Seven Irrational Things: Part Two
A tale of two wormholes, told in two parts
Based in London, Matt Mordecai has worked in IT for several decades, and co-written 5 books on software development. Not before time, he's now turned his attention to the far richer world of fiction, SF in particular. Find out more at his website: www.mattmordecai.com
Part One of this story was published yesterday; you can read it here:
The applause was gentle as she strode onto the stage and stood next to the centrepiece grand piano. The orchestra was already seated around the periphery, the conductor standing to one side.
Herbert von Dobler, with his explosion of white hair identifying him from both the front and back—a useful trait for a conductor—greeted her with a very slight bow. As the pianist, Regina was the star of the moment, though the conductor was the real performer, the lightning rod through which all that he could imagine was rendered into being.
Regina turned to the audience and bowed. Their smiling moonfaces, just about visible through the glare, bobbed and tilted like floating jack-o-lanterns and jounced as their owners clapped. She smiled back.
Gathering the hem of her glittering emerald dress, she turned, slid carefully onto the piano stool, kicked off her shoes, and felt out the curves of the wonderfully cool pedals with her narrow, stockinged feet. The piano lid was already up, as she had requested. Little foibles… that was about her most demanding one, though. Von Dobler should be grateful that his top performer was this easygoing.
She took a moment.
The keys absorbed her attention. The crisp black crenelations cutting through a singular white plane, the portal between the prim perfection of her apartment and her life, and the organic chaos of the outside world. The keys lit up like a doorway opening through darkness, and through this medium, this long flat corridor between the two dimensions, she could express her true self.
But who even was that?
She hadn’t played a note. Over to her right, von Dobler stood ready, arms poised. His hands would descend the moment she played the first chord, and the orchestra would begin its slow intonation, barely audible at first but growing, like a steam train approaching from across the horizon, until their accompaniment could bear her music aloft, sending the notes soaring skyward.
Beyond the furrowed brow of the conductor, beneath the glare of the spots, the front row of the audience was visible from where she sat. In the centre, not twenty feet from her, seven familiar faces watched. All were frowning, except the middle face, which grinned.
“Would you please excuse me for just a moment?” Her voice was picked up by the spindly microphone atop the piano, and broadcast around the hall. She slid out from beneath the keyboard, smoothed down her dress, and shuffled to the edge of the stage, ignoring von Dobler’s thunderstruck gape and the low-pitched maundering of the audience.
She knelt down on the well-worn hardwood.
“You followed me here?” she hissed at the elderly lady at one end of the small group.
The lady, eyes piercing, grimaced and opened her mouth to speak, revealing no mouth at all but a mere pitted recess, a wall of pink behind her glistening teeth. Yet her voice was clear.
“You invited us, as you always do. Months ago, in fact, you requested that we be sent complimentary tickets for the front row. Most unnecessary, I said at the time, though you so insisted.”
“Mum?” The recognition flashed across her mind like a frying pan catching fire.
“Once, perhaps. Many rebirths ago; surely you remember?” She smiled infuriatingly.
But she didn’t remember. Her fists were clenched with the frustration of not understanding.
The elderly man, or rather the effigy of her father, long-since assimilated into whatever this distant and disinterested thing was, coughed. “We play with your memory, you see. Of the four of us, you are the only human. You are the conduit through which our world feeds; you are the Renfield who helps rejuvenate these forever-decaying bodies.”
“The four of us?” She counted herself, the elderly couple and the grinning man… his must be the mystery toothbrush in her apartment… oh god, he was her boyfriend?
“Oh, plus of course the new arrivals,” Piercing-Eye Lady said with another grimace, nodding her head sideways at the young mother, father and two adolescents sitting next to the grinning man. “That family in the woods was entirely unplanned; a most irksome inconvenience at first, though as things transpired, they provided the vessels by which four more of our flock could join us in this world. What delightful luck, as it turned out.”
Behind the front row, the confused murmurings of the crowd grew and died away and grew back like the relentless ocean swell. Like the grubs.
“And you…” Regina whispered, turning to the grinning man. “You were my boyfriend?” Was her taste in men really that bad?
His grin became a confused frown, just for a moment. Then his eyes lit up. The delighted giggle pushed through the remains of his frown and bounced around the auditorium.
“No, no! I was your brother. Or this body, what’s left of the original, that was your brother’s, yeah?”
“Then… the toothbrush… the electric toothbrush…”
Piercing-Eye Lady, Regina’s mum—no, definitely not her mum, not now—began to sound impatient. “You did have a boyfriend, dear. You don’t remember him, of course. He proved… non-compliant. Not at all plastic, neither mind nor body. We had to remove him from the scene. Now, won’t you go and play us all a nice tune on your piano over there? Everybody’s waiting, you know.”
Regina bowed her head. The compulsion was tangible, now that she knew to expect it. She stood obediently, fighting the urge, and returned to her seat, dimly aware that von Dobler was glaring at her. Well, bully for him. The grubs would block this incident from his memory soon enough, and from hers. They had said just enough to allay her confusion, to clear the fog so she could play. Nothing but manipulation, all of it.
She took another moment.
Before her, the keys grew to fill her mind, then faded out, filling her subconscious instead, and her self-awareness faded too, her ego an invisible portal between this hollow land and the swirls of energy that in a moment would channel through her.
The notes began, at first a mere sound, distant. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s second Piano Concerto flowed as if called into existence from some darker realm, and the music’s sorrowful energy fanned out across the audience.
Above them, a point of light appeared, indiscernible at first and then growing, ponderously, over the course of several minutes, fed by a series of mournful tremolos. The light rotated like a pinwheel galaxy, slowly, not throwing out stars but drawing them in. Nebulae, curling and glowing and pulsing, drawing out like smoke tendrils from the craniums of every audience member—all except for the seven things—and up into the vortex above.
The orchestra, also feeding the vortex, had stopped playing and even von Dobler’s arms had stopped; they hung by his sides like snakes with their necks snapped, though he watched Regina with a curious expression as if still trying to conduct with his eyes. The only sound was the piano, Rachmaninoff’s melancholy concerto stripped bare, maligned, exploited.
Head turned, Regina watched the mass theft with open-mouthed horror. A tremendous sense of injustice palpitated through her—this audience was here to receive her euphonious chi, not to surrender theirs. The audience, she realised, was not merely a paying mass; they were people, humans, and she loved them for loving—not her or her talents, but the music, the experience, the depth and exploration of feeling, of the human condition which, together, she and they could share. Instead, they would never know what truly happened, never understand it; the next morning they would simply wake up feeling weak, drained, bereft of vitality. Some might never recover. This mistreatment of her people was a travesty, and her initial helpless dismay boiled into white fury. The nature of the energy lines shifted, no longer a flow of resigned serenity but an energised zigzag of lightning rage.
It was all food.
Still the vortex grew, and visible through it now was a world, Another Place, a surging red sky shaped all wrong—warped into the inside of a pyramid rather than a curved dome—and jagged alien mountains, and beneath it all a broad, flat plain that squirmed, a sea of pink and purple grubs swelling and subsiding, absorbing the purloined energy that rained down upon them.
Regina, compos mentis but helpless, pulled at her hands, tried to tense her fingers upward and away from the keys. Nothing obeyed. She glanced desperately at the front row where the elderly couple were staring at her. Their attention was fully occupied; the grinning man, however, was distracted by the young family next to him… or rather, by the four new grubs that had absorbed the young family and taken their likenesses. Perhaps the absorption process was still underway, though. The parents were shaking their heads, the two adolescents rocking forwards and back as if trying to wrench themselves from their seats.
Fighting the invisible bonds that held her, Regina nodded her head in the direction of the young family. Distant Old Man’s eyes nudged left, catching on to the situation. In turn, like falling dominos, Piercing-Eye Lady unlocked her gaze from Regina, just for a moment, and turned to stare the rebellious young family down.
Regina seized the opportunity and leapt up; the stool toppled backwards with a great clattering, and with finality she slammed the piano lid. She may not have opened it up, but she could certainly shut it down.
Above them all, the gyrating vortex wavered and threatened to collapse.
She twisted round and sprinted for the stage exit. The hem of her dress caught around her feet and tripped her, the momentum sending her sprawling. As it turned out, the mishap helped her. The elderly couple were both staring, puffy eyes narrowed, repossessing. Regina’s fall carried her off the stage and into a heap at the far corner. In the lee of the grubs’ influence, she scurried forward on her hands and knees toward the nearest exit. At the doorway, she leapt up and rounded the corner, pushed past dumbfounded theatre employees, crashed through a Staff Only door—one small detour to grab her car key—and back out through the main entrance. Her unshod feet slip-slapped down the wide steps and she sprinted, as best she could with her dress bunched up over her knees, for the nearby car park.
She’d wanted to grab her Vans while in the dressing room, maybe even change back into street clothes, but she didn’t dare delay. One second would be all the creatures needed to retake control.
She ran across the car park, sharp stones digging into her feet. Fumbled with the key, dived into her car. She jammed the key into the ignition. And hesitated. She spared a moment’s anguish for the young family, wished she could bring them along with her, save them, but it was already too late; they were already more grub than human, already more predator than prey.
Her soft-top Porsche revved into life and wheelspun across the gravel. She heard the telltale sound of a moped whining up across the car park.
A ten minute drive. Ten minutes of remembering patches of this and that, each revelation a shock of despair or fury or pain. Her mind had been opened up for the evening’s desecration to take place, and the grubs hadn’t had a chance to latch it securely shut. Now, unfettered, the memories flooded in. How many times this feeding of the parasites’ homeworld had taken place; how many times she had unwillingly assisted. Not just assisted, but been instrumental. And how many times she had helped them be reborn, to rejuvenate and reabsorb the likenesses of her former family. She muttered a curse and ran a red light. Nearby vehicles screeched and honked, the sounds distant in her mind.
At the entrance to the woodland path she brought the car skidding to a halt. Leapt out, left the door hanging open, ran to the back and opened the boot. There, she wrenched a red plastic petrol can from where it was lashed to the side with a bungee cord. Her father had insisted she keep the jerrycan in the boot, just in case… “In case of what?” she’d teased him, “in case I’m stranded in a post-apocalyptic desert one day?” and her dad had laughed, and gone right ahead and strapped the jerrycan into the boot.
Around to the passenger side, feet squelching into the well-trodden grass verge, she grabbed a cheap plastic cigarette lighter from the glovebox. Not her lighter, her boyfriend’s—she had always hated the habit but still loved him dearly. James, her fiancé. Not her boyfriend, her fiancé. With her knuckle she rubbed her empty ring finger. He was gone; supposedly a suicide. She howled, beyond livid. They hadn’t even allowed her to remember him.
She ran up the rutted steps; no glissando here, just stones and splinters ripping through her stockings, biting into her soles. Halfway up the slope, her resolve wavered. It was an abrupt sensation—the desire to cave, to return meekly to the grinning man who sat on his moped at the base of the hill, glaring unblinkingly up at her. In place of a crash helmet he wore a balaclava and a yellow bobble hat. Wrong, so wrong, and definitely not her brother. Even he had never been that annoying.
This thing had killed her brother, absorbed him, stolen his likeness and his life. The other night, this spongy alien grub had pretended not to know her at all, had bewitched her with his hypnotic stare and led her to the woodland grotto while pretending to help her find her nonexistent dog.
Still he stared, his broad grin an outline in the fabric of the balaclava, and she felt her resolve weakening.
Tears streaming, Regina launched herself back down the hill, letting gravity be her imperative substitute for free will. She slammed into him, knocking both him and his little motorbike crashing into the road where he wriggled like a worm on a hook, one gelatinous leg trapped beneath the moped.
Stomach tightening, she gawked at his squashed lower leg. Like someone had stamped on an eggplant… she hadn’t realised how mushy these creatures were, how little of their human hosts remained.
Headlights illuminated the scene. No more hesitating! Regina flew back up the woodland steps; she only glanced back once and saw that her parents’ ancient, beloved S-Class had pulled up next to Grin. Distant Old Man, definitely not her dad, was attempting to pull the moped away, but somehow lacked the strength. Their interiors were like jellyfish; they were barely able to stand upright, retaining as they did just enough muscle mass from their hosts, but none of the bones.
Their strength was in their controlling minds, not in those walking, wallowing carcasses.
Piercing-Eye Lady, definitely not her mum, exited the Mercedes and stared right up at her. Regina, fighting the sudden compulsion to turn back, tottered onward. But the elder grub, whatever it was, was too strong. Fortitude dissolving into subservience, Regina fell to her knees. She was at the top of the hill, but not over. Still holding the jerrycan in her left hand, she flung her arms forward and ploughed the mud; one large trench from the edge of the can, one tiny trench on the right from her fiancé’s lighter.
She sighed. It was, simply, time to resign, to end this charade, to walk meekly back down the path, climb into her parents’ car, return to the concert hall, apologise to the audience and von Dobler, and resume the performance. See it through.
Never leave a performance unfinished, young madam.
Lit up by the car’s headlights, Distant Old Man, probably sensing victory, heaved extra-hard at the flaccid torso of the grinning man, who was still pinioned by the weight of the moped. Grin cried out as the lower part of his leg ripped away. Slushy gel gushed out with a distinct spattering sound. With the Distant Old Man’s help he stood up. He tore off the balaclava and bobble hat and together the three glared up at her. Unable to move, she stared as they advanced up the hill, Grin propped against the elderly man’s shoulder.
Piercing-Eye Lady glanced over her shoulder as if signalling, and from the back seat of the Merc, the four new grubs that had once been the young family clambered out. Their movements were awkward, unwilling, but they followed on up the path and quickly caught up with their new elders.
Within moments, the seven things were almost upon her.
The young daughter, head twisting from side to side, allowed herself to slip forward and tumble into her brother, who fell forward against the elderly couples’ legs. Grin, unsupported, toppled sideways, still grinning, and the elderly man and woman both lurched over to grab him.
Regina pulled backwards and spun round. Over the prow of the hill, momentarily out of their line-of-sight, she charged down the other side, the perfect piano slide, reached the bottom and kicked sideways off the smooth tree stump. Her momentum carried her off the path and over into the bowl. For the briefest time she flew, out into open air, over buckthorn, then crashed through broad leaves and brambles and down to the crunchy floor. Fronds closed over above her head.
She ducked under the half-snapped, dangling branch of a lime tree, her dress again tripping her, and stumbled into the grotto. Before her, the fallen oak, smothered with flesh-devouring beetles that looked even more lively in the muted grey moonlight, seemed to smile warmly at her for the approaching end to its afterlife of pure hell.
Placing the lighter carefully on the bracken, she fumbled with the jerrycan’s slippery cap—somehow it was slimy on the outside and congealed to a hard mass on the inside. She finally managed to unscrew it, and she pulled back the curtain of moss beneath the prostrate trunk. Inside, a reddish light glowed; a crown of insectoid carmine among the mulching undergrowth, the portal through which the newborn grubs had continually arrived from their homeworld. The alien parasites’ entrypoint into the realm of people. Messy, annoying, fallible, blessed, wonderful, perfect people. Snarling, she tipped the jerrycan and poured, and poured, then turned and splashed the remains of the petrol onto the bracken around her feet. The fuel was fresh, volatile. Through everything she had remembered her dad’s instructions and replaced the contents regularly, though never expecting to actually need it.
She threw the empty can to one side, groped around in the near-darkness for the dropped lighter, picked it up.
“That’s quite enough of that, my dear.”
Standing beneath the rotted branch of the small-leaved lime tree, Piercing-Eye Lady and Distant Old Man stood, glaring disapprovingly at her. They must have left Grin behind. Previously the muscles of the group, he would have just slowed them down. Still, the elderly couple must have bundled down the hill… even clunky old Panzers could move when they had a battle to win.
Regina held the lighter up, and her arm stopped. Such an innocuous, pointless little piece of plastic, what good was it to her? She should drop the toy harmlessly to the floor, say sorry and stand, head hung in shame, while her disappointed parents approached.
But there had been a reason, surely? A reason she was here in the woods at night. What was it?
Her hand tightened into a raised fist, retained its grip. Defiant, unmoving. But she couldn’t move at all.
Behind the elder grubs, the young family approached. Their movements were no longer stiff or reluctant; instead they walked with purpose, all four of them tsk-tsking, and stood behind the elderly couple.
“Now, then,” her fake-dad chittered, “you will hand me the cigarette lighter, right now, and you will explain to us all how you came by it.”
“Such a filthy habit,” her fake-mum said in that low, husky voice of hers.
Regina reached out her hand. They were quite right, of course. Her, a smoker? What on earth!
A shriek rent the moonlit air. The two adolescents, arms wide, leapt forward, shoved their docile parents ahead, and the four of them crashed into the two elders. Rather than resist, the young parents lent their weight to the effort, and together, on the uneven ground, the six things lost their footing and faceplanted into the petrol-infused bracken.
Regina blinked. One moment was all she had. She took the moment; simultaneously flicked the little wheel on the lighter, crouched down and held the tiny flame to a single leaf. Pandemonium erupted. The grotto was instantly a lake of fire. The elder grubs squeaked and thrashed and began to melt, skin peeling back like burning celluloid, the minimal layer of muscle dropping away and sizzling like so much bacon tipped onto a gas hob, their insides gushing forth like kicked-over buckets of gelatin, their craniums each dissolving to reveal a bright green brain, pulsing, sending, compelling, affecting, manipulating, then finally dying.
Caught in the flames near the edge of the inferno, the two adolescent grubs looked up at her with deeply sad, grateful smiles, clinging to their remaining shreds of humanity even as the composite human-grub bodies melted, pouring their minds down into the searing abyss.
Regina stood for a moment longer in the flames, then leapt like a frog suddenly noticing the water temperature. She flew from the grotto, a plume of fire trailing from the hem of her dress. Legs scorching, she ran, her hands slapping ineffectually down at the flames, charcoal feet smudging through the bracken, to the far end of the bowl.
She climbed the bank, spreadeagled like a burning effigy, and screamed out, eyes fixed on the lake opposite - so near. Yet something stopped her. An urge to turn away from the cool water and return to the gates of hell, and somehow find a way to save… if not the elder grubs, who had already perished, then at least the portal.
Atop the hill, the grinning man was in sight, one hand placed against a tree trunk for balance. The grin was tightened to the point of tearing; a sneer of malice, vengeance overriding any sense of self-preservation. His destroyed lower leg had extruded into a sharp point like a pirate’s wooden peg.
Bellowing fury, he launched himself away from the tree and charged down the steep path, blundering recklessly, out of control. The reshaped leg bowed like flimsy rubber beneath his weight and his grin contorted into a wild, paint-splashed picture of panic as the hill carried him faster and faster. Near the bottom his good foot slipped backward on wet leaves and he tumbled ahead, unable to change direction. The velocity carried him straight into the rounded tree stump where he liquidated with a splat, clear gel spraying above and around the unyielding bole, two rows of teeth flying apart like an expanding halo. The grinning man was no more.
No time to celebrate. Really, nothing to celebrate. The parasites were gone, nothing remaining to coerce her mind. Finally, she was free; but it hardly mattered now. The flames clawed and consumed as mercilessly as the grubs, and she choked on the cloying smoke of her own immolation. Mind clouding over, Regina fell back and crashed into the autumnal bog. The burning dress met the mud, and the damp ground hissed. Delirious from the pain, as she blacked out she swore that she heard splashes from the lake, and that an army of skittering insects, to the marching orders of green newts in bright red uniforms, brought tiny buckets of water and doused the flames on her legs.
• • •
A dark blue sky, finally, replaced the overcast days of grey that she had been seeing for so long. The church, ancient and proud up on the hill, cast a low wintry shadow across the graveyard where Regina, on crutches, hobbled along the damp woodchip path. She would never get used to these cumbersome props; but the rate at which the burns were healing, perhaps she wouldn’t have to. Meanwhile, both her feet and lower legs were heavily bandaged, making her feel like a snow-stomping Yeti from the knees down.
She had assured von Dobler that she would be ready to perform again soon, though her palms were still scabbed over, and she doubted her feet could touch the pedals for a long while yet. The white-haired conductor had nodded soberly, understanding that she was reassuring herself more than him.
She reached James’ grave, let go of the crutches, and knelt awkwardly. She bowed her head. For five years her fiancé had lain here, and she hadn’t visited. She hadn’t known.
“They’re gone now,” she told him. “I went back, just once, to make sure. Damned awkward on these silly sticks, but I had to know. And the portal, whatever it was, it’s gone. No lights, no maggots, just… soot, I guess.”
There had been consequences, besides her own injuries… no creatures remained to erase bystanders’ memories. The town newspaper ran the headline LOCAL CONCERT PIANIST SUBJECT OF MYSTERY ARSON ATTACK, and she hated the victim angle but took the win.
The local police hadn’t pressed too hard, as no bodies besides her own unconscious form were found, and no real damage done, save to a hidden patch of woodland that no-one had really known existed. The authorities may have doubted her sanity, but let the matter drop, as she remembered very little about the incident; certainly no details. Thinking too hard about it brought on chills and a severe headache.
The following week, the episode was gone from the public consciousness, and the local newspaper ran with a new mystery: YOUNG FAMILY REPORTED MISSING; and so Regina had learned their names.
“The counselling has been… interesting,” she continued. “What am I supposed to tell my therapist? She’s convinced I have parent issues.”
Her knees had begun to complain, so she gathered the crutches and tried to rise. She wobbled. From the entrance to the graveyard came a lively concerto of scurrying, scuffling and snuffling. Her new friend, a black Labrador from a rescue home, bounded down the path, scattering woodchips, and stood conveniently for her to steady her elbow on. She had named the dog after her late brother—he would have laughed.
“Thanks, Robbie,” she said, burying her face in the Labrador’s soft neck. “You found me.”
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A gripping story, and amazing descriptions of the power of music... Thanks for this!