The process of taking a pen in my hand and inscribing paper with ink is becoming less strange, relaxing even. Yet it cannot replace being together. Seeing you. Hearing you. Being reduced to the lowest bandwidth denominator is a frustrating experience, one that my brain tries to reject. I fail to believe that passing paper and ink through the quantum quarantine blanket is any more secure than passing EM waves.
There have been rumours of unrest there. Please tell me that you are safe. The thought of you trapped on a world erupting in panic fills me with fear. Charity organisations have been protesting to the Commonwealth about the need for aid relief, but it falls on deaf ears. Fear rules our government. Last week another planet from the Coreoalis System was quarantined. They showed it on the news, the planet disappearing in a blink into the null dimensions. I thought of you and cried. Then I steeled myself and stoked the fight inside me.
A fight I channel into my work, and consequently my career continues to progress apace. I am now chief scientist on the project, and moving in higher circles. Elliptical paths from you, maybe, but I still retain hope.
I sign off now, before I reach the censors maximum matter limit.
I love you,
Elaina stared at the letter. She smoothed it out flat with her hand, pushing it against the polished wooden tabletop. She wiped the tears from her eyes, then stood to search through a sideboard draw. From within she extracted another letter, and placed it side by side with the first on the table. She leaned over and examined them both, near and far, looking for patterns in the swirl of words. The previous letter had arrived a month before and contained nothing but idle chatter and professions of love. It had been enough to keep her hope burning.
And now, mentions of work, and the project, and memories of the nights he never came home, and the arguments. Tarnishing the words of love.
She picked up the letters and walked out onto her balcony. Ahead the city clung to the planet, lights desperately dreaming of daylight. Above them blackness that was more than black; nothingness, empty and depressing.
“I want to believe that you can save me,” said Elaina.
I miss reading your words as much as seeing your face, a situation that I never thought would arrive. I must assume that my letters reach you for I refuse to imagine a more distressing set of circumstances.
The problems increase out here, and unfortunately so does the fear. The low bandwidth communication only serves to heighten the panic. I cannot see the quarantine being lifted soon.
At work I have begun a more more complete extrapolation of the project after meeting with the quarantine team, access only gained since my promotion. I have promising results so far.
All my love,
The panic spread fast, gouging a scar through the crowds that wandered under the null sky with desperate hopelessness. It arrived suddenly, like the aliens: a cry of confusion, a scream of disbelief, tears of grieving, then the deep genetic urge to survive, at whatever cost. The crowd swirled and churned and raged. Elaina tried to hold onto her friend Julia, but their hands slipped apart amidst the pressing bodies. Elaina shouted her name but it was just one more cry, lost against the backdrop of many cries. With determination she forced her way to the edge of the crowd, into the shadow of a sad looking tower, all grey and dull and aching of unfulfilled dreams. Pockets of space drifted past her, and in one of those moments she scanned the crowd again for Julia; they had been searching for food after rumours that an aid drop had slid through the quarantine. A thousand faces, a thousand masks of fear, and there for a moment she saw Julia, and her eyes wide and scared, and she saw her fall, her body spasm, her essence die. She rose with a different expression, an expression of a predator hungry with bloodlust.
Elaina turned away and tried to escape, along with everyone else. Her tears filtered the world into a blurred kaleidoscope of images, such that when she realised that the crowd was not pressing on her she did not remember how she had arrived there.
Finally Elaina burst into her apartment, slammed the door shut, shut the bolts and alarmed the deadlock. She was breathing heavy and fast, sweating and shaking. Upon the table she spread the letters, she read their words, tried to imagine his face, tried to imagine his arms encompassing her, keeping her safe.
“I can’t cope with this any more,” said Elaina as she clasped the letter to her chest and sobbed.
I fear the worst. Six months since your last letter. The absence is like a hole inside me, tearing me apart. I must act.
Elaina stood on her balcony and stared up at the null sky, feeling sick. She closed her eyes and took deep breaths. Dizziness passed. Her doorbell rang. She opened her eyes and walked tentatively into the apartment.
She tried to make her voice sound calm and confident but instead it slid out in wavering, nervy tones.
A moment of silence and uncertainty.
“That’s impossible, go away or I’ll call the police.”
“Elaina!” shouted the voice from the other side of the door. “It’s me. Really, it is.”
She shuffled closer to the door, lent forward and quickly stared through the ancient fish-eye view security hole. The view was blurred by tears of hope, and all she could see was the silhouette, maybe a man, maybe Jaran.
She opened the door a fraction, the chain stretching taut. Elaina gasped.
“Are you going to let me in?”
Amidst the daze of unreal happiness she slipped off the chain and opened the door further. Jaran pushed his way in, banging the door out of the way and threw his arms around Elaina in an all-encompassing hug. She stood stiff and still, dazed, until he leant down and kissed her, and then she relaxed. Accepted it. Believed it. Later, they sat on chairs, adjacent to each other, arms on the tabletop, hands entwined.
“You shouldn’t have risked it,” said Elaina softly.
“I did though,” said Jaran, “for you.” He squeezed Elaina’s hand gently.
“But travelling across the emptiness? What if it’s-”
“Shh,” said Jaran, “I’m here aren’t I?”
“And now you’re stuck.”
“Stuck with you, my love,” said Jaran smiling.
A deafening siren howled into life, startling Jaran. He winced at the volume and turned away from the meagre food preparation to look for Elaina. She emerged from the balcony, looking ashen, fingers in her ears.
“Fire alarm?” shouted Jaran.
Elaina nodded, then spoke. Jaran tried to read her lips, the siren overwhelming her actual speech.
“We better get down,” shouted Jaran.
Elaina shook her head, spoke more words swallowed by the noise and pointed outside.
“We shouldn’t hang around it could be real.” Jaran’s throat itched scratchily at trying to shout loud enough to be heard. He wasn’t convinced that Elaina could hear him at all, so he grabbed her arm and pulled her towards the apartment door. She snatched her arm back from him and shook her head vigorously, lips moving in words that seemed panicked and hysterical.
“We can’t stay here!” shouted Jaran, and he lunged for her again, holding her wrist tight and pulling her towards the doorway. She resisted for a few seconds before relenting and following him.
He heard snatches of her words amidst the swooping siren, “…don’t trust…must hide…”, but he couldn’t process the entire sentence, the noise being so loud as to hinder his thinking and obstruct any thoughts other than those of flight.
The naked concrete staircases were jammed with people making their way downward. They didn’t rush or panic, instead they moved in a predictable toiling march, desperate to silence the all encompassing howl, but having no appetite for their inevitable destination. Sucked into a situation they dreaded would be worse than their current predicament. Jaran held Elaina’s hand tight and pushed others to stay next to her. She avoided eye contact.
Outside they poured into the plaza that stood surrounded on three sides by apartment blocks. Ferociously bright floodlights sat high on the top of tall, metal, spidery struts, like patient predators, burnishing the crowds with unnatural light. The crowds were not allowed to flow away into thinning chaos, instead they were organised and regimented, and initially Jaran could not see a reason for the behaviour. Not until an unpleasant looking man with an ugly looking gun shouted at him in a language that he felt he should understand, but whose meaning hovered tantalisingly just out of reach. The gun wavered in his direction and the meaning was all too clear, they were being marshalled into rows, made to stand to attention. Roll call.
Jaran stood next to Elaina, glancing across at her, trying to catch her eye. She stared ahead, statue-like bar the quick trembling of her body that was transmitted through their entwined hands. To the left of Jaran stood someone who he had seen around their block, but didn’t know the name of, in front of him stood the baker, Geraint Jones, who had struggled to adapt and meet the demand. He looked around further, trying to gauge what was really happening. Every time Jaran moved, Elaina grabbed his hand tighter, in a squeeze that he knew meant ‘stop’.
The alarms ceased. Silence poured into the void, the silence of a thousand people breathing and moving and wishing. Then a sharp crack, a gunshot, followed by a scream and guttural shouts, sharp and quick and unmistakable in their intention. Jaran jumped at the gunshot, twitching from his shoulders down his spine, tensing as the fear rolled in like a heavy fog, quenching hope and fight and anger.
A man walked between the rows, tall and arrogant, exuding aristocracy. He stopped and stared at Geraint Jones, his gaze piercing and intent.
“What do you do?” said the man, his voice quiet but menacing, aimed like a weapon, the word ‘do’ stressed as if it was foreign and strange.
“Baker,” replied Geraint in wavering tones.
He nodded, then grabbed Geraint pulling him close, until he was whispering intimately in his ear. Upon release the man stood back a step and Geraint fell to the floor in juddering spasms. Jaran looked down at Geraint, his instinct to reach out and help, then he looked up, into the eyes of the assailer, and he saw something that wasn’t human, something from somewhere else. A cold fear burned inside Jaran and he looked down quickly, immediately ashamed of his cowardice. The spasms halted, replaced by gasps for breath and an animal chuckle. Geraint rose slowly, with a smile, and an alien look in his eyes. The man who was no longer Gerarint stood upright and saluted, then marched away. The instigator hovered, waiting for a reaction. Jaran kept his head down, stared at the floor, prayed to be spared, whilst Elaina’s hand quivered with fear or anger or shame.
The ordeal lasted for an hour, a roll call from hell. Some men tried to run, tried to fight, succeeded in dying. The enemy was strong and quick and multiplying.
Finally they were released. Elaina and Jaran walked back to the apartment in silence, she wouldn’t hold his hand.
They stood in the kitchen, listening to the old electric kettle boil. They stood apart. Elaina concentrated her gaze on the steam emerging from the kettle’s spout, watching the swirls and whirls, seeing patterns and shapes in the vapour as slowly they dispersed and morphed until suddenly they were something else entirely.
“There was nothing I could do,” said Jaran.
Elaina looked up to meet his eyes for a moment, but couldn’t hold his gaze for the worry that he would read her emotion directly.
“I’d have been killed too.”
The boiling water crescendoed, then the kettle clicked off, leaving a thick silence.
“You were my hero once,” said Elaina. She picked up her mug, stared into it, traced the tea stains on the white porcelain.
“It wasn’t worth the risk,” said Jaran.
She looked up now, abruptly, willing him to see her anger, searching his eyes for the things that sparked her love of him. And saw only defeated hollowness.
“You risked the void,” said Elaina.
“To be here with you, there was gain, there was you.”
“And is it worth being together? Now? Was it worth it? Is this how it’s going to be?”
Tears began to streak her cheeks now, despite fighting them. She didn’t want him to see. She was angry and disappointed. And lost.
Jaran turned and walked away.
Jaran stood within an arm’s length of the front door, staring at the greying white paint. Black fingerprints dotted the edge, smudged and grasping. Hairline cracks spread from the top right corner, like a river delta, the estuaries destination a chipped gap where the yellow wood showed through. The doorknob was dirty brass, not even resembling metal anymore, but some dull plastic composite. The letterbox was the same, the lustrous shine of the brass long gone, its hinge squeaky and stiff.
Outside there were footsteps, closing towards their door, clicking on the bare concrete of the corridor floor. Jaran listened with intense concentration, trying to discern the footstep’s owner, searching for a familiar trait. Before Jaran could decide if it was Elaina coming home, the letterbox opened, squeaking protractedly and an envelope slid through and fell heavily to the floor.
Jaran lunged for the letter, grasping it in two hands, and moved quickly away from the door, into the kitchen. The envelope felt heavy, the paper coarse and thick; the address written in blue ink, flowing and elegant calligraphy; Elaina’s name scribed with a flourish; the sharp, officious, black ink stamp of the censors in the top right. Jaran’s fingers traced the envelopes edges, toyed with opening it, but instead reached for matches, and struck one in a fluid movement. The letter caught fire quickly, flames flickering high, devouring the paper hungrily. The paper blackened and curled and flaked into the sink, the fire clinging to life in bright orange embers. Jaran dropped the burning envelope into the empty steel sink, moved to the toaster and put in a piece of toast. Then he watched the letter burn to black ashes in a trance. The toast popped up in the toaster, with a clang, making Jaran jump. He reached across and reset the toaster with the same piece of bread, then turned on the cold tap, letting the water wash away the black remnants of the letter, its existence completely nullified. The toaster began to spout black smoke, as the bread burnt and charred inside. Jaran watched the smoke mingle with that from the letter, hanging in the kitchen like a cloud. Letter, bread. Bread, letter. Smoke. He began to cough, the black smoke scratchy on his throat. He opened the window, pushing it wide, letting the smoke rush out in a bid for freedom, whorls of black and grey.
The apartment door opened and Elaina walked in, the worry and stress heavy on her face, her posture drooping and defeated. Her nose wrinkled as she entered, she coughed once, short and sharp.
“Something’s burning,” said Elaina.
“What?” said Jaran, staring at her, searching for the beauty that was lost inside the layers of defence grown to allow survival amidst the terrors.
“Burning,” said Elaina.
“Oh,” said Jaran, turning around to the toaster and hitting the stop button, frowning at the blackened remains of the piece of bread.
“Damn,” said Jaran.
“Didn’t you notice it?” said Elaina. She asked the question but Jaran could see that she didn’t really care about the answer. She flopped into an armchair and gazed out of the window at the bleak sky.
“No,” said Jaran, as he waved his arms around in a futile attempt to disperse the smoke, “no, I didn’t.”
“What are your plans today?” said Elaina to Jaran. They were sitting around the tiny kitchen table eating stale muesli. She remembered how they used to eat their breakfast on the terrace in summer, at their old house, the one before they moved to the city for Jaran’s job. Sunshine, breakfast, the smile of her husband; those little things had seemed everything in those days. Days that were stress and anger free, and filled with soft smiles and happiness. Now they didn’t even look outside if at all possible, the null sky was heavy and oppressive, and had turned some people mad.
“Usual,” said Jaran, without looking up, his eyes fixed on his muesli, his mind obviously far away.
“You trying anywhere new?” said Elaina.
Jaran looked up at her sharply.
“You think you could do better?” said Jaran, the volume of his voice rising with tension. “We have food don’t we?”
“I fought for that food and worked for that food and did things I don’t want to do for that food.”
“I didn’t mean that. I was just trying to… talk.”
“Yeah, right,” said Jaran.
She reached out her hand for him. He snatched it away and stood up, carrying his cereal bowl to the sink.
“We don’t talk anymore,” said Elaina, her voice wavering and on the edge of tears.
“Go on then,” said Jaran. He wasn’t looking at her, he was fiddling with the kettle.
“You regret coming here, don’t you?” said Elaina.
“What do you want me to say?” shouted Jaran, turning to her, waving his arms demonstrably. “That it’s all fine? That being with you makes everything all right? That I can suffer the null sky and the murderous viral aliens just to gaze into your eyes? That having to fight for food and yet hanging on the edge of hunger, is okay, because I can touch your silken skin? Is that what you want me to say?”
Tears began to fall down Elaina’s face and inside a sharp pain twisted and writhed.
“You’re not the man I married,” she said quietly.
He stared at her for a long few seconds, silent, eyes searching for something, lips pressed together. Then finally he broke the spell and walked away.
Jaran arrived at their apartment door, weary and depressed, carrying a small plastic bag of food. His stomach churned at the thought of eating. Just as his key was about to enter the lock he heard Elaina’s voice from inside. His hand hovered by the lock, shaking gently. He lowered his hand and put his ear to the door.
Her words: “I loved you so much. I still do I think.” Then small, agonising sobs. “Remember when-”
Jaran moved his head away from the door, forced his key into the lock and opened the door with a slam, his movements inelegant, catching on the anger. His heart raced and the adrenaline pumped up his body to a state of readiness. His head buzzed with words he would speak, shout, cry.
Elaina sat at the table, a handful of letters spread on the table, tears rolling down her face. She looked at Jaran with fear; spread her hands wide over the letters.
“Where is he?” shouted Jaran.
Elaina just sobbed, loudly.
“Who are you talking to?” shouted Jaran.
Elaina collapsed her head onto the table, arms encircling the letters. Jaran strode towards her, snatched one of the letters away from her, tried to focus on the hand-written words. The anger churned his thoughts and caused his eyes to wander, he read the first paragraph three times before discerning the words. He turned the letter over, skipped to the end, to the signature. It was from him.
“What are you doing?” said Jaran; he tried to soften his voice. “Who were you talking to?”
“You,” said Elaina, the sobs finally consuming her completely.
Jaran stared again at the letter in his hand, written by him, on another world, on the other side of the void, what seemed like a lifetime ago. He had been prepared to fight, to see off the rival and assert his ownership of this woman. But the rival was himself, in the past.
Jaran threw the letter back on the table and walked away.
Elaina entered the apartment to see Jaran sitting at the table, staring into space, shoulders hunched and defeated. He glanced up at her with a look flickering with irritation. Two men followed Elaina, one tall and muscular, wearing riot hardened clothing, the other small and dressed in a suit.
“Who are they?” said Jaran.
“Their syndicate owns the tower block now,” said Elaina.
“That doesn’t give them the right to come barging in.”
“It does,” said the large man, his accent clipped and aggressive. “Today we take your body.”
Jaran stood slowly. He looked from Elaina, to the men, and back again.
“There was nothing I could do,” said Elaina. She tried to hold on to the recent images of anger and bitterness that had dwelled in Jaran’s eyes, but the past broke through and spiked the unpleasantness with wonderful memories of love.
“Do you hate me that much?” said Jaran.
“No, Jaran,” said Elaina, “I love you, I always have.”
“We have no time for this,” said the shorter man. He pushed his way past Elaina, towards Jaran. Jaran turned, looked for a weapon, failed and returned to face the man. He lashed out with his foot, aiming for the man’s knee. In a blur his foot was caught and he was twisted in the air, to land on his back, the man that was not a man pinning him down.
“Enough,” said the short man as he pressed his palm on Jaran’s head. Jaran spasmed and bucked, screaming resistance, thrashing out for survival.
Elaina turned away and vomited, and she knew that when she turned back it wouldn’t be Jaran there anymore. She was alone again.
It has been too long again, and this time I fear that it means that my plan has failed. I arranged for a duplicate of myself to be smuggled through the quarantine, in a thin hope that it could find a way for you to escape. I can only imagine that the proxy didn’t make it.
I hear terrible rumours. Survive for me, my love. Even if it is only by the hope in my scribbles of ink on a paper sheet. You are not forgotten.
I love you,