The sun finally dipped below the roof of the temple, casting long shadows across the dusty road. I stretched, my long limbs stiff from the lengthy nap, and hopped down into the street. I sauntered along a low wall, careful to avoid the feet of the evening tourists, and nimbly leapt up onto the remains of a modest building. Lykos was still stretched along the stones, his feet twitching.
I nuzzled his neck with my nose and his eyes flew open.
“Memphis,” he yawned, his pink tongue curling. He extended his legs, his whole body quivering as he stretched deeply, his ears flat against his head. He rolled onto his back and gazed at me sleepily.
“It’s almost night,” I sat, my tail twitching in anticipation. “A full moon.”
He rolled the other way and got to his feet, a grumbling purr in the back of his throat.
“You don’t have to remind me,” he said between licks of his paws. His gray coat caught a flash of the setting sun.
“Clearly I do,” I teased and he gave me a friendly swat. I leapt lightly out of the way and then jumped down onto the road, trotting away and calling out behind me,
“Just don’t be late!”
His low growl was barely audible as I continued further into the ruins, chuckling to myself. Lykos was one of my oldest friends, and even after centuries, he hadn’t changed much.
Cleon and Chloe were where I expected to find them, casually tormenting a mouse between them. They had the habit of haunting the place they grew up, a low building with a spacious courtyard. It once had a shallow pool that glittered in the morning sun, but it had long dried up. You could still faintly make out the mosaic tiles that lined the pool but only if you knew where to look. Cleon and Chloe often had the most memories of their former lives, and I was unsure if lingering in their place of birth helped or hindered their adjustment to their new life.
I watched them at play for a while, their sleek black bodies tumbling in and out of the shadows. I enjoyed their antics, even if they were sometimes tiresome. I let out a small mewling laugh as their prey managed to slip by them both and escape into a nearby crevice.
Chloe spent a moment pawing at the crack, then sat back and began licking her paws as though she meant for the mouse to get away all along. Cleon spotted me and bounded over, rubbing against me with a thundering purr.
“Memphis! I haven’t seen you in a fortnight! Where have you been off to?”
“The usual patrols,” I replied, purring myself as Chloe joined us. She was both more playful and more aloof than her brother, which made for a perplexing combination. She was difficult to read, and therefore less reliable.
“Are we meeting tonight?” Cleon still acted a kitten sometimes, and I laughed as I gave him a quick wash behind his ears.
“Of course. I’m just rounding everyone up, making sure no one forgets.”
“As if we would forget.” Chloe was gazing up into the sky, the fading light shining on her fur. I wasn’t sure if she liked me, and I couldn’t be sure if it was because I was acting as leader while Arete was away or there was some other grievance. I didn’t have time to find out that evening.
I gave Cleon a final lick and turned away. I sprinted now, feeling energized and wanting to stretch my legs. I streaked across the road and into a cluster of ruins, jumping up onto the walls and across the narrow lanes. Silently, Thaïs appeared beside me and we ran together, as if to escape the approaching shadows. We leaped together up onto the roof where Lykos was still lounging, catching the final rays of sunlight.
Thaïs approached him and they engaged in a friendly tussle before settling down next to one another, tails thumping. There was time before we had to move to the hollow, and for the moment we gazed down at the people wandering the dusty roads.
“They are different than they were,” Thaïs observed as the humans explored below. Occasionally they glanced up at us, but we were many and after a while our presence became another part of the scenery. It was the ones who tried to approach us that made us wary; a few of our cousins were curious and allowed them to come near, but they always darted away at the last second. Most of us maintained a safe distance. They were unpredictable, just as we were once.
She gazed out the window, watched at the planet rotated slowly beneath her. It was once beautiful, in its own way. She had seen pictures of what it had looked like before the Final War, the bright blue and spotty brown and green. White clouds had flitted across the top of the atmosphere, shielding its surface from the rest of space.
But that was years ago. There wasn’t anything left down there anymore, and even if there was, she wouldn’t be able to see it from here. The planet was shrouded in a thick veil of smog and ash, completely obscuring the land masses and oceans below. Not to mention the layer of space trash between that and the stations. They actually harvested the detritus sometimes, used it to make repairs, or sometimes just to mess about with and try and get it to work again. There were all sorts of clubs and hobbyists who were obsessed with prewar tech. Ankhora understood the appeal, to an extent. She loved to read about the Groundlings, but she wasn’t going to waste her whole life fiddling with dead tech.
But even though she was happy at Station 009, where she had been born and raised and now worked as a nurse, something always drew her back to the window. Something always seemed to be at the corner of her vision, a tug that turned her head to peer down through the layers of grime and trash to imagine what life would be like on the planet Earth.
Can you miss someplace you’ve never been? Can something be in your DNA so deeply, so thoroughly, that even though you’ve never set foot on real earth, never breathed fresh air, never seen plants grow outside a greenhouse, you long for those things as though experiencing nostalgia? Can you be homesick for a home you’ve never known?
Palamane called from the break room table, and Ankhora sighed and turned her back to the window.
“What is it?” she asked, sliding back into her chair.
“Did you hear? About the recovery?”
Ankhora shook her head as she bit into her sandwich. Many of the recordings from the Groundlings included detailed accounts of food, rich, delicious, spicy, savory, or sweet. She couldn’t imagine what that must be like, to have food you actually ate for enjoyment.
“They’re sending an expedition down. To the planet.”
Ankhora almost choked and grabbed Palamane’s arm.
“What?” Ankhora sputtered, swallowing with difficulty. “When? Where did you hear about this?”
“It was in the Bulletin. Don’t you listen?”
Ankhora shook her head while she drank some water to help the last few crumbs dislodge from her throat. No one really listened to the Bulletin. If something was that important it would show up on the Viz.
“They’re looking for volunteers,” Palamane said casually, and anything else she might have said was lost as Ankhora’s attention turned inward.
An expedition? To Earth? Palamane had called it a recovery. A recovery of what? What was left down there to recover?
She had heard rumors, from people who could be called disreputable at best, that traders sometimes sent down parties to bring back Earth objects from the surface to sell on the black market. The first stations had been built before the war, so not every artifact had intrinsic value. It was more the cultural stuff, the artwork, the non-practical items that were worth finding. But it was insanely difficult to get authorization for that kind of run (it was mostly limited to historical and government entities) and if you didn’t get authorization, it was insanely illegal.
Not to mention suicidal. If there was one thing Ankhora learned from reading about the Groundlings, it was that the structure of power up here was not so different from what it was down there. And no one would really miss the black marketeers who were too stupid to try an unauthorized run through the satellite belt. Many had tried and were promptly blown up, adding to the ring of space trash that was still caught in Earth’s orbit. She only knew of a handful that had gotten through, and for the most part only the artifacts came back, not the traders.
But if this was a sanctioned expedition, that probably meant they were interested in more than what would sell on the black market. That could mean any number of things...including a lengthy trip. Which would probably mean they needed medical staff.
Ankhora hastily wrapped the rest of her sandwich, mumbled a hasty goodbye to the startled and somewhat disappointed Palamane, and rushed to the nearest Vizor.
It only took her a moment to find what she was looking for, although it was buried more deeply in the Bulletin than she would have expected. She was surprised it wasn’t being blasted all over the Viz. But perhaps they only wanted very serious candidates, people who were more interested in the importance of the recovery mission (whatever it was) than those who wanted the thrill of an on-world adventure.
She scrolled quickly through the post, only skimming the information about “opportunities for research” and “completely controlled environments with highly skilled managers utilizing the highest safety standards.”
And then there it was, shining through the Vizor, pulsing slightly, as if expectant. The word: Recruitment.
Without a moment of hesitation, Ankhora soared forward.
Ankhora had fallen asleep, her head resting uncomfortably against the shuttle wall. For the first half of the journey, she had her face pressed against the glass of the too-small window, desperate for a glimpse of Earth. Of course, they were still in the middle of the junk field, and the planet below was still shrouded in ash and smoke, so she wouldn’t have seen anything anyway. But she was moving toward the planet, toward something she had always longed for, so even though her vision was clouded, it felt momentous nonetheless.
The recruitment process was easier than she had dared hope. Expeditions to the planet’s surface were rare, and oftentimes fatal. Short journeys fared better, ones that had a singular purpose, that landed, got what they wanted, and came back before anyone could incur serious injuries or succumb to radiation poisoning. But Ankhora could count on one hand the number of successful recovery missions in her lifetime. She was determined to be on the next.
The recruitment officer looked bored. Likely she wasn’t coming on the mission, and only in charge of weeding out the less suitable candidates for the more vigorous interviews.
“Riz Ankhora,” Ankhora replied, her voice quivering.
The officer didn’t even look at her as she asked questions about Ankhora’s work, her personality, her sex life. Ankhora was a nurse, a position vital to any long-term mission off-station. She was calm in emergencies, underwent regular psychological screenings, which she always passed. She was single, only seeking companionship when she felt like it. No children. In short, the perfect candidate.
The final interviews were more difficult, only in that they were more vague. The panel of interviewers included the medical officer and several members of the leadership team, although the captain was absent. Ankhora answered all their questions with a calm indifference, despite the excitement and nervousness buzzing inside her. Here, her skill was more important than her passion.
The two weeks before she received her acceptance letter were insufferable, particularly to Palamane and the other medical staff, who couldn’t understand Ankhora’s desire to leave. Her boss was reluctant to let her go, but she gave Ankhora a small smile of encouragement on her last day.
Ankhora smiled, feeling none of the sadness and regret the acceptance letter warned her about.
She shifted in her sleep, her arm slipping between the wall and the chair.
She jerked awake, shaking out the needles in her arm as a tall woman plopped down into the seat next to her. She lifted her hand to her mouth and, embarrassed, wiped away a remnant of drool. The woman didn’t seem to notice, only beamed at her.
“First time off-station?”
The woman’s voice was big, like her, deep and jolly, as though she was about to laugh. Ankhora nodded.
“Me too. I was raised on station twenty-six. You?”
“Station nine,” Ankhora replied, sitting up and blinking away the sleepiness that lingered in her eyes.
“Oh cool. I’ve been to some of the older ones. Real vintage.” The woman grinned, but Ankhora didn’t get the joke. Sure, some of the older stations’ layouts were outdated, but they all had the same tech. It was just a little harder to integrate into some of the original equipment.
“I’m Telissa Greene. You can call me Tee.”
She reached out her hand and Ankhora shook it.
“I’m in engineering. Mechanist,” she continued. “But I looked at the roster. Trying to get to know everyone before we land, right? Before we all go crazy.”
She laughed as Ankhora gave her a horrified look.
“I’m just kidding,” she said, standing abruptly. “Only some of us will go crazy.”
She winked down at Ankhora, who still stared silently up at her.
“Anyway, I just came to tell you grub’s on. I heard the cook’s pretty good. You’d have to be, with the rations they’ve sent us with. Come on.”
Ankhora stood and stretched, following Tee toward the galley, for the first time feeling a twinge of uncertainty.
Naomi yanked the emergency brake and turned the wheel hard. The lightweight car screeched into a turn and she released the brake again, pressing her foot on the gas. The little car shot forward and she deftly maneuvered it into a narrow alley, following its twists and turns with confidence. She slowed, then stopped, backing quickly into a tiny garage. She hopped out of the car and pulled the door closed, then turned, pleased with her performance.
Preston got out of the car, his expression inscrutable.
“Hmmm,” was all he said as he checked his phone, and Naomi grunted.
“That was the best ride you’ve had all week,” she said, jabbing a finger in his direction. “I can do this job, and for some reason you don’t want to admit it.”
Preston looked up at her mildly, his black hair fanning purposefully across his forehead. He shrugged.
“You know it’s not up to me.”
Naomi rolled her eyes.
“Right, sure, you have to send a report to your ‘superiors.’” She made quotes with her fingers.
“That’s right,” Preston answered, his eyes on his phone again. Naomi wanted to strangle him.
She allowed her anger to simmer a minute more, and then she sighed and turned, sitting down on the car’s bonnet.
“Look, I understood what you meant when you said you could help me out. I’m not expecting anything from you. What I am expecting is that you treat me like any other applicant, and you judge my performance based on its merits. Which, as you just experienced, was pretty f---ing awesome.”
Preston came to sit down next to her. He didn’t look up from his phone, but Naomi sensed the atmosphere between them was now comfortable. He was listening.
“It’s been a few years, eh?” Naomi nudged him slightly with her shoulder. She thought she caught a hint of a smile in response.
“I don’t know how you managed it. We were nobodies, we had nothing. And now almost everybody knows who you are. And here I am, just the sidekick, as usual.”
She was not imagining it; he was smiling. She allowed herself to reminisce for just a moment, remembering the two of them clambering over a climbing frame, pretending to be pirates or explorers or some such childish nonsense. She wondered if, in its own way, those make-believe adventures allowed them to survive the way they had.
“Always the chatterbox,” she sighed. “Even before the Selection.”
She felt Preston tense, and regretted bringing it up. He was one of the few people she had known Before, and even then they had barely kept in contact. There was something about not being Selected that made everyone ashamed, even though it was something they had in common. People didn’t like to talk to other people who hadn’t been Selected, and there was no one else left to talk to.
“There’s no point waiting around here, then,” Naomi said, pushing herself up and opening the garage door. Silently, of course, Preston got back into the car and Naomi followed.
“Where would you like me to drop you?” She knew the answer, but wanted to hear him say something, anything. It felt as though in the few minutes that had passed she had forgotten what he sounded like.
“The office is fine,” he said, and then he put the phone down. He stared straight ahead through the windscreen, his breathing rapid.
“Preston?” Naomi was afraid to touch him.
When he spoke, it was in a soft voice, deep yet feminine, and utterly unlike his own.
“There is no shame in being Left Behind.”
The voice was familiar, like something Naomi had once heard on the radio when she was only half listening, but she couldn’t place it.
“We are all of us Abandoned at some point. To mourn is to deny the inevitable. To suffer is unnecessary.”
“Ok, Preston, I don’t know what kind of batshit sermon you are spouting right now, but it’s freaking me out. I’m just going to get you home--”
As she leaned forward to turn the key, Preston’s arm whipped forward and he grasped her wrist tightly. His hand was frigid.
Naomi stared in horror as her friend turned his face toward hers. His eyes were bloodshot and tears were streaming down his face. He somehow looked both completely terrified and completely at peace.
“Preston,” she said, her voice quivering. “I thought it was over. No one has been Selected for years.”
He shook his head slightly.
“It’s not me,” he whispered in his own voice, straining to speak over whatever sound was filling his head.
“No.” The sound barely escaped her lips.
“No,” she repeated, twisting in her seat to grasp Preston by the shoulders.
“No one has ever come back from a Selection,” she said. “Why now? What’s happening?”
Preston shook his head again, straining to speak through another’s voice.
“Don’t be scared,” he choked. “They said you’ll be…”
And then it was all light, blinding, and a ringing in her ears so sharp she thought her head would vibrate apart. She had no sense of her body, no sense of time, and then she was suddenly standing in the middle of a busy street, tall buildings casting shadows on the people bustling around her, no idea of where she was, and no welcome at all.
The earth is experiencing a global health crisis. A pandemic. Governments are taking measures to attempt to contain the spread of Covid-19, some more appropriately or effectively than others. Almost everything I hear about the current situation of the world - on the radio, in op-eds, from those I speak with - has described it as surreal. Strange. Bizarre. Unprecedented. It made me think about the way we view the world as it normally is, and to try and decipher what it is about current life that seems surreal.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word surreal as follows: “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream.” Now, I’ve had many dreams that could be rightly described as surreal, but I’ve also had dreams in which, for example, I discovered an unfortunately drawn tattoo on my right arm and my good tattoo had switched to the left. Not particularly uncanny. However, this was also the dream in which I was in a huge house that was filled with cages and tanks full of exotic creatures, including a huge snake I was convinced had swallowed a human. So perhaps all dreams are surreal to some extent.
Surrealism itself has been reflected in art, theatre, and music for about a hundred years. People like René Magritte, Frida Kahlo, Joan Miró, and Salvador Dalí are artists that used their works to reflect a world devoid of rational thought. They instead highlighted and focused on the uncanny beauty of the unconscious and of dreams. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. The melting clocks are instantly recognizable as an example of surrealist art.
There are also writers and playwrights such as André Breton, Bertolt Brecht, and Antonin Artaud who contributed to the movement, as well as musicians like Erik Satie and John Cage. All of these works suggest a world outside of the norm but that is somehow familiar, a world in which dreams and reality blend together until you’re not sure what you’re experiencing.
All of this is to say, do I think what the world is experiencing right now, this crisis of health and structure, is surreal? I’m not sure. I don’t particularly think of it as such. I have woken up from dreams convinced that what I was feeling and experiencing was real, and although at times the feeling lingers, I am soon aware that there is an immediate difference between my unconscious state and my waking one.
And so far my life hasn’t changed dramatically since these measures were put into place. It does feel like between one day and the next there were the beginnings of concern to now increased anxiety about our future, but perhaps all time is in a sense surreal, because in some ways it’s impossible to quantify. But I have still been going to work, and just now my work hours have decreased. There have been shortages of certain items on grocery store shelves, but I haven’t changed the way I’m shopping. While I no longer have the option to go to the library or the museum or to my favorite restaurant, I’ve always been a homebody. I’ve always preferred my own company to that of others.
I should point out that I am trying my best to follow the advice of health care professionals and self isolate when I can. It is quite possible, and even likely, that I am a carrier of the virus without even knowing it. Given my continued work, I have been exposed to quite a few people over the last few weeks. I haven’t shown any symptoms yet, but it doesn’t mean I can’t pass it on to others. So I am taking this issue seriously.
And my experience is perhaps unique compared to many others'. Many people are out of work. There are many who don't have a place to shelter in. I also recognize that this is taking an extreme toll on the mental health of the citizens of the world, particularly those in the health care field. Their experience is undoubtedly difficult and stressful, and I’m sure there are times they are unsure if they are awake or dreaming.
Is all of this strange? Yes. Is all of this uncanny? Absolutely. Shops that were usually bustling are now closed. I have received emails from every business I have ever patronized assuring me they are doing what they can to prevent the spread of Covid-19, and that’s just bizarre. There are events taking place that are completely outside my experience, and so seem in some way detached from reality. But surreal? I’m not sure this whole thing fits my definition.
Unless of course this is all just a program within the Matrix. Then we’re all already in a dream state, and good luck figuring out what “real” even means.
Part II of the thrilling story Liz and I wrote together! Read Part I here, and find out what happened in Liz's version here!
Now that the Carrier’s attention was elsewhere, the ringing in Tricia’s ears dulled. She saw Dominique, the Carrier leaning down over her, its putrid breath poisoning the air around her. Dominique was staring up into the monster’s face, frozen.
Tricia growled. She didn’t particularly like Dominique, but they had an arrangement, and Tricia would be damned if she saw anyone get dragged away by a filthy Carrier. Hell, she was already damned. Might as well do something about it.
Tricia reached deep within herself and pulled up the curse, urging the transformation. She felt her hair growing, her muscles expanding. Her clothing split at the seams. I just bought that shirt, she thought, before she leaped forward toward the Carrier.
Dominique’s vision cleared as the Carrier was yanked backward. She gasped, unaware she had been holding her breath. A huge ape-like creature was clinging to the Carrier’s head, furiously tearing at its cloak.
Dominique stared. She had never seen Tricia’s full transformation before. If she hadn’t known her cursed form, she wouldn’t even be sure it was Tricia. But she could still see the remnants of Tricia’s clothing clinging to her limbs, ripped apart at the seams.
The Carrier was trying to get Tricia off its head, but it couldn’t quite whip the chain around to catch her. But she wouldn’t last long like that. Dominique frantically scanned the chapel, desperate for anything that could serve as a weapon. She grunted in frustration. There wasn’t even an ornamental sword she could tear from a wall.
She looked toward the front of the chapel and saw the tall candelabra illuminating the altar. She ran towards it, calculating the risk. Dowsing the flames would give the Carrier strength; they thrived in darkness. But she had little else to use against it, and she hoped she could enchant it with a strong enough spell to at least discourage it from taking them.
Tricia clawed and bit at the Carrier’s hood, aware she was likely causing little damage. She was just hoping to give Dominique enough time to do something, anything. But she felt her grip failing, and even as she shifted to gain a better grasp, the Carrier grabbed her leg and flung her across the pews.
Dominique heard the crash and turned, catching a glimpse of Tricia as she fell. Cursing, she mounted the steps and snagged her bag, rummaging through it. She pulled out a bag of salt, blessed and intended for another ritual. But she had no other choice.
Grabbing the candelabra, she whipped it forward, the candle’s flames extinguishing as they flew across the room. Dominique whispered, feeling the metal warming beneath her hand as she imbued it with the most powerful spell she knew. Sealing the spell with salt, she lifted her head just as the Carrier’s chain wrapped around her midsection.
Tricia rose, pain throbbing in her ribs, just in time to see Dominique get pulled down the altar steps, the chain around her middle. She fell and was dragged backward, but she held fast to a heavy metal candelabra, and Tricia understood. She braced herself for a moment, catching her breath, then sped forward.
The pressure against Dominique’s stomach lifted as Tricia sprang up from the pews and leapt to tackle the Carrier. Her momentum was enough that the Carrier stumbled, and, using the candelabra for support, Dominique pulled herself upright.
With the Carrier momentarily distracted, its chain lay limp on the stone floor. Dominique lifted the candelabra, and whispering a few more words for strength, brought the heavy fixture down on the chain.
There was a terrible clang and light burst into the room. Dominique squinted against the light, but raised the candelabra and brought it down again and again, until with a tremendous noise the chain broke. There was a great rush of air and with a deafening screech the Carrier disappeared. Dominique fell to the ground, spent.
Breaking a Carrier’s chain wouldn’t kill it, but it would slow it down for a time. Carriers forged their own chains, and while one that powerful would be able to regain its strength quickly, Dominique knew she and Tricia had enough time to get to safety.
“Tricia,” Dominique said through a cough. Her limbs weak, Dominique dragged herself up but sat immediately in a pew, her muscles shaking with exhaustion.
There was a rustling across the aisle and Dominique saw Tricia stand, clutching her side. What remained of her clothing draped immodestly across too little skin. She blushed, looked away.
Tricia grinned, her teeth smaller but still deathly sharp. The curse fading, the hair that just moments ago covered her body was falling off in clumps, and her muscles shrunk, weak and ineffective. She too sat in a pew, grinning across the dark aisle at Dominique.
“Nice work,” she said, then winced. Speaking was painful. She might have broken a rib.
“But now I have to start over,” Dominique said quietly, and Tricia shrugged.
“You didn’t get swallowed by a Carrier. And a great one, at that. You should be grateful.”
Dominique’s eyes flashed, but she didn’t reply. She sighed, heaved herself up and made her way slowly to the front of the chapel, intent on collecting her things. She kneeled slowly, gathering the candles and sage she had set out so carefully before. To her dismay, most of the salt had spilled from the bag, but she gathered what she could and stored it carefully away.
She jumped when Tricia spoke at her shoulder.
“We’ll find another church,” Tricia said quietly, wiping a bit of her own blood from the corner of her mouth.
“I’m surprised you would offer,” Dominique said, tying her satchel closed. Tricia shrugged.
“We had an arrangement,” she said, smirking, and Dominique felt marginally better.
“We’ll have to find someplace to stay,” she replied. “The Carrier will come back.”
“I know a place,” Tricia said, wandering off, arranging the rags of her clothing into an outfit that covered her more vulnerable body parts. Dominique sighed and followed the older woman out into the night.
I write for fun and to make sure my sister doesn't beat me in our blog challenge.