Øresund

Every day before dawn the girl stood on the quiet shore by the bridge, staring at something beyond the dried seabed and scattered pools of muddied water that made up the Vanished Sea. It wasn’t a very safe place to be at. It was too close to the Øresund and within reach of the scouting lights, but it was also reasonably quiet and free of scavengers, which made the already dangerous task of krebsdyr hunting a bit more bearable.

With the passing of the years, Saga had learnt to identify the safest spots on the beach, if such a thing as a safe place still existed. It took her many warning shots from the bridge – although the scar on her left arm told her that the soldiers at the Øresund couldn’t really tell the difference between a warning shot and shoot to kill – but in the end she had managed to find some blind spots along the shore.

She was standing next to an oddly shaped rock formation which shielded her from the biting winds and the hungry lights. The stone was slightly warm to the touch and uncannily smooth at some points, even slick, which made her feel uncomfortable and weird. Saga wasn’t sure whether that stone had always been there. Sometimes, when she thought of home she saw the rock among faceless, common people basking under a clouded sun. It towered above all of them, casting a curious shadow over the unaware individuals on the beach. Some other times, the stone had never been there and there was only a blank, unoccupied space which cast a curious shade over the white sand, like a half-formed thought or a nearly forgotten dream.

It didn’t really matter. The rock had probably been unearthed after the Fennoscandia decided to kill the Baltic Sea with a series of dry detonations. It had been a desperate measure to prevent the Danish forces from reaching Malmö¸ and lock them down in Amager. They were in the wrong, of course, war always finds a way, but by the time someone tried to make some sense of what was happening, the sea was already boiling itself away to a pitiful bunch of exhausted puddles. The resulting mist lingered for almost a year and for that time something resembling peace but more akin to shock seized the countries. It didn’t last. War always finds a way. As soon as the fog lifted and the targeting systems in Danevirke were functional again, Gothard retaliated with a devastating attack that rendered the Øresund uninhabitable.

Saga remembered the lights and the mist, but they were gone now, like most of everything else

It didn’t really matter. Saga’s world had shrunk to a muddy shoreline and a watery hole somewhere deep below the sewers.

Dawn. Although the sun was trapped beyond an almost perpetual cloud-layer, Saga could feel the first rays of sunlight pressing against the overcast sky. The bridge would be opening soon, which meant that the hungry lights would go to sleep for a while. It was her chance to hunt some krebsdyr.

Saga reached into the depths of her dirty fatigues and found her stiletto. It wasn’t a very efficient weapon, but it was the best she had managed to get without killing anyone and it was extremely useful when hunting krebsdyr. Besides, it had proved more than handy against other human beings when necessary.

Saga left the relative safety of the rock as soon as the lights receded. Before her, the seemingly endless expanse of the Vanished Sea stretched in every direction all the way to what had once been Malmö. Bands of greyish sand rivetted the decayed seabed among the isolated patches of marshy, polluted waters and congealed mud. All along the dying sea, interspersed at seemingly random intervals, dark rocks of an almost spherical shape littered the swampy grounds. There was a trail of disturbed dirt behind every rock, as if a wind too slow to be perceived had gently been blowing the stones up and down the sea. After the mayhem that blew up most of the marine life in the Øresund, the krebsdyr were one of the very few species that had been able to adapt to the aftermath and now riddled the ever-diminishing sea.

Saga treaded carefully, negotiating a path among the treacherous puddles of murky water. Her steps, swift and sure, made the tools in her belt produce a low, tingling noise. It was a relatively clear day and Saga could see many discarded krebsdyr shells scattered around. It was becoming increasingly difficult to find an intact crab. Although their almost utter immobility made them an easy prey, they were very hard to carry due to their immense weight and the way they clang to the ground. Saga had had it relatively easy at the beginning, preying upon those krebsdyr closer to the shore, learning to find the right spot in which to insert her stiletto, considering the right amount of pressure to apply, so that the shell would finally give up the meagre piece of meat at its core.  However, as months and even years passed, she had had to walk further and further from the shore every day in order to find a suitable prey.

Saga was almost a kilometre into the Vanished Sea when she found the first krebsdyr. It was as tall as her knee, jet black and nearly completely round. The first time she had seen one she had mistaken it for a rock of strange proportions, but when closely inspected, one could see that the creature was no more than a morbidly overgrown crab laden with an arm-thick shell.

The krebsdyr was uncannily warm, as usual. Saga knelt beside it and put her ear against its surface. She heard nothing at first, but after a few seconds a distinct, suckling sound became evident. It wasn’t difficult for Saga to find the pressure spot. She looked around to make sure no one was near and then looked up at the bridge. The soldiers were probably busy scouting the trucks carrying supplies to Malmö. Saga introduced the tip of the stiletto in a tiny crack of the shell and made a swift, blunt move.

“Leave it alone!”

Shit. It was a woman’s voice. Saga glanced quickly at the bridge but saw no one.

“Leave the crab alone, bitch!

Saga stood up, eyes darting in every direction. She held her stiletto in a tight grip, ready to plunge it into whoever came too close.

“Get away from it or I’ll gut you!”

The voice came from somewhere dangerously close.

All of a sudden, a krebsdyr holding a makeshift spear rose from the seabed some ten steps away. It was impossibly big and incredibly fast, considering that its legs were buried beneath a thick layer of chitinous shell. The crab spoke again:

“Get away, you fucking moron!”

The creature was running towards her now, arms slightly raised, tumbling with empty husks and rocks alike. Saga had seen many strange things in her life as an outcast, but never anything as grotesque as a giant, talking crab. As the thing drew closer, Saga understood. The humanoid shape wasn’t made of krebsdyr but coated in it, like some sort of exceptionally cumbersome armor with a sturdy, little woman embedded in it.

“Shut up, fool!” Saga finally reacted, “the whole fucking bridge must be on alert by now!

The crab-woman lunged at Saga with her weapon, ready to injure and possibly kill. Saga jumped aside, barely avoiding the thrust.

“Stop it, you cunt. You’re gonna get us killed!”

“Leave it, leave the crab, leave it!”

The woman was ready to attack again when the first shot hit her in the head. There was no blood, only the sound of rupturing stone as the woman collapsed on the muddy floor.

“I downed the monster, Soren. That’s twice the points.”

The voice came from up the bridge.

“Oh shut up, it was impossible to miss that shot. The blond bitch is a much smaller target. Watch and learn.”

Saga could almost hear the soldier taking aim. The shore was too far away and there was nothing she could use as cover. There was still a way. She started to run towards the bridge. If she could reach it in time perhaps she would be able to run to the shore before they sent someone to look for her below the bridge.

“Leave it… leave the crab…”

The woman stirred.

“Oh shit not this, not now, not now!” But she couldn’t leave her behind. Although it was the logical thing to do, although that stupid crab-woman had almost got her killed, she simply couldn’t leave her behind.

“Oh shit, oh fuck.”

The next shot missed her by less than an inch.

Saga pulled with all her strength and started to drag the woman, but it wasn’t nearly enough. That damn, stupid armor was far too heavy.

“The crab, the crab…”

“For fuck’s sake, shut the fuck up!”

Saga drew a knife from her belt and cut the woman free from the chitinous toil.

The next bullet pierced the air where her head had been a second earlier and got lost in the mud with a muffled sound.

“And you call that aim? You are getting old, Soren,” laughs boomed uncomfortably close over her head.

Saga knew she had been extremely lucky. The soldier wouldn’t miss the next shot.

She had almost made it to the bridge when she felt something bite her left arm were the old scar was. It was a burning, familiar pain that ran all along her limp.

“See that? I told you I’d make it,” Saga heard a voice say somewhere above the darkness of the bridge

More laughter, further away this time. Indistinct chatter. Looming pillars. Walking krebsdyr. Suckling rocks.

“The crab… the crab…”

Saga collapsed.

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Monastery of Silence

~Truth.

~Truth?

~Yes, truth.

They were sitting on their favourite bench in the gardens of an old monastery. The place was as silent as it had been the first time they had found it on one of their occasional wanderings.

They had been visiting one of the most populated memory cores they had discovered up until that moment. That core in particular had adopted the shape of a pre-industrial crowded city. It was a place full of people and smells and noises. Beggars, priests, noblemen; the highest and the lowest mixed up, living in a perpetual state of chaos, a city inhabiting its citizens. Always in motion, ever on the brink of change, but not quite.

At first, they enjoyed it. They bathed on the pungent smells, they soared the screeching noises, they searched and found themselves in a toothless smile, a tired glance, a manic laugh; ever moving from one body to another, leaping from one soul to the next, until the presence of the city became too big and complete and their heartbeats too distant and faint and they had to run away.

They named that place Chaos, and swore to each other never to return.

The monastery had been hiding in a small mountain range next to Chaos. They had found it almost by chance, if such a thing existed in their world.

~You once asked me how I would define the world if I could only use one word, and that’s my answer. Truth. His thoughts echoed in her mind as clear and close as if they had been uttered.

To an external observer, they would have looked like a young couple sitting on a bench under an old pine tree, lost amidst the silence, not minding each other.

~That’s rather a vague answer, she sent back. Truth can mean everything or nothing at all.

They lost themselves in the silence of the monastery for a while.

It hadn’t been a conscious decision for them to use their mind-touch. As soon as they stepped into the gardens of the monastery they immediately understood why they had been drawn to that place.

The transition had been smoother than dawn. At that moment, they both had felt it, had been aware of it, but as they walked among the bushes and the trees, as they approached the old silent building, they forgot how to talk, how to speak, and they suddenly realised that words were forbidden in that sacred place.

It’s not that they couldn’t speak. That was their world after all, and they knew that they could choose to speak if they so wished, but they also knew that, as soon as they had crossed the unseen boundaries of the monastery, words had turned into meaningless blurbs of sound, careless and irrelevant, obscure references to meanings far beyond the surface of their thoughts.

~That’s precisely my point, he signalled, breaking the static of their mind-touch. Truth, or rather the absence of it, defines not only my world, but everyone’s.

She glanced at him sceptically, raising an eyebrow. She was used to this kind of categorical claims but still, his sometimes utter lack of humility never failed to surprise her… or amuse her.

~Enlighten me, she sent mockingly.

He moved, ever so slightly, and his distant expression turned into a more focused one. She watched him as he rearranged himself on the bench, turning his body towards hers, fractionally, almost imperceptibly, just like every time he was about to say something momentous (or something he had been rehearsing in his head, as she had learnt to notice).

~Take for instance the people at Chaos. They live their lives in constant motion, a perpetual process of change that never ends. Their lives are like the water-flow of a thousand rivers, only their rivers are birthless and purposeless, furious streams of raging waters preying upon one another. His thoughts flowed in an orderly row with the clarity and certainty he always tried to convey in his discourses. Each of his words was limited and constrained by its own distinct shape, instilling his speech with a rationality he sometimes lacked.

In the inner layers of her mind, she laughed secretly at that. After countless conversations, voiced and silent, he still felt the need to modulate the tone of his voice, to carefully choose every word, as if the wrong choice could destroy any possibility of communication.

Perhaps it could.

She turned her gaze towards the old monastery and, signalling the precise amount of eagerness, urged him to continue.

La Senyora Maria

La senyora Maria agafava el tren cada dia a les sis en punt. S’aixecava ben d’hora, ben d’hora, li posava menjar a l’Arturo (el seu periquito) i baixava tot caminant cap a Plaça Catalunya molt a poc a poc. Quan feia fred sempre arribava una mica tar perquè el fred sempre se li havia agafat als turmells i molts matins, a l’hivern, semblava com si un parell de mans glaçades l’agafessin i l’estrenyessin tot just per damunt dels peus i no volguessin deixar-la marxar.

De vegades, quan els matins eren molt freds i molt negres, tenia por que el glaç l’atrapés de debò i la deixés allà palplantada com una d’aquelles estàtues vivents de la Rambla. S’imaginava que la ciutat creixia al seu voltant i que els nens li llençaven monedes daurades per a què es mogués, cosa que mai passaria perquè el fred sempre se l’hi havia agafat als turmells i de vegades no la deixava caminar.

Un cop a l’estació, la Maria obria la tanca metàl·lica del seu moneder amb un ‘clic!’ i en treia una moneda de cinc cèntims pel pidolaire que sempre l’esperava al capdamunt de l’escala. L’home, una cosa mig vella i arrugada com una tira de cuir assecada al sol, sempre li agraïa amb un somriure sense dents. A la Maria aquell home li feia molta pena, però també una mica de por, així que tot just sentia el ‘clac’ de la moneda en caure dins el got de paper esgrogueït, tancava ràpidament el seu moneder amb un ‘clic’ i s’afanyava escales avall.

A la Maria sempre li havien agradat els trens, perquè els trens sempre sabien on anar i mai no es perdien. Quan se’ls mirava des de fora just abans d’entrar-hi, de vegades li recordaven a aquelles erugues que sempre sortien a la primavera, totes en fila i ben ordenades, sempre en la mateixa direcció.

Els cotxes, en canvi, la posaven nerviosa. De tant en tant, quan sortia a prendre la fresca al balcó, els veia allà baix movent-se d’un cantó a l’altre com petites formigues esbojarrades buscant amb les seves antenes de llum el forat d’un formiguer que mai acabaven de trobar. Quan la Maria pensava en cotxes també pensava en formigues i llavors s’havia de gratar.

Una tarda de primavera, asseguts al banc d’un parc molt verd, quan encara eren joves, la Maria va parlar a en Jaume de les erugues i les formigues. Era una cosa que no havia explicat mai a ningú, una d’aquelles coses que la seva mare hauria titllat de ximpleria després d’enriure-se’n.

Però amb en Jaume tot era diferent. A ell podia explicar-li totes aquelles coses petites que no semblaven gaire res i que mai no havia explicat a ningú. En Jaume també reia, però el seu riure parlava a la Maria amb una veu molt baixeta que li deia a cau d’orella que, potser, aquelles coses no eren tan petites i que, potser, era la seva mare la que deia ximpleries.

A la Maria li agradava el riure del Jaume, i el somriure del Jaume i tot el que era el Jaume. Quan la mirava, era com si tot ell l’escoltés i parés atenció a tot el que deien no només les seves paraules, sinó també tots els seus gestos i silencis, la remor del seu alè i el xiuxiuejar de les seves parpelles al tancar-se. Quan el mirava, sentia una mena de cosa al pit, com si totes les coses petites dins seu es fessin grans, molt grans, i tots els vuits que ella mai no havia sabut com omplir desapareguessin de sobte.

Va ser per això que, una tarda ara fa ja tants anys, després de riure junts com dos babaus, la Maria, tot observant com un somriure aclucava els ulls d’un Jaume embadalit, va decidir que s’hi casaria.

4.21 (a dream)

I saw Death today.

It had been too long since the last time it visited me in my sleep.

It was a strange dream and I was in a strange place with some friends whose faces I couldn’t recognise. In fact, I couldn’t recognise any of them. Not their voices nor their gestures, not their shapes nor their presence. But still, I knew they were my friends. I guess it’s the kind of relationship you establish with your dream companions, that pact of familiarity you make with the strangest parts of yourself, those ones you have always known but only get to meet in your dreams.

We were running away from something, I think. Or perhaps we were carrying something with us, some kind of unseen cargo that only exists to give the dreamer a feeling of purpose but then you never really get to see.

            I don’t know.

We had been cast adrift in a quiet sea. The sky was the colour of grey granite, and the ever present, ever still clouds were just as thick. Yet, from some place I can’t recall, pale beams of dying light filtered, giving the water, the boats, our faces a ghostly luminosity the like of which can only be found in dreams.

I don’t know how much time we had been sailing those stony waters. I don’t even know whether there had existed something, anything before the grey, hungry sea had decided to swallow the world.

I guess there had been. There must have been. I don’t know. We didn’t know. None of us knew.

Oddly enough, we didn’t talk to each other. There weren’t many chances though. We were travelling in three separate boats. I remember seeing my friends slowly drifting before me in their small ships, their expressions fixed, their gaze unfocused, as if they had decided that the external world was not worth experiencing and had locked themselves in themselves.

Was I travelling alone? I don’t know. I think I remember feeling some kind of presence in the boat, just within reach, but I can’t recall seeing him or her or it not even once. Perhaps I was alone. Perhaps my friends were just reflections of myself, each of them a crack in the mirror of my mind.

Perhaps I was the reflection.

            I don’t know.