it then gingerly picked it up lengthways between her thumb and forefinger. The bottom of the metal was blackened and when she held it to her nose and gave it an inquisitive sniff, it smelt strange.

The girl considered it for a second, then pocketed it in her bag before taking another sip of water. The afternoon was still young, as was she, and she had every intent of making use of her free time to explore the backalleys further.

She hoiked the bag back up, slinging it around one shoulder and over the opposite hip (having it on the same side was proving problematic) and took off again. The sun was pretty much overhead now and the shadow was starting to recede to a fine line. There was barely any escape aside from making sure that her scarf was peaked over her face.

The girl was suprised she hadn't bumped into any of her friends yet. It had gone quiet in the hour or so she'd left home. Her mother wouldn't be worried though... it wasn't the first time she'd gone out on her own, and she knew pretty much everyone in the community so it wasn't as if she was going to get lost, or worse in trouble, without being able to knock on the nearest door.

The next alley was pretty much a dead end, aside from some bins and a short fence. Being seven, she could barely see over it, but knew just over it the countryside would sprawl into the distance where tree's and rooftops were clumped on faraway hilltops, places she would often dream of seeing when she was old enough to go and explore beyond her small town.

She pulled herself up onto one of the bins, being sure not to spill the top, and lifted herself up so she could see over.

The golden landscape spilled out away from the village in front of her. Other villages and houses were speckled across into the haze beyond. The road which led in ribboned out into a valley, where far away a column of dust rose into the sky, drifting at an angle in the light wind.

The girl squinted. Something was coming.

She turned her head to the left to look at the village entrance which in easy peeking distance from where she leant. A group of men, some of whom she recognised being her mothers friends, were looking down to the approaching objects. One of them, instantly recognisable as her uncle with his shaved head and untucked white shirt, had his hands raised up over his eyes and was talking inaudibly to the others. Another older man nodded and raised some binoculars up.

All of them were frowning. One was sat down with his head in his hands.

The girl felt a sudden pang in her chest. It wasn't excitement like before, when she was running the streets with the sense of adventure filling her heart with adrenaline. No, this was something she'd felt before when she was younger. When the sky was dark and full of lights. When her father had gone into the night.

She suddenly realised she was gripping her hands so tightly onto the fence it was beginning to hurt. A large splinter had entered the center of her left middle finger and a trickle of blood had started to flow slowly into the webbing between her digits. For a moment, distracted, the feeling in her chest went away as she turned to the shard of wood that dug in underneath the surface of her skin. Her forehead creased with the pain as she reached a fingernail underneath and extracted it with a sharp intake of breath.

Even with the splinter gone, it still bled and the wound continued to hurt.

The girl looked briefly back up at the distant yellow cloud, then jumped down off the bin and ran back to her mother.

If anyone could make her better, make her feel safer, it was her.

Thursday, 2 April 2009


It was late - and getting later.

A man in his mid thirties sat in a blank office somewhere in a nondescript town at the edge of nowhere. The walls were white and the large sheet glass windows looked out onto a dull, grey industrial estate, the sky as blank and as featureless as the room he sat in. The only exit was a plain wooden door in the wall behind him.

He was typing, transfixed to the single monitor on his otherwise bare desk. The mans fingers rapidly moved across the keyboard with almost supernatural speed, his eyes darting up to look at the clock. To him, its hands seemed to be getting quicker, as if the faster he typed time sped up... and so the closer the deadline drew.

To the casual observer, the reams of apparently random numbers and letters he laid out on the screen would've made little sense. Occasionally you could make out a word within the text and code, but it would be quickly swallowed up and swamped in the crazed reverse Tetris of characters. The matter of fact was that even to the man, what he was writing made little sense. It was stream-of-conciousness babble. But that's what he was there to create. That was his job.

The hand ticked closer and closer to three o'clock in the morning.

Sweat had appeared on the mans brow. The speed of his typing had got a point where it had become a physical exhertion, his fingers screaming at him to stop, the ache of carpal tunnel beginning to enter his wrists. Damp patches had appeared on his grey shirt and a trace of condensation had begun to creep up from the bottom of his glasses.

Numbers followed numbers that followed letters. The scrolling had become almost rythmic. The blank system font rolled ever upwards, the occasional break in the unintelligible sentencing giving it the appearence of an ancient scroll.

Thirty seconds.

He gritted his teeth. The pain had really start to hit him now. His fingers were almost raw at the tip, blisters had begun to form. The keyboard itself seemed hot to touch. But he had to keep going.

Fifteen seconds.

Nearly there... nearly there...


His eyes nagged at him to look at the clock, but there was no time... no time...





The man gritted his teeth.


At that precise moment, the screen locked. His hands hovered over the keys and he allowed himself a glance up at the clock, before looking down again at the final sentence of characters.


He lowered his head, took his glasses off and wiped them dry on his shirt. Then, letting out a sharp breath, he turned to the simple white phone on his desk, picked it up and pressed the hash key twice.

There was a click on the line. The man cleared his throat.

"We have a new deadline."

Then, slowly, he put the phone down, stood, took his suit jacket that was draped over the back of his chair, walked over to the plain wooden door, opened it and walked out.

The room lay quiet and still - until the next day, when it would all begin again...

Thursday, 22 January 2009

A Visitor

Jenny liked to lie on her bed when the lights were put out and stare at the shadows dancing on the ceiling, cast by the trees outside.

In that respect, she'd later note as an adult, she was unusual for a little girl her age. Most kids wanted the door slightly ajar, knowing that their parents were a quick bolt away should anything appear under the bed or from behind the closet door. But not Jenny. She loved the dark, it was mysterious and romantic, not frightening and strange. Some nights if she couldn't sleep she'd throw back the covers, tip-toe into her dressing gown and slippers and go downstairs to the conservatory to sit. If it was a clear night, with a moon casting its silver light over the garden beyond, she'd look up at the stars (for there were many where she lived in the country, away from the orange glow of city streetlights) and speculated as to what would happen if she were to shoot off in one direction at the super speed, what she would see.

Her gaze would turn to the garden, bordered at the end by a forest, and wonder what strange animals were staring at her from the safety of the thicket. Maybe there were faeries there, or other supernatural forces. But these thoughts didn't scare her like they did other children – instead, they fascinated her.

When it began her mum or dad would come down to find her there, scold her and take her back to bed. Behind her back they would discuss their daughters odd night-time habits and wonder if it was worth doing something about, but aside from that she led a pretty normal life, did well in school, got on well with her friends and had a keen interest in playing the violin. So eventually they decided to give up and let her get on with it, keeping a blanket to hand to cover her if it was cold and sometimes finding her asleep in her chair in the conservatory the following morning.

But Jenny was to discover something one day the week before Christmas. That if you spend enough time watching, eventually you'll see something, or find out that something was probably staring back all along....

It had been a pretty normal day in school. Jenny had rushed home as ever, had her dinner, polished off some homework and spent some time practising her violin. Later she watched a film and, come ten o'clock, shipped herself off to bed (her parents rarely had to nag) to spend a while reading with a glass of water before switching off the light.

As usual, four hours later, she woke up. As her eyes opened, the jagged shapes of tree shadows swaying on the white paint of the ceiling swam into view.

Jenny yawned and lay there, still, her eyes half closed. She needed the toilet. So she stirred, checked the time (02.18) and rolled out of bed. Her toes dipped down into her slippers as she slid off and after walking crookedly to her door, she grabbed her dressing gown off the hook and disappeared to the bathroom.

A few minutes later, she shuffled back in, a little more alert than before. It was a bit cold and she shivered slightly, keeping the gown on as she moved towards the bed. The moon appeared to be full outside, and the room was cast in a white glow, sharp shadows scattered everywhere through the treetops outside. Jenny reached the edge of her bed and looked up. The wood swayed in a breeze and above it the sky was free of cloud and swathed in blankets of stars. She blinked, slightly stunned. Somehow it looked so much clearer tonight, as if she could see billions and billions of miles out to galaxies that even the largest telescope couldn't reach. Then she realised that it wasn't the moon illuminating her room, as it was absent that night, but the stars alone.

Countless tiny points of light clustered around each other here and there amongst the ocean of blue blackness, punctuated by larger, brighter distant suns... and giant nebulae, deep purple, pink and red, formed massive, cloud-like waves as if they were threatening to crash towards Earth. The sky was alive with detail, stars weaving together and sweeping through the air like silk trailed by a dancer. Venus and Mars hung bright and fierce in the sky and when she squinted Jenny swore she could nearly make out each one as a crescent in the night.

Excited, Jenny banished all thoughts of sleep, grabbed a blanket and made her way downstairs. Her feet navigated about the creaky floorboards so as not to wake her parents as she crept downstairs through the darkness to her favourite red wooden chair in the conservatory. She passed through the lounge which was aglow with the warm lights of the Christmas tree, and when she reached her destination noted that the plants almost seemed reverent, the leaves wilting slightly as if bowing to the breathtaking sky above. As she sat, she looked up into the garden. The light from the sky above had taken away the colour of the world and left it almost monochromatic and when she looked up at the majestic scene spread out before her she felt almost dizzy with vertigo, as if her dream of shooting off into the galaxy was about to come true.

She sighed and huddled up to her blanket, pulling it over her mouth so the soft wool warmed under her breath. The garden sat silent. No animals scurried and the plants themselves seemed frozen, bewitched by the magnificent sky. Sparkling frost covered the grass, competing with the stars for her attention. The forest frame the scene as if a theatre backdrop, black branches curling up into the night, the twigs giving the illusion of millions of hands reaching up to pluck the tiny lights like diamonds in a pitch black mine.

It was then she noticed the shape.

There, right in the middle of the garden, something was hovering.

She leant forwards and blinked. Whatever it was, it was floating above the centre of the lawn, a few meters high into the air. A faint shadow lay underneath as confirmation of its existence.

Jenny got up and swept the blanket around her like a cloak, all the while watching the shape, which appeared to be spinning quite slowly in place. She tiptoed up to the window, narrowly missing knocking over a pot plant, put her hands up to the cold glass and stared. Occasionally it would glint a reflection of light which came from the house, probably from something in the kitchen window, and after a few moments staring, she decided that it was... a triangle. No... a pyramid.

Jenny didn't feel scared or frightened by the presence in the garden. It seemed benign to her. Non-threatening... and she got the feeling that it was waiting for her.

She gave it a thought for a moment about what to do. Her parents would want to stay inside. Talking to strangers was one thing, but approaching strange objects? Where did it come from? What did it contain? Was it an alien from another planet, like in the films she saw on TV? She recalled the few she'd seen... one with a creature with a glowing chest, another about a boy who befriends a spaceship and yet another about little robots that could have babies. She pressed her nose against the glass and let out breath, frosting it before leaning back. Through the dot her nose left, surrounded by the decreasing haze, the object floated. She was certain it knew she was there. If it was going to do anything bad, it probably would've done it by now.

It was then she decided that at least going out to see what it wanted was the right thing to do.

Jenny crept back into the lounge and walked up to the tree, before carefully removing a single silver bauble, thinking that a gift would be appropriate when welcoming a visitor. It was a pretty silver one that reflected the colours of the tree lights in thousands of tiny triangles of glitter. She smiled, popped it into the pocket of her dressing gown, huddled the blanket closer and set off for the conservatory door.

The pyramid still hovered in place in the garden, she noted as she passed back through the conservatory glass. She picked up the key hidden under a pot away from the door, then, holding the cold metal door handle, put it in the lock and turned it. As she pulled the door open, she let out a little gasp as the cold air rushed in over her feet, then stepped out into the frozen night.

The blanket kept her warm, but each breath caught in the back of her throat and her face felt numb in the chill of the night. Her slippers crunched the frozen, well trimmed grass as she stepped off of the path that led from the conservatory and out into the forest beyond (or at least that part which belonged to her family), and carefully she walked out towards the obsidian shape. Jenny briefly looked up at the sky, her head swimming at the sight of the cavernous universe above, the scale reminding her of the cathedral she'd visited in school the previous term. She recalled how far away the ornately decorated ceiling seemed, giant stone arches streaking off into its darkest corners, the distant faces of gargoyles and angels staring down as if looking through a portal from some unknown, darker part of heaven.

Her eyes tracked back down to the pyramid as she continued her approach. Now she was closer, she could tell that it definitely wasn't a figment of her imagination. It looked like it was carved out of a solid piece of stone, smoothed to a shine. No light came from it, but it reflected everything about it – each surface facing up to the sky trapping the stars in their black mirrors. Jenny halted a meter away. Now she was closer, she could feel warmth coming from it. The air seemed to vibrate and an electric smell, reminding her of her parents kettle the month before, permeated the air. Yet despite both she couldn't hear a motor, her ears only settling on the occasional creak from the tree's and the distant sound of a branch dropping in the silence of the wood.

She reached into her pocket, felt for the cool orb of the decoration and pulled it out. With a shiver she cradled it in both hands for a moment before hesitantly holding it out up to the little pyramid.

Almost immediately, it started to slow down.

Jenny looked about. Her parents lights were still off, so nobody knew she was there. For a moment she wondered if she should have gone and told them what she'd seen. But then the pyramid came to a stop and her attention was drawn back to it. It had tipped forwards slightly so that one of the triangular sides was facing flat towards her.

Almost imperceptibly at first, a thin trace of white light broke through the glossy surface as a rectangular shape cut itself free and ejected out of its slot towards her. The thin piece of stone then started to slope out towards her and the light began to flood outwards so brightly that Jenny found herself shielding her eyes. The bauble reflected it like a mirror ball, casting silvery points out into the darkest corners of the garden.

Then the light went out.

Jenny lowered her arm. Her retinas were still a little burnt with the shape of the door, but she could see that the door had now fully lowered into something resembling a little platform and the space behind it had become pitch-black. As her sight adjusted back to the dark, she then noted a shape moving outwards from inside the little object.

At first, a thin, white leg, smooth and featureless, curved out into the night air. Jenny retracted her bauble and moved a little closer. It didn't have a foot as such, the leg (or whatever it was) came down to a point and was supported by what looked like four little white roots. Then, after a moment, the rest of the creature followed. A small hand, with only three tiny fingers, if they could even be called that, curled around the side of the entrance and out stepped the most peculiar little creature Jenny had ever seen.

It had a long, thin white body, two arms and two legs, and a head that didn't have any identifiable neck. It seemed like a formless worm from deep underground had taken the shape of something approximating human. It had eyes, but they were more the eyes of a small rodent than a person, being two unblinking black orbs that sat outside of its face on stubby little stalks. Yet despite their simple appearance were very expressive, their movement indicating that it was looking about at its surroundings. Under the eyes Jenny couldn't make out a mouth, but rather a cluster of the same small white tubes that ended its feet and hands, which wriggled out around in the direction it was looking. This was accompanied by a gentle sniffing sound, so she decided that they must be its nose.

Jenny could hear herself breathing. She felt a palpable buzz of excitement. She'd forgotten how cold it was and in her transfixed state had let the blanket she was wearing slip to the icy ground.

The worm-man, hesitant, stepped out further, looking about with small, smooth movements. Its feelers pawed at the air for a moment before it turned its attention to the small girl standing below, nervously holding out her silver bauble. It had now reached the end of the platform and was leaning quizzically over the edge, peering at the surface of the glittering orb at its hundreds of tiny mirrored reflections.

Jenny let out an involuntary shiver and quickly placed her hand over her mouth, eyes wide. The creature straightened in suprise. Jenny cleared her throat to speak, and as she did so was surprised to hear herself in the stillness of the garden. Then it hit her that she had absolutely nothing to say and even if she did – would it understand? She held the bauble up.

The visitor relaxed from its upright posture and put a hand towards the gift in a gesture of curiosity . Jenny croaked out, suddenly aware that the cold was catching her throat. Her words came out crooked and raspy, not at all the friendly introduction she'd had in her mind.

“This... this is for you.”

The worm-man stood stock still. Its little tubes moved about slowly as it processed the sound, then it reached out and plucked the bauble from her grasp. Jenny quickly retracted her hand and put it in her pocket, before huddling up her shoulders against the freezing temperatures. It held the bauble aloft in examination, turned its head somewhat theatrically back to Jenny, then bobbed its head like a bird before startling her with an odd sneezing sound, like a sped-up elephant.

Jenny let out a little giggle. The creature visibly jumped a bit then leant back towards her, before bobbing its head again. She bowed back in return, which seemed to please it, for the visitor then squeezed its eyes shut (the eyelids seemingly coming from nowhere) and bobbed its head back in return. It then gathered itself up in a haunch, before throwing the bauble up into the air. Jenny reached her hand out involuntarily to catch it before she realised that instead of arching down back to her, the silver ball floated up above her head and carried itself onwards up above the conservatory and beyond the roof of the house.

The little white creature watched as it rose, following its ascent until the glinting silver orb joined the myriad other stars in the sky. Jenny looked down back at the creature which cocked its head back at her like an inquisitive puppy and gave another of its distinctive sneezes.

Jenny smiled and put out a hand.

The creature looked down at it, back at her, then reached out. Jenny watched as its tiny little tube-like fingers curled around the end of her index finger. It was surprisingly warm. She looked up at its black eyes and smiled. The little whiskers vibrated slightly in response and she guessed that, in some way, perhaps it was smiling back?

At that moment, an odd sensation ran through her body. She felt light and her mind fuzzy, as if someone had stuffed her head with cotton wool. Her vision blurred a bit and she blinked to see the face of the creature towering above her.

Then she realised she was standing next to it. Jenny gasped and looked about - she was still in her garden, only now the creature was standing in front of her far bigger than before. Somehow it had shrunk her down to its size, only comparatively speaking in proportion the worm-man was far bigger than she. Looking down at her feet she saw her slippers were on the surface of the little craft, and when she turned to look about the sky seemed so much bigger than before, an epic painting in a chapel of infinite size, and the garden and house dwarfed the pair entirely.

The creature bobbed its head then started to lead Jenny back to the hole in the pyramid from whereupon it emerged, tugging her gently and insistently onwards. At first she was hesitant, but it seemed to her that the visitor didn't seem to wish her any ill will, its benign presence filled her with confidence. So she followed, realising how cold she felt now she was so much smaller, and together they made their up the platform, which she could now tell was of a rougher surface than she first made out, and towards the dark portal gaping before them. Warmth emanated from it and Jenny began to walk alongside the striding visitor, eager to get out of the winter chill.

As the warm darkness enveloped them, the creature let out another sneeze. The light from the craft started to shine again, and they paused before it.

Jenny looked at the worm-man, who bowed in affirmation, then she squeezed her eyes shut and took a step forward...

There was another sneeze.

Jenny opened her eyes. She was looking up at her ceiling.

She sneezed again.

Shadows from the trees outside danced above in silvery overcast daylight, which hurt her eyes as she blinked herself awake.

The feeling started to flow as her body began to wake up. Almost immediately her throat started to complain, then as she moved her limbs ached. Her head followed as she became dizzy as she sat up, and she fell back down again. A mild sweat clung to her forehead.

Jenny gave out a little moan. She was ill. Her mother shouted up the stairs for her to come down for school, and six minutes later when Jenny didn't respond, she rushed in to tell her off only to see her daughter lying there, pale and feverish, holding the bedsheets tightly over her mouth with a slightly desperate look in her eyes.

She stayed home that day. Her mother brought up the small television from the study and the video player from downstairs and, when not tending to household chores, sat at her daughters side. The doctor came and went, commiserating to Jenny about her terrible influenza and talking in hushed tones and long words with her parents that evening about things she couldn't understand. Comics were bought and she was spoilt rotten for days, missing the last few days of school and spending most of her time in bed, to the point where she couldn't remember ever being well – and if she'd ever know what it was like to feel normal again.

Throughout her ordeal Jenny suffered silently, all the while thinking about her visitor that night. It all felt like a fever dream, an alternate reality that had intruded hers from the pages of her favourite fantasy novelist. As Christmas rolled on, then the New Year, Jenny begun to reminisce less and less about the strange little worm-man. They year went by, then years, and the entire ordeal of the visitor was swamped with vague memories of childhood illness.

It was much later in her life when Jenny had a daughter of her own, that the memory resurfaced, one late night whilst sitting in their cabin in the country staring at the stars. Even then she couldn't remember if it was just something she saw on television, a strange dream, or a story told to her by her parents. She held her sleeping daughter close to her, looking up at the sweeping night sky, wondering what it would be like to fall into it, to be enveloped in its blanket of stars, a quilt of dark silk that endlessly wrapped around itself through infinity.

She hoped it was real, feeling a twinge of sadness ath the thought that it most probably wasn't. Jenny felt her daughter stir. She looked down at her blonde head, her baby's face staring out at something in the woods beyond. The girl looked up, a quizzical expression on her face and one arm pointed out at something she couldn't quite see.

“Mummy... what's that?”

Jenny looked up... and smiled.