Liam Sharp is a British comic book artist, writer and publisher working mostly in the US marketplace.
…and they were out again.
As always, the Kiazmus had reconfigured the pair for their new environment – which this time revealed itself to be a young planet engaged in a great deal of volcanic activity. They had emerged onto one of many artificial platforms several thousand metres above the highly unstable planet surface out of which tumultuous clouds and gouts of magma erupted at alarming velocities. It was impossible to tell if these constructions were energy-based or of a tough synthetic material, and whatever held the outwardly two-dimensional platforms in a fixed low orbit was also shielded from view. Either way, it was designed to offer protection, and remained free of any spat-out debris, any visible heat damage. The entire effect was of vast grey sheets of paper frozen in an enormous stepped fan, spiralling towards the broiling conflagration below.
“Fuck me mate! What now?” asked Renan Avide, the taller of the two survivors. Absently rubbing the side of her neck the now rough, rock-like texture of her skin was a shock, and she could feel newly grown organic filters working in her throat as she breathed in the noxious atmosphere. They were now five planet falls down in their bid to return home via the Kiazmus - that vast galaxy-wide emergency exit for the stranded - and these meta-physiological mutations remained astounding, unpleasant, and were generally accompanied by nausea.
“Well,” said Tanik Mor, “I’d say we do as we always do, and keep going the way we’re facing. The exits and entries always seem to face each other. Not that we actually have much choice here…”
“Righty-ho squire. Lead on McDuff!”
Tanik sighed. His younger companion, and the only other survivor of the crash that had left them marooned on a class 9 un-seeded Planet in the Valdasian Quintrant, deeply irritated him – though he couldn’t fully figure out why. Something about the un-self-conscious, loose-limbed, utterly lazy way she contrived to transport herself about caused him to tense his jaw muscles. A striation would appear reflexively in his cheeks, dissecting them with diagonal grooves as his teeth clenched. She was attractive – or should be – in every general sense. She was slim but busty, which fitted his taste-profile. She was brunette – another plus. Her bright, green eyes were rimmed with long lashes. She had a pretty nose adorned with a faint matrix of freckles. And yet something about the curve of her wide, toothy mouth, the way it almost seemed too complex and prehensile, not quite under full control, made him avoid looking at her too often or for too long. It was entirely irrational, he knew, but there it was. Why couldn’t he be sharing this experience with somebody useful, somebody intelligent? Why not somebody more like himself?
“Must you always be so banal and clichéd? Honestly! “Lead on McDuff”!”
“What y’ mean? You saying I’m boring or something? It’s just a saying, mate!” Renan replied. “It’s just a saying, ain’ it? Everybody says it…”
“No. No they don’t.” said Tanik. “They don’t at all, not for a decades now. Not where I’m from at any rate. It’s got Kiazmic origins; one of those memes that spread across worlds. Why it ever became a popular saying is anybody’s guess. McDuff was a Shakespearian character from…”
“Sorry, mate, I’ve haven’t got a fucking clue what you’re talking about now, all right? Cor dear, and you say I’m borin’!” The girl - in fact a woman in her early thirties, though Tanik could not help but think of her as a girl – turned her back on him and sauntered off whistling tunelessly.
Tanik flexed his jaw muscles.
What’s his fucking problem? Thought Renan as she strode away over the featureless grey expanse of another of the platforms she’d just dropped a step down onto. She had tried to keep it light with the man, make the best of their difficult situation, but whatever she did just seemed to perpetuate his foul mood or cause him to make some caustic comment at her expense. He would not look at her, glowered at the horizon from beneath his static chiselled brow. The only thing that did ever seem to change the contours of his small, finely featured face was the constant flexing of his jaw muscles – something she found oddly attractive. It ennobled him, made him seem heroic. He was a small man proportioned like a tall man. He had a small head, hands and feet, but he was well-muscled and fit. The cropped white hair gave him a military look. It was almost impossible to think of him as an art teacher.
For the next three hours the pair kept a discrete distance between each other, Renan a few metres ahead despite her earlier suggestion that Tanik lead the way. The only possible direction they could go for now was downwards in a slow arc of stepped platforms. It was, of course, getting hotter. At the point where the platforms finally stopped descending and instead stretched out into one apparently continuous strip, the end of which was lost in the shimmering heat of the horizon, the pair stopped for a much-needed drink. Without speaking they both undressed to the waist. While they now possessed heat resistant – though not impervious – skin, it was still torturously hot. It was night, but the lava flows and great explosive ribbons of molten rock cast up flickering and constantly shifting light that glowed faintly through the grey platform, shimmered either side of it.
“You don’t mind do you?” asked Renan. “I mean, you being an art teacher and all? It is bloody hot mate!”
“What?” asked Tanik brusquely, he hadn’t been looking at her but now turned to do so. “Oh. No. No, it’s fine. It’s not like there’s anybody here, you know, to, ahm…” He looked away.
“Not much to look at are they mate? They’re all, like, rocky and shit! Here, look.” She rocked her chest from side to side, which produced very little of the kind of movement one would normally expect from such a demonstration. “Look!” she said again. “Nothing! Might as well strap boulders to my chest! Still, at least I don’t need a bra here though, eh? Small mercies, right? They’re just, like, solid and that! I hope the next stop is more like, y ‘know, home. I can’t get used to this constant fucking freak show mate! Know what I mean, mate?”
“Yes.” He replied under his breath. “I know exactly what you mean.”
Much later, as a large unmercifully hot sun rose, they unpacked the light provisions salvaged from the crash site. A tent unfolded itself, monitored the atmosphere, and took on a silver texture that reflected heat and light and was completely opaque on the inside. It adjusted its layout for two, though it could accommodate as many as ten, and filtered the air, cooling it in the process. They fed some plant matter from the previous planet into a small processor that converted most of it into blandly edible bars, and discarded the unwanted material in the form of a black sludge squeezed out into gel capsules that could be easily discarded. The tent softened itself beneath their body contours, and for several brief hours they were able to sleep quite soundly.
“Time to go. It’s night again. Get up and let’s get going.” Said Tanik.“Whuzzat? No coffee nor nothing, mate?” He tossed her an alien plant-matter protein bar. “Yeah, thanks.” She said, not meaning it. “So. What happened then?”
“What do you mean?”
“What happened to the ship we were on? Why’d it crash y’ think mate?”
Tanik was standing outside the tent in shorts, everything else efficiently packed into small sacks arranged over his back and hips. He was looking along the length of the grey strip that still stretched off into the distance ahead of them.
“Well. Why does anything ever crash?” He replied at length. “Human error? General wear and tear – it was an old ship, well over a hundred years old I’d guess. I imagine things don’t get serviced as often out in the Valdasian Quintrant. Well they can’t do can they? It’s still a pretty hairy place; lot of crime. But, I should think, you already know that. It’s hardly a secret…”
“Well, I’ll tell you what - I didn’t trust that pilot at all mate. Shifty fucking lecherous bastard if you ask me!”
Tanik snorted, but said nothing.
“So you’re an art teacher, right? I mean, sorry mate, yeah, but what’s an art teacher doing heading into the gangsta-verse? I mean me, yeah, I make no bones about it mate: I grew up with dodgy types! I’m trying to find an old boyfriend who cleared off after I lent him a shed load of money, right? Left me in a right state, and I had to clear off from where I was pretty sharpish like, you know? I mean I ain’ hanging about, you know what I’m saying? And he’s a dodgy fella alright, but he ain’t nothing hard or nothing. Rob you blind, sure, but he wouldn’t hurt no one. Anyways, that’s where I was going - to find him. I think he owes me one, yeah? Know what I mean mate? But, you know like, an art teacher! Out here? That’s fucking hardcore mate, not to say unlikely!”
Tanik turned to look at the girl – the woman – chewing on the bland food stick, eyes half-open, hair unkempt.
“Boredom.” he said at last. “I was so… fucking… bored!” Tanik’s eyes widened, it was the first time she’d heard him swear. “I used to want to be a Frontiersman - carving out civilization in this vast galaxy - when I was a child. But it happened so fast, the spreading. By the time I was fully grown we were everywhere, and I’d had a sheltered life in a wealthy sector of the Paleocenae Cluster. I was a weak boy. Bad lungs. They’re fixed now - had them carked about five years back - and then I just got myself fit, properly fit, for the very first time. But that’s it - I was bored. So bloody bored! I forgot to dream, to reach. The Valdasian Quintrant is the nearest we have - that I could realistically get to - that was anything like a frontier. I’ve never even seen a Valdasian, just other human-standard races, the Kiazmus-spawn we now know ourselves to be. I just, well I just wanted to have an adventure. I was rash really.” Tanik looked away, flushed. It was the most he had ever said to Renan, and her intent gaze had unsettled him. Was he getting used to her? For the first time he felt glad of her company.
“Well,” she said. “You got your fucking adventure alright!” Renan had a dirty infectious laugh. Tanik found himself smiling.
Another night’s walk ended with a long spiral climb up a great fan of levels terminating on a final great square that offered no other routes off it.
“Here we go,” said Tanik, “the Kiazmus must be somewhere roundabout here.”
“Unless we fucked up royally!” she replied. “Lazer or sonics mate?”
“I’d say sonics. Too much diffuse light and radiation up here I think, especially once the sun gets up.”
Renan took the crude weapon-tracing device from her pack and switched the settings. They had almost opted to leave it with the dead pilot, thinking it too heavy and potentially worthless, but it had proven to be their most effective method of finding the cloaked entrances to the Kiazmus. It quickly registered an area within which an invisible object sat, predictably at the centre of the square. It was another two-dimensional square itself, and became visible as they passed around to face its other side.
“I wonder if all of these platforms are invisible on the other side?” said Renan. “I bet if you were down there, on the planet, you couldn’t see nothing if you were looking up!” She reached out to touch it and her fingers vanished into the grey.
“OK. This is it, thank Orn!”
“Right then.” Said Tanik. “How are you feeling? Want to sleep here - where we at least know it’s pretty safe - or keep going?”
“I dunno mate. You call it.”
“We sleep, then,” he replied, gratefully shedding his load onto the smooth grey surface. “Get ourselves some rest. The next world might be home, you just never know. But we could have another thousand planets to hop across before we get back. And this heat – wears you down a bit doesn’t it?”
“Does that.” said Renan, likewise shedding her burden. “And I’m sweating like a Tortian Belly-wrestler in a Galacian Steam-Harem! I ain’t half ponging mate! Could do with a good shower – or a wire brush and detox on this flippin’ skin! Cor, deary me!”
…and they were out. Or rather, in.
Renan’s first reaction was to panic. Brine flooded her gaping mouth, was involuntarily sucked into what should have been lungs, but was instead filtered harmlessly through the gills that now lined either side of her torso. She looked up, startled, to see where the surface might be, but it was impossible to tell. The light that flitted between the strange and enormous organic structures that spread out into an azure haze in every direction emanated from large globes, like mini submerged suns. She tried to shout, but the water made her vocal chords practically redundant. Tanik, who found he was more delighted with this latest development than fearful, laughed inwardly as he watched her thrashing about. Against all expectation he was starting to develop some affection towards her. Everything that had once irritated him - actually embarrassed him - was beginning to amuse him. He found her salty language and unpretentious, uncultured manner strangely endearing. She was refreshing! She made him feel young.
They’d been together something like a standard medium-size E grade planetary month now, though that was very much an estimate given that the environments they had experienced had varied greatly - except in that they were all capable of supporting carbon-based oxygen-breathing life accustomed to a comparable gravitational field. It was why there existed such commonality, as highly evolved life forms spread through the Kiazmus, and lower ones accidently stumbled into and out of it over eons. A small mammal at an early evolutionary stage on one planet could just as easily evolve into a humanoid form on another planet, given similar environmental conditions, and given that it managed to survive any natural catastrophes. There was great diversity of course, but also clear universal similarities. In time, life, science, knowledge, art, literature, religion, drugs, slaves and endless other unifying vices and virtues had spread across worlds, corrupting the uncivilized, starting and ending great conflicts, birthing mythologies to explain the pathway – the greatest and most widely spread having at it’s heart an entity called Orn. This strange, asymmetrical (having one mighty arm fused into its right side to the elbow, and two slender arms ending in two-fingered hands on the left), vaguely humanoid, winged being was considered the father of all they who were bound by the vast network between the stars and who generally shared a familial thread of DNA. There was nothing that could verify this of course, other than uncountable billions of paintings and statues of the entity, but still – the story thrived.
Tanik and Renan had spent a full week rather enjoying a planet called Arddn, whose development had ceased to progress scientifically at a pre-industrial level. They found themselves to be giants amongst the natives, but for a few relative newcomers to the Planet who called themselves, (somewhat arrogantly,) the Ornish. An entrance into the Kiazmus was located just outside a quaint and ramshackle city called Tantrix-Alumnae, as nearly as they could pronounce it, but stayed an extra few days to enjoy the excellent wine and food on offer. A small lump of amber mounted on a ring - that belonged to Renan, but was of little personal or monetary value - had bought them the luxury of royalty. Amber was amongst the greatest of treasures on Arddn, so they had taken the opportunity to stock up properly.
It was with a degree of reluctance that they left that planet, and that was even more bitterly felt when two planets further on they almost died of hunger and exhaustion stumbling through a great poisonous forest pursued by natives not in the least bit interested in communication or cross-cultural exchange.
And now they were on a Water-World!
Tanik kicked powerful legs terminating in large webbed feet and was beside Renan in an instant, gripping her arms, looking into her eyes, calming her.
“I can’t fucking swim!” she mouthed.
Tanik nodded, put a finger to her lips. “It’s OK.” he mouthed back, making the universal symbol with a thumb and forefinger. “Hold on to me.”
Soon they found themselves hand in hand in a current of warm water contained somehow within a series of great kilometre wide metal hoops. They kicked gently - though the pull of the water was enough to transport them quickly and without any effort on their part - watching the abstract seascape drift by on either side. Tanik looked at the woman who swam with him, who shared in this, his greatest and only adventure, granted him by a planet fall in an illegal ship now seemingly an age ago.
Quite suddenly he realised he didn’t want it to end.
The living of it was better than any telling could be. His distant friends, whom he had hoped to regale with tall tales on his eventual return, seemed dull, and, now that he thought about it, somewhat smug. It also occurred to him that they were almost to a man – and they were mostly men – far too self-interested to give him more than a cursory hearing, and likely for the bare minimal time politeness would demand. There would be no great novel, he had no such aspirations, and if he were to commit it to a journal, who then would ever read the thing? He had never married and had no children. He was a teacher of limited skill who had never forged any great bonds with his pupils, never been regarded as a mentor or father figure by any of his students. His return would be entirely unmemorable. He doubted he had even been missed.
But this girl - this woman - she had listened to his dreams and nodded. He had found himself opening up to her, daring to speak the crazy notions he could never have voiced at home. She was not unintelligent he had come to see, merely uneducated. Her life had been one of abandonment and survival. She had found a mode that caused no threat, that could not be taken too seriously, and she had stuck with that. Her recycling of clichés and sayings kept her big heart and active mind well hidden. Her loose-limbed stoner walk neither attracted nor repelled, but it did suggest harmlessness, and that, on some subconscious level she barely recognised, was good. Her always smiling, overly complex mouth drew any attention from her watchful eyes. She had under-sold herself to survive.
Renan flashed a delighted smile at him, enjoying the sensation of swimming and submersion for the first time. She was losing her fear, and that thrilled her. He beamed his own delight back.
“What?’ he heard her say in a disembodied voice, the source of which he couldn’t place, her face suddenly quizzical, eyes wide and surprised. He shook his head. “I heard you. I heard you say something…”
“You can hear me?”
They turned bodily to face one another, still moving through the great hoops at some speed.
“You said something. You said…”
“I thought, I suppose, I was thinking something…”
“What? I want you to say it, to think it, again.” She searched his eyes intently.
“I’m not going home, Renan. I’m going to find somewhere, maybe here, I don’t know. But I’m not going back. Maybe I’ll be an artist, not teach it. Or maybe I will teach, I don’t really know! Or I might just keep wandering. But I’m not going home. I don’t want to go home.”
“That wasn’t it,” she thought back at him. “You quite clearly thought something, or thought-said something about me. But listen, I’ve got to tell you something first, all right?” She paused. “I lied to you Tanik. Sorry. I’m so sorry. Didn’t think it mattered then. You didn’t seem to, you know, think too highly of me, if you know what I’m saying. I ain’t stupid mate! So I didn’t tell you – why should I? Anyway, I ain’t looking for no ex-boyfriend. I’m a head mate, bit of a junky – or was. A runner. But, you know, I think the Kiazmus fucking cleaned me right up didn’t it? I’m out of gear, buried it on that planet Arddn cause I got afraid of carrying it everywhere, you know? Ether way, I was meant to be making a delivery. There’s a gang of Veldasian Core-Mites that ain’t going to be too pleased right now, and those things can really find their way through the Kiazmus!”
“So, what are you saying?” Tanik looked hurt.
“I’m saying it’s risky, that’s all. If we’re going to, you know… There’s a slim chance they might actually find us one day…”
“Look, I ain’t got no prospects, ain’t much of one either I don’t think. I ain’t never had a home really. This – well, it’s been the best mate, alright? Tops. Fucking most alive I ever felt, you know what I’m saying? I don’t need no drugs, I ain’t missing nobody. I’ve seen more doing this, trying to find a way – well where exactly I think I’m trying to get to I ain’t got a fucking clue actually mate! Whatever, thing is I’ve seen more than I would see on a hundred Inter-Stellar Cruises stumbling through this emergency exit with you. I like it. I ain’t in no hurry either mate, so you know, I’m up for giving it a bash and all that.”
“Yeah, alright, I love you too mate. Clear enough? But you got to know that there’s people who won’t be too happy looking for me. You know what I’m saying?”
As they embraced Tanik couldn’t decide if his shudders were born of sobs or laughter. How big of a deal she had been involved in, how truly wanted she actually was, well that was anybody’s guess. Perhaps her curious manner, her harmless dumb persona was a foil, a great ruse behind which she was more of a player than he could ever guess. Or perhaps her default child-like personality was making a bigger deal of it than it really was.
Whatever, thought Tanik, it was worth the risk.
(C) Liam Sharp 2010
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.