The Puppet

· 52 min read

The door shut behind her, its weighty thump echoing through the empty house. She dropped the travel case she was carrying in her left hand and searched for the light switch in the darkness, her fingers found it and the room was bathed in artificial light. The living area was empty, as was the kitchen. It had been two weeks since she had left on her trip to the neighbouring city and her return having been delayed a few hours, she had still expected her parents to be home to greet her. She went upstairs, calling out to them in the darkness. She turned on the hallway light and looked at the three open doors, the first her room, then the bathroom, and finally, at the end of the hall, her parent’s. Its door stood open and the room was dark, the bed was visible from the door but nobody occupied it. She could hear dripping from within the darkness, she caught the light switch on the way through the door to investigate. The ensuite’s faucet was dribbling, a small but constant stream of water that fell just far enough for it to break into droplets before hitting the ceramic basin. She crossed the room and twisted the tap closed fully, her parents must have gone somewhere. She rapped her fingernails against the edge of the basin and wondered if something was wrong, her parent’s had chastised her enough as a child about leaving taps running, she would never expect them to do so, unless there was an emergency. She pondered it for a moment before forcing the thought to the back of her mind as she left the room. She deposited her backpack in her room and made her way back downstairs to collect her gear, case in hand she walked up the hall, slid open the small door that hid the laundry alcove and unloaded the bag into the automated washer-dryer. She switched it on, sliding the door closed to keep the mechanical whine at bay with one hand as she slipped the suitcase closed with the other. She took the stairs two at a time, the case now empty save for a handful of hair clips and her toothbrush, she had already ditched the foul-tasting toothpaste the hostel had provided her entirely. Upstairs she lay the suitcase on her bed and took the remaining contents into the bathroom connected to the hall. Finally she returned downstairs and opened the refrigerator, stomach growling as she stared at the shelves. There was food but she did not feel like preparing anything, especially when her parents might come home at any minute and want to prepare dinner. She closed the refrigerator and bounced off the balls of her feet to sit on the cool granite counter-top beside the appliance. The whirring of the washer in the nook beside the kitchen came to an abrupt halt as it transitioned into the soak part of its cycle. As it quietened she heard something clatter to the ground, it was then she noticed the door in the hall sitting fractionally ajar. She moved from the kitchen and living area back into the hall. The noise had come from basement, her father probably left something teetering on the edge of a shelf again, though why it would fall when undisturbed made her curious. She crossed the hall and pulled the door open, searching for the light switch. It snapped on, flooding the concrete-floored room in harsh, white light. The basement was the townhouse’s main selling point, the reason her father had purchased it so many years ago, when she was barely a toddler. She had learnt at a young age that her parents had certain idiosyncrasies that sometimes made their relationship challenging. Her father wanted a workshop, somewhere to hammer away at whatever his latest project was, with enough space for sheets of wood and metal to lie flat and be cut, drilled an welded. Her mother on the other hand wanted to live close to the city centre, a demand that did not mesh with her father’s desire for space. The townhouse was the compromise, a moderately sized house, close to the city and her mother’s work whilst simultaneously being just far enough out her father didn’t feel boxed in and with a conveniently sized basement ready for conversion into a workshop. She took the steps slowly, a broken arm from falling down the metal treads once as a child had taught her that holding the handrail was a mandatory component of using these particular steps. She reached the bottom of them without incident and looked around the workshop, it was as she had seen it a fortnight prior when bidding her father goodbye. He had been absorbed in his project which, still half completed, lay in the middle of the room, a mess of welded steel that still had no fathomable purpose. It was a new project he had started and she was yet to ask him what exactly it was. Almost everything was in place save for a shelf, pulled away from the wall, a breaker-bar lay on the concrete at its base, most likely the culprit for the noise. She collected the bar, twirling it in her hands like a baton for a moment before its weight became unbalanced and she scrambled to catch it with both hands. It caught the knuckles of her free hand and made her swear. Shaking her freshly throbbing hand she set the breaker-bar back on the shelf. It was now, holding her hand that she investigated the shelf, it had been pulled out while she was away, stepping behind it she found the reason for its movement. The thin plaster wall at its rear had absorbed moisture from somewhere, swelled and broken away from the wall’s frame, which itself had recently been hacked back to good timber. Behind the frame, bricks had been cleared away, those that were still in place had a strange discolouration to them. “Maybe dad was right about the builders of these townhouses cutting corners.” she muttered to herself, crouching down to peer through the opening into the darkness.

The screen went blank and the tablet sailed across the room onto the bed as a guttural groan of frustration escaped him. This was the twelfth time Myke had mentally bounced off study in the last half-hour, the words on the page a frustrating wall of black and white jargon he was in no mood to deal with. At the rate he was going he would be prepared for the exam in a month, the problem was that would still be about three weeks too late. He leant back in his chair, laced his fingers behind his head and sighed, all he could hope was that tomorrow he would be more focused. Though he doubted it, he had been unable to study properly since Wednesday, it was now Saturday and the mid-semester break was almost at a close and he would have a single week to manage studying the entire half-semester’s work. It was not much work, but he had struggled with it so much already it felt hopeless. He threw himself forwards and up, hooking his jacket from where it lay draped across his desk and headed out into the tiny apartment’s living area to collect his keys. His shift’s start at work was still an hour away but getting out of the house would do him good, or that’s what he told himself, and if he took the scenic route he could time his arrival to coincide with his shift start. He took the stairs down a half-dozen levels and stepped out onto the mid-suburban street, he could see the towers in the distance of the city centre, where regulations mandated a minimum height for buildings, the transition from the towering skyscrapers to the mid-suburb’s mixture of townhouses and small apartment complexes was sharp and obvious and gave the city a clear, well-defined centre. This mix of several storey houses and complexes gave away to a sprawling patchwork of industrial factories in the outer suburbs to the east and, to the west, the deep cut-out that formed the bay. It was only on the coast that the short houses of the outer-suburban sprawl suddenly spiked back into towering high-rises around the beaches, a draw for both local and visitors alike. The city had exploded in popularity in recent years, as the empire’s core worlds grew more populous and expensive people slowly moved rim-ward and the mid-worlds were the first stopping point, cities like this all across the empire were booming, people had been worried at first about more people and less jobs, but it was a more complicated dance than that. The push for job security had set concrete rules around the quantity of workers and robotic staff any given workplace could employ, the seventy-five to twenty-five split in favour of people was the rule that had made a job available for him in the first place. Sure it was waiting tables but holding down a full-time job and a double degree at university was dicey at best, especially around exam time, so casual was the way everyone went. The companies did not complain, cheaper labour was worth the occasional exam-related staff absence. A car hummed past him, gliding past on a magnetically-induced cushion of air, it was followed by others, each had the tell-tale blue underglow indicating they were artificially-controlled, it would switch to red if it was being controlled by a human, it was rare but a lot of diplomats and executives still had chauffeurs. It was mostly a status symbol, the computer system still did the heavy lifting and the magnetic rails embedded in the road limited their ability to do anything too out of the ordinary anyway. To Myke the cars always seemed like a glorified, highly-inefficient subway. He had seen a subway with independent transport pods before when his father had taken him off-world as a child, ever since then he had not been able to imagine the cars as anything else. An hour later he stepped through the automatic door into the diner, its polished steel counter-tops reflected the sharp blue-white light from the strips overhead and the chatter of two dozen people filled his ears. He went to the door beside the counter marked ‘Employees Only’, tapped his watch, which was programmed with an access code for the door and stepped through when the latch clicked and it slid open. The hall was short, one end led to the kitchen, the other to the bathroom and changing rooms, a pair of cramped rooms with four lockers apiece that just barely let three people stand comfortably. They weren’t expected to completely change there, just swap their street clothes over to their uniforms, they had been installed in an unused cleaning closet after a rash of late-arrivals sighted having to go home to get clean clothes after someone spilt something on them as their excuse. It was a thin excuse at best but the manager had worked out it was cheaper to modify the little room and buy some spare uniforms than it was to fire and re-hire a half-dozen staff. It had worked, when it had gone in late staff suddenly turned up on time, whether it was because of the effort the manager had put in or because they had lost their last real excuse Myke was not sure. Though he would have loved to see the sick days that had been requested in place of coming in late. He closed the door behind him and got dressed quickly, swapping his shirt and jeans for the black button-down shirt and blue-striped slacks, then he stepped into the kitchen and caught his name being called. The culprit was the chef who thrust a pair of plates into his hand and stuffed the ticket in his breast pocket before rushing off to deliver another dish to the counter-top space he had just freed. Myke proceeded to the opposite end of the kitchen, the rubber matting sticking slightly to the soles of his shoes, he stepped through the automatic door out of the clattering noise of the kitchen and back into the chattering restaurant proper.

He served dozens of patrons over the course of the night, ranging from a Major and his small group of Navy Regulars right through to a lone Lanxian and his daughter, the pair sitting in a corner, looking out with sullen, tired eyes. He had spent a few minutes chatting with the daughter, doing his best to be courteous and not stare at the quartet or horns sweeping up and back from her temples and the points of her forehead. He rarely saw their kind in the diner, the city was too far from a publicly-accessible starport for other species to be common. He was wiping down tables thinking about that, they had been unique enough he could remember what they ordered, steak, steamed vegetables, water for the father, a vanilla milkshake for the daughter, all relatively safe foods that had survived in both cultures through the ages after their shared earthly origins. The sounds of the patrons had all but vanished, it was late now and only a handful remained, he could hear the kitchen staff beginning to clean up and wind down. They would leave in an hour and head home and six hours later the morning shift would arrive and it would start all over again. The last dregs of people filtered out over the next ten minutes and, after wiping down their table, Myke collapsed into one of the booths and breathed a steady sigh. His feet were aching, an ache that no amount of orthopaedic shoes or foot massages could fix, the ache of walking for six hours. Something splatted against the windows, followed a moment later by another, fat droplets of water crashing into the glass as rain started. He had not even noticed the storm rolling up, its winds drowned out by the now absent patrons. The streetlights outside reflected off the wet pavement and as he sat there watching the storms rapid progress into a downpour, the wind whipping the rain so that the gusts were visible in how the falling drops disturbed the water on the pavement. He pushed himself to his feet and returned to the kitchen, the kitchen hands were all that were left, scrubbing away at the remaining pots that did not fit in the industrial cleaner that sat against the far wall, humming loudly as it worked. The chefs were gone, as were most of the wait staff. He bid farewell to the others and headed into the changing rooms, there he ditched his uniform and bid farewell to the two girls who worked the same shift and were now dawdling around discussing if they wanted to go somewhere before heading home. He moved back to the front and switched off the main room’s lights. Then he double-checked there was nobody left, the tables were all empty, the chairs up ready for the cleaner. And with that done he turned off the counter lights and turned to leave. A face stared at him from the darkness, pale under a crop of long, unruly dark hair, eyes listless, deep black rings beneath them. He held the gaze for a long moment, unable to move or think. Then she disappeared, bolting into the darkness. All at once his body reacted, throwing him backwards and his heart went from frozen to adrenaline-fuelled, panicked pumping. He hit his shoulder on the counter as he fell and his shocked yelp brought one of the girls from the changing rooms. She found him on the floor and, a questioning eyebrow raised, asked what had happened. “I saw someone in the window.” He said, pulling himself to his feet. “And?” “She was staring at me.” She looked him up and down with a raised eyebrow and then smirked, “Doubt it.” Myke’s face burnt, “Not what I meant.” She shrugged and left the way she had come in to return to her conversation in the changing room. Myke turned back to the window and the figure had reappeared, just an outline running off into the distance. Myke stepped outside cautiously, worried the silhouette was not the same person and, after assuring himself the street was clear, watched the silhouette grow smaller before disappearing down an alley. Myke turned away and moved in the opposite direction, pulling his jacket’s hood up against the rain and trying to put the girl out of his mind. But the further down the street he got, the more it chewed on his mind and the more the look in her eyes haunted him.

The engines roared in the distance, overhead, a few thousand feet above the city a dreadnought, one of the navy’s space ships, was coming in to land. One of its sister ships hung in the sky far above it, slowly moving upwards towards the clouds. Myke used to watch the landings with his father when he was younger but now both he and his father were much busier, so instead Myke, when he got the chance, would do his best to film the occasion and send his father a clip of the huge craft touching down. It was halfway through the recording when, whilst Myke sat on the bench in the elevated parkland at the edge of the city near the naval spaceport, something crunched and made him jump. He scrambled to catch the datapad he was using to record the touchdown, fingers fumbling as they struggled to grip, slipping across the smooth surface before finally finding purchase on the corner. When he got to his feet, still cradling the almost-lost device in his hands, he caught someone staggering out of the bushes. They stumbled along the walking track back towards the road, slipping on the gravel as they went. The fleeing woman stole a look back towards Myke and the dark-ringed eyes from the previous night bored into him. “Hey!” he called, making to follow them, but they had already rounded the corner out of view. He took a few steps down the path after her but he knew he had already given up following her, instead, he turned back to the bench and made his way back. He was a few paces back up the incline when he noticed the glint of glass in the sunlight, at the edge of the bush she had crashed through sat a watch. He collected it an turned it over, it was black and moderately expensive, the kind that paired with an earpiece for calls and had a dock that would let it act as a computer or clip into one of the newer model datapads to allow it to act as the processor. He turned it over in his hand and took the last few steps back to the bench. It buzzed in his hand and the screen flashed up a disconnection logo, she must have gotten out of range. He sat there turning it over quietly before setting it down next to him and turning on his datapad again, he could at least catch the last of the landing. The dreadnought was almost at ground level now, off in the distance of the naval compound. It hovered, rotating slowly to line up with the one in the next bay over that was being rebuilt, its bulky form covered in scaffolding. He had just started recording when a buzzing accompanied by a shrill trilling made him jump. The watch beside him continued to ring and he stared at it for a moment before picking it up and tapping accept. “Hello, Mr Wheeler?” came a young, decidedly nervous, male voice. “No, sorry-” Myke began, but before he could finish the voice was talking again. “No? Oh bother, I must have made a mistake getting his details, Mr Morgan is going to kill me-” Myke opened his mouth to speak but the person on the other end continued “-Sorry to bother you, bye.” “No, I just-” but the call had already disconnected. He stared down at it for a moment, perhaps the call had given him a way to return it, Mr Wheeler was at least a starting point. But why did that girl have it? Myke’s mind turned to the nefarious for a moment before he stopped himself. “Her dad probably lent it to her.” he murmured to himself. The roaring of the engines cut out suddenly and his head snapped up as he fumbled with the datapad, wiping back through the footage only to curse the watch for ringing at the wrong time, he had missed the landing. There were vehicles rolling up to transport the crew back to the main base now. The grey slab-sided ship held a strange-matte colour, the shine of the panels stripped away by particles colliding with it during its most recent voyage through space. He could still see the shimmer of hot air pouring from the engines as they cooled. But the event was over so he pushed himself off the bench and started down the path to the road. It was halfway down he saw a dribble of red on the ground that made him pause. It was wet, glistening in the sun where it sat atop the pebbles, where it had struck dirt it had been absorbed already. But the red on the pebbles had simply congealed a little. It looked like blood, fresh blood. Perhaps the girl had cut herself. Maybe she was rushing to get back to town to take care of the wound. That would explain the watch too, especially if she had recently started wearing it, forgetting something like that was easy to do. He came back up the trail, crossing the side far from the bench and pushed through the bush where he had found the watch, looking quietly for a sharp branch or bloodied spur of wood to indicate where she might have cut herself, and also to avoid accidentally ending up similarly wounded himself. But as he climbed through the bush and followed the disturbed leaves and brush on the ground down a slight embankment he found another dribble of blood. “So much for the cutting themselves on the bush theory.” He murmured, following the tracks further, they were bigger here, deep furrows in the earth, and he wondered as he approached the small clump of trees at the bottom if she had fallen down the slope instead. He rounded the trees and froze as a face looked up at him, eyes dull, lifeless and directed straight at him. Myke staggered back, stumbling as he did so. When he landed he stared at the dead man, the few metres of space, and the new angle that meant the corpse no longer stared at him, made it a fraction less terrifying, though his heart was still hammering in his chest. He fought the urge to run and instead pushed himself to his feet and stood there for a long quiet minute, this was why the girl was running, maybe she had gone to get help? He edged closer, deep gashes criss-crossed his neck, the blood that had poured from the wounds had covered the front of his shirt and jeans and pooled in his crotch where it was now slowly congealing. He could not have been dead long, the blood on his clothes still held a slight shine, the shade of the tree having protected it from the warmth of the mid-morning sun. Myke’s mind turned to what had gotten to the dead man, was there something lurking in the woods, perhaps a rabid dog. The thought put him more on edge as he moved around the tree slowly, following the man’s arm’s that had been pulled behind him. They were tied tightly to an exposed root, the ropes had cut deep into his flesh and were now stained red, where it wrapped his wrists had been rubbed raw. Myke stepped back hurriedly and fumbled for his datapad, scrambling to dial for the emergency services.

It was later that morning, sitting back on the bench he had been on earlier and flanked by a pair of police that he finally got the news. “You’re cleared.” the detective said, pushing through the bush to meet him. “I am?” The detective nodded again, “Yep.” “Why?” The detective raised a curious eyebrow, “Got something you want to tell us?” after a hurriedly shake of Myke’s head he nodded, “Well we’re not required to tell you why you’re free to go, but you’ve had an interesting morning so: there’s no DNA link and we’ve found other DNA to look into.” Myke nodded and stood slowly. “But don’t leave the city, we might have to call you in for more questions later.” He was halfway down the path back towards the road when the detective’s partner stepped up beside him, “Do you need a ride home?” “No, I’m fine, thanks.” he said, turning to the officer as a hand came down on his shoulder. She smiled, “You’re sure?” she asked, scanning him with sharp, brown eyes. Myke nodded again, “Yeah, no, I-” he took a breath to clear his mind and stop his stumbling words, “I’m okay, thanks.” “If you’re sure.” The hand lifted and he continued on. Before he knew it he was walking along the side of the road, quietly trying to banish the dead man’s blank, lifeless stare from his mind. But every time he blinked it came back to haunt him. It was a relatively short walk back to the city, the city itself was fairly compressed, they were all like that with strict building regulations that forced the cities to be compact and tall. Apartments were by far and away the mainstay for homes, only a few lucky suburbs had been granted townhouse status, though they were still thin and long three-level affairs that all clustered into the suburbs blocks. They were usually more affluent areas too, why, Myke did not know, they were also usually boxed in on most sides by the apartment complexes, like the one he lived in. He turned down a street and walked down the row of townhouses, he would need to cut right two blocks though alleyways to be on the right street for his apartment but at least it was shorter than walking down the main streets. A car glided past him, humming gently, it stopped half a block further up and, without turning, glided sideways across the footpath and into the waiting garage beneath the house. The doors to the garage had closed by the time he arrived and the car’s occupants were unlocking their front door. The woman, somewhere in her fifties, followed him with her eyes for several moments before she went inside and her husband followed her. The door closed and the street was empty once more. He crossed, double-checking no more cars were approaching, their gentle hum at low speeds made them hard to hear if you weren’t paying attention. He had spent six weeks in a Lanxian city on a school tour when he was younger and the noise the small hovering motorcycle-sized all-terrain drakken (a planet-locked variant of the space-faring drake version) they sometimes used were an eye opener as to just how much sound could play a part in crossing the street. Of course, Lanxian cities relied more heavily on public transport than a Damoclean city, if you replaced all the cars in the city with drakken it would be like jamming your head into a beehive. He was still thinking about the cars when he made it to the far end of the alley and, crossing the next street with the same level of care, passed into the next. The alleys were designed for pedestrians, with the blocks being so long someone in the planning department had decided to make thin concrete walkways instead of the obvious solution of breaking up the blocks into smaller lengths. The problem with the alleys was not their usefulness, it was that they often fell into disrepair. Just as this one had done so, none of the lights were working save for one at the far end and the city’s maintenance department had not yet come by to perform repairs. Normally, this wouldn’t have bothered Myke, but the day had been eventful enough and now, with the sun rapidly setting, every shadow was making him jump. click He walked two more paces and paused, glancing over his shoulder. He listened for a moment, and the sound didn’t come again so he continued on. With each step he imagined another click. But it did not come again, and as he passed under the single working light at the far end he let out a relieved sigh and internally cursed his overactive imagination. He came out onto the street and turned, walking three paces before the figure diagonally across from him, standing beside the end townhouse’s fence, caught his eye. The tired, sunken eyes stared straight at him. Long dark hair a mess around her face and he could see her jaw clenched tight. He took two steps towards her before she turned and bolted. “Hey, wait a minute!” he called, crossing the street and barrelling down the adjacent street before what he was doing registered and he staggered to a stop. He leant against the brick wall of the townhouse that bordered the street and took a slow breath, instead pulling out his datapad. He was searching the name directory of the city for Wheeler when he looked up again. She had returned, but this time as soon as he met her eyes she wheeled around and disappeared around the corner of a building. She probably lived nearby, maybe in one of the townhouses, he entertained the notion of knocking on the nearest one and asking if anyone knew her or Mr Wheeler. “No,” he said quietly to himself, “I’ll just find out if there’s a Wheeler who lives nearby and ask them if they’ve lost their watch, if they haven’t I’ll take it to the police.” Having spoken his plans out loud he felt more secure in his choice not to follow her and instead went back to the datapad search. But something was gnawing at him, something about the watch he could not quite place.

His search was for nought, nobody nearby knew a Wheeler family and the police had taken the watch but had told him the probability of someone coming forward was pretty low for something like that. So he had gone home and after a dozen hours of broken sleep filled with images of dead bodies, he woke. It was afternoon before he was finally spurred into action by hunger. He found himself wandering around the small apartment trying to figure out if there was anything for breakfast, or in this case, a late lunch. Of course his laziness had come back to bite him and there was nothing food-like in the apartment so he forced himself through his usual shower routine and ended up on the street wandering towards the nearest store, hair still damp. There was a store a little further up the block, under one of the apartment buildings across the road from the edge of the townhouse neighbourhood he had passed through the previous evening. It was late and he felt rotten, lying in bed for most of the day had left him feeling lethargic. His Sunday had been wasted, or that was how he felt, it was too late to do anything now and he should really be working on getting to sleep at a decent hour to try to be ready for university classes the next day. He moved through the store in a stupor collecting a smattering of items that did not really go together but were tasty as individual snacks. The electronic cashier bid him a cheerful greeting but Myke ignored it and just waited for it to scan the items in his basket. It dispensed a paper bag for him as he paid and he spent a minute packing his groceries into it. Paper bag in hand he wandered back into the street and, during a long protracted yawn, through the blur of tears that had formed in his eyes he saw something moving in the alley to his right. He blinked, eyes snapping to the alleyway. It was the girl, staring out from the shadows at him. This time, as she made to run he called out, jogging across the road. She bolted, but he was already running so he could at least keep pace, if not catch her. Halfway down the alley she tripped, foot catching on the edge of the uneven concrete. He seized the opportunity and caught up with her as she was pushing herself to her feet. “Hey, did you lose your wat-” his words died in his throat as a knife whipped out from her coat, flashing past a mere inch from his face. He stumbled back a few paces as she lunged again, “Hey-!” he yelped, the knife nicking his forearm as is shot past. The pain made him run, bolting back down the alley the way he came, his heart pounding. He shot a glance over his shoulder and he could see her following, knife in hand, hair flapping about her as she ran, eyes wild but focused squarely on him. He threw himself into the street, staggering as he narrowly avoided a car that was gliding past. He staggered across the road and chanced a look back. She was standing at the end of the alley again, sunken, sleep-deprived eyes staring from the shadows waiting for something. And then the car that had barely missed him turned down another street and he watched horrified as she emerged, stepping out into the street. Myke turned and ran, throwing himself into the grocery store. Inside he staggered down the aisles and crouched low in the back recesses of the store near the freezers. The store was brightly lit, with the automated cashier it never closed, but there were no people in it at this hour. As his heart hammered in his ears, the door rolled open and the cashier gave another chipper greeting. She did not return one, instead she moved deeper into the store, Myke could hear her footsteps getting closer. As he crouched there he wondered what he had done, he had seen her four times now and he wondered if she had been following him. She grew closer still and he slunk around the end of a shelving unit, keeping it between himself and his pursuer. She stopped at the far end of the shelves, in the rear of the store where he had been moments ago. He waited, pushing himself up like a sprinter about to run. His breath held for a moment, silently urging her to turn around an leave. But her shoes squeaked and the footsteps moved towards him. The squeak of the shoe was all it had taken to set him sprinting for the door. He leapt over the one-way turnstiles that were meant to keep people from leaving the way they had come in and staggered through the already-opening automatic doors. As he turned and began sprinting up the block he caught her in the corner of his eye leaping the one-way turnstile just as he had done. So he ran as fast as his legs would carry him. stumbling as he cut around a corner, he could hear her footsteps echoing off the buildings, he turned again, and again, and suddenly found himself staggering down an alley between a group of townhouses. He turned the next corner and skidded to a halt. She stood a few metres before him, have stepped out of an alley further up the street. She was as breathless as he was, the knife in her hand glinting in the streetlight. He took a slow breath and she started to close the distance, he took a step backwards and she lunged, the knife caught his arm and the grocery bag hit her in the face. She staggered sideways under the weight of the bag, inside a bottle broke and a carton burst, white milk and fizzing red energy drink mixed and sprayed from the bag as it tore. Before she could recover he had bolted, sprinting back down the alley. He didn’t stop until he was safe within his apartment building, he staggered out of the elevator and, clutching his bloodied arm to his chest, pulled his other hand free of the congealed blood and fished through his pockets for his keys. He got the door open with only a little red staining around the door handle and keyhole, he would need to clean it later. Inside he retrieved the first aid kit from under the sink and after hurriedly rinsing his arm under water he inspected the wound. It was only light, though the amount of blood had made it seem otherwise. But he scrubbed off the congealed blood where he could without prying the lacerated skin open again and set about bandaging his arm. When he finished he inspected it, it was a sloppy job but it would hold for the time being. Head spinning he collected a glass of water and went into the bedroom to lie down. He stared up at the ceiling, arm throbbing dully, his head had begun to get in on the act but it was not so bad as to motivate him to search for painkillers. His mind rewound back to the girl’s face as he hit her with the shopping, he had made to punch her but had forgotten about the shopping which somehow he had managed to keep a tight hold of during the evening’s events. The surprise on her face when the bag hit her had changed her, she had lost the hardness in her eyes and he face went to pure shock, as though he had shaken her awake. He pushed himself back into sitting position and drank the contents of the glass in one go before he sat turning it in his hand. Maybe she had killed the man in the park. The thought chewed at him for a few minutes, he tried to rationalise the night’s events and the dead man, but he came back to the same conclusion. He went to collect his datapad but found only an empty pocket. He scowled, he had been able to hang onto his groceries throughout the ordeal but not his datapad. It had probably fallen out while he was crouching down in the store. He cursed himself and considered for a moment heading back to the store to find it. But he thought better of it and considered for a moment going to his neighbours. Instead he went to the window, checked it was locked and then to the door to do the same, there was no way she would climb this many stories to try to break in and she had no idea where he lived so he felt safe enough. Finding him in the apartment building would have been like finding a needle in a haystack anyway. He laid back down, he would give himself five minutes rest and then go next door and see if he could get a neighbour to call the police. But the bed was soft and comfortable and he knew as soon as he lay down it had been a mistake. But he did not have the energy to get up. “Five minutes, that’s all.” he promised himself aloud, letting his eyes close.

The five minutes was closer to a couple of hours. Myke woke to a clap of thunder and the beginnings of rain hitting the window. His room was light still despite him having not turned on the bedroom light when he had come home. Streetlight bled in through the window, he had forgotten to draw the curtains, but he had also failed to get up and go to the neighbours to report the girl attacking him. He poked his bandaged arm gingerly and was rewarded with a throb of pain. But it was short-lived, the worst part was the itchiness. He pushed himself from the bed and went to the shower, it had been hours, fifteen minutes more to get showered and dressed would not make a difference. By the time he was finished it had been half an hour, he had a fresh bandage on his arm, though equally ineptly applied, and was mostly awake. He was also starving but that could wait. The hall was empty when he stepped out, which was to be expected given the hour. He walked up it to his closest neighbour and knocked. After a minute or two of waiting he knocked again. But nobody came to the door, so he moved on, going to the door on the opposite side of his own. Again his knocking remained unanswered. He thought about going to the next door but his sleep had relaxed him a little, so instead he went back to his apartment and collected a jacket. He rubbed at the blood around the door handle with his finger, cleaning it would have to wait until he got back, it had probably already stained the paint. Shrugging his jacket on he headed to the elevator and rode it to the ground floor. The Police station was not far, the nearest was at the other end of the townhouse blocks, he would just stick to the main streets, there was no way the girl would be waiting for him, especially with the storm starting up the way it was. The doors rolled open and he crossed the small elevator antechamber to the glass door that led into the street, there he found out just how cold the rain was. He zipped his jacket closed and pulled up the hood before stepping out into the storm. He was across the road when he realised his error, the jacket was waterproof, rain beading off and running in rivulets onto the ground. His jeans, however, were not, by the time get got back they would be soaked. They were already getting wet though so he just pushed on, each alley he passed had him checking behind him, the calm collectedness he had felt in the apartment building was quickly eroding. He was a block away when something rustled in a bush in the garden of the nearest townhouse and he almost leapt out of his skin. But the rustle came again and he noticed a small bird, obviously disturbed by the sudden storm, bouncing around in the garden at the base of the bush. Myke mentally reprimanded himself and pushed on, crossing the road and coming up the shallow steps to the door of the station. But the door was locked and the reception room was dark. There was a sign affixed to the inside of the door, the station had been closed for renovations. “You’re joking.” he growled, as his head tilted forward to read a rivulet of water cascaded from the hood and hit the tip of his nose. He shook his head and wiped his face with the back of his hand before jamming them back into his jacket pockets to keep them dry. He made for the apartment again, jogging slowly across the road. He passed the bush where the bird had been, it had since disappeared, hopefully to somewhere better sheltered. He passed three more townhouses before a figure moved ahead of him. He slowed, the figure was coming towards him. He was soaked, but they were far worse off, black hair plastered down by the rain, strands of it pinned to their face in a way that would have had any other person trying to pull them back out of the way. But the girl just stared at him, walking slowly, her eyes were listless and cold again. Her saturated shirt clung to her body, her now shoe-less feet were covered in mud. He could see the stain from the energy drink that had broken open when he had hit her with the shopping bag. He backpedalled but his movement made her pace quicken and he found himself turning down the first alley he came to and sprinting off. He did not think about where he was running until the townhouses gave way to a road and, on the other side, parkland. He tried to stop suddenly as he noticed how steep the embankment on the other side of the road was but the wet grass gave no purchase and he found himself tumbling down it. He reached the bottom in short order and pushed himself to his feet, he glanced back up the slope to find his pursuer picking their way down with only a little more grace than his tumble. She slipped and slid and dug her heels into the soft earth as she struggled to remain upright. He threw himself through the dense bushes nearby, thrashing about as they snagged his jacket and pants. As he burst out the other side he found himself on a smooth green field. It took him a moment to recognise the golf course. He heard something thrashing in the bushes behind him and he took off, trying to put as much space between the girl and himself as possible. He was looking over his shoulder as she burst from the bushes, and at the same time his foot met air and he tumbled forwards. Water flowed into his jacket and he let out a gasp of surprise as he sank in the water that had collected in the bottom of the sand trap, the surrounding soil already saturated from the constant watering for the green. He clawed his way up the far side of it and, shoes squelching with water, continued running. There was a maintenance shed in the distance, the dark building giving hope of a moment’s rest, or possibly somewhere to barricade himself in. He knew he had to go back towards the city at some point, the course was on the outskirts, beyond it was forest and mountainous farmland. It was not far now, fifty metres. Forty. Twenty. Ten. Five. He threw himself around the side of the building, gripping the handle and pressing down. It was locked, there was a small lean-to beside it with three buggies, the small electric carts had wheels unlike the maglev cars on the street. He jumped in one and, after a moment’s confusion, found the reverse pedal. He jammed it to the floor and, nothing happened. There was an empty keyhole in the middle of the steering wheel. He cursed silently and threw himself out of the cart into the darkest corner of the shed, mentally berating himself for wasting precious time with the carts. Of course they wouldn’t have keys in them, if they did every teenager in the city would be taking them for joy rides. He was still mentally accosting himself when he heard the heavy panting. Even with the rain he could hear it, he held his own breath, fearful that she too could hear him over the storm. His lungs burned as he waited, from his point crouched low behind the carts he could not see her. Finally, when he could not bear the fire in his chest he gasped in air, and at that moment she appeared at the front of cart at the far end of the shed. There was a moment of them staring at each other, both breathing heavily. Then, scrambling for purchase on the gravel of the shed floor, Myke threw himself back out into the storm. The green ended and Myke found himself scrambling back up the hill he had tumbled down earlier, his hands throbbed, he had lacerated them on something on the way back up and now he was too exhausted to care about the sand and water-filled shoes. He just had to get away from the girl. If he had a moment to reflect he would have been able to see how surreal it all was, but, unfortunately for him he had no such time. He stumbled across the road, rain still belting down around him, it almost threatened to swallow him in its intensity. He was back in the townhouses, running down the hedgerow that formed the back fence of some. He glanced over his shoulder, the girl had not crested the hill yet, but she would at any moment. He pressed himself into the foliage of the nearest hedge, it was young and flexed to allow him through, if the houses were any older it would have simply stabbed and repelled him with its hardened bracken. But he fell through it and, gasping for breath from his run made his way to the rear door of the townhouse. Hiding in the alcove he knocked, praying that the rain would mask the sound. There was no lights on inside and no indication anyone was coming to help him. The hedge would hide him a little but the youth of the plants that had just permitted him to push through them also meant that they were too short to stop someone simply looking over the top of them and spotting him. There was a garden bed at the back of the house with a smaller row of bushes, if he laid down he might be able to hide behind them. The soft flop-flop of footfalls on wet pavement made itself know over the rain and, terrified, Myke threw himself into the garden, pressing himself to the ground. He laid there for a moment listening as the footsteps stopped. He was not sure if she was standing outside the hedgerow waiting for movement or if she had simply slowed to a walk and the quieter footfalls were completely masked by the rain, though it was now starting to lighten. He could feel water running over his arm, if his shirt had not been soaked before it well and truly was now. The water was streaming past, soaking into his sleeve on its way to the sunken hole that led under the house. Myke’s eyes widened and, doing his best not to make too much noise he slunk forward, dragging himself down into the pit, just as he heard someone push through the hedge nearby. Once his torso was far enough through the hole gravity pulled him the rest of the way, sliding a metre and a half down dirt made slick and gooey by the rain. On the way down a piece of discarded concrete from the building’s construction gouged a line into his chest, his grunt was involuntary and loud enough that he had no doubt the girl had heard him. He landed shoulder first in a puddle of water and waited in the semidarkness. He had expected it to be darker but a light shone further along in the cavern that had formed beneath the house. The water that pooled around him overflowed from where it sat into a miniature river that ran down towards what he assumed was the front of the townhouse. He pushed himself out of the water and, half-crouched, listened for movement. He could only hear the floor above him creaking, the building was probably shifting with all the rain and, given the cavern he was in beneath its foundations he was hardly surprised. As he moved slowly in the darkness something putrid made its way into his nostrils, something had died here recently. Probably a drowned rat half-submerged in a pool somewhere. The smell made him want to stay put, but he wanted more darkness between him and his would-be murderer. He shifted through the muddy goop and after a moment managed to get up onto dry soil, the sandy mix sticking to his fingers and arms. He sat there breathing quietly, wondering how long he would have to wait before he could head back to the surface and slink home. Would the girl still be waiting upstairs? Something stirred nearby and he jumped, turning to face it. The smell of mud, damp earth and half-rotted wet foliage rolled over him. The floor above him creaked with footsteps but the thing moving near him held his attention. There was a wet slap as it moved and shuddering choked breaths. Something brushed against him and he yelped, throwing himself backwards. He landed against something soft, but as he hit it the putrid smell of decomposition hit him and he hastily dragged himself away. The footsteps upstairs went from slow and cautious to hurried. Myke sat, breathing heavily and searching the darkness for the thing that had touched him and trying desperately to get the smell from him. Another has come. The voice was not audible, but inside Myke’s head. It was not his voice though, it was an intruder in his mind. A light came on somewhere, streaming in from a crack in the wall where misshapen concrete, dirt and drywall met. With the light he could see the creature, it rested in a pool of murky, disgusting water, covered in half-rotten plants. There was something stuck in what Myke could assume was its belly, a thin rusted rod of reinforcing pulled from the crumbled concrete that made the house’s foundation. But the putrid smell was coming from beside him, a pair of bodies partway into their decay, bile had come from their mouths at some point, one was a woman, the other a man. The man had a piece of reinforcing still held in his fingers. Myke almost threw up as he scrambled away from the creature and the dead couple, scrambling towards the source of the light. But something shifted in the light, a dark figure approaching and finally breached the fissure in the wall. Myke did not need to smell the mud or see the dripping clothes and tangled, he knew it was her. She brandished a kitchen knife she had collected from upstairs. But how had she gotten inside, nobody had answered when he had knocked and now he knew why. “Likes the others.” She murmured, “He helped them.” She was looking past him and past the dead couple, out into the pools of grimy water. Myke followed her gaze and his stomach turned, there were two more bodies, closer to the entrance, they were apart and one was more decayed than the other. She had killed them both, there were heavy cuts around their throats, he could see the caked blood and where it had run, staining their shirts. The owners had not answered him because they were dead and she had somehow found a key, whether by breaking in through the wall or by killing one of the other two. She moved towards him but something made her stop. “I must kill him.” She murmured, “Must kill him.” But her eyes were on the two bodies and it took him a moment to realise she was crying. And then it dawned on him, he turned to the creature, “You made her kill them?” So clever, clever little Damoclean. it chortled. Her head snapped to him and she lunged forwards, narrowly missing him. He staggered backwards and tumbled into the putrid water. He scrambled to get up but she was already upon him. He felt the knife sink into his shoulder and he roared with pain, feet lashing out at her. A kick caught her in the belly and propelled her backwards, he scrambled through the mud and water until a hand caught him. It was cold and damp and gripped him vice-like on his good shoulder. So clever, and dead. She was coming towards him again, he pulled at the hand gripping him as he kicked out. His foot caught her again but he gave up on the hand gripping him and his hand went to collect the knife from his shoulder, he needed a weapon. But then his hand changed direction and gripped the reinforcing bar lodged in the creature’s torso, he twisted, pulling up and the creature screamed in his mind. He winced and watched the girl drop to her knees holding her ears. He pulled the bar free as the hand released him and span it, bringing the lump of steel down across the creature’s face. Blow after blow came. He expected a reprisal from the girl on the creature’s orders, but none came. Finally the creature gave a fitful shudder and lay still. He turned the face the girl, makeshift club at the ready, but she was on the ground, covered in mud and sobbing to herself. He made his way towards her, grip on the rod still tight, muscles tense and ready. His hand came down on her shoulder and she shrieked, backing away in a flurry of limbs. She lay there looking at him, wide-eyed, then, after a long pause the tears started again, “I killed them.” She sobbed, dropping onto all fours in the muck.

Myke waited for the guard to clear him, swinging open the door to the prison’s visitor yard. He was barely paying attention, all he could think of was the girl’s sobbing when she came out of the creature’s trance. It had stayed with him since that day, the way she had collapsed, all malice gone from her as though a switch had been thrown. She had reverted from would-be-killer to university student in an instant and whatever the creature had done it had dissolved away from her leaving her to face her dead parents. When they had arrested her he had been given a debriefing about what had transpired, though he still had trouble believing it all. She sat in a booth, looking at her hands, the darkness around her eyes had receded and her hair was tied back neatly now. He picked up the handset beside him and her eyes snapped up, face lighting up with his appearance. He waited a moment for her to pickup the handset on her side of the glass, “Hi,” he said, shifting in the uncomfortable seats for a moment, “Are you doing okay?” She smiled, “Yeah, for the moment, the first month has been pretty rough.” He nodded, “I can only imagine, have you heard any more about the appeal?” “The psychiatrist has submitted his testimony and its all being considered now, the lawyer says I have a good chance of a reduced or suspended sentence.” “Right, but how are you doing after everything?” Her face tightened, “I don’t want to talk about them”, she meant her parents, it had been difficult to get anything out of her about them since they had started speaking. He held up a hand, “I completely understand, I just wanted to make sure you’re talking about everything with somebody, is the psychiatrist talking to you about it?” She nodded slowly, “A little, he said he doesn’t want me to rush into something I’m not ready for,” she paused, “Look, thanks for coming to see me, I really appreciate it.” There was something she wanted to ask, he could tell. “It’s okay, sorry I keep bugging you like this-” “No, I do really appreciate it, so many people have-” she shifted awkwardly, “-disowned me since it all happened.” “It must be hard.” She nodded, “I can’t blame them though. Do you-” He leant in closer to the glass partition between them, “Do I?” “Ever see me as a murderer, now, I mean, do you get flash backs or…?” Her voice trailed off and she shrugged as if she didn’t really know how to finish the question. “No,” It was a lie and they both knew it, every now and then he would catch people out of the corner of his eye with dark hair and he would panic and spin around just to find them buying a drink from a vending machine of looking before they crossed the road, “Not you, at least, occasionally I freak out about something I see out of the corner of my eye.” Her eyes widened, “Really?” He nodded, it was part of the reason he came so often, trying to convince himself that there was no murderer following him now, not only was she locked up, but she wasn’t that person anymore, not controlled by the creature in the mud, “How about you?” Her eyes shifted to the bench she was sitting on, “Sometimes I hear it in my head, not real but just a memory, or I feel like my body isn’t in my control, it is of course, but it’s like being dizzy where everything feels like its moving of its own accord.” “That sounds like a pretty crazy experience.” She nodded, “I hate it, every time it happens I panic.” “Everybody panics about something, I think given what you went through you’re entitled to be a little nervous about those sort of things.” She nodded solemnly, “Thanks for coming to check on me, Myke.” “Anytime, Kara, I hope they process your appeal soon, you’ve been in here too long for something you didn’t do.” She shook her head, “I did do a part of it, everyone tells me I didn’t do it, but there had to be some part of me was complicit.” “Nobody believes that about you.” Her dark eyes searched his for a moment and her lips pulled tight, “I do.”