#FictionFriday: Sandbox

Muses June Prompt 18

There was, you know, a cafe.

A place that served coffee in the mornings and ran till late at night, attracting really dodgy people who came yearning for trouble more than for eggs. This was the kind of place that the neighbourhood lady – who knew everyone, who had no kids of her own but seemed to have adopted everyone who passed through the cafe as her own – worked for decades. And her younger colleagues would be here for months and be gone. If they stayed any longer she would have a long chat with them, ensuring that she had no successor.

The cafe had customers. Only the boy was a regular here, sitting alone as he usually was, reading or allowing his mind to quieten in the little bubble of space bounded against other bubbles of conversation that he did not let into his mind.

There was a man, who considered both his mind and body sculptures that reflected his talent and discipline. He had picked the watch that day to reflect his mood, a gunmetal strap that was pedestal to a face that alternated a highlighted bronze with the same gunmetal base. He wore his navy suit, brown belt and matching shoes (which conveniently clicked to announce his arrival) proudly, because he’d earned them. He looked out of place in the cafe, but really, he would go anywhere for a sip of morning coffee before the chaos began.

Hearing his steps, the neighbourhood lady smiled as she turned, ready to take his order. He told her the exact kind of coffee that he desired, the bill was already in his hand, which stretched out towards her as he glanced down at his watch worn on the other wrist.

It seemed to him that she cared about his taste in the type of beans, strength and acidity. But who knew, it could turn out entirely the other way. He knew he would just have to take that five-dollar risk and find out if he would ever be back.

Quietly in a corner of the cafe was a woman who wore the stripes of a tiger as a tattoo, stretching over her chest with its angry gaping mouth ending at her deltoid.

Otherwise, she was conventionally attractive, the size and angle of the tiger did make many men gulp as they wondered if the rest of the tiger extended down through her left breast and ribs.

Her sleeveless denim top also showed off her lean but powerful arms. It was a convenient outfit for her, helping to keep away most men who did not have the confidence that they could outfight her.

She also knew her physical limits better than anyone else in town. And the woman was largely confident about this. She had reached a day early to survey the town and find any way in which she could possibly gain an edge. She liked being prepared.

The woman was nursing a cup of water, which the lady had given to her without a second question asked. She watched the man in the suit, wondered how he fussed over a pinch of wool or dirt caught in the fabric. She wondered how long he could last in the forest. A smile reached the edge of her lips.

The self-important man checked the face of his watch a second time, right before receiving his coffee. As he turned to take clicking strides out of the cafe, one hand in his pocket, he held the paper cup to his nose and gave a sniff, then a sip. In the same instant that the coffee warmed the back of his throat, he decided that he would indeed be back again.

And as he stepped out of the cafe and the door swung shut, he was abruptly wrapped in a vice grip and the ground left his soles. Disoriented, he stared at the spreading brown puddle that was his spilt coffee, shrinking into the distance faster than it was turning cold on the sidewalk. His breaths became laboured in the brewing concoction of fear, confusion and sheer hysteria. And he forgot to even scream.

Not that anyone would have heard him.

The boy left next, rushing because he was late to an appointment after overindulging in his own sense of wonder. He struggled with his limp backpack as he stepped out of the cafe, almost stepping on the dubious brown puddle which he spent no effort to investigate. He turned left and took two steps before he realised he was going the other way and abruptly twisted his steps and tried to go the other way but was promptly scooped up by a bit of the sky, or a giant hand that much resembled a human’s except that it was giant, and blue. With streaks of clouds.

The very fabric of reality seemed to struggle against the giant hand, pulling taut as it descended, almost groaning as it distorted. The struggle was alleviated as the boy rose into the sky in the grip of the giant hand. Unlike the man before him, the boy surely remembered to scream.

No one heard him. It was like he did not exist in this world anymore. And by the way, that’s a hint.

The woman was the last. She finished her water, thanked the neighbourhood lady who smiled with warmth in return. As she stepped out of the cafe, it almost seemed like she expected something to hit her. But what did, was beyond anything she could expect. Her eyes were laser-focused on the giant hand that looked like the sky taking form and pulling her off the ground. She watched the clouds get nearer as she rose. The cold air rushed against her face of determination, to face the impending challenge head on.

The experiment began.

Safety

The man felt the ground reappear at his soles and relief hit him in the same instant. His first reaction, of course, was to sweep his jacket unconsciously with a hand, as if a crease had found its way to the extravagant Italian suit.

A shriek descended upon the man with a shadow trailing it, like some kind of reverse thunder-lightning. This startled the man, who was severely on edge from his otherworldly experience. He jumped away on instinct, falling to his knees and rolling to hide behind a thick tree trunk and its perimeter of prickly undergrowth.

When the shadow retreated, a boy remained where it had touched. He sat plump and defeated on the forest floor. His hand covered his ears and eyes were squeezed shut like it was safer not to see or hear. His body was scrunched up smaller than it seemed anatomically possible and pulsed with the rapid rhythm that was his breath.

A second wave of relief hit the man. Seeing the terror-stricken boy reflected his own masculine strength and composure. He approached the boy.

That was when the shadow descended once again, and the man gave it a proper look this time, and saw that it was an extension of the blue sky. For years, he had hardly paid attention to the sky. This, in some warped manner, made the supernatural sight in front of him a little more palatable.

When the shadow retreated once again, what remained in its place was a sight to behold. The man gulped as he traced the arc of the stripes running from her shoulder, down across her collar bones, and down to the very hem of her tank top that hugged her bosom in the way a man hugged such a bosom. The woman knelt on one knee, knife in one hand. Her eyes watched the retreating sky and her surroundings concurrently.

“My name is Vector,” the man said, reaching out with what was meant to be a helping hand, which then became a handshake request when she stood on her own.

The woman stared at his unarmed hand, then traced his sleeve to the shoulders of the suit. She made no move towards him, instead looking behind him at the boy who had started to peek out at his newfound companions.

The boy’s eyes caught hers and then darted away.

“I can’t believe I got teamed up with the most useless ones,” the woman muttered. “Listen up, this is a game of survival and I’m here to play. You guys are obviously dead-weights, so why don’t we go our separate ways here?”

“Oh, madam,” Vector swept his hands outwards with a flourish that was meant to let his Rolex catch the light. “You will find that I am an expert at games and survival.” He turned his attention to the low rhythmic buzz of insects and the trees surrounding them that stretched tall. “While this may not be a playground that I’m used to, I always find my way to the top.”

The woman looked to the sky. The clouds rolled but the sky remained quiet. It did not seem to her like the hand was going to descend again. Then her eyes returned to the man and the boy who had found the strength in his knees to hold his weight. The boy stood experimentally.

She was definitely better off alone.

“Don’t. Follow. Me.” She began hopping across the forest floor and away from the men.

“I like a little fire in my girl,” Vector whispered to himself, licked his lips out of anxiety, which he told himself was excitement. And he began to chase after her.

The boy, fuelled by the thought of being alone in the treacherous forest, joined the chase.

At first, Vector found himself lagging behind. The forest extended greedy claws at him, hoping to ensnare him with thick sprawling roots, abrupt potholes and sudden splashes of raw grey-brown mud.

But once he recognised it as a game, there was a path to victory. Vector read the movements of the woman he trailed and learnt by intuition what she did and so that he could similarly navigate the unforgiving landscape that he had been dropped into.

He began catching up.

By this time, the boy behind Vector felt like he was about to vomit. Running was not his forte. He paused in his steps, bent over his knees. Now that he was still, he felt the cool flowing breeze against his face. It wove through the trees and shrubs, sometimes catching a leaf or interrupting the buzzing trajectory of a bug.

But then he spotted something else caught in the breeze: a pale grey fur-ball that floated like it was weightless. What caught his attention was the pair of eyes that looked directly into his. As it approached, he struggled to keep his eyes on it. It was almost fading away like a trick of the eye.

He caught it in a pair of cupped palms, feeling its soft fur almost bounce off his palms upon impact. It filled the space in his palms perfectly and the pair of eyes never left his.

But the sound of his own pants was overbearing. The two figures ahead of him retreated further while he stood still.

He quickly tucked the creature into a pocket in his denim jacket, and was surprised that it actually fit. Then he resumed his hopeless chase. There was a better time for this riddle.

Meanwhile, Vector called out to the woman ahead of him. “Hey, look. I will be a great help out in this wilderness.”

He indicated exactly the opposite to the woman by calling out in such a crisp and clear voice when they were in enemy territory, without any knowledge of the whereabouts of their enemy. But the woman was surprised at his proximity. She had figured that she would have lost them both by now.

“Hey, Miss Tiger, come on!”

Abruptly, almost purely on an impeccable intuition that she had learnt to trust over the years, she shifted her weight in the next step and jumped behind a sturdy tree into a low crouch. Her eyes scanned the horizon for any trace of danger.

In her periphery, she saw that the man had mimicked her caution, and had jumped behind a tree himself, watching her for more clues. At least he wasn’t causing a ruckus and drawing more attention. The other boy was nowhere in sight.

One down, one more to lose…

But something was ahead of her, she knew it before her eyes saw a trace of it. It was a graceful prowling feline. Its silhouette approached slow and incredibly quiet in this underbrush. As it came closer and black stripes started to reveal themselves against an orange pelt, a low growl came with it. It was hungry and hostile. It seemed alone, but that made it that much more aggressive.

Her knife was ready. The shaking in her hand that was the remnant of a past incident soon became overpowered by sheer will. Her heart was aroused but steady. Her eyes were clear and sharp. She trusted her instincts and her body.

Time to make her move.

She leapt to her feet, charged at the tiger, shrieking as much as she knew her lungs could bear. “AAAAAAAARRRRHH.”

Another voice joined hers from behind. The man had a late start, coming from a greater distance. But he had the right idea, that the grandiose display of aggression compounded its impact with numbers.

The tiger responded with a roar that put their best effort to shame. They were no beasts, but tamed, trimmed pets of technology and society. The animal smelt both their lie and inadequacy, and sprang into a charge.

The woman immediately switched to a more pragmatic approach: keeping low while leaping forward across the forest floor, approaching the animal without hesitation. The clash was imminent now.

She caught a look of Vector behind her. He held a stick like a baseball bat, evidently adept.

Tigers were fast and flexible. It had almost no weakness, she knew. She circled to its flank but it kept its eye on her, ready to spring to the side.

“Hey!” the man behind her called out. He was circling toward the opposite side of the tiger. He was actually helping the situation, making the right judgement at every step so far. Perhaps the greatest help he would be, was giving her the opening to sink her knife into a patch of soft flesh in the neck of the beast right when the beast sank its jaws into his neck.

The tiger now had to contend with two approaching prey, each equally tempting and dangerous. But the woman was closer. It swiped its claws at her as she leapt towards it. Narrowly avoiding it, the woman swung her knife to meet its ferocious jaw. She let the blade get caught in its teeth, while she expertly leveraged the knife handle to leap onto the tiger, riding it like a steed.

The man was near, looking for an opening. But the beast was quicker, flinging itself to the side before the woman could seat herself properly. She was thrown onto the forest floor and rolled away, now knifeless as the animal shook its head with the knife in its jaws.

The man seized his opportunity. The tiger’s jaws were disabled for that moment. The man’s focus was impeccable, and his stick gave him the range and strength to sweep away the tiger’s claws. He rushed in, fear vanquished by the pulsing adrenaline.

His first swing was too wide, caught nothing as the animal quickly shrank away, and he almost could not recover his stance in time. His second swing was a calculated one, now having experienced first-hand the difference between a moving beast and a speeding ball with a known trajectory. This second swing started fast and tight, but was cut short as he rounded the bat back in a downward smack that took the animal by surprise. Unfortunately, the abrupt change in direction killed most of the momentum and the bat did not land as hard as it needed to, delivering more shock to the beast than actual damage.

But it was enough to make the tiger loosen its jaw to free its greatest weapon. As the knife fell out of its mouth, the woman reached in close to the beast’s mouth with death-defying fearlessness, to catch the knife by the handle. Then, without fanfare or hesitation, she plunged it straight and deep into the neck of the beast.

The beast howled, and the man brandished his bat while the woman twisted her knife in its flesh, spawning a fresh roar that quickly died away as the animal collapsed heavily to the ground. Then the woman leapt atop the beast, her hand still gripping the knife handle, while the man stood in front of the fallen feline, bat pulled to a side and ready to strike at any sign of movement.

Thick, viscous blood oozed from the tiger’s wound and formed a warm puddle around it. Its white belly turned to the side and pulsed with its breath. It was limp, and death quickly found it.

For a moment, all either of them could hear was the sound of their own pants in their ears.

“Hey! Wait up!” the boy’s voice called from the distance. The duo exchanged a glance, as their grip on their weapons finally loosened. The danger was over.

“I’m Vector,” the man said again, using a free hand to sweep stray strands of his fringe off his forehead. His suit had been snagged all over by branches and bushes. His white shirt, which had smelt of lilies after a fresh clean and press, now stank of sweat that he normally would have washed off after a gym session. Vector was not used to the mess that he was in, but then again, as he took in his surroundings afresh, he was not used to any of this. But he knew he was going to win this game just like any other.

When Vector stretched his hand out, the woman took it this time as she hopped off the tiger. “You can call me Cat.”

“Nice to meet you, Cat,” he bowed and brought the back of her hand towards his lips, which appalled her and she quickly pulled her hand away.

“I … finally … caught up…” the boy said in between heavy pants. “OH MY GOD, is that a tiger!”

“We were up to more important things while you were loitering behind,” Vector grinned between subsiding pants.

“It seems that both of you are adamant in following me,” Cat said. “That’s fine but I will be very frank. Boy, the greatest use you could have been was tiger bait. So I’ll make sure you’re around when the next one shows up. I intend to do whatever I need to survive – that includes pushing you towards danger if that’s all you’re good for. Now that we are clear, if you still want to come along, suit yourself.”

“You really want to come along?” Vector looked at the boy. He was skinny and pale. He looked like he could faint under the sun.

The boy nodded, still panting. “My name … is Benji.”

“I’m Vector, and she’s Cat.”

“And now that the niceties are over, let’s get moving. We still have a few hours of daylight left.”

“Where are we going?” Benji asked.

“Anywhere but the forest where we’re prey. But if we have to stay in the forest, we need to find a fresh river or we will die before we can even get eaten. Any more questions?”

“It seems that you knew something of this game even before we got here. It would only be fair to let us in on what you know,” Vector said.

“I came on a survival mission with minimal intel. I had no clue that they would involve civilians. And the hand from the sky – that was…unexpected.”

“I had zero clues for any of this,” Vector said, “I was on my way to a meeting, and then here I was.”

“Anyway, let’s go,” Cat said, as she strode to the fallen tiger, pulled her knife out and continued along the forest floor.

“You should get yourself a weapon too,” Vector told Benji. “Something you’re good at using.” And then he followed after Cat.

Their pace was more manageable for Benji now, as caution and sustainability replaced urgency in Cat’s mind. Vector’s words made him recall the little furball that he had tucked away. He reached into the pocket cautiously, he had forgotten if the little critter had a mouth or the teeth that went with that.

His fingertips found soft fur, wrapped around it and pulled it out. It sat perfectly still in his palm, now brown, and its eyes blinked at him with curiosity. It had no visible mouth or limbs. And it felt so light that he wasn’t surprised that the breeze had caught it.

Then a second critter popped out of the same denim pocket. Benji gasped in bewilderment. It looked identical to the first and floated in the air.

And then a third, following in the same behaviour.

Benji let go of the first critter, pulled his pocket open and saw nothing in it. As it should have been. But now, three critters floated idly in the air, making little squeaky sounds like they were communicating with one another. Their eyes were set intently on him.

“You coming?” Vector called out.

The critters burst into Benji’s cupped palms even though they couldn’t all fit. And they were almost transparent again.

“Yeah.” Benji pulled open his jacket pocket, wondering what he should do. By their own accord, the critters dived into his pocket one after another. Benji picked up his backpack, found a sturdy branch that he could at least use as a walking stick, and then he followed in Vector’s footsteps.

As they explored, Cat grew increasingly irate at the sound of lazy footsteps trailing her that crackled twigs and rustled bushes. The boy was announcing their trail to the keen ears of animals or enemies. Clearly, he did not belong in the wilderness.

She wondered how the candidates had been selected. Perhaps, the boy had been included as a deliberate burden to test her further.

The sky was trying to hold on to the last streaks of daylight. Cat paused in a crouch. The signal for the other two to gather was pretty universal, but she was deciding between what to teach them in terms of field discipline and communications. She was doubtful of the extent that the boy Benji could execute on the level of discipline and coordination required anyway. Having been in the service for over a decade, she knew in her bones – and she wore the scars to vouch for her intimate knowledge – that a chain was only as strong as its weakest link. They were a pretty weak band right then, and she wasn’t used to being weak.

When they finally gathered in a tight unit, Cat told them the plan. She took out a light stick, bent it to break the glass tube within to mix the liquids and create an luminous neon-coloured liquid. They would scout a perimeter of safety and slit open the stick, and get the luminous liquid onto anything that they ought to pay attention to – areas of danger, poisonous plants, nasty terrain. The liquid would also mark the perimeter of their scouted area, which only needed to be a good twenty meters radius. She handed each of them a knife and a light stick, which they were supposed to clasp over with their hand to reduce the light that could stream out to a distant enemy.

As they scouted, she dug a hole deep enough for flames not to peek over its opening, started a fire for warmth and reassurance.

They hadn’t found a freshwater source yet. It would be their top priority for the following day. She had to reserve all her water for drinking, and ration it carefully. As she pulled out a baby wipe and let the crisp moisture refresh her, she laughed at how soft she had become. This was only Day One.

Daylight was almost lost now. The men returned one after another, finding her easily enough with the luminous markers congregating around their camp. When true night fell and the fire died, these city men would have to learn to see with just the moonlight. She had picked up that skill well enough, earning her the nickname of the creature that saw more clearly in the dark than the day.

“I’m only sharing my rations tonight. You will need to hunt your own game from tomorrow,” she told the men as she ripped shreds of dry jerky from the pack with her teeth.

Vector bit into the jerky, chewed for a long thoughtful moment, swallowed, then began to laugh.

“This is the best thing I’ve had in the past year!” he exclaimed.

Cat frowned at the figure of the man sitting across the fire. He glowed with a wavering tint of orange that reflected the whims of the fires.

“I’m not afraid to splurge for the finest things, you know?” Vector continued. “What is this, though?”

“Beef jerky,” Cat replied drily, “chewing on it gets your saliva flowing.”

“Good stuff, really. Proves once again that the best things don’t have to be expensive. I’m stocking up on these when I get back.”

Benji gulped. The shock of their new environment had yet to settle in his gut. He hadn’t truly considered the truth of the giant blue hand that had stolen him away from his life and put him down in this unknown forest.

“So what’s the story of the tiger tattoo?” Vector asked between mouthfuls of jerky. “It looks absolutely magnificent, by the way.”

Cat sighed, wondering if she was sitting around a high school campfire.

But she had been staring into the hypnotic dancing flames for the past few minutes and felt like she could oblige.

“Each stripe is a fallen comrade,” she said. “There are 23 of them so far. It helps me remember.”

“Wow. Damn,” Vector said.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Benji’s words were quiet, his first words since returning to camp.

Cat cleared her throat abruptly. “Once you are done, we’ll each take turns at sentry duty. You both have watches?”

Both Vector and Benji did.

“Stand if you feel sleepy, and if that doesn’t work, walk or even jog. Quietly.” She eyed Benji at those words.

“Your one goal is to look out for anything approaching the camp and alert the rest of us. There’re three of us, so three one-hour shifts for each of us. When your shift is over, wake the next person to take over. I’ll take the last shift. The hour before dawn is the worst.”

“I’ll go first,” Benji said quietly. He needed some time alone. It had always been how he handled situations like this, although nothing even close to such irrationality had been thrown at him previously.

Benji sat looking into the flames while the other two went to the tent. After a while, when the sounds of movement had faded to nothing, he continued watching the flames, while he reached into his pocket and found soft, comforting fur.

He should name the critters. He pulled the first of them out and it floated skyward for a little, and he saw the deep blue of the moonlit sky through the critter. It was transparent again. The second and third critters popped out of the pocket as well, and circled Benji almost ritualistically. A barrage of critters followed the first three and played in the air, like bubbles.

“I’ve seen you before, somewhere. You have a name.”

“Aire,” Benji told himself. “You are Aires.”

The Aires turned their attention to Benji in unison. Their eyes sparkled clearly in the moonlight, in contrast to their transparent body of fur. And a light cacophony of squeaks reverberated in the swarm, as if out of excitement.

As Benji watched, an Aire returned slowly from the distance, carefully, almost experimentally. It had a twig pinched in its fur. The Aire hovered over the fire, and dropped the twig into it, where it crackled. And the Aire looked to Benji with its eyes wide, before it floated away.

Benji smiled. He was not alone.

Meanwhile, Cat lay still in the tent, feeling the air filled her lungs and exit from her nostrils. She wondered how she could be so tired but not sleepy. The figure of the man Vector was an arm’s distance from her. He was so still that she knew he had not found sleep either.

When she opened her eyes, what she saw was not much different from the back of her eyelids. She tilted her face just slightly, away from the man.

Vector heard the beat of his heart acutely. And he lay awake until Benji came to wake him up.

The rest of the night was a blur.

Benji stood staring at the sky when sounds came from the tent.

“It’s been an hour?”

“It has. Go get some rest,” Cat told him.

Soon, Vector awoke to a slight nudge on his shoulder, and sat up. “It’s my shift again? That’s fast.” But when his eyes opened, a soft light of dawn filtering through flowing white curtains greeted him.

He stretched into a luxurious soft mattress and felt his hands slide across silky sheets. His hand found the warmth of another body, and he let his fingertips slide along the skin of her back. He felt the angle of her shoulder blade and the slight arch of her spine.

The lovely Cat stirred and rolled into his arms. The softness of her body pressed against his chest, he felt the rhythm of her breathing in his ribs, and soon in the skin of his neck as well, as her face nestled into the gap between his head and shoulders.

Her body fit perfectly in his embrace, and he had almost returned to sleep again when he felt a moist warmth pressed against his lips. She smelt like apples, and tasted like beef jerky.

Soon, Vector awoke to a slight nudge on his shoulder. He stretched his hand and it bounced against the fabric of the tent. When he opened his eyes, he only saw the darkness of night. He rubbed his eyes, trying to clear his mind.

“Vector,” the boy whispered.

He sat up and pulled himself out of the tent, squinting with what little light he had at the shrouded frame of Cat, trying to remember her warmth.

As he exited the tent, Cat wrapped her arms around herself.

Esteem

When dawn came, Cat roused the men awake. As sleep left Vector’s eyes and the features of Cat’s face surfaced with clarity, he felt a sense of intimacy and an urge to reach for her. But as reality seeped in, Vector found some restraint. He concluded that the sentry schedule was messing with him.

Benji awoke to a chorus of pains. He tried stretching, but it awoke more dormant pains in his body. When Benji put his hand into his pocket experimentally, he found a warm, soft ball of fur that moved slightly in response. His Aires were real, and so were the other events of the previous day.

Cat was already tearing down the tent, letting direct sunlight work its magic.

“We’re heading for the mountains ahead,” Cat pointed out to them. “We really need to find freshwater.”

Vector told Benji to follow Cat, while he would trail Benji. He flashed a smile to Benji, showing off his perfect pearly teeth with a single shred of jerky stuck in it. Benji found it difficult to return in kind.

Benji’s feet screamed in protest when they began their journey anew. He looked at the heeled leather loafers that Vector was in, now adorned with splashes of mud, and wondered how he could walk comfortably in this terrain.

They moved and stopped by Cat’s pace. Benji was trying to keep up, with some pointers from Vector. Cat said nothing to Benji, except instructions: “Pothole. Root. Keep up. I’m right here,” as she waved.

The walk was a constant drone of aches. The worst part of it was not knowing when the next rest will be, or what kind of terrain he would have to put himself through.

“There’re bunnies here. Whether you get to have dinner tonight, is entirely in your hands,” Cat told them before she sprang off, presumably after her prey.

“Let’s go!” Vector tested a swing of his bat, and ran after Cat.

Benji stumbled clumsily after them. As he jumped into the action, Cat slid the neck of her second bunny. Vector was chasing down a trio of bunnies and waiting for one of them to turn away from the others.

As Benji’s foot landed, his sole took the angle of the floor and his ankle gave way. He felt his ankle bend more than he thought it should, as his weight landed on the side of his foot. He yelped as a sudden pain shot up his leg and he fell to the grass.

“You okay?” he heard Vector’s voice as he tried to pull himself up. Vector dropped to a kneel and inspected his ankle, pinching it between finger and thumb.

“It’s swelling fast,” Vector said. “It’s a bad sprain.”

“What is it now?” Cat joined them.

“He sprained his ankle,” Vector explained, and Cat’s breath was audible. She reached into her backpack and pulled out a spray and bandage.

“I’ll tend to it,” Vector said. “I’ve had enough sports injuries to be good at this. Go scout the route ahead. We’ve got our food, but we need to move fast to get water.”

With a lingering look, Cat forged forward. Meanwhile, Vector rolled up the leg of Benji’s jeans carefully, decisively pulled his sneaker off, and then his sock. Benji felt self-conscious about having his unwashed feet at the hands of a man in a business suit, however thrashed the suit had become.

“Neither of us were really prepared for this, eh?” Vector’s words were casual, but his hand moved fluidly and his eyes never left the task.

“You’re doing well though,” Benji replied.

“We each have our strengths,” Vector said. “Believe it or not, my true core skill is numbers.”

When Benji gave a puzzled look, Vector explained: “I began as a data analyst, eventually went on to build my own consultancy firm. Nowadays, I hardly can sit down and pull some numbers, let alone run experiments. Oh, the good old days.”

Vector’s fingers held the coil of bandage, which he pulled taut to wrap around Benji’s ankle. And then, sharply, Vector’s head snapped to the side like he heard something. Benji’s gaze followed, but there was nothing there.

“I must be getting paranoid the moment Cat is not around,” Vector laughed. “That tiger was something, you know. I’m willing to bet that there are more of such threats when we are this deep in the forest.” Vector tore tape with his teeth to secure the loose end of the bandage, and repeated it once, just to be safe.

“What do you think is going on? I mean, it’s been so crazy since yesterday that I haven’t even processed -”

Vector shushed Benji, with a palm held out at him. “I heard something. Someone – something’s coming.”

Benji shuddered at the edge in Vector’s voice. When he turned to follow Vector’s gaze once again, they saw a group of silhouettes in the distance.

Benji rejoiced. “Someone’s here, let’s call for help!” But then he caught Vector’s look.

“I’m sorry, Benji.”

“Don’t -” the word caught in Benji’s throat. Leave, that was the word. These were his words when his father left, and the man had never turned back.

“I’m sorry, Benji. You’re the control in this experiment. I don’t think you were meant to survive.” With that Vector bounced to his feet and ran.

Benji did not stand. He only stared at the retreating figure of Vector, while a mess of mumbles were exchanged in the shadows, a horror that he adamantly kept his eyes from.

He did not even attempt to struggle. His laughter was absurd and humourless. Only burning anger remained with Benji – anger at his weakness.

“This is why I left,” the voice was too painfully vivid in his mind. “You will only ever be a burden.”

It was his father.

“You’re the reason that he left!” his mother added.

At that moment, a horde rushed right past Benji. The figures of absolute black paid him no heed. While their shape and movements were human, they were evidently not human. They were manifestations of shadows.

Benji turned back to find the voices of his parents. And there they were, twin towers peering down at his helpless form. He turned again, at the shadows that hurried after Vector, and then back at his parents.

“So leave!” Benji said. “You’re not even real!”

“A burden,” his father repeated while his mother nodded.

Benji’s hand found the warm soft fur of his Aire. With the other hand, he carefully pushed himself to stand. He was the same height as his father now, it was the first time he saw that.

“You’re not real,” Benji insisted. He reached out a hand towards his mother’s face, but was startled when his fingers found her warmth. He cupped her cheek, something that he had never done.

“But you’re dead,” he remembered.

Her eyes widened in shock, and then softened as a smile reached them.

“Oh yes, I remember now,” she smiled.

Benji glared at his father, as if daring him to make a move or do anything at all. The outline of his father grew more faint as Benji stared more intently, and he quickly became translucent, and faded away before he could spout another painful word.

“I remember now,” Benji’s mother repeated. “I’m dead, and this anger is not mine. Wake up, Benji.”

Benji blinked and his mother was no longer with him. But her voice lingered in the air.

“This is all you.”

Benji’s eyes fell to the footprint. He let the cool air gush into his lungs until he could hold no more, and then gasped his next breath out.

Silently, he nodded to himself repetitively. Only then did a tear roll down his cheek, which he immediately wiped away.

Another deep intake of breath reeled his emotion in, and he swallowed it down to his gut. Benji pulled open the pocket of his jacket and an Aire popped out of it, looking at his with those googly eyes.

“I know what’s going on now,” he told the Aire. “Can you get me to Vector and Cat?”

The Aire blinked. Behind it, Aires popped out of Benji’s pocket in rapid fire, became a swarm around him.

Self-actualisation

Vector and Cat were tearing through the forest undergrowth. Vector had caught up with Cat and a single glance at him was enough for her to leap to action. When she turned back, she saw that they were outnumbered tenfold, and those were not numbers that could be overcome with skill or strength. They could only run.

Also, the boy was missing.

“Are they armed?” she asked in between bursts of breath. Beside her, Vector was silent. His eyes were fixated straight ahead.

The forest was thinning. It gave them a temporary edge to pull ahead of their pursuers. Ahead of them, the mountain was a looming shadow. Cat tried once more, “What do they want?”

She had totally lost him. And she had only just begun to trust him.

They suddenly hit a sheer vertical cliff of solid rock. Cat borrowed her momentum and attempted to scale it in one fluid motion, only to have her knees scrape painfully against rock as she slid back down.

Beside her, Vector stood with hands at either side, panting from the run but otherwise still.

“Hey!” she shook him. “Prop me up and so I can find a point to hold. Hey!”

Vector stared into the rock like he could see through it.

“I’ll pull you up, I swear!” Cat tried again.

“This is it,” Vector mumbled to himself. “They’re here.”

As Cat turned back towards the approaching pursuers, she saw for the first time that they were unnaturally black, like no light could escape them. They were also tall and gangly. At that proximity, they appeared so certainly un-human.

That was when Cat saw the flock of approaching creatures in the sky, just beyond the canopy.

“This is it.”

The flock descended towards them, faster than the racing shadows. Cat’s knife was pulled back, ready to slice through the first few creatures as they arrived, whatever they were. But the boy’s voice finally overpowered the thumping of her heart.

“Hey, Cat! Vector! It’s me!”

Bewildered, Cat stood helpless as the first creatures hit them. Instead of any pain, she felt soft fur squeeze against her skin. Quickly, the ground left her feet.

She saw now, the brown balls of fur that made up the flock. They were carried high up above the canopy, and her eyes remained on the angry figures of darkness that had reached the foot of the cliff and were clawing with hunger.

The brown creatures pulled them to the top of the cliff and lowered them gently to the ground. And then, the creatures zoomed into a seemingly bottomless pocket of Benji’s jacket in waves and droves, like it was the eye of a vortex.

“I’ve figured this place out,” Benji said.

Vector crumbled to his knees. Benji stepped forward but winced at the jolt of pain that accompanied his careless step.

“Tell me what you found out,” Cat said.

“But Vector -”

“Let him rest,” Cat said.

Benji looked at Cat, then at Vector, and back to her. “Simply put, it’s our imagination. Our imagination becomes real here.”

“No, no, those shadows and your brown furry creatures. They are not mere hallucinations or a trick of the senses.”

“Not a hallucination. Whatever we can imagine, we can manifest. They become real here,” Benji said. “Be it our worst fears or most vivid dreams.”

Benji’s words echoed in her mind as Cat peered at Vector, who sat silently between them.

Cat and Benji sat with Vector after confirming that the shadows at the foot of the cliff had disappeared. After twenty minutes, Vector began responding to them and gulped down water when Cat offered it.

They began walking after Vector could manage it. Between Vector’s shaky steps and Benji’s sprained ankle, it felt like a crawl to Cat.

Luckily, they found water as the day drew towards dusk. It was a calm lake tucked away behind a line of shrubs and trees. It made a perfect spot to set up camp for the night. All three of them worked wordlessly, unsure of themselves or anything anymore.

Fire gave Benji an escape to his thoughts. He volunteered for first shift again and when he looked into the fire, none of the world interfered.

Night fell, Benji fed the fire when it was hungry. And it crackled with gratitude.

He heard his mother’s voice again, now coming from the crackling flames, “You’ll never amount to anything!”

“That’s not true,” Benji muttered. He looked up at the swarm of Aires lazing in the air around him. When he reached out, one of them came towards him, warm and soft as always. When he pulled it to a hug, it inflated to fill the gap.

He recalled the Aires of his childhood, that he had confided in and that had given him strength.

“I can create whatever reality I put my mind to,” he said calmly, and he knew it to be true. The voice of his mother washed away in a streaming current.

The swarm of Aires were idle, nonchalant to his struggle. That was just the way he wanted them to be. And he hoped that he could learn to be just like them too.

The fire crackled again, interrupting his thoughts.

Within the tent, Cat and Vector were flirting with sleep. Their bodies ached with the need for rest but their minds tugged in the opposite direction. What could one do when one’s thoughts were dangerous?

So they sought an escape in silence. Side by side, they were stuck in separate worlds. The silence told either of them that the other was almost certainly awake. And their proximity made their distance more insurmountable with each moment of inaction.

“Are you awake?” Vector began.

“Yeah.”

“I had a dream last night.” Vector looked over at where Cat was, formless in the span of darkness: formless.

And then, he found himself looking directly into her eyes. The light was strong but soft. The stripes of her tattoo flowed enchantingly as she reached a hand to cup his cheek, finding his coarse ungroomed facial hair.

“Me too,” Cat replied.

Vector put his palm against the back of her hand, feeling the certainty of the moment. Her calloused hand was gentle, and the skin at the back of her hand was surprisingly soft.

“You really had me worried today,” Cat sighed.

“I’m sorry.”

They reached for each other, pulling in close until skin prickled with the touch of skin, a simultaneous sense of recollection and the buzz of the new hit them all at the same time.

She was small in his arms. Vector closed his eyes.

His arms were strong. Cat tucked her cheek against his chest and closed her eyes.

“This bear of a woman? Seriously, Vector?”

Vector jolted awake. He didn’t need to look to know it was Clara, the love that he had had to give up on.

“No, you’re not real,” Vector said. But as he half-turned his head, she stood formidably, arms folded across her chest, looking very real. Clara pulsed with a hot, dripping grudge, angrier than he had ever actually seen her.

And Cat was pulling away from Vector. When he turned back at her, there was two of her. Cat stood over herself, tugging with a force that matched that of the Cat he lay with, holding on to his hand with hers.

“You, are better than this. Woman, you are your own. Don’t you go giving yourself away,” the standing Cat said.

“Cat, no. Wait!” Vector said.

“Vector!”

“Enough, Vector,” said the voice of Clara. “You have a life, three companies and a whole world of opportunities to live for. Just because you’re stuck with this bear for two days in a nasty forest doesn’t take away who you really are. Come to bed and let’s make up.”

“You heard that?” Cat asked Cat.

“I hear you.” The reply was quiet, given without being asked for. It didn’t come from Cat or Vector. It came from Benji, who stood at the foot of the bed where they lay.

“I think…you should always answer your Shadows,” Benji explained. “I think they need to be heard and know they are heard.”

For a moment, the tug pulling them apart relented and Vector and Cat looked into each other’s eyes, blind to the world once again.

“I hear you.”

“I hear you.”

And then they each turned back at the anger and struggle of their own creation.

“I know that this is not enough. I haven’t resolved things fully within myself about you Clara.” Clara was sobbing. She held a hand over her nose and mouth to try to muffle her emotions.

“But I will,” Vector continued. “There’s something I never said although I should have, and it’s been haunting me. Thank you Clara, for everything.”

Cat smiled at the other half of her, who reflected the same expression. Palm touching palm, they pulled back into one like Cat stepped right into a mirror.

It was three of them once again, Vector and Cat laying side by side in the tent, with Benji crouched at the entrance to the tent. The darkness of the night and the buzzing sounds of the forest returned.

That was when God came to them again.

Beyond

A patch of bright, blue sky spread itself out across the span wider than the eye could see. And then it sank and coalesced, like droplets of a magnetic liquid, into a towering humanoid figure.

Vector and Cat crawled out of the tent to catch sight of this. Benji gritted his teeth, trying to grapple the magnitude of what he was seeing.

“Congratulations, graduates!” the giant’s voice boomed, spreading in a wave that startled nestling birds and caused thousands of them to take flight simultaneously.

“Haha!” Vector laughed humourlessly, “What is he, God? Did God choose an atheist to teach some kind of lesson to?”

“I know I’m probably supposed to have tears in my eyes or kneel in submission,” Cat said through gritted teeth, “but I’m bloody pissed.”

“Don’t get me wrong, me too,” Vector replied.

“Why!” Benji shouted, close to tears. “What is the purpose of all this?”

“First of all, I beg your pardon,” the giant replied. “Language is imperfect and fragile. Inevitably, I fumble when I try to invoke understanding through a flawed medium as words. But still I will try, because you have graduated and it is essential that you be welcomed with the version of truth that you can fathom.”

Vector and Cat now stood beside Benji, following the form of the giant up to the clouds and beyond. He was overwhelmingly bright, a sky that did not belong in the night.

“The Earth that you know is a sanctuary, a safe habitat to allow the human race to blossom again,” the sky giant said. “You see.”

“What are you saying, that the Earth we know is not real?” Vector asked.

“In your terms, Vector, it is a sandbox. We turned down the dial on your ability to actualise your imaginations.”

“Why was I the only one who knew about the survival test?” Cat asked. “Why did you force the rest to come for this? Why did you mislead me about what this test was about?”

“It’s all a test on whether self-selection put subjects in a better position to pass this test. Initial results suggest negligible effect, that it still boils down to innate aptitude, as our dear Benji possesses. Benji, you have spent your life looking for acceptance and belonging, for a sign of your value to the world. And now, you have wonderfully proven yourself worthy, to yourself and the world. You are the first, and we certainly hope many will follow.”

Benji was silent, his hands tucked into the pockets to his jacket.

“You are such delightful beings to watch, so paradoxical. As a race, you felt so inadequate standing at the top that once you did, you created mighty Shadows to torment you. We kept you away from your self-destructive mechanism for a while – well, a couple hundreds of thousands of years – to let you repopulate. By doing so, we prevented your extinction.”

“And now, we have proven that you are capable of overcoming your worst Shadows. And most important of all, we have proven that you are capable of guiding others to overcome their Shadows. Now, you need to do exactly that for your people.”

Benji gritted his teeth. “Why do you get to decide everything? Why can you scoop us up into the sky like guinea pigs?”

“We adopted a human approach in the conduct of the experiment to keep it relatable. We understand that the deities of your religions are expected to work in more mysterious ways. We will rectify this in the next batch of test subjects.”

“I guess my question is, who made you God?”

The blue sky giant paused. A swarm of Aires popped until existence and formed a shield between the giant and them.

A sky-splitting bolt of lightning struck the forest, rolling into a sphere of crackling energy which then inflated to become a second giant. At the same time, the earth rumbled and pulled itself, trees and all, into a third giant. There was a fourth one, more subtle than the rest, that was the collection of void and darkness.

Vector took a sharp breath seeing the giant of darkness and Cat squeezed his hand, an expression of worry that matched his expression of defeat.

A violent gust slapped against their faces. Hands shielding their eyes, the trio stood defiantly.

“You say that we create Shadows to torment ourselves due to our sense of inadequacy,” Benji said. “My question is, who then created you and gave you powers? Worshipped you and immortalised you?”

A giant ball of flames was gathering from swirling lava streams like the eye of a fiery tornado. In an instant, it became so hot that their lungs almost could not take in a breath.

“We did.”

One of the Aires broke the formation and flew towards the Gods, inflating rapidly as it flew, growing into a massive creature that started to turn humanoid.

Benji yelled, “No, no, no. Not like this!” He held a hand outstretched at the Aire while the other clutched his hair at the side of his head like it hurt.

The God-Aire looked at Benji with the same googly eyes of an Aire. Its massive hands swung outwards and its shoulders pulled in a magnificent shrug. Then the God-Aire catapulted into motion like a lost balloon, deflating as it wove an elaborate dance that both Gods and humans paid intense attention to. Finally, it returned to its original size, ended its dance in the welcoming palms that Benji held out, exhausted.

“We’ll find our own way,” Benji said.

And as he did, a stream of Aires popped out of his jacket pocket into the air in rapid succession, joining their comrades’ ranks. They hung lightly in the air, turning translucent like it was camouflage. The stream was ceaseless, and the Aires were countless. Even as the swarm launched itself into the sky, more and more Aires trailed them.

The swarm charged at the God-giants. And where they passed, no trace of the Gods remained.

All that was left in the world with no God were three embattled humans.

“What now?” Cat asked.

“Let’s get our people out of the sandbox and into the real world,” Benji said, looking into the googly eyes of the Aire who could have become God.

And back

Great story, isn’t it? Makes you feel like you’re born to overcome your fears and actualise your dreams, no? That there’s no actual limit to the human ability and everything else is a self-imposed excuse.

Maybe you’ve been your only limit, contentedly living in a lie and a cage. No?

Your nagging feeling that there must be more to this, that you’re capable of so much more, could those really be real?

Or maybe you’re outraged by those sacrilegious idiots’ actions. But then again you never suffered like they did at the giant hands of the Sky God.

And me? I’m glad you never asked, but let me tell you anyway.

I am your Shadow.

 *

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

You Zhen.jpg

At the age of five or so, You Zhen completed his first book, a work of fiction titled “The Longest Rabbit”. It contained illustrations (doodles) and a happy ending.
For years since then, he flirted with writing before finally making the decision to take things to the next level (fortunately, no moving in or meeting of parents was involved).
Now, he has committed to writing regularly and sometimes finds short stories coming out the other end. These are published weekly on fivenswrite.wordpress.com and curated graphics to his stories are on www.behance.net/gallery/55410477/Fivens. You can reach him directly by sending an email to authrspace@gmail.com. You can also read more of his short stories here.


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