Read the winning pieces.
Winner: That Terrible Thing
By Elena Bones
I have done something terrible that nothing can undo. This is the thought I awaken with every morning, before my conscious mind wakes and does what it can to soothe me. It was just a dream. It’s not real. I repeat this as my mantra as I begin my rituals; I use the bathroom, I put the coffee on, I gaze out the windows at the sunlit trees and roads and grass and houses. It’s all clear, it’s all sharply focused, it’s real. I’m not still sleeping. This is real, and nothing is wrong, and everything is okay. I haven’t done that terrible thing. I savour the few moments in the morning when I can feel free. I hold the coffee cup in both hands, so hot it almost burns me, so hot it forces me to stay present. I look at the floor, at the tiles, I stare down at the lines between each square, the squares themselves, I don’t want to look up. I’m still staring at the floor as I walk across to the opposite windows, the ones that look out over the backyard, the sloping hill that my house was built on. I hate to look out these windows. But I must, it is the morning and I have soothed myself too much already and I must look at it.
It rained in the night. It shifted the soil and something, that terrible thing, it lifted a little more out of the ground. I can see its shoulder, the side of its head, I can see the top of its left arm, the rest of it lying on its side under the dirt, I know it is, I know it’s there. I can see its head. It’s rising. It’s coming out of the dirt. I hate looking at it.
Close up, she’s clearly dead. Insect life hasn’t yet colonised her body but her skin is white and bloodless. I know under the surface, those parts of her that are lowest will be purple and bruised, but the part I can see is horrible, sickly, white, like the underbelly of some slimy sea creature. It contrasts too starkly with the black soil around her, she’s too obvious, anyone looking over could see her shoulder, her head, her arm, they’d know what she is. Her eyes are open. She can’t see me.
I have to hide her before someone sees. I have neighbours. They could look over the fence. They could see her. If somebody finds her, everything is over, it’s all over. I should bury her further down but I can’t bear to dig her up. I can’t look at all of those limbs, everything that indicates a human body, I can’t let myself see the terrible thing I did. I pile the dirt on top of the head, the shoulder, the arm. It’s covered with dirt now. Nobody can see what’s underneath. Nobody can see the terrible thing.
I have done something terrible. I wake up knowing, knowing, knowing, I have done something terrible. I cannot undo this. My conscious mind knows what to do. It was only a dream, nothing more. It isn’t real. This is real life, and you haven’t done anything. I use the bathroom; I make the coffee. I look at the trees, the grass, the houses, lit by the sun, sharply defined. I turn to the opposite windows.
It rained again in the night. There are two human feet coming up through the surface of the soil. Two feet. So human, so human, they can’t be mistaken for anything else, anything other than the feet of a dead human body. If anybody saw them it’d be all over. The morning is so bright, the feet are so pale, they’re so visible. Has anyone looked over their fence? Has anyone seen? Have any helicopters flown overhead? Is it already too late?
I can’t dig her up. I can’t look at her. What if her dead eyes turn to look at me? What if someone comes by when she’s whole, above ground, unburied? I can’t look at her whole human body. It’s dead. It’s a terrible thing, I can’t take it back or undo it. I can never make it better again. I have to hide it.
I pile the dirt up on top of the feet. I cry as I’m doing it. I sob. I’m silent, but I’m wailing. My soul is wailing, heard by nobody but the worms. Terrible, terrible, terrible reality. I can feel my mind bending almost beyond the point of breaking. I’m waiting for it to snap.
I wake up to the sound of the rain. The sun is dim through the curtains. I have done something terrible that nothing can undo. No, it was only a dream. I soothe my panicked brain. It only happened in the dream. It didn’t happen in real life. I stay in bed a while longer, though I don’t go back to sleep. The dreams are where I’ve done the terrible thing. Reality is safer. Now, in the morning light, I haven’t done anything bad. There’s nothing to fear. There’s nothing buried in the yard.
I wait until the sun is bright before I get up. I use the bathroom and put the coffee on. The trees and houses on my street are so sharp. They’re so real. They exist, I’m no longer asleep. This I know.
Out the opposite windows, I see a trench dug out of the yard. What’s done that? Was somebody here? It can’t be. Nobody could have come into my backyard and dug it up without waking me. And who would come by, dig a hole, and leave?
I kneel by the trench. I look down in the hole. There are two feet, though they’re not attached to legs. There are two eyeballs. There is a tongue. There are scattered teeth.
I go back to bed.
I wake up to the sound of the rain, though it’s still dark out. I dreamt again of the terrible thing, but it was just a dream. I didn’t do anything; nothing has been done that cannot be undone. It wasn’t real. My bed is warm, my covers are wrapped around me like a cocoon, I’m safe and calm, and nothing is wrong. But there’s a sound. It’s the middle of the night, there should be nothing but the sound of the rain. But there’s a sound.
It’s quiet, so I’m not sure if I can hear it or if I’m imagining it. I know I’m not still asleep, so it must be real. It’s like a tapping, a muffled tapping, a scraping, a scratching, someone is clawing to get in, somebody is trying to get into my house. Cold rain rushes through my body from my skull to my feet. Somebody is trying to get into my house. I slide out from under the covers, I slither down to the ground like I’m made of liquid, I crawl over to the door. I can’t stand up yet. I can’t let this be real.
The noise sounds like it’s coming from the back door. The door is glass, it’s a beautiful floor-to-ceiling set of French doors that give a wide view of the entire back yard. I hate this door. I wish I’d never moved into this house. That hated door, it looks out upon that hated yard. That hated trench and that hated mound of soil. That hated hole. That hated body.
I’m so scared to look, but I do. I don’t see anything in the yard, not on the sloped hill, no body parts poking out, no eyes, no tongue, no feet, no teeth, there’s nothing to show what I’ve done, there’s no evidence of my terrible misdeeds. There’s nothing there.
By the door, just behind the glass, a thin pane separating it from me, is the body. It’s her, it’s her entire human body. It’s smeared with dirt and the eyes are open. She’s looking at me. That horrible, hated body, she’s here, she’s looking at me. Her eyes are empty. There’s no life in her. There’s no soul or spirit or anything left, no synapses firing, no dreams, no future, no life. I did something terrible that nothing can undo.
I can’t look at it. I can’t look. I close my eyes.
It’s only a dream. You haven’t done anything terrible. You haven’t done that terrible thing, you’ve got nothing to cover up, there’s nothing that must be buried. You are free. You need only to go back to sleep and when you wake up, it’ll be morning, the sun will be out, you’ll go about your normal routine and your life will be back to normal. You’ll live an everyday life with the everyday people and none of this will be real. There’s nothing to fear. This is only a dream.
I open my eyes and stare upwards at the ceiling. The door opens and I step out, never looking down, never letting myself think about what is lying by my back door. There’s nothing by my back door. Nothing is there.
There’s a trench dug in my back yard. Who could have come and dug this? Who could have come and dug up my yard while I was sleeping? Who would come here, dig a hole, and then leave? This dream, it makes no sense. Nothing makes any sense. It’s imperative that I wake up.
The rain falls down on me as I lie in the trench, washing the dirt down over me. I roll on my side and pull the soil across like a blanket, knowing that I’ll wake up soon, I’ll wake up in my own bed, warm and calm, and there will be nothing to panic about. Nothing will be wrong. I’ll have done nothing terrible. I have not done this terrible thing that nothing can undo. It was not real. It was just a dream, just a dream.
Runner Up: The Star That Hates
By Jack Spires
Space is vast. Few can reach into its endless scope, fewer still return. When things go wrong, they come to me. I go where they cannot. I am a fixer.
“Farsight-Nine lies just outside the Neptune gravity well. It’s way outside its operational lifetime, but we don’t have any other assets that far rimward so it’s still used in our navigation systems for the outer planets.”
The company reps in their expensive suits explain the problem mechanically, wasting little breath on elaboration. They know my worth.
“Last log we received said they were experiencing health problems and mechanical issues which they believed were linked to the anomaly.”
“Occupants?” I ask, examining the mug shots of the satellite’s employees.
“Two,” one answers, the other reaches out and taps the first image, “Station master Ibram Kippler.” A gaunt pale man with the thin elongated bone structure of a life spent in low gravity, the finger taps again.
“And second assistant Josiah Winslow.” Younger, new uniform and from the tanned face clearly raised in a natural atmosphere. The old, grizzled spacer and the fresh-faced jockey on his first ride out.
“What did you say the first symptoms were reported as?” The two suits looked between themselves, behind the sunglasses I could not read their eyes, but their faces showed enough concern for me feel a shiver up my neck. The first cleared her throat as if giving herself more time to think of the wording and then said, “Nightmares, they said they were having nightmares,” I held their gaze for a long time before I flipped to last image.
It was an x-ray, all colour leached to black and white, taken by a deep space telescope. Most of it was just stars, a million, million tiny points of light caught in a blur across the printout, but emerging from the left reveal the sun blossomed across the picture like a strange gigantic dandelion. Its surface scored by black spots and looping arcs of jettisoned plasma. A red circle has been drawn at the centre to draw the eye to two strange small flare of white surrounding a core of black space. It looked like a hole had been burnt into the very page.
I stared down at what was shown. It looked like nothing. A glint? A glimmer caught in the lens. An error in the software. A trick of the mind. But something held your eye to it. I should have said no then and there. Even just an image of it caused something deep in the mind to react. Like a lure hanging in the void it drew you in, never even realising the danger.
“A comet, twin tailed” I say folding the picture back into the document. It took some effort to pull my gaze, “There are a billion like it out there. Your wickies are shitting themselves over a comet?”
“It doesn’t read like one, no spectro imaging can get past interference of the core and its orbit is…” the second suit’s voice trails off as he takes his sunglasses off, the eyes behind them are shockingly red and the bags under them look as if this man hasn’t slept for a hundred years. He glanced away at something, he couldn’t seem to focus on me, but rather somewhere behind me. He drew a breath to speak, and I noticed to steady his hand,
“We just need the station repaired and the crew taken care of, understand?”
I looked again into this man’s eyes and again I knew I should have said no, but that’s the way it is with this work. They wouldn’t come to me if they’d thought I’d say no.
“Sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone,” Josiah gurgled to me from the gurney he’d been strapped to. I imagine he was trying to giggle but it’s a hard thing to do with a broken jaw. It had taken me three months to reach the rings of Neptune and I had barely slept the whole journey. Josiah gave another gurgling laugh.
“I know you’ve seen it; they would’ve shown you the picture we took,” a spasm went through him and the restraints went taught as he squirmed against them.
“It starts with the dreams, then the nightmares and then you can’t sleep at all,” he rasped up at me.
“Is that why you took your eyes out, Josiah?” I asked the broken boy who despite his swollen face still managed to make a sickly wide grin.
“Shouldn’t have come here,” he managed as another spasm took him.
Somewhere close I heard a clanging; my gun was drawn before I had even time to think. The lights were failing all over the station and whatever gravity generators it had been equipped with had long since failed. Tools, parts, and trash floated freely through the decks as the station slowly turned end over end in Neptune’s orbit. Cold blue light streamed through the portholes casting strange shadows.
“Kippler!?” I called out my voice echoing down the halls. Nothing returned.
I was so tired; Josiah was right, it started with the dreams, then the nightmares until sleep became impossible. The comet always the comet. I could not close my eyes now without seeing the burning twin tails of white fire soaring after the black core screaming across the stars towards the sun. A blood red orb swelling and burning always burning and I could hear it even now wide awake as the comet howled across the night. I had to know why. I kept my gun drawn and I pushed off the floor.
“Kippler?” I called out ahead. My voice was painfully loud in the cold dead air of the station.
It came from the stars. A voice reedy and deep came through speakers. The words sounding thick and slow as if he was speaking through a mouthful of blood and mud.
“Kippler, I can help you!” I called out again holding onto one of the rungs that ran down the corridor’s length slowing myself before the open bulkhead.
It came from the stars, where things ain’t like they are here.
“What’s coming Kippler?” I asked through the gap gun held out at the ready. I could feel a tremor starting in my hand.
It came down in the rock. The lights flickered beyond the door into room filled with consoles and static bleating terminals. I swallowed what bile and fear I could and pushed the bulkhead aside.
It lives in the sun. The voice rumbled like distant thunder.
“Come out damn you!” I searched the command deck. Most of the screens were dead save only a few and what was shown I could barely bring my eyes to see.
It grew in there. Kippler’s voice rolled over me as I stared at the video repeating in front of me. The comet raced across the pixels, it was almost lost amongst the roaring flares of the sun and the sheer scale of the starry background, but I could still track its flight as it vanished into the blinding corona. Swallowed whole.
“Kippler please I need to know,” I was so tired, but I couldn’t close my eyes.
Changing everything into something like the place it came from. Into something that it knows.
“Damn you,” I cursed as I accessed the logs and scanned the entries. It took me but a moment to find it catalogued in the stations data array. And then I see it. Hiding in the centre, wrapped around and around itself like a coiled snake. I run my hand down the image.
“It can’t be,” I say. Cold air breathes down my neck and suddenly his voice is in my ear.
“We can’t get away,” I know he is right, “It’s got everything that lives. They all need the light. It’ll feed on ‘em. Get strong on ‘em.”
I turned and stared into his eyeless gaze as he spoke to me and in my mind, I saw the comet which was not really a comet. I saw its burning light pour out from the sun, I saw its black heart give way to a million teeth and a million tendrils and I couldn’t think for the damn screaming.
“It came from the stars. Why did they send it?”