Youngblood Blog

Writing weblog, local, topical, personal, spiritual

Cockatrice—Short Story Award 2010


1. The Storm

Cocktrice: basilisk or Egyptian cobra serpent two-legged body, with cockerel head, capable of killing Man or Nature with a glance

‘Help. I need your help to get me outta here.’ He turned round as he was about to leave the room. He could have sworn the voice was a child’s and — coming from his computer? Made no sense. Luke walked back into the room, with an absentminded glance around to check if the voice had come from one of the corner piles of typescript, discarded envelopes, old family photographs, or behind books scattered on surfaces that had seen years of amassed clutter in the small office/writing study.
‘Hello. Are you there?’ This time the voice came directly from the computer. A poor loudspeaker at the best of times — these laptops weren’t exactly built to house the world’s finest sound systems — but that’s what was speaking. Again he checked the bookcase — the monstera rubber plant in the corner pot needed watering — aware he was clutching at familiar objects to make sure his mind wasn’t playing tricks. His computer didn’t usually speak to him without his turning on the speech recognition software. And he’d only just finished fixing a couple of typos on his latest short story — all set to go to his editor at the end of the week — so he’d had no reason to switch on ‘Speaker Clock’, the robot voice that passed for human speech that read words on the printed page like they were alien alphabet.
‘Alien alphabet…’
He jumped.
Ignoring the wilting monstera and an inner urge to leave the room and slam the door behind him, he padded slowly to the desk where he’d left his laptop open and plugged into the wall outlet. From this angle the upright silver lid faced him, its white apple with a chunk bitten out glowing an innocuous white.
He should be outside, finish fixing that screen door, chop that last batch of wood before the storm. The wind was already blowing outside and leaves were crashing with rain against the window pane beyond the desk. If this was a prelude to winter —high winds, storm forecast— time to batten down the hatches. Nothing stirred inside the room, though. All he could hear were the words that had come from the computer. They echoed in his mind. Not just that. They echoed what had come from his mind. Now silence. Had he imagined it? Was he too caught up in the fantasy of his present tale that he was letting imaginary characters creep into his real life, too? It happened. He reached the desk, aware that a few strides from the door usually took him a couple of seconds. These steps felt like he’d been dragged through eternity on a leaden sled. The laptop hummed. Sleeping. He turned again towards the door. Get to that woodshed and do some real work. Flush these cobwebs from his mind. As his hand touched the door frame, he heard it again. This time the voice rang clear. It was the tone of a petulant child:
‘I thought you were going to help me. I really need you. I can’t do this on my own, you know.’ Like a teenager struggling with a belt buckle that wouldn’t fasten; a delicate necklace clasp that wouldn’t close. That did it.
‘What do you want of me?’ He spoke aloud, aware he sounded irritated. His feet took him in two strides to the open laptop and he turned its light frame around to see the screen. At his touch the picture changed from black to an image of a young girl’s face — little older than a child, mid-teens maybe — a sweet face with mouse-blonde curls and deep penetrating gaze. His irritation collapsed. He bent to the keyboard as the image appeared to distance itself like a receding Alice graphic until a small girl in light pink top, short silver skirt and skinny half-tights stood before him. His voice melted at the scene on his desktop, so unexpected and far removed from his usual solitary male existence.
‘What do you want me to do?’ he rephrased, sounding a lot kinder. He was confused. With half his mind he realized this couldn’t be happening — a kind of instant Skype with a strange young girl who needed his help — and the other half more than ready to reach out and do what had to be done to assist the little waif. His other half won. ‘What seems to be the problem?’ Even he thought that question sounded lame.
‘Outta here,’ her voice trailed. Her image was fading in and out, moving towards and away from him in a kind of fuzzy scene that looked like a movie set with the scenery carried offstage before the players finished reading their lines. She stood one moment in the middle of a meadow with bright sunshine gleaming in her hair, making it shine like gold, and the next moment she was surrounded by dark metallic disks turning slowly as if part of a huge clockwork mechanism inside some infernal machine. That should have made him stop. Her face changed too, but Luke chose not to register that fact. His paternal genes were charging full throttle.
‘How should we do this?’ His voice sounded at once calm, measured and willing to help. His heart raced. This situation hadn’t come up before. How do you help a child step out of a computer?
‘Keyboard,’ she said. ‘You gotta say the words and it’ll pull me through. Gotta be quick, though.’ Her face was dimming again and the slim-jim tights were buckling at her skinny knees. The whole summer scene was bending and folding like a special effects screen. He sat down without waiting to be told a second time and pulled the heavy chair close to the table. It was an involuntary gesture. He always got in ‘writing’ position before he placed his fingers on the keys.

* * * * * * *

2. Let Me Out

CANDYTRICE current angelic meme identified with annual Nevada desert Burning Man frenzy – female idolatry

When he thought back on that moment: the strange way she assumed he knew what to do — that he’d go through with it without question — it made no sense. Divorced single male in his fifties, estranged from his wife and teenage daughter Gemma, volunteering to extract a little teenage ‘entity’ from a computer screen. Even he knew she wasn’t real when he first saw her, but somehow his right and left hemispheres hadn’t done their joined-up-writing long enough to project the possibility of a real live teeny-bopper in the middle of his writing room floor.
Just as well, as it turned out. What would the neighbors think?
First off, typing instructions to get her through from one medium into another depended a lot on a strong signal and that was a problem from the start. The storm. Her image blinked in and out. The laptop was being treated to a series of hiccups. She kept saying ‘CMEs’.
‘The CMEs are the reason you can see me at all,’ she laughed during a moment of clear communication, after he’d tried a lot of exasperated typing and she was still ‘inside’. He hadn’t heard anything on the news — mainstream always the last to report the serious stuff — but he had seen a report online earlier in the day that the earth was being buffeted by a series of solar flares and coronal mass ejections (her CMEs) were playing havoc with earth’s communications systems, dependent for operation on a smooth electromagnetic stream. If solar flares were mentioned at all, focus was concentrated on ‘spectacular aurora displays’ in northern latitudes, because NASA’s policy was not to scare the general populace by telling them all their electronic equipment was going to fail.
CME or no CME, Luke’s little friend was still stuck in her world of electrons after three hours of dedicated typing with no results. She’d tried instructing him from the screen, pasting a printed version of the control sequence like a note on a windshield so it faced him on his desktop obliterating her sweet face. Then there was her third option — the telepathic version which was the creepiest of all. He didn’t like to think about it. Somehow she wanted him to close his eyes and place his right hand over the keyboard and allow it to be ‘remote’ directed. He’d done everything she said and still she remained on the other side.
Throughout the evening Luke barely noticed that conversation between them appeared to graduate. And it wasn’t just because he was receiving instruction from ‘beyond’. Somewhere between lunch — which he realized he’d missed completely — and the time it got dark, with unrelenting storm winds outside, conversation escalated from teen talk through a kind of teacher-student model and became super cerebral.
She told him her name was Candy-Trice. Unusual, to say the least, but he liked it. Like Patricia with an extra helping of candy. When she first tried to get him started on the keyboard, it sounded a very appropriate teenage name — for a teenager. As the day progressed, and the wind blew stronger and clouds scudded by making everything dark and gloomy, he fell more under her spell. He found himself actually wanting to feel part of her sunny landscape, and she grew a little older, had a philosophy he didn’t expect, especially when the struggle to find a way to bring her out of her inner landscape didn’t work. Then as late afternoon came and they tried the third tack of his shutting his eyes and allowing his right hand to be led blindfold, he could swear he felt her touch, like a phantom hand holding his own. It still didn’t seem to make a difference because he sat in his writing chair and she still stood there in her meadow, but this was the clincher. She had aged.
No longer dressed in mini skirt and tights like a pre-teen, her nubile body now wore a skin-tight leotard — something much more desirable. It made the effort to bring her into his world more urgent. More than that: if he achieved nothing else that day, he was going to succeed in this crazy act of creating a real person out of an image in the machine.
One moment, as he thought that thought for the umpteenth time, her background changed with her aging body and he had a glimpse — so brief he could have imagined it, but he knew this time he hadn’t because he’d seen it once before — of a gigantic mechanism controlling her image, her world, her body and her psyche like she was merely a cog in a giant machine. With the image floated the thought: disposable. To the machine, she was superfluous. The thought and the image disappeared immediately and he knew he had to persevere to make the transition work. Now he knew, more than anything else in the world, he had to bring her out of that world and into his.

* * * * * * *

Around four he realized he hadn’t eaten. For a second the screen went to black and reopened like a jack-in-a-box. Scratchy background soundtrack barked:
‘CME, CME’ and there was a flurry of actvity in the meadow behind her. The picture seemed to fold and went blank.
He had a sudden premonition that he was delving in stuff a little too deep for his own good. What was going on?
Then her voice came through the misty screen.
‘Whenever a CME happens, the whole area becomes infected. Solar flares magnify every electronic thought, action, every feeling, psyche-imbued particle. You’re going with the flow, whether you know it or not. It’s better if you allow it to lead. Think of it this way. . .’
He had a sudden vision of a reptilian hand reaching out from inside the screen towards his own right hand. The hand that had guided him to tap the keyboard earlier that afternoon felt slippery to the touch.
The feeling wasn’t too too awful — more like awesome.
It felt like a gentle but strong force taking over his body. He couldn’t quite describe it. It held him without his being able to do much about it.
He looked down at his hand in the act of reaching to pick up the laptop to take it from the room. And he saw the skin of his forearm looked armor-clad too, like the one reaching out from the screen. Even his hand looked slightly scaly. Like a reptile, a creature of fable, a cockatrice.
Cockatrice! The word echoed in his mind.
‘Yes,’ she answered.
At that moment his right hand tingled with an almost pleasurable burst of pain. Not only was it swelling — all four fingers swollen to an alarming degree — but the thumbnail had grown at least half an inch.. He saw parts of the inner palm start to flake off. He not only felt reptilian. His thumb looked as reptilian as the one reaching to grab it.
He was turning into a salamander.
He didn’t wait to think. His right forearm was still extended, awkwardly reaching to lift the computer. He stood at the side of the desk closest to the laptop’s power outlet, He should close the lid and get the hell out of here. . . Something stopped him. It had almost connected with him. It was wrapping round his hand, writhing like a the tail of a serpent. He let go, dropped the MacBook. It shuddered as it fell a couple of inches to the desk. He bent over with his left hand and pressed the escape button. It closed down.
There was a click, a flash on the top left corner and the screen went blank. No picture. No signal. No power.
He had the foresight to close the lid and pick it up with his left hand. The other one looked normal again – no swelling, no alien skin.
He hefted the MacBook, took two strides to the door and stepped through. Switching off the inner light, he descended the stairs to the kitchen — to eat and gather his wits.

* * * * * * *
3. Candytrice

But he wasn’t.
Becoming less reptilian.
His right hand — like his mind — felt fuzzy as he worked at the kitchen counter. He couldn’t hold the knife properly to cut onion and tomato for his sandwich. He opened the fridge to see if he had any pickle — or beer — and his right hand looked decidedly different from his left.
Need a drink. Water would clear his head. He was dehydrated. He’d spent the whole afternoon staring at that computer screen. He glanced over to where it lay innocently shining on the sideboard.
As he filled a glass of water from the tap, his thoughts strayed back over events. He swallowed the whole glassful and poured another. Water tinkled delicately into the glass.
He recalled he’d stopped to pee a little before noon — before all the hoo-ha began — he’d left the room with a sense of frustration.
It wasn’t the storm. He could handle that. Besides, the lights still worked. If it was a CME, as she said, it was affecting his work — the only letters the keyboard would display on the screen were caps. He couldn’t get into lower case at all to write the end of his chapter. The keyboard — particularly the left shift key — had frozen or something had jammed it. Stuck in capslock. Everything displayed in upper case. And control didn’t function either.
He’d forgotten all about it because as soon as he got back from the bathroom there’d been that cry from the voice recognition software. After that he forgot altogether. Everything went out of his mind: his story, his editor, his deadline, his family, his life. He sat the rest of that afternoon in front of a screen under instruction from another vibration.
Another dimension.
The dimension of electromagnetism.
Now he sat on the barstool by the island counter in the center of the kitchen and took a thoughtful bite out of his sandwich.
Chewing, he thought ‘I needed this.’ Then another thought penetrated:
‘Electromagnetism. We’re getting this radiation all the time.’ It was all around. Our lives live by it, run on it. We’re surrounded, intertwined and coddled by it. Can’t function without it. Now he knew what they meant when they said ‘all is energy’. The quantum theorists, mathematicians, geometricians, architects, painters, writers. They knew.
He stopped. What an idiot to let hours elapse without food — or even a drink. He needed something stronger. He leaned towards the door of the fridge and reached his hand in for a beer. The interior light did a power surge at him. Not just an on-off blink, but an increasing-decreasing wave of light. At full strength he couldn’t feel his hand at all. It had gone numb. He snatched a beer from the door tray and slammed the panel shut. What was happening? He was definitely out of the clutches of the scaly thing in the computer, but earth’s magnetic field was something else entirely. He was up against forces greater than one man could handle.
What was it she’d said about an hour into their magical technical embrace? That’s how it felt to him now, in the light of the kitchen glare with a sandwich beginning to get his digestive juices going again, his braincells working. He felt a lot better with food inside him — and with the computer totally disabled on the kitchen counter.
Somewhere between his first glimpse of her gleaming teenage body in that sunlit field and the older leotard-clad woman she became he remembered she’d said something about her captors. By then he knew her as Candytrice: part fantasy princess, part human, but still potentially dangerous to a mere writerly mortal like him. She’d been caught in an electromagnetic web, she said, and it required earthing. By that she meant him, outside the field — away from both the corn in the sunlight and the electromagnetic web generating inside the machine. He was ideal because he was earthed in his present reality, grounded in real terms — just as sure as the lightning rod attached to the roof of his home was earthed. It had grounded freak lightning storms in the past. It was probably doing its job right now. It was no accident the storm was still raging outside. He finished his beer and got up to make himself a cup of coffee, trying to detect in the rest of her story a lifeline that might save him in his predicament.
Her captors. Yes, that was it. She said they existed because human racial memory wouldn’t release them. They were considered mythical beasts who had existed before Man’s dominion on earth, but they were not figments or fantasy. Man’s memory was long. It remembered the cataclysm, the biblical Flood. It even had racial memory of the dinosaurs.
‘In the mind of Man, dragons were real because they once existed. In the Middle Ages dragons were feared because people believed they might return. Every age has its monsters. And my age is when they all come back in the flesh — to haunt us, kill us, eat us. Unless you release me from this time prism, I shall be consumed. Not just me. You, me, your friends and family, everyone: none of us will survive. My time and your time are only a brief span apart. We may still be able to pull it off. You have no idea how powerful they are. They feed off human memory.’
He recalled the urgency in her voice, how she had convinced him. He was her only hope. If he managed to pull her through, they might together find a way to stop the clock, to influence the human race: to convince them that mass fear was what was driving them to meet their old racial nemesis.
While the coffee percolator brewed he decided to check the doors and windows. He hadn’t done anything practical or down-to-earth all day and, besides, with this storm, a lot of things loosen up in the human world — slates, window fastenings, door jambs and locks. He walked out of the kitchen.
The living room looked okay: dark tan chairs, a maroon easy recliner in one corner by the fireplace. It all looked normal. The door to the hallway was open, front door beyond. He strode quickly past the coffee table, wondering if he should check outside, but it was already dark. Outside would have to wait for tomorrow. He reached the front door. The storm sounded even louder here. All locked and secure. In pretty good shape for an old Victorian farmhouse. He rattled the doorknob. It held firm. He checked round the little hallway, the door to his tiny dining room shut, hardly ever used these days, the main staircase leading up to his bedroom and study. He remembered he’d come straight downstairs without once checking the outside door and headed straight for a sandwich. Hunger does crazy things to a man.
He wandered back through the living room. The coffee should be ready now. Candytrice’s words floated uninvited into his head.
‘By consuming our blood, they get to carry our genetic code, our frequency and that allows them to stay in this reality longer. Another way is to eat us. It’s a theme going back to the Ancients when they did human sacrifices — by giving one victim to the monster, they saved the rest of the population. Human blood gives them their power and so does our fear. Anything negative.’ She’d mentioned an even worse scenario. He didn’t want to remember . . . sacrificed children, pre-pubescent sex. Something about the pure energy field of children and how they stole that energy from a child’s base chakra. Drained it like a water tank. He shook his head, but the vision of Candytrice standing in that shining field of awareness — a skinny little child — brought home the urgency he felt all over again. She’d said there was something about pre-puberty — an energy that the Repts want and need. He reached the kitchen sink and stopped. The percolator had switched itself off. A vision of his own little daughter Gemma, long before she reached her teenage stage, swam before his eyes. Repts. That’s what Candytrice called them: Repts. He was going to have to do something.
At that moment he wasn’t totally sure what he could do. All very well saying the world of 2012 was a short timespan ahead. What was happening to him was happening now. He’d stepped into a window two years ahead of himself and he didn’t like it one little bit. More than that, there were polarities of negativity that even he knew he didn’t want to cross. All very well saying we have to accept our transformation when the 2012 calendar comes full cycle, but that was surely to bring one to one’s highest destiny, one’s greatest dreams and hopes. You didn’t get to Fairyland untouched, but you did get there. Everything winds up great at the Pearly Gates. Everybody knows that.
So what was it with the Repts? Was Candytrice already being taken over? Was her cry for help for real or had she stepped beyond the pale? already become one of Them?
He didn’t want to turn the laptop on again to find out.
To distract himself from his growing fears, he bent to switch on the tv set under the corner closet. News said the storm was set to continue, gusting to 60mph, he heard. The weather channel was beeping; picture too. That wouldn’t hold. Signal waving in and out. He knew the wind was strong. He didn’t need the box to tell him how severe the gusts were. Unlikely they would mention CMEs. Not exactly politically-correct to scare the population to death by hinting that solar flares were the next biggie to worry about. He shut it off.
We use machines all the time, every moment of our lives, he thought. Our age can’t function without the electronic machine. He remembered the percolator, saw it sitting patiently on the counter, its brew complete, and poured himself a mugful.
If there were several CMEs buffeting Earth right now which nobody was mentioning, except Candytrice, they were in for a real blast. No point fighting it. CMEs had a way of changing everybody’s plans. Made us aware of our infallibility, our dependence on the planet, the solar stream and, basically, the Universe, for our survival. He remembered researching the Carrington Event for a news feature in his earlier career. In September 1859 a huge coronal mass ejection triggered the world’s biggest recorded geomagnetic storm that caused some telegraph systems to short out and their telegraph paper to catch fire while others seemed to be able to keep on transmitting messages despite being disconnected from their power supply. Aurora borealis was seen all round the world, as far south as the Caribbean, and was so bright that goldminers in California got up to make breakfast because they thought it was morning. If Candytrice said CMEs were in the solar windstream, they were in for a bumpy ride.
He’d read a little about reptilians, too. In his mind they fell in the category of Atlantis, planet Nibiru and the Mayan Great Cycle Calendar that was due to end on winter solstice 2012. Mythical, believable, but probably unlikely.
What the hell was he playing at? He had to do something. What day of the year had Candytrice been speaking from? She’d said it was 2012, but what month? How long did she have to go?
By now there was no doubt in his mind he had to save her. She might be out of his league, out of his time, but he had to reach in and pull her back through into his time — into the good old days of 2010. If he was lucky and his trusty sandwich held him grounded in the here and now, he might pull it off. Incredible though that sounded if you said it out loud — ‘bring her through into my time’ — he didn’t have much of a window. She said the window was open because of the CME. Even that wasn’t reliable. He hadn’t achieved much that afternoon and time was moving on. He looked around for an oven glove, a napkin, to wrap around his hand for protection against the ‘Force.’ That’s how he was starting to see it.
He saw a pair of rubber gloves over by the sink. Rubber — good insulator, he thought — and reached to pull one on over his right hand. That, after all, was what he was preparing to do. Perform surgery, an exorcism — extract a spirit — from the body of the machine. In this case rescue a maiden in distress. Capture the spirit of 2012 in his 2010 computer.
What else did he need? His eyes scanned the kitchen — an old-fashioned broom stood in one corner. No. But, he wondered if witches had used broomsticks for more utilitarian purposes — as props for their ‘experiments’, their spells. He picked up the percolator next to the redundant television and his half empty mug. Electrical supply willing, he’d make himself comfortable in the recliner and readjust the body balance of water. He knew how inspired a decision that was. Water: the human body’s major constituent was 98% water and it needed to be replenished — like a cosmic battery — in order to function at supreme level. Need a clear head for this.
For tonight, he had his work cut out: he had to perform surgery: to extract an embryo from the consciousness of two years into the future and bring it back into present time as a whole living being. If he’d thought about this way before, he never would have done it. But it’s just as well he knew the elements he was up against. By now he no longer cared if she was a shy, nubile pre-teen, thirty-something or crone — well maybe not an actual senior, but an older woman would suit him fine — he had to get her out of there. Repts or no Repts.
He balanced the coffee mug and percolator, grabbed a couple of cookies from the jar, absentmindedly hooked the laptop under his arm and headed for the living room.

* * * * * * *

4. CME
Back in the living room, he unloaded percolator and laptop on the coffee table and bent down by the easy chair to plug the percolator back in. Hot coffee would keep him alert. As he leaned over, his practiced eye scanned his reference library on the bottom shelf of the built-in bookcase to the right of the fireplace. A large television occupied the space on the left hand side. His usual evening position: in the recliner catching up on the news or on his research for next day’s rewrite.
He found what he was looking for: a two volume set of encyclopaedia scholastica from his freshman year. It dated from before the internet, before Google, Wikipedia.
Just as well he was a packrat, he thought. He didn’t want to turn the computer back on until he was prepared.
An old desktop version lay abandoned in a corner next to the big screen television — a leftover from his journalist days. He might chance a quick google on that computer for mythical creatures not in his old books. The internet was quicker, but his school days encyclopaedia was safer. He pulled out volume A – L.
Flicking the pages to C, his finger found the word ‘Cockatrice’: ‘mythical beast, part chicken part serpent with head of a fowl, body of an eagle and usually with a scaly tail, reminiscent of a serpent or dragon. In folk memory, thought to be vestigial cellular imprint from a time before Man’s earliest interaction with such creatures on the planet. Possible genetic memory of a time before human habitation of the earth, when amphibeans were evolving into birds.’
Luke stopped reading for a moment and studied his right hand instead. Not only was the thumbnail another inch longer, but all four fingernails were looking decidedly claw-like. He wedged the volume back in the bookcase and stood up. That’s all he needed. His head was already filled with amphibean thoughts. No need to go overboard. He grabbed the remote off the back of the armchair and walked with it back into the kitchen.
He’d set up his bachelor pad after Molly left with their daughter Gemma nearly ten years ago. No regrets about the separation — Molly had had an identity crisis, needed to restore her own self-confidence, get her own work published; not just support his, she said — but he missed them a lot. He liked having a female touch about the place. Anyway he’d turned the big television around so that it faced across the room towards the kitchen, so he could sit on the bar stool in there and watch the screen over the top of the big armchair which kinda blocked the way through between the two rooms, filled up the space, made it feel more lived in. He tended to fall asleep if he sat in that chair anyways. Sometimes in the winter, though, when he wanted to write downstairs, he would light a fire and cozy up inside away from snowstorms, chopping chores, bad weather.
He reached the center working counter top and slammed the television remote on its bare surface. In the room behind him the television sprang to life, roaring soundtrack from an invisible football game. He knew he hadn’t switched the ‘on’ button. He rounded the aisle, picked up the offending instrument, and flicked the on-off switch furiously. Nothing changed. Loud soundtrack from the adjoining room. The set was on to stay, it seemed. He hadn’t gotten the kitchen portable to work either, but the big screen was planning on giving it to him in stereo and technicolor. He saw the other rubber glove he’d discarded earlier on the table top, picked it up and with a professional flourish, snapped it on over his left hand. No electromagnetic storm was going to get the better of him. No CME, no solar flare playing havoc with earth’s systems was going to stop him. No reptile from the future, either. Instead give THEM a blast from the past. Suddenly he understood. From some vestigial corner of his reptilian brain, he knew how his ancestors felt and believed about such hybrid monsters. This fear and loathing must have lingered in the human mind for forty million years.
He’d seen internet websites which concentrated on the 2012 phenomenon: including the full Mayan take on the endtime of their sacred calendar. Some of it was doom and gloom. Others focused on predicting a switch in human perspective, a transformation of the human race, but not without certain sacrifices.
He’d read that prior to the 2012 end date, as part of a change in worldwide consciousness a schism would occur round about a date in November 2010 — this year — predicting chaos in human heirarchy, a rise in anarchy worldwide, even the end of the monetary system as we know it. Sounded drastic. He must remember to ask Candy what they used in 2012 for money. In the Mayan Calendar this November date had a name: Yellow Galactic Seed. The Maya had known ahead of time something cataclysmic would happen. Had given it a name. Yellow Galactic Seed was a germination point, a date after which nothing would ever be the same again. It signaled an implant in human consciousness, the ultimate change in human DNA which altered irrevocably the chemistry of the human soul.
It was usually seen in a hopeful context, that the human race would pull through, and this foggy attitude had made him decide to rescue Candy, whatever the consequences. But he had a sudden thought. What if change in world consciousness wasn’t benign? Nobody had gotten beyond the point of speculation on what that new consciousness would become. What if it became reptilian?
There was something not too inviting about coming into contact again with that lizard consciousness: the Repts, she called them. But he’d have to take that chance. The sensation of having his hand held by a Rept had been more insinuating than scary. He had the scars of that encounter to prove it wasn’t just imaginary. His gloved right hand itched. Felt hot through the rubber. He was working up to another bout with Electronica, the world of CME and earth’s magnetosphere. Nobody would believe him if he told them, so it was just as well he lived alone now. Keep this under wraps until he had a real live girl standing on the living room floor. The blaring television somehow made him decide to do the deed in there. Not here in the brightly lit kitchen. He’d light some candles, get the fire started and give the laptop another try.
He grabbed a couple of candlesticks from the side counter and for the third time that evening crossed the living room carpet and laid them on the coffee table next to the laptop and percolator. He found a match on the mantel, struck it firmly on the stone surround and set it to kindling a fire in the grate, using the same flame to light both candles. Then he strode to the television set and turned the sound down as low as it would go. No distractions. He needed to concentrate.
All set, he returned to the large chair, wedged himself comfortable and with his gloved hands turned the laptop towards him and opened the lid. He breathed deeply. Somehow he had to make this work. He hoped the rubber gloves would prove a good choice as insulation.
Needs must when the devil drives.

* * * * * * *

5. The Dream

Twenty minutes later he sat back and tried to think straight — he was getting nowhere with the laptop and rubber gloves — he decided even he was no match for a CME or whatever electromagnetic anomaly was making it impossible for him to access the frequency he’d reached before. He leaned over and took a hit from his forgotten coffee. Even that was stone cold. He knocked it back and poured himself a fresh cup. A swallow of warmth penetrated his rib cage, eased its way down into his stomach.
He was exhausted, but he’d try one more time before he packed it in for the night. Just a five minute break while he collected his thoughts. The sound of the patient percolator’s gentle hum lulled him into unconsciousness. He leaned back in the recliner and drifted off.
He dreamed he stood in a meadow as bright as the one he’d seen in Candy’s world and he felt a breath of a gentle breeze on his face. Nobody else around. He breathed deeply, the smell of autumn penetrating deep into his lungs. The scent was a dusty mix of floating pollen particles and the sweet straw of harvester bales that stretched to the horizon in a random pattern in the stubble. All except for one panel of standing grain in the middle that still waved and beckoned to the harvest.
It looked like any field in real life and yet he knew he was in a different time. When was it?
He managed to drag his eyes from the distant straw-colored horizon and focus on his watch. He knew he was in a dream because he was able to lift his arm towards his face and saw without feeling any alarm that his forearm was scaled: a long tendril of flaky armor ending in four grey tendril terminals — each finger a claw. The thumb of his left hand pointing towards his chest was long enough to pierce the shredded rubber glove clinging useless, half concealing the watch face.
It was half past four.
He didn’t know why that felt relevant, but he noted the time and turned back to view the field. Someone was coming — a shadow blinking through bright sunlight on the far horizon. A tall slim figure in a dress of grey and yellow glided towards him through the swathe of uncut grain, weaving a path across the stubble field. There was a forest behind her, dark, remote, but the shadows of the trees spread out across the meadow, flanking her approach. Between the forest and her approaching figure a huge combine harvester advanced from the shadows, its binder blades spinning, pounding its approach with a deep drumming in the earth.
As she moved, the machine moved. For a second he saw the blades not as a rotating drum, but as long grasping tentacles of amphibian flesh, like multiple tails on a long-dead dragon. If this was the reaper that was about to engulf her, it was grim indeed.
But she slid silently though the waving grain, smiling, unconcerned by the behemoth advancing, slicing through the living grain towards her.
She came into focus and he recognized her: Candy, grown tall. Not only tall but statuesque. What he’d seen at a distance as her dress was a yellow cloak clutched closely over a gray leotard partially concealed beneath.
Staring at her he saw this was no leotard of cloth. Her whole body was covered by it. She was immersed in its skin. Its flesh was her own. Her whole body was a leotard of scales. Her face and head alone emerged above its tight skin. She held her head high, and as she came closer he saw her feet for the first time, prancing lightly through the wheat stalks on high alligator heels which enhanced her slim amphibian body.
As she smiled, her face framed in a high peaked feather crown — its bright red cockatoo crest lit up his world. It was the sweetest smile. He reached out to embrace her. He felt only love and desire. He knew then she would come into his world, that he would succeed in bringing her through this time, and she would be his love. He knew he had the power, the right focus and intent, to pluck her from that timeframe and bring her to life in his own.
The window of the computer through which he had stepped stood waiting behind him. Suddenly it came to him how he could make it work. All he had to do was lean backwards through the computer screen himself, find the keyboard and trigger the right sequence. He and she would be together. That was all that mattered. He didn’t mind the color of her skin — just a trick of the light — and once he got her through with him to the other side, she’d be a real live girl, his companion, his soulmate.
Following through in his dream was easy. He reached out his left hand to take her cloak, to lead her gently through the transition. As he stretched, yellow slivers of rubber glove peeled back. At the same moment her yellow cloak flew off her shoulders, landing in the stubble field. It revealed her tall, aquiline gray-toned scale-clad form in all its glory. She was half bird, half amphibian, a crested lizard lady with long tapering legs on three-inch alligator heels.
Cockatrice. No, Candy-trice. He shivered; couldn’t remember. In his dream he tried to clear his head, conscious that he could do this, so long as he kept focus.
As if sensing their meeting culminated in some preordained action, she stretched out her own gloved claw to meet his and in the act of stretching, her shoulder stood bare, revealing human flesh within a surround of reptilian skin. Her other hand reached up and she wrenched off her feathered headdress with a flourish. Ta-dah. The large red comb and feather cloak were caught by the breeze and streamers of red, yellow and gold glinted in the evening light as a trailing snake of feathers drifted out over the stubble field. The gesture was almost coquettish. As she swept the headress from her head, he marveled at her sweet face, her body edging towards his. Both were aware of the advancing machine, the reaper’s tentacles reaching out towards them. It was all he could do to remember to stretch with his right hand through the computer screen to touch the keyboard. His other hand held her firm. Her face was coming closer. He saw the pallor of her skin, its gray tinge. Behind him he tried to press the keys. Her lips were coming closer, they were seeking his, touching his . . .
He awoke, drenched in sweat, his exhausted body tumbled off the recliner, full length on the living room floor by the fire, its embers only a memory in the grate. The laptop lay open above him on the coffee table, its screen dark, dead.
He groaned.

* * * * * * *

6. After the storm
Luke’s editor Jonathan called at the end of the week when he didn’t hear from his friend. The phone rang seven times and the answering machine picked up. Just the usual, leave a message after the bleep. Not like him not to leave an explanation if he was planning to be gone for a few days. Jonathan had a couple of hours to spare, decided to swing by the old farmhouse to see what other pressing deadline might be keeping his buddy from completing his assignment. In all the years he’d known him, he’d never once missed a deadline and this little story might not be a big deal, but it was scheduled to go into an anthology of a prestigious press and Luke had never been one to turn down exposure to his work.

As the old station wagon drew level with the porch, it was clear Luke hadn’t emerged since the storm because he was a stickler for clearing storm damage, getting leaves and autumn debris packed away, and the yard was still littered with evidence of the Big One. That’s what they called it in town. Power lines down, communications disrupted, most of the community had been busy sweeping up after Nature in this surprise early storm. But not Luke. That was oddity number two.

Oddity number three was when Jonathan walked up the porch steps and knocked on the front door and it swung easily inwards. Luke NEVER went anywhere without locking up. Probably not necessary in their neighborhood — so far from reality, a small town on the edge of a big wilderness, is how the tourist guides described it to hook visitors — but then if Luke was still around, he would be active out back, his chain saw at least would sound a constant vroom vroom, but there were no sounds, no birdsong. Just a faint whisper in the trees. And Luke’s car was there by the shed. So he had to be here somewhere.

The porch looked like it had been hit by a tornado. Chairs every which way, table turned over. Blown leaves everywhere. And the screen door leaned at a strange angle against one of the windows.
They’d had storms before. In these northern counties winter came early and you had to be prepared. That’s why those who lived here or were drawn here were rugged, larger than life, people who managed to survive Mother Nature’s fury at her height. Luke was one who thrived on it. His stories were full of it — that raw power he distilled directly from his frontier existence — Luke the old pioneer living in the computer age.
‘Where are you, you old devil?’ Jonathan called out a friendly greeting, just in case his friend was writing. Or hiding. He didn’t want to disturb something he shouldn’t. His old friend didn’t see a lot of people, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t capable of inviting a lady friend to stay from time to time. With his wife and daughter gone now, must get lonely sometimes.
He knew Luke’s writing study was upstairs and started to head that way when, with one foot on the bottom step, he thought he heard something coming from his left — the way through the living room to the kitchen. Made more sense. His buddy was probably having a late breakfast. These writers wrote at the most godawful times, up all hours, not a normal schedule like us nine-to-fivers, he thought as he backtracked and pushed open the door to the living room.
What greeted him wasn’t totally unexpected, but it did give him pause for thought. Luke may be a stickler for a tidy yard, but his housekeeping left a lot to be desired. The living room looked like a tornado had moved around in here, too. A complete shambles. Television on, no sound, but picture dancing around like it wasn’t tuned in right; and an old computer next to it, humming, blank screen. Couple of easy chairs either side of the coffee table looked normal — but a third, a comfortable recliner, had its cushions ripped from the frame, both on the carpet. Couple of books open on the rug there too, but otherwise Luke’s bookcase — his pride and joy — seemed intact. No fire in the grate, but there had been one because Jonathan noted ashes spilled out on the hearth, two candles burned right down to the sticks, one upended on the coffee table, the other on the floor. Coffee percolator there too, overturned, burned out by the looks of it, its cord still hooked in at the wall. Must have shorted out hours ago. A coffee mug and a laptop computer, open but non-functional. Not plugged in. Battery probably died. The rest of the carpet was littered with debris. He didn’t like to look too closely, but the debris wasn’t Luke’s usual kind — not like a zillion pages of printout scored through with edits. This had been some kind of fancy dress costume, like it had been torn off the model before she’d finished her Hallowe’en parade. Large jigsaw pieces of armor plate, mottled yellow and gray. Made no sense at all. Jonathan continued into the kitchen.

In here everything looked like a regular bachelor pad, remnants of a sandwich, dishes in the sink, all the lights on, but otherwise operational. Door out back was closed. Heating system, refrigerator hummed. The small tv on the corner counter — like the big one in the living room — was on but not transmitting anything. He turned at the island counter and looked back through to where the recliner blocked his view of the big screen version. He should leave. He was beginning to feel like he was trespassing. If Luke had a lady stashed somewhere, it was none of his business. They would catch up later.
Something caught his eye. He edged slowly back towards the living room but stopped and leaned on the big chairback. Wedged down between the recliner and Luke’s bookcase were two rubber gloves, both yellow, both torn to shreds. Same yellow as the Hallowe’en costume, but at least these were recognizable household utility items. Beside them on the floor was a single sheet of paper covered in spidery writing. Luke didn’t usually make paper notes, except in the margins of printout manuscripts. Like all good 21st century writers and geeks, he used his laptop to write notes to himself — so this was unusual. Jonathan bent to read but didn’t pick it up.
It said: ‘Time and space are constructs. Your left brain takes information and sequences it, and the more quickly it makes the sequence happen, the more time seems to speed up.’ Pencil marks, very spidery. Not like Luke’s usual quick handwritten notes to him at all.
Made no sense. But Luke’s domestic situation was his own affair. He decided to leave and stepped gingerly over the armor plated fragments on the floor. Some fancy dress designer had gone to a lot of trouble to make that outfit. The plates looked real, like off a model dinosaur in the Natural History Museum. He shivered and moved quickly through the room. At the door he looked back. Should he leave Luke a note? No, he’d call him again later. If worse came to worst, he knew how to get in touch with his ex-wife Molly. No problem. He closed the front door behind him and walked back to the station wagon, got in and backed out of Luke’s driveway.

* * * * * * *

7. Aftermath

Two years later — almost exactly to the day in mid September — they had another storm. Jonathan got in late to his office downtown next day and had to walk up to the fourth floor because the elevator didn’t work. Secretary June, whom he shared with the legal office down the hall, said two people were waiting for him. One of them was Luke. He was surprised, pleased, and the two men greeted each other heartily when he entered the room. He was introduced to Luke’s new friend who perched demurely in a gray tailored pants suit in his office chair. Candy and Luke had been ‘away’, he said. Jonathan shrugged, didn’t give it much thought. He had things on his mind. Storm was bad this time. Communications blackout. He and his publishing colleagues had their work cut out for them. This would be a short day at the office. He’d take most of it with him and work from home.
‘Glad you’re back, old man. Sorry we missed your deadline!’ They both laughed.
‘I brought it in today. And another one I’ve been working on while I — we’ve — been gone. If you don’t mind.’
‘Your publisher always has room for your work, Luke. Your stories usually pack a punch.’ Jonathan was discreet enough not to ask where they’d been, but he did note Luke’s disheveled appearance — baggy jeans, old sweater and tousled hair; even a stray wisp of straw — in stark contrast to Candy’s neatness. He had a feeling Luke wasn’t about to explain. He still stood where Jonathan and he had embraced.
‘Can’t stay, old man. The old place needs some work. Just thought I’d stop by and say hi. And let you and Candy meet.’
‘Going back home myself. Power supply not too hot here. At least I can work from home. I’ll take your piece with me,’ Jonathan smiled. ‘You back at the old place, then?’
‘Yep. You’ll have to come over and have supper with us — after we get the mess cleaned up.’
‘Sure. The storm. Nearly as bad as that one a coupla years ago. You remember?’ Jonathan eyed Luke. Of course he would remember. Nobody had seen hide nor hair of him since.
Luke avoided his gaze, bent to take Candy’s slim hand — a little pallid-looking, Jonathan thought — as she rose from the chair.
‘See ya, then.’ He took Candy’s arm and ushered her to the door. Then turned to smile at his friend.
‘Real good of you, Jonathan. I appreciate it. Not everyone who would just pick up where we left off.’ His expression was sincere, tired, like he was trying to say a lot more than the words that came out.
‘No problem. You two be good now.’ And Jonathan watched as both turned to leave the room. His buddy slouched, there was a slight limp to his gait and he held on to the door frame as he ushered Candy through. She was tall, maybe an inch taller than Luke and she didn’t turn back to say goodbye. He realized then she hadn’t spoken at all. As the pair made their way down the hall to the stairwell, he had a momentary glimpse of something not quite demure emerging from under the coat of her tailored suit. A long sinuous tail flicked from her neat little rear, swishing quickly to left and right — just like a cat’s but larger, flecked yellow and gray, more armor-plated, more reptilian. And then they were gone: down the stairwell, out of sight.
Jonathan turned back to the worries on his desk, aware now that there were a couple of yellow-gray platelets lodged in his office chair. There were a few on the carpet too, a trail leading to the elevator. He glanced down at the two manuscripts Luke had left on his desk. One was familiar. He’d taken a look at it a couple of years ago. The other was new. His editorial eye automatically scanned the first couple of sentences. It began:

‘Somewhere between Heaven and Earth there is a place where the Magic never ends. It’s where our troubles begin.’

©2010-2020 Marian Youngblood

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