Saturday, 8 May 2021

On the Button by Rachel Carter

 



On the Button

by Rachel Carter


Zophar, listen.” Luna crouched before him on the pavement. “You can get out whenever you want, okay?” Zophar nodded, looking past his mother to the others. His body was poised in politeness towards his mother but in anticipation of the other children, his eyes looked ahead to his new schoolmates and he willed her to say goodbye.

Did you Anti-Germ your hands?” Another nod.

Where are your disposable toilet seat covers?” Zophar patted his backpack.

And mask? Remember which pocket?” More nodding.

His father opened the driver door of the car and the airlock was released with a Clop. Shhhhhhhh. He stepped out carefully, holding a green canister, spraying into the air as he approached.

Another squirt of Pollute Repel for luck.” He misted the air around Zophar’s head and tiptoed back to the car, as if trying to avoid making contact with the ground.

One last button test, perhaps Luna?” he called, slipping back into the car and sealing himself in.

Yes. Quick button run-through,” said Luna. “Tell me again.”

Emergency Back-Off spray, emergency water purifying tablet.” Zophar’s fingers ran downwards over the buttons on his blazer at speed as he rushed through the list.

Emergency anti-viral pill, emergency contact button, emergency detox spray button.” He touched his cuffs next. “Panic buttons. Now can I go?” The five-year old jiggled impatiently.

Anytime at all, if you are worried,” continued Luna, “if someone touches you, if someone coughs near you, if the toilets are dirty. Any reason. You hear me? We’ll get you out straight away. Just press those cuff buttons. And when the car brings you back, remember: shoes in the porch, through the first entrance door, blazer off, then through the airlock and straight to the arrivals shower. Don’t come in with your shoes and blazer and don’t touch the cruise control in the car on the way home. You hear me?”

I know, I know, you said. Now can I go?”

Okay.” Luna kissed the air, not touching Zophar. “Go, baby. Take care. Remember: buttons!” She mimed pushing buttons as he ran off. “And don’t run or you’ll fall and touch the ground and I’ll have to take you home!”

Luna clasped her hands in front of her chin. “Good luck. Come home safely,” she whispered.

Zophar scampered up the steps as fast as he thought he would get away with. He was more happy and excited than he could ever remember being. This was better than birthdays. There were other children here. The entrance was massive. It took up one whole side of the building.

Prevention Pharmaceutical’s Academy of Learning and Science welcomes you all and asks that when you enter the building, you do not share a door pod with anyone else,” came a voice from within the walls.

Robotic eyes shifted around and each pod spoke instructions through hidden speakers as one hundred children at a time were allowed to enter the first segment where they were instantly separated by screens that held the children in stalls as they were scanned for identification and viruses.

Immediately three boys were locked in and a voice told them to wait until cars arrived to remove them.

Some newcomers were familiar with screening and airlocks. They stood patiently while the eyes and scanners moved around them. But the others, from older housing out of the city had not experienced Entrance Pollution Prevention.

Zophar could hear cries of “I want to go home,” “I don’t like this,” while others sobbed and tried to back out.

Luna had told him about the entrance and how other boys weren’t used to it. “They’ll soon get domesticated,” she had said. “Everyone learns eventually.”

Next they were filtered into a huge glass cube. It was one of six on three levels. A voice told them to wait for the professors to collect them.

In this mix of trained and untrained five-year-olds, the difference was obvious to Zophar: the untrained boys had less shiny clothes and they didn’t have emergency blazer buttons. Zophar worried for them. But they didn’t look bothered. A few of them started talking to each other and they even tried to talk to the trained boys. Luna had said to keep away from untrained boys because they weren’t treated. He wondered if it would be safer to hold his nose, then he wouldn’t be sharing their air. He held his breath for twenty seconds and gave up.

An untrained boy had been watching him. “I can hold my breath loads longer than that.”

Ludo’s the best at holding his breath. He swims underwater,” said another boy.

He goes swimming?! Wow…” Zophar stared.

Ye-ah, loads of us go. It’s really good for you.” The boy threw off his blazer and mimicked breaststroke. “Gives you strong muscles. My dad said so.”

Zophar, Ludo and some others took off their blazers too, giggling as they ran in circles pretending to swim.

Why are your buttons so big?”

Zophar turned to see Ludo wearing his blazer and fiddling with the cuff buttons.

No! Don’t!”

The airlock opened and a robotic sensor promptly identified Zophar’s blazer. Ludo was shunted gently towards the door pods.

Please wait until your car arrives,” said a voice.

From the door pods Ludo was directed into Zophar’s family car and within minutes he was lowered out at Zophar’s house.

A woman’s voice from a wall speaker said he could try school again tomorrow and she was glad he was home. “And remember:” she said, “shoes in the porch, through the first entrance door, blazer off then through the airlock and straight to the arrivals shower. Don’t come in with your shoes and blazer on.”

Luna waited outside the bathroom with clean towels. She stared; horrified at the sight of the strange, untreated boy and then she hyperventilated.

Zophar’s father left Ludo in the entrance while he arranged his collection. Then the house and car were treated before the car was sent to collect the right boy this time. It had all been too risky and too stressful – Luna would home-school Zophar from now on.



Sunday, 2 May 2021

The Last Grewalda

 



The Last Grewalda

by Chris Morton


Rain


I hear it. And the rain’s coming full pelt, wiping my eyes between flashes of battle scenes I’d rather forget. Stomping – why stomping?! I laugh and stand, then immediately dive back onto the mud.

I blink tightly, clutching my rifle. The last Grewalda. And I, the last human soldier; my back against the hill.

Hey!” I shout.

It’s Nicholi. Nicholi, my God! How long has it been? (While in slow-motion he falls, the acid melting his face, his neck.) By the time his body hits the floor there’s only half a body, if that – hey, I think, how long has it been? Mouth open, taking in raindrops.

Nicholi turns. Half a face.

While crouched low, I circle him. Hunched, I roam in circles around my patch of land while the rain belts down. I slip, but no, it’s not Nicholi. It’s another, this one nameless. The black soldier, yes, him. One of them; he was my friend though. We shared rations. His first day.

How long you been out here?”

Few weeks.” I sniff.

They say this war’s nearly over."

“’t’s what they say.”

He’s touching my arm. His hand is shaking.

The clouds above rumble. Dark, out in the open, the open plains. Come day the rain will be gone. The clouds here are white like back on Earth. Another soldier runs past. A ghost, for now they are all dead. All but I and the last Grewalda. I can hear it, smell it.


The Hill


So few hills in this world of plains that stretch on forever. Plains with holes and ditches and trenches and in the background trees and mountains. Always in the background. But for this last battle we crawled to these hills for one final stand. The grass here is fresh like home. Mud and flesh.

This is it, then,” said our sergeant; the latest one. Us, the latest, the last troop.

The Grewalda were growing thin in number. The sky, once so dense in their glory.

This planet must be cleared of all alien life.

So we were sent in to do the job.

Then this, the terminal stand.

There’s a soldier to the left of me, chewing, saying this war began before he was even born. He asks how long I’ve been out here and for the life of me …

Blinking, I wipe a palm at the mossy grass. The muddy, slithery ground. Just me and it now. Up above the twin suns, Solaris 1 and 2 begin to rise. This is when I should do it, for the Grewalda are nocturnal. It’s injured, for God’s sake – it’s lying there bleeding.

Time for this war to end.

I’ll stride over there, leave this hill and over to the next, to the Grewalda’s hill. I can feel the screams, low and muffled; high pitched and out of my range of understanding.

The rain’s stopped. The whole world has melted away by the two rising suns.

A nocturnal species. It’ll be weak and now is the time as I stroke at my weapon.


The Weapon


Daytime and the sky orange. My feet, my boots, I unwrap them, stretch my toes while the weapon, the laser rifle is balanced on my knees. It’s black, like them, like it, behind me. The breathing. The rifle is smooth in parts, thin, yet bulky and … the charger bolts I load into an energy pack fixed to the butt.

I rise, turn.

Striding purposefully down, slipping and sliding down the bank, then scramble back upwards because I heard it again.

You won’t get me that easily!”

Laughing, I can hear it.

My God. I’m such a fool and it almost had me then. Staring down at the rifle, I realise it’s empty and scrambling through my pack for more bolts, I fix a new one in, then fire up at the sky, screaming.

At daytime the sky is orange. The clouds, like on Earth. My bodysuit is a part of me now. Stuck to, integrated into my skin. For I am the soldier. The last, and it, the last of its kind.

There’s emptiness, silence and I remember how that silence was the worst part of it all. The waiting … waiting for a death that never came while the acid continued to rain down killing human after human. Soldier after soldier, sent here to do a job and by God I have to finish it.

I rise again with new purpose. Blinded.

Food. (I’ve dived down again and am scrambling in the pack for rations, for grey pills. Nutrition. I need power, for one last burst.)

I’ll kill you, goddammit!” I shout.

And its lack of reply taunts me while I remember them, the lost.


Three Deaths


An old man’s voice as he died, croaked and moaning, but hollowness more than anything else. So rarely I saw them die slowly, and still I held this one in my arms as his last breaths escaped while the fight went on around us. Trampling and soldiers falling to the muddy floor, laser firing up, acid raining down. The sky a blue-black, the flying Grewalda, like giant bats though when they fell they were more like flapping, helpless manta rays – picture the scene with the soldier’s head in my arms, his eyes red and bulging.

Another, mid-conversation. We were running and he turned at me saying we should head east or west or simply, “Over there!” or something but mid-sentence he fell at the floor, half his body gone while I continued and I think there were tears coming down my cheeks and I was screaming, firing up laser bolt after laser bolt, like a madman running in no direction at all like a headless chicken they later said.

The third was longer, drawn out and I say third but there were so many more of course. The worst? I’m telling you, telling me, telling it (still over on its hill behind me).

These men you killed!”

The third I describe, it took three days for him to die. Only his leg (the right one) had been hit. The rest of the troop were all dead, under the heat of Solaris 1 and 2 they rotted away. This soldier, I never asked his name – he had no chance of making it. Unable to move him, there was very little point in going for help. He urged me to leave him, but …

Staying with you,” I panted. There was fear in his eyes he didn’t want me to see.

Why watch me suffer?”

Help’ll be on its way soon.”


Back Home


In the room, it had glass walls on one side overlooking some sanctuary and the interior was plush, angular. The man behind the desk took my name, smiled quickly and my status was upgraded to soldier with the promise that when I returned it’d be upgraded again.

They didn’t say,” I told her later. “Maybe a sweeper.”

Maybe a sweeper’s guard,” she laughed.

Our last night together and there had been something in her eyes. Her words, they said she’d be waiting but as she watched me depart, she turned at the last minute. She was intelligent, far more so than I.

The turbo train was packed to the hilt with soldiers like me. Fresh uniforms and the kit they’d given to us; the weapons and backpack. The ammunition, the charger bolts would come later but there was excitement in the air.

My parents had been more hopeful. They’d been proud, and I know that even now they’ll be back home waiting and hoping.

Pray for me,” I told them, clutching my mother’s hand.

The ship out here took four days and months. Time folded, space folded.

And then the plains, the distant mountains, the grass, the night and the blue-black sky filled with screeching Grewalda. The charger bolts, we celebrated!

And one by one we died. Here on this ground so far from home, the twin suns, orange skies. They say the land here is fertile.

We prepare for the coming invasion!”

A home from home for human kind and us the soldier ants; to this hill for the final battle. The Grewalda were growing thin in number because, pray for us, humankind would win throughout.


Visions; audio


Try to stay calm, though the sounds, most of them from the past but the present sounds too of it behind me. On its hill and I, my back against the grass. An audio of muffled whimpering. It is wounded.

Hey!” I shout. “Can hear you …” my voice shaken.

Taking a swig from the silver water canister, I look around, ignore the rotting bodies of my fellow comrades and Grewalda alike. What was that?

Heard it again.

The noise is getting closer. I sit bolt upright, listening intently for any further sign that it’s not just my imagination while Solaris 1 and 2 beat down at the grass and mud; further ahead, the mountains.

Then a vision of it scrambling across the grass. They have claws, small and useless for they are flying beasts but dragging itself across the land, wounded and desperate – coming for me, for the last kill.

Just me and you now,” I murmur. I load up a fresh charger-bolt, the laser rifle loosely hangs at my waist as I stand and turn.


/


I blink and am running into full battle. My rifle shoots bolt after bolt of laser up at the flying Grewalda, the bat-like beasts that, once hit and wounded, flap and scream and dive at the floor and if you’re clever you can hide underneath them. You can watch from afar as your comrades burn and die. Their screams. The acid rains down, from the blanket of flapping bodies up above. The Grewalda soar.

I can hardly see them.


The Last Grewalda


The Grewalda, its tiny claws dragging across the land between my hill and its, like a hunched pterodactyl, slow and steady.

My body shivers and judders. I drop the rifle; bend down to pick it up. My ears are screaming and it’s all I can do to focus. Diving at the floor, I let out a couple of shots.

Stomping, my own feet and then running full pelt. Through rays of sunshine I can see it, God help me and I’m scrambling at the dirt.

I begin to laugh, laugh at it and at myself.

You’ve got me!” I yell, up at the twin suns.

A shadow and the Grewalda. Its eyes, the eyes of death are bright red and shining. Green alien blood spews over my bodysuit. Their blood is green and like the acid they spurt, deadly to the touch. The bottom half of my face is stinging and I fire again, even though I ran out of charge, what was it, when was it …?

You’ve got me!” I twist and turn. Its body, I’m underneath the black slimy mass of bat-like wings while around me more soldiers fall.

On a hill.

Lock and load.”


Re-con


This is how we found him.”

Muffling.

Will he recover?”

Hard to say …”

More muffling. Incomprehensible exchange of conversation in the background.

He was the last?”

The last of them, yeah.”

And the Grewalda?”

Dead.”

You sure?”

Final clear up over a week ago. Re-con picked up nothing.”

No more soldiers.”

Not counting the bodies.” (A sound that might be of spitting)

Muffling. A long pause.

So this is really it?”

Seems that way, yeah.”

Scuffling sound.

You hear that?”

Ironic laughter.

End of the war.”

Seems that way …”

And it’s this soldier that killed the last of ’em?”

Apparently so. (A dull thud). Though we can’t be sure. But … (another thud) … let’s give him that …”

Scuffling. A background of rustling wind.

A regular hero. He’ll be up for a medal.”

If he lives long enough …”

Could patch him up. What d’ya say?”

For moral you mean?”

For the ticker-tape parade.”

Sure. Whatever you say.” Again the sound that might be of spitting.

That’s it, then.”

Lock and load.”

More muffling. Another dull thud, then the roar of an engine.


Chris Morton is the creator of this blog.
He has released two sci-fi novels,
one collection of short stories
and a few other scribblings.
You can find his amazon page here.