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A short story inspired by the satirical poem “Smeden og Bageren” by Johan Herman Wessel.

The_Hanging_Tree_by_AugustStudios

 

Rendering Life For Life

Once upon a time, there was a traveller who was on his way to the capital. As it happened, he was about to pass through a small village, when on its outskirts, he witnessed a most gruesome sight: A man had been hanged in an old oak tree. The corpse had obviously been left there to hang for some time, and the crows and the buzzards had made a good feast out of it.

Shaken, but also morbidly curious, the traveller continued into the village and soon came past an old man sitting outside his house, smoking his pipe and enjoying the good weather.

“Good day to you, sir,” the traveller greeted him. “Tell me, who is that man hanging in the tree back there?”

“Oh, that’s our former baker, Jamesson,” the old man replied. “Aye, ‘tis a sad story, it is. He was condemned at the Magistrate’s only last week.” He shook his head.

“Must have been a serious crime,” the traveller said. “A murder, perhaps?”

“Exactly, “ the old man said. “You know the story: A bit too much to drink in the pub, a brief argument, and then POW!, a blow to the head an’ there’s another man won’t see the next sunrise. Very sad. And the baker was such a pleasant man, too.”

“Well, he can’t have been all that pleasant if he killed someone,” the traveller objected.

“Oh, no, you misunderstand. It wasn’t the baker what killed him,” the old man said. “That was our smith, Hendricks.”

“What!?” the traveller exclaimed, appalled. “Why did you hang the baker, then, if the smith committed the murder?!”

“Well,” the old man sighed, “you see, here’s the problem: We had to punish somebody for it, of course, but we only had the one smith in the village, and we couldn’t do without him… but fortunately, we had two bakers!”

———
(Photo by AugustStudios, licensed under the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 license)

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A little thing wot I wrote about a girl with a tough life and a gun.


 

Melody, A Prologue

A young girl looks down the barrel of a gun at the bad man standing over Mother’s bloody body lying on the ground. Even her short life among the bad men has taught her that Mother won’t get up again, that a whole world can change with a moment of anger. She blinks away her tears, instinct tells her there’s no time for that now; there won’t be for a long time to come.

The bad man turns to her and laughs and reaches out to take the gun from her. He doesn’t think she’ll use it; turns out he’s wrong. She clenches the handle tighter in both hands to keep it level and pulls back on the trigger like she’s seen the bad men do so many times. The gun jumps in her hands with a loud CRAK and there’s a shower of blood and brains and screams and shouts and confusion. So she runs. Into the tunnels where she knows the bad men are always afraid to go.

Weeks pass, perhaps months, who knows? She’s made her home in the old tunnels, always on the move through the darkness and the stinking, shallow water, a deadly game of hide and seek with the bad men who try to find her and bring her back.

She has learned that to be unseen is to possess power.  The power to reach out at will and take a man’s life and disappear again in the darkness. She becomes one with the darkness, she claims this domain as her own. Here the bad men, the hunters, become the hunted ones. They were always afraid of the tunnels, so they come down in groups, loud and blustering to hide their fear from themselves and each other. They are easy to find and easy to trick and easy to kill, and when they die, their bodies are little treasure troves of food and ammo. So she survives, prospers, even.

There are other things down here, of course there are, hungry things. She hears them all the time, occasionally she sees a fleeting shape, a brief movement in the shadows, a dim light briefly reflected in far too many eyes. But they leave her alone; perhaps they have come to think of her as one of their own. Or perhaps they just know that her presence here and the deadly game she plays means more and easy food for them, each dead body of her enemies a sacrifice to the things that share her domain.

At last, she emerges from the tunnels into the ancient ruins of a once-great city, now a skilled hunter of men. The tunnels have taught her well, but they have exacted a heavy price. She has seen things, done things that no little girl should ever see or do. But of course she’s no little girl anymore, those times are long gone already, the tunnels and the bad men – slavers, she now knows to call them – and the gun took all that away from her.

Never looking back, with nothing but her gun in her hand and Mother’s dead, bloody body in her dreams, Melody sets out through the ruined city, across the dusty plains, into a world that is broken and torn and burnt to ashes – out to do do bad things to bad people. For if all the bad people can be made to go away, forever, maybe she will finally find the security and comfort she has never known?

—–

(Illustration is copyright © by the amazing Jonas De Ro (seriously, go visit his site right now). All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit usage.)

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Alissa

Time for the weekly Wendig challenge, this week a story written about the excellent picture below, taken by Mr Wendig himself. This one went rather experimental for effect – not sure if it works, so as usual, let me know.

 

Alissa

I met Alissa at an old crooked tree deep in the forest on the hillside where she sat on the trunk swinging her legs and smiling down to me and I had never seen her before but I loved her the moment I saw her I wanted her as I have never wanted anything in my life and I told the tiny little voice at the back of my head that was trying to tell me something was terribly horribly wrong who is she what is she doing out here would you just think about this to shut up and mind its own business

The fog was lying heavy on the ground among the trees just as it always does on the cold mornings when the wind comes down from the mountains and the air was thick with the tangy smell of freshly cut wood pulp and sap from a tree stump nearby she was beautiful with long red silken hair and sparkling green eyes and skin like brilliant swan feathers and she was so not like any of the girls from the village but strange and mysterious like a leannán sí out of the mists of foreign myths like the antediluvian daughters of Cain like the húli jīng that captured the heart of King Zhou and brought a kingdom to fall

Hi she said and I said hi what’s your name I asked Alissa she replied oh God that smile and I sat down in the moss beside the tree and we talked for what seemed like forever about dreams and the mystic names of trees and the flight of the birds and hidden things no one else would understand until the night came can I see you again I asked and she said sure and she smiled that impish little smile that drove me wild and then she jumped down from the trunk ran through the carpet of soft thick moss and was gone among the trees like an long-forgotten apparition or a figment of a half-remembered dream at first light of dawn

I returned to the crooked tree the next day and thank God she was there again and we talked and the next day again and the day after that until one day there was nothing more to say so she jumped down from her tree just as she did every day only this time she did not run away but came to me I kissed her she tasted like pine trees and clear forest lakes and like fresh blackberries and the crisp air in the early spring morning just after it has rained I kissed her again and again my heart raced and soared while all the while the little voice at the back of my head screamed and clamoured and it was all to no avail for I loved her wanted her

I held her in my arms and pressed her close tightly to me as if I would never let her go her body was warm against mine I touched her she touched me her touch was as fleeting as the soft morning breeze among the hills I took her there beneath the crooked tree and afterwards we lay together in the soft moss meanwhile dark clouds had drawn together above us there was a taste of rain on the wind and the thunder rolled in the distance we should go I said

Not yet she said and all of a sudden her voice wasn’t very playful anymore but rather harsh and commanding and as the rain came down in streams all around and the thunder crashed above my skin started itching no it was worse than an itch it was a thousand tiny little tendrils that pierced my skin in a thousand places like little prickly thorns working their way into my flesh and bones I wanted to scream out in pain but I couldn’t I just couldn’t move a muscle

As I looked she twisted and shifted until her so perfect smooth skin had become rough and brown like the pitted bark on an ancient oak tree and her silken red hair were like a thousand leaves and branches only her eyes were unchanged except when she stared deep into mine I saw only the deep remorseless hatred there a hatred which thirsted thirsted thirsted for my blood

Do you see that she asked and pointed to a stump nearby she was my sister she was tall and fair and the strongest among us until someone from your village cut her down so we wept our bitter tears for her and then we swore revenge she whispered to me and lightly kissed my cheek so from your blood a new sister shall grow to keep us safe and hunger for more blood and by her your village shall never know peace again for from now on there shall be war between your people and ours

And Alissa lay down next to me and embraced me tightly and the thorny branches that were growing though my body burst out through my chest my blood flowed out oh God the pain was unbearable and watered the ground around me and as my vision faded the blood-and-rain-soaked moss grew to cover me and Alissa and then there was only pain and then at last mercifully nothing.

—–

(Photo is copyright © 2007 by Chuck Wendig. All rights reserved (except I hope it’s okay to put it here since he asked us to write about it and all)).

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For a Wendig flash fiction challenge. I have been reading a lot of Borges recently, which might have influenced this piece somewhat. As always, let me know what you think, whether good or bad.

 

 

The Tower of Babel

 

4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” 5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” 8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel —because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

– Genesis 11:4-9

I have renounced my name out of grief and shame. You may call me Nimrod, for it was I who oversaw the second fall of humanity from its pinnacle of pride and greatness.

By the time humanity had left the cradle of Earth and reached out to touch the stars, we had also grown prideful and confident in our own ability, and old lessons of humility were buried and forgotten. And thus, we set about constructing a monument to our own accomplishments: A space station, kilometres in length, that would be the centrepiece of human presence in space, tying together the thousandfold dispersed worlds, colonies and outposts.

In an act of what in hindsight seems like inexcusable hubris, we named it The Tower of Babel, for it was meant to undo the ancient dispersal of the peoples and confusion of tongues and bring humanity together as one again; a single people which – so we were convinced – would fulfill humanity’s ancient destiny to conquer the heavens and make ourselves the undisputed masters of nature.

After decades of work, effort and investments that claimed the resources of a thousand worlds, the Tower was completed, orbiting a planetless star at the centre of human space. It was a constructed wonder of ingenuity and technology, a centre of trade, culture and politics.

The Ultracosmologist sect of Plautijnius 6 came there to negotiate mining rights with the executives of SempaCorp. The peace treaty between the Empire of Achenar and the Hierocrats of Tau Orionis was signed here, and the declaration of war by the Harvesters of the icy moons of Delta Draconis on the anarcho-collectivist states in 18 Scorpionis issued. It was on the Tower that the neo-Druidic Church of Nebulas’ Salvation declared the excommunication of the Thirteenth Prophet, and it was here that the polyartist Li Wenming exhibited his first thirteen-dimensional holo-painting, which shattered all conventions of art and culture forever. For a while, the advances of humanity seemed unstoppable.

But it was not to last, as we soon discovered. The orbit of the station became unstable and started to decay, each revolution inching it closer and closer to the star. Engineers and scientists searched in vain for causes. Had the mass of the star increased? Had we underestimated the resistance of the local interplanetary matter? Or had we discovered some previously unknown natural law which could cause gravity itself to change?

No one knew the answers, and no one had solutions. The stationkeeping engines were insufficient to counteract the unknown forces that acted on the Tower. And moving it further away only increased the pull of the star, further exacerbating the problem. Out of the hundreds of proposed solutions, nothing was able to halt the inexorable migration towards annihilation.

In the end, it was decided to abandon the station. As the both first and last Administrator-General of the Tower of Babel, I was the last to leave. I spent my last hour on the Tower wandering through the halls and corridors that had resounded day and night with the voices of millions of beings speaking a thousand languages. I visited the grand markets on the sixty-first deck, where resources, goods and services worth enough to ransom a thousand kings ten times over had been bought and sold every single day. And finally, my walkabout ended in the hangars to find my shuttle, a tiny mosquito in the now empty cavernous halls where once gigantic starships from every corner of known space had docked to load and unload cargo of every imaginable description.

As I boarded the shuttle, the overworked engines on the Tower were deactivated, and the thrummings of the power plants which had provided a dissonant accompaniment to it all put down their instruments for the final time. The whole station had fallen quiet as an empty mausoleum where not even the dead remain to sigh a quiet, mournful choir, the terrible silence ringing in my ears as the final impression of my doomed masterpiece.

With the engines turned off, the station dropped towards the star like a rock, within hours grazing the corona and entering the last minutes of its life. From a command bridge that was not my own, on a starship on which I had no position or authority, I who had commanded the greatest creation in known space, witnessed the final moments of the second Tower of Babel – of my life’s work.

In the end, even the dignity of an appropriate burial was denied me. The demise of the Tower was celebrated by no fanfares, no fireworks, no mighty explosions to light up the skies of future distant worlds and tell their inhabitants: This was humanity’s greatest moment. As a final insult, the Tower was gone in a second, the final impact barely visible on its surface of the star, never leaving behind the slightest mark of its existence in the vast, uncaring silence of space. I turned away my face and wept.

With the Tower of Babel gone, humanity once more learned humility, but we lost our ambition in the bargain. Nothing approaching the grandeur of the Tower was ever attempted again, and humanity stagnated. We had reached too far and were struck down from our lofty heights, whether by a jealous god or by a nature that would not be tamed.

And so, I have become as like a second Nimrod, for I am convinced that it was my hubris that brought judgement upon humanity. I first proposed the construction of the Tower; I suggested the name; and I wasted no efforts to become its first Administrator-General, thus to enter my name in the annals of history with indelible ink. This last I have accomplished, and for that reason I have renounced my name forever. Behold the works of humanity, ye mighty, and despair.

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The Kawazi Return

For this week’s Wenflafillenge (still trademarked), it’s all about dinosaurs. So… what more do you need to know? Dinosaurs! Enjoy!

 

The Kawazi Return

“Chief M’wakane?” Tawake, first among the Zuwi warriors, bowed down before the lion and tiger skin-covered throne. “There is a member of the Kawazi tribe at the main gate. He requests to see you.”

The Chief’s brow furrowed. That was not a name he had expected ever to hear again. It had only been a year since his Zuwi tribe had defeated the neighbouring Kawazi tribe, added the Kawazi lands to their own, and driven the survivors out of the valley, across the western mountains into the Dark Valley from which no scouts ever returned.

Since then, the Zuwi had grown to become the strongest tribe in this valley, and it was just a question of time, Chief M’wakane expected, before they could subjugate the rest of their neighbours and become the masters of this valley. Then they would set their sights on the fertile valleys to the east, and M’wakane would not just be a simple Chief, but a Haza-k-t-Hazi, a Chief-of-many-Chiefs.

“What does he want?” the Chief asked.

“He would not say. Shall I let him inside?”

“No. I will come to the gate.” Being allowed inside the palisade was not an honour one extended to defeated enemies.

The Chief rose from the throne and stepped outside in the warm sun. Presumably, a few Kawazi survivors and stragglers had returned to this side of the mountains, and were now forced to turn to their conquerors for protection. What an irony that was. If they were sufficiently obsequious, the Chief decided, he might even show mercy to them – install them on a small, infertile patch of land as a client tribe.

The envoy was waiting patiently in front of the gates, clad in the ceremonial skins and carrying a leaf of the hngara palm. At least, M’wakane thought, their destitution had not caused the Kawazi to forget about the proprieties of doing politics.

“Welcome back, Kawazi!” the Chief called out. “Have you come to beg for your survival? For some scraps of food from your old lands, maybe?” The warriors surrounding him laughed with contempt, and the Chief looked around, feeling pleased with himself. The envoy, however, looked neither obsequious nor very humiliated.

“I have not, Chief M’wakane!” the envoy replied. “I have come to offer you and the Zuwi the gift of life! We will not repeat this offer. Return our lands to us and leave us in peace, or you will be ruined as you tried to ruin the Kawazi!”

M’wakane felt the rage boil up in his chest. “You vermin!” he shouted. “You dare to come here before our gate and make demands of the Zuwi, of your betters?! Begone, before I forget you are carrying that palm leaf!”

“So be it,” the envoy said, turned his back on the gate and Chief M’wakane, and walked back to the forest.

Still fuming, M’wakane went back inside the gates as Tawake fell in beside him. “Is it wise to just send them away, my Chief?” he said. “What if…”

He paused and listened. A slight tremor had run through the ground.

M’wakane shrugged. “If you are so concerned, Tawake, take a patrol out and…”

The ground had shook again, stronger this time.

“What is going on?” M’wakane said annoyedly, as loud noises began to come from the forest edge and the guards were shouting warnings.

He and Tawake quickly ran back to the gates and climbed up one of the platforms just in time to see a gigantic dinosaur, the height of five or six grown warriors, stepped out into the clearing. Dozens of smaller dinosaurs followed it, a Kawazi warrior riding astride each one.

Realising the imminent danger, M’wakane quickly jumped to the ground and tried rallying his awestruck warriors. “Don’t just stand there! Sound the alarm! Get your weapons! Organise the defences!”

It was too late. To the sound of battle cries and loud roars from their mounts, the Kawazi force charged forward, reaching the palisade wall in seconds. The large dinosaur tore the gate apart in a single blow as if it was kindling. The horde of smaller ones swarmed around its legs through the gate and began slaughtering the unprepared defenders.

One of the riders broke off and rode slowly towards Chief M’wakane. He did not recognise the rider, but his headdress marked him as the Kawazi Chief. M’wakane quickly considered his options – there were none. Unarmed, he had no chance in a fight, but a Chief did not run. As the beast stopped in front of him and looked down, hunger and rage glowing in its eyes, he still could not help but admire it. Indeed, the Kawazi had tamed destruction made flesh.

“Please,” M’wakane said quietly. “Have mercy.”

“If you wanted mercy, Zuwi, you should have accepted it when it was offered,” the Kawazi Chief said curtly and loosened the reins of his mount. With lightning speed, it shot forward and bit off M’wakane’s head in a single bite.

The Kawazi Chief nudged his dinosaur forward, stepping over M’wkane’s body and slowly climbing the ceremonial hill in the middle of the village. Ignoring the violence and destruction around him, he contemplated the mountains beyond which lay the eastern valleys and the ocean. The Zuwi had taught a harsh lesson to the Kawazi, but one that had been well learned. The key to safety lay in subjugation of all those who could threaten them.

He patted the side of his restless mount while the screams of the dying Zuwi and the smoke from the burning huts rose towards the skies. The strength of their new allies would let the Kawazi finish what the Zuwi had started. Soon, they would ride out as a burning, all-consuming storm, they would conquer the valleys, and take for themselves the title of Haza-k-t-Hazi. Then, and only then, would the Kawazi be safe.

 

——

Liked the story? Hated it? Or somewhere in between? Comments are the sweet, sweet manna that nourishes all writers, so tell me about it! And critique and suggestions for improvement are just as welcome as positive comments; I’ll never get better without them.

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Crossing the Bay

I have been a little lax in keeping up with the fiction writing recently, so it’s about time for a new piece. Again based on a Chuck Wendig challenge, this time on the theme of a ‘journey’. I interpreted that as an invitation to try to read the mind of a dead person (as an historian, it’s basically what I do anyway) on a fairly short physical journey, but perhaps a very long metaphorical one.

 

Crossing the Bay

It was a chilly morning and still quiet, the silence only disturbed by the small waves washing against the side of the barge as it glided across the bay. George strained to catch a glimpse of the city they were heading towards, but thin strands of the morning fog still drifted over the bay and besides, his eyesight was not what it used to be.

“Mr. Humphreys,” he asked his private secretary and steadfast companion for the last ten years, “can you spot the city?”

“Not as yet,” Humphreys replied, “but I think I see some ships in the roads. We should be there in an hour or so.”

His last hour as a private individual for years to come, George reflected with some regrets, or perhaps even the rest of his life; although in truth, he had not been a completely private individual for the last fifteen years or so. He had emerged from the chaos of the was as a national hero, and whether he had wanted it or not, the country had continued to look to his leadership – except, he thought with some bitterness, when it came to paying pensions and reparations to his soldiers – so when a Mr. Thornton had arrived at his front door with the letter that officially congratulated him on his election, it had almost been a formality.

It was all a great honour, of course, but one that George was still ambivalent about. He was not getting any younger – he had turned fifty-seven the month before – and in his quiet moments, he had dared to entertain a vain hope of getting to spend his remaining years in quiet retirement on his estate. There were so many things he was looking forward to do; plan out the field rotations, experiment with new varieties of crops, write books on surveying and long letters exploring the advantages of different species of cattle.

He had already sacrificed so much for the sake of his country, for the sake of the republic, and he did not think it unreasonable that he would want some peace and quiet after so many years and the hardships he had suffered. But the republic was a harsh mistress, who now required still greater sacrifices from him, and when she called, he would not allow himself to refuse. So things had turned out differently.

Even then, it was more than a little ironic that even though so many compared him to Cincinnatus, the Good Roman who put down his sword and his positions to return home and till his fields, he himself would not even be allowed to enjoy that small luxury, that reward. On the contrary, the sword and the fasces were practically being forced back into his hand.

As the barge made its way across the bay, many more boats joined in from all sides to escort it until they made up an entire water-borne procession. The almost monarchial pomposity and circumstance of it all sat poorly with George’s republican sensibilities, and his distaste only grew when several series of thirteen gunshots thundered across the water from the several warships moored in the harbour, saluting their arrival. First the Spaniard Galveston and the North Carolina, then the city fortifications joining in until the echoes rolled back and forth for what seemed like an eternity.

Trying to distract himself, George pointed over to the mouth of the river that bounded the city on its eastern side.

“That was where we retreated from the British after the Battle of Brooklyn,” he said to his secretary. “Brought the whole army across, night after August 27th.”

“I remember hearing about that,” Humphreys replied. “We were still in Connecticut at the time. Hard to believe that was thirteen years ago.”

Had it been thirteen years? So much had happened since then, it rather seemed like a lifetime ago. George caught himself thinking that things had seemed simpler then; that had been a difficult, even a desperate time – but still…

Finally, the barge arrived at the pier, and followed by Mr. Humpreys and the rest of their party, George debarked to face the vast crowd of thousands that had gathered on the waterfront to greet him and now cheered and hollered at his arrival, waving flags, banners and hats in the air, and accompanied by tolling bells and more of those damned gun salutes.

Again he reminded himself that the excitement was as much to celebrate his position and his reputation as for him personally. Indeed, these people, and others like them, had elected him to the highest office in the new republic. But was it really a man they wanted, or an icon? His countrymen were a fractious people, and many hoped that unite a new country that threatened to come apart at the seams even before it had been properly established. But how many others were actually wishing that he would prove a demigod rather than a man, how many were secretly hoping that he could wave his hand and just banish all of their problems as if by magic? If any did, and he suspected there were more than a few, they would be disappointed.

Meanwhile, George Clinton, the rotund Governor of New York was advancing towards them, smiling amicably. Even though they had been political opponents recently, especially when Clinton had opposed the Constitution less than a year earlier, they were also old friends, and it was a pleasure to throw some glamour over him and his city through this occasion.

“President Washington. Words cannot express how honoured I am to welcome you to New York,” Clinton said and extended his hand.

Dismissing his dark thoughts, George Washington gravely took the Governor’s offered hand and shook it firmly while the cheers of the crowd rose to new heights. If being an icon was what the new country demanded of him, then by God he would strive to become the best icon history had ever seen.

—–

Historical postscript: The event described here is the arrival of President-Elect George Washington in New York on April 23, 1789, where his first inauguration would take place the week after. The impression one gets from his letters is that Washington was notoriously reluctant to return to public service after some years in retirement following the Revolutionary War, not to mention accepting the highest office in the republic and the responsibilities that followed with it. Whether he actually meant that, or it was just false humility is of course as always up for debate, but the case for his sincerity is persuasive. So consider this an attempt to imagine some of the thoughts that might go through the head of a man who willingly or not has been turned into an icon.

Reading for context and extra credits:
American Revolution
George Washington
First inauguration of George Washington
Battle of Brooklyn (or more commonly ‘of Long Island’)
Governor George Clinton
Colonel David Humpreys

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This is an idea I’ve been playing around with for a while, so when ‘bottom of the ocean floor’ was included in Chuck Wendig’s latest flash challenge, it seemed an obvious fit (fortunately, he didn’t specify which ocean). That said getting this thing to fit in 1000 words was a hell of a job, and I still think it could use more detail to establish atmosphere and such. But here it is, anyway.

 

Tranquility Station

Tranquility Station was a grandiose undertaking; the first permanent human presence in the outer Solar System. The Jovian moon Europa had become a priority of the space programme after the early probes had confirmed the presence of life. It had taken decades, trillions of dollars and unprecedented scientific and technological achievement to construct, but now at last, it stood complete on the bottom of the sub-surface ocean, housing dozens of scientists dedicated to studying this new world.

Clustered around volcanic vents on the ocean floor, Europa’s life was alien, but recognisable. Living in almost total darkness, they were mostly chemoautotrophs, deriving heat and nourishment from the mineral-rich streams of warm water emitted by the vents.

The fascinating exceptions were the ‘jellyfish’, as everyone called them: complex luminescent organisms, each composed of thousands of long, thin feelers and manipulators, gathering in large blooms to feed off the autotrophs – a grazing apex predator, as it were. Soon after the studies began, one scientist caused a brief flurry with the hypothesis that the jellyfish might even be sentient, that their blinking lights and graceful motions represented a form of communication.

However, such ideas were soon replaced by more immediate concerns when the facility equipment started breaking down.

###

At first, everyone attributed the equipment malfunctions to simple accidents and wear. As expected, maintenance had proven to be one of the greatest challenges for the facility. The environment at the bottom of the Europan ocean – extreme pressure, cold and darkness, high salinity content – wore out machinery and electronics at an astounding pace. It was only when equipment in the protected environment inside the base started to break down that suspicions were aroused.

“Sabotage.” I do not remember who used the word first. But in any case, it seemed incomprehensible. Given the hostility of the environment, any act of sabotage threatened the very existence of the facility, and the lives of everyone living here. Who would be so insane as to put their own life at risk, and for what purpose? Tranquility was an international project, a peaceful scientific research facility that would benefit all of humanity. No country, no political party, not even any terrorist organisations would gain much from its destruction.

After some time, though, the malfunctions abated for a while and we all relaxed somewhat. Perhaps they had just been a series of freak accidents. Maybe it had just been coincidence that they happened all at once.

But then people started dying.

As the base doctor, I was responsible for examining all of the victims. Like the earlier equipment malfunctions, the first couple of deaths seemed accidental. The first victim took too many sleeping pills one evening. The next suffered a suit malfunction, then came a sudden heart attack, electrocution from a faulty power cable, and so forth. But when a microbiologist was found in his room with his throat cut, there could be no further doubts. We had a murderer among us.

At that point, the base commander decided to send the submarine to the surface and request assistance. It had barely gotten a hundred meters away from Tranquility when it exploded. With the next supply ship not scheduled to arrive for several months, we were now truly cut off from the rest of humanity. As expected when people are locked into an enclosed area and afraid for their lives, our tiny society collapsed rapidly after that. Suspicions and tempers ran high, carrying a gun at all times became a matter of course, and people began to stay together in groups; the only thing worse than being alone was being together with just one person. Not that any precautions did any good – people just kept dying.

###

Doubt was always my ally. People are naturally inclined to trust doctors, so it was easy enough to increase a sleeping pill dose here, switch two medications to cause a heart attack there, and so forth. Even the base commander trusted me almost to the last, and in doing so, he doomed both himself and everyone else in the facility. By the time I had killed the rest of the crew, and there were no one left but him and me, he realised his error, of course. And then I shot him as well; the last inhabitant of Tranquility Station except myself.

He is lying on the floor right next to my desk as I write this, a small stream of bright red blood running across the floor from the wound. It is a surprisingly vivid colour. I try to commit it to memory as clearly as I can, for I will soon embrace the darkness, where there will be no more colours.

Tranquility Base had always been misnamed. Certainly, the bottom of the Europan ocean seemed tranquil to us when we first arrived. Quiet, dark, cut off from the rest of the universe by kilometres of water and ice. But in reality, we were a disturbance, an intrusion, an unwanted foreign element in this world.

I do not regret what I have done. I have, in a sense, betrayed not just all my colleagues, but all of humanity. But it was necessary. The jellyfish required these deeds of me. I heard their song soon after I arrived, an eerie, subdued, alien presence in my mind. Far from being frightening, it was comforting and reassuring; but they required a service of me. I do not know why they chose me as their instrument, but I understood what they wanted me to do; what was necessary to do. Tranquility Station had to fall silent.

I have shut down all equipment in the facility, but still I hear their song in my head. I shall join them in a moment. This is the reward they have promised me: Without the artificiality of a suit, I will at last be able to experience their world as they do. To repose forever in the quiet and the dark of the ocean depths.

It will be magnificent.

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