At The End, Poetry and Other Adventures in Public Reading

attheendTomorrow evening I’m doing my first public poetry reading as part of Tom Dullemond’s “At The End, Poetry” at West End’s The End Bar.

I’m reading Papier Mâché the first poem I wrote in December last year. It is a poem of creativity and longing and letting go the things that no longer serve you. Kind of timely in some ways.

The reading kicks off at 6pm. The theme cocktail of the night draws its name from Stacey’s Memories of Wonderland.

And in other reading news, I’ll be reading on the 8th February as part of the QWC’s first Whispers salon. The theme is ‘false starts’ and I’m looking forward to unveiling a little of my birthpunk world from Encursion.

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Birthpunk Happened Today

I started writing my birthpunk novella in 2010 as part of Fourth Fiction. It was a story that suckered everyone in and when Fourth Fiction ended, I promised to write another 12 installments to finish the story off. I wrote a few more after the official contest closed but found it impossible to regain the original momentum of the story.

And every year since then I have promised my good friend Chris Chartrand I would finish the bloody story. It’s embarrassing how many years I have been promising him this. If the idea of birthpunk and the world I’ve created to explore the ideas, hadn’t struck a chord in everyone I accidentally (or purposely) spoke about it to (including three guys who work with my partner, at the Christmas party last year!), the idea, the characters and the story would have been long ago abandoned.

IT DOESN’T SOUND LIKE THIS, OR THIS, OR FUCKING THIS EITHER

Last year I had a crack at finishing the novella, but I knew deep down the voice was all wrong. The more I worked on it the more I knew just how wrong the voice was, yet felt powerless to change it. What made it worse, I could not bridge what I was writing with what I had previously written. And yet again the novella went to ground, as a dormant idea. The idea of trying to fix it when I picked it up at the end of last year was daunting. I knew it needed a new opening.

COMING FULL CIRCLES TO START AGAIN

Nik said to me the other day: nothing is ever wasted. And that’s very true. All the crap words I wrote last year (that appeared to go no where) gave me an opportunity to understand the world better (especially the world ‘above’ the Deme and their activities) and I have a far better grasp on Sylvie’s motivations: how she came to feel and behave as she does, how she came to be where she starts and ultimately ends.

But still, there was something missing!

“So it’s like a Matthew Reilly novel with births.”

Stacey said that to me on New Years Eve and it was like a light bulb went on in my head. She’s known about this project for as long as we’ve been friends, almost as long as I’ve been writing it, but it was something in what I was saying about the frustration of the narrative pace and how it was keeping me from writing that spawned her insight.

It’s funny how a single throw away comment can bring your entire project into focus.

I’m not entirely sure I originally set out to write a dystopic-action-birth-rebellion story but it appears this is what it has evolved into over the years. Welcome to birthpunk!

NEW WORDS PENDING

With a general stylistic framework in place, I’ve spent the last nine days brainstorming a new opening. I knew the stakes had to be high for Sylvie from the beginning. So I found somewhere stupidly dangerous for a birth, in a society that has already outlawed natural birth and made everywhere outside of a hospital and scheduled Caesarean section a dangerous way and place to birth if you are caught.

With a building in mind and an idea of who might be in it birthing, I set to unravel the Amalia strata of society as I walked the puppy and stumbled onto something far more disturbing than I could ever have imagined (and my imagination is a pretty twisted place).

So where is the most dangerous place for Sylvie to be called to attend a birth? Who is the birthing woman she considers a risk to them all? I’ll leave you with this opening section (of first draft goodness!) to whet your appetite.

* * *

ENCURSION: Sylvie’s Story

A Byrthed Novella

Sylvie had never been called to this safe house. Standing on the broken curb, several feet outside the ring lock fence, she took in the building: long, low with a roof that pitched from one side, rather than the middle and appeared to be a former warehouse. It looked nothing like a safe house, but wasn’t that what made them all complicit and the perfect places to hide birthing women? Sylvie looked a block down, taking in the neighbourhood. The full moon brought definition to broken buildings, echoes of anti-Government graffiti fading on the walls. Auto corpses rotted in the centre of the street. They were deep in the heart of the city she realised, and shivered. Close to the Dead Zone. That’s what made a building this size safe for them, she told herself, but knew it was a lie. Nowhere was safe.

The Driver, a man she’d never travelled with, took one last 360-degree surveillance turn of the street and bent to pick the padlock on the gate. Sylvie noted the rolls of barbed wire at the top.

Where the hell were they breaking into?

“Security’s been taken care of inside,” Daniel whispered into her ear. He knew her thoughts well.

“Security,” she hissed. “This isn’t how we do things.”

“Things are changing,” Daniel replied and there was a hard edge to his voice Sylvie didn’t remember.

But neither of them were novices now. And Daniel was riding shotgun. She pushed from her head that of the three of them he was the expendable one if they were raided.

The gate clattered free and the three of them slipped through. The gate was left pushed to but unlocked. There wouldn’t be time on an emergency retreat to unlock it. And they always planned for the worst-case scenario.

Sylvie turned to look over her shoulder as her boots bit into the well-maintained driveway. They’d left the stolen car roughly parked over the disintegrating concrete path. From a casual glance it looked abandoned. She hesitated, looking down again toward the Dead Zone.

“C’mon,” Daniel urged. “This one has to run on the clock.”

“On the clock?”

He gave her a gentle push between her shoulders and she bit down an acid retort.

The security system was offline and they entered through an unlocked rear door moving through an industrial kitchen, deeper into the building through a hall of trestle tables set up as a dining room and then a side door into a long corridor. Doors punctuated the wall every few feet. The soft glow of the illumi-ball in the Driver’s hand cast a ghostly, green pall on the doors, and Sylvie saw every one had a number handwritten on a small white board. Further down the corridor she noticed the black, lace-up shoes left neatly to the side of each door.

“Where are we?” Sylvie asked in as loud a whisper as she dared, refusing to continue on until she got a straight answer. This birth felt wrong, pit of her stomach wrong.

“It’s not your concern,” The Driver said.

“It’s too dangerous. I want out.”

“Everything about what we do is dangerous.”

And it hit her where they were: the numbers, the sensible black shoes, the dining hall.

“We’re in an Amalia enclave.” She tightened her grip on the oxygen canister she carried and spun on her heel. “I won’t do it.”

She tried to barge past Daniel, back out the way they’d come, but he caught hold of her. His fingers and eyes bored into her. Where was the boy she’d trained with, who taught her self defence and read her snippets from a tattered book of Neruda, who she imagined herself in love with for so many years?

He sensed the shift in tension in her body and said, “Don’t. Don’t fight me.”

“You do your duty,” the Driver hissed, hauling her away from Daniel. “And once you’ve done it, you’ll understand.”

He shoved her ahead of him hard enough to assert his authority but not to hurt her. The jab of her midwife’s kit in her back kept her moving.

Under his breath, he was counting off doors. She looked ahead and knew there was no point in running. She would have to fight off him and Daniel, and while she had the oxygen bottle, they were both trained fighters. She had enough skill to use in the chaos of a raid, not in a situation like this.

And the old defeatist attitude crept in…where would she run?

“Here,” grunted The Driver. He opened the door and held it for her.

She’d run to Joseph. Find somewhere safe for him to collect her and they could go to ground early. Or he could hide her in his penthouse.

But Joseph had said he needed time. Two more weeks to ensure they could all disappear forever. It was too soon. And their Amalia…there was no way they could hide her from the wet nurse.

The fucking Amalias.

How could Maia have sent her into a nest of Government spies? Did Maia sense it was more than the anger over her mother’s death at the heart of her disenfranchisement. With her quiet rebellion against the life she was told she would live.

None of that mattered now. She was here and on the other side there was a birthing woman.

Sylvie took a deep breath and forced the stale air, the angst and anger out of her and stepped into the tiny room.

The Driver passed her the illumi-ball and Sylvie waited for her eyes to adjust

In the long, thing room a heavily pregnant woman lay on her back in the centre of a narrow iron bed, arms pulled back over her head, fingers curled through the bars of bed head. A twisted piece of material, jammed between her jaw, muffled her cries of distress.

“You came.” The ragged voice belonged to an equally ragged woman, hidden by the bulk of the birthing woman until she stood. “I think she’s close, but it’s hard to tell. None of us ever see a birth. They take the girls down into a room in the basement.”

Sylvie turned to the Driver. “I don’t understand?”

“This isn’t a halfway house,” the woman said. “This is an education centre.”

“But she’s pregnant.”

“Of course she’s pregnant,” the woman snapped. “That’s part of the schedule of education and modification. You’re a midwife. You know how lactation works.”

“Mara,” the birthing woman moaned, coming out of her trance and pulling the rag from her mouth. “Mara,” she cried.

“Shhhhh,” Mara soothed. “The midwife is here now.”

“I can’t Mara. You have to stop it. Call matron. Take me down like all the other girls. If they catch me….”

“No one’s going to catch you, my darling,” she stroked the woman’s damp hair. “Matron is asleep. Everyone’s asleep. And they won’t be waking up until you’re safely out of here.”

“This isn’t just a birth,” the Driver said, stepping back toward the door. “It’s an extraction and Maia swore you had the guts to handle it.”

The mention of her mother’s best friend and the Deme’s guiding force came as a slap in the face. Now  they trusted her to go above and beyond what she had been trained to do. Now they had given her what she wanted for years to do, a chance to actually do something. Now, when she’d already made the decision to do something for herself.

Extraction. That’s what the Driver had said. And she knew this was her last birth with the Deme. This was the precursor to her extraction. A test run for Joseph and his wife and baby.

“How long do we have?” the Driver asked.

“I can’t say.” Mara’s voice trembled then steadied. “It wasn’t an exact dosage. Six hours perhaps, eight for others. Four at the very least.” She pulled a small watch face on a chain from inside her dress. “That was two hours ago.”

“Mara, it’s coming again,” the birthing woman moaned. Mara put the rag back in the woman’s mouth, muting the scream that tore from her throat.

When the contraction passed Mara looked up at Sylvie. “Please, help my sister. You can’t let them take her baby away.”

12 Days Later

Number 12It’s been twelve days since I completed my novel.

In that time I have ridden a roller coaster of amazement and joy served with a side of absolute bewilderment at having finished, and the adrenalin burn out that came afterward with the yawning black hole that desperately wanted to swallow me. I’ve felt utterly lost, adrift, and thought I might never again be able to front up to the page (how is it possible that I can feel that way after achieving something I said I’d never do – write a novel?!) I’ve missed my characters with a bone aching longing that had me (almost) returning to the page to begin a second draft — but held off! It’s only in the last few days that I realised I managed to write my first novel before I turned 40 (not that it was the intention when I set out to write).

I’ve walked the puppy on the cusp of the suburb turning into Schwlatzmas-land with all the lights, at all hours of the evening: at midnight to the dulcet beats of homemade reggae rolling down off the hills at Holland Park and early enough to smell the lingering deliciousness of other people’s dinner. And the most telling bit of it all (other than some random poetry downloads) all the voices in my head have been quiet.

POET-TRY

I’ve written poetry (add one ‘almost-hangover’ from too much sangria, Nik Perring‘s Not So Perfect, a loose end of a Sunday afternoon, a random conversation with Adam Byatt and observe part of your brain break and poetry pour out). Two of those poems been through the critiquing process. If you think it hurts to have your short stories or novel critiqued, have a crack at someone tearing lovingly through your poetry! I’ve also attended my first Speed Poets to support Stacey in her first public reading (she was awesome!)

BETWEEN MINUTES

I’ve had a bunch of conversations with people about Between Minutes since I finished, all of which astound in the support and interest the novel garners (and the fear that comes with the fact I will never artfully articulate it on the page to make up for the blab-factor in person). These conversations have ranged from support at the end of the process to find a publisher and/or an agent, and other conversations with have accidentally broadened my understanding of the characters and their interplay.

SCHMINGLING-DINGLE-DOO

I’ve schmingled the QWC Christmas party and again, missed the hangover bullet. Had impromptu writerly drinks at The Fox on a Sunday afternoon (oh how I miss Sunday sessions – they are the perfect antidote for Sunday Melancholia!). Met with Helen to move forward my next part of The Gold Coast anthology amid chatter, coffee and good food (the best way to work). There have also been important and frivolous conversations in Stacey’s kitchen.

RETURN OF THE BIRTH BUNK

BirthpunkAt Dave’s Christmas party a bunch of his co-workers were asking me about my writing (the blush-worthy moment when someone says: So I hear you published a book? What’s with that?) I somehow got to talking about how I was going to write birthpunk and several really interesting conversations came out of it. Most of which ended with “You have to write this. I want to read it now!” So I knew the tide was turning and I was fighting a losing battle by trying to run away from it.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to catch up with Lois Spangler, not once but twice. The breakfast catch made my brain ‘splode with possibilities: a stage play of Between Minutes, additional novellas for Elyora, a grindhouse style script for Elyora but, most importantly, the undeniable push forward to finish the first birthpunk novella.

Lois has very graciously and generously offered to look at it when it is finished. I believe the date for ‘submission’ is mid-to late January. Knowing the pace with which I can knock out words, that won’t be a problem. My new creative year begins on the 31st January so it’s all keeping to original time frames written down in late September. With the extra bit of time – I might even get a second draft revision done on it.

My head is finally in a place where I think I can write for fun, rather than for intent. With Between Minutes behind me (for now) I have the confidence to tackle the ‘big project’. And with a new opening I think I can quickly gain the momentum needed to move the story where it needs to go (which has been the problem to date – I’ve been writing the end of one of the other novellas in the cycle!)

So I guess this is my way of saying after a mini break I’m ready to start again, and that’s a good thing.

Author Update #1

Happy Dark Moon. This is the first of what will hopefully be a semi-regular round up of my writing plus the writing and projects of those around me.

A MONTH OF POETRY

February was #postitenotepoetry month. I came out of the month with just under 40 poems—well ahead of the ‘dared’ 28. Unlike the “29 Days of Haiku” last year, I loved every minute of #postitnotepoetry. It became an unexpected and very welcomed outlet for a lot of difficult stuff I faced behind the scenes.

PODCAST

During the January heatwave, I sat down in my air-conditioned writing room to chat with Sean Wright for his Adventures of a Bookonaut podcast. I’ve done a few interviews (including on 4ZZZ) but this was the first time I’d been interviewed as a writer, and it was so much fun. The glowing feedback from Sean came at just the right time, as I sat poised on making the BIG decision to spend a year away from editing and publishing to write. It was also on Sean’s insistence that I sent ELYORA out into the big wide world.  Which brings me to…

ELYORA

My horror novella, published as part of Review of Australian Fiction’s Rabbit Hole special, is out in the wild. It has a brand new beginning, new title and hopefully a new home with the prospect of some financial return. Fingers crossed for good news in the next couple of weeks.

ONE SMALL STEP: AN ANTHOLOGY OF DISCOVERIES

Fablecroft’s next anthology ONE SMALL STEP: an anthology of discoveries is now available for pre-order. The all female anthology will launch at NatCon/Conflux next month. Looking at the ToC, I still pinch myself…that “Firefly Epilogue” sits alongside stories of some of my favourite authors.

FIRST TO A HUNDRED

A story idea for a piece of flash fiction, spawned by Adam’s commentary on cricket and tennis over summer, grew in one afternoon to a 5000 word story (in one sitting – making it the one easy story afforded a year – in the second week of my creative year!). “First to a Hundred” will be my entry in the Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. In a quirk of narrative, the story steps aside from weird spec-fic I’m used to penning and is instead a YA coming-of-age story set on a Victorian beach in the late 1980’s. It’s the story that made all the important men in my life cry!

BIRTHPUNK

I have started on my set of six interlocking birthpunk novellas. I’m currently working on “Sylvie”—the original story that inspired the entire concept of birthpunk. With so many debates going on around the world about women’s corporeal rights (ie. Rights to choose what happens to their bodies) it would appear this is the year to be writing about a world where women’s corporeal rights have been stripped away. Where the Government controls all aspects of fertility and reproduction.

It is hard going at the moment, getting my head around the world building, with some extra distractions going on behind the scenes. The enormity of what I’m attempting weighs heavily on my confidence, despite the small, but dedicated cheer squad who keep telling me it’s awesome and I can do it. I’m hoping to have the first novella completed in the next fortnight.

POST MARKED: PIPER’S REACH

Adam and I have reached the point where we’re acknowledging the end is nigh. But if you think either of us has any idea how it ends, you’d be wrong. It’s not going to be in the next couple of letters, it might be even longer than a few more after that, but it’s definitely on the horizon.

I might not know how it’s going to end, but I do know what I had in mind for the ending this time last year, has been somewhat gutted by the unravelling of events in the last 12 months. There has been discussion that it will end where it started…with a letter from Ella-Louise. We’ll see.

Adam and I are planning to gift print copies of the Christmas Special as a chapbook, accompanied with Jude’s mix tape from 1991. We’re compiling a list of fans and supporters. If you have been a lurker, now would be the time to out yourself.

AROUND THE TRAPS

Joanne Anderton’s debut short story collection, THE BONE CHIME SONG is available for pre-order through FableCroft. I can’t wait to see what is between the pages and looking forward to getting a signed copy at NatCon.

Jessica Bell released her novella The Book in last January and followed up with a short story The Hum of Sin Against Skin last week.

Chris Chartrand unveiled Worth A Thousand Words podcast last month. It is wonderful mash up of photo prompts, writing, podcasting and interviews. I’m currently gestating a story for submission. I’d love to hear something I wrote be narrated by Chris.

Maria Kelly’s story “Parker’s Pygmallion”, a twist on Shaw’s concept, won the Phi Theta Kappa Florida Regional award for Best Short Story—Fiction.

Nicole Murphy released the yearly anthology from In Fabula-divino mentoring project yesterday. It contains a bunch of truly awesome stories, including S.G. Larner’s “Regret” (definitely one of my favourite stories of Stacey’s!)

Emma Newman’s BETWEEN TWO THORNS, the first in the Split Words Trilogy was released by Angry Robot in late February and my copy arrived on Friday. You can purchase at the following locations: UK Edition – US Edition. Em was also the featured author at SFX magazine’s Issue 233 with a corker photo that had Angry Robot’s Marc Gascoigne nominated Em as the next Doctor!

Dan Powell was joint winner of the Carve Esoteric Prize (2013) for “Storm in a Tea Cup” and his short story collection “Looking Out Of Broken Windows” is short listed for the International Scott Prize for Short Stories. You can read an interview with Dan here on the Salt Publishing website about the collection.

Sean Wright sat on the other side of the interviewing desk with Emma Raven of E-book Revolution talking about a bunch of things from attending local writing events to the best use of Twitter and and Goodreads.

Sylvie #MarchMonologue

March is the month of monologues. I’m using monologues as character development for the six characters of my birthpunk novellas. Here we see Sylvie, a young midwife, who wants to escape the world she no longer fits, alone in a darker, starker, more dangerous landscape.

One. Two. No…it can’t be. But yes…there it is: the second heart beat. How easy it would be to miss it behind its sibling.

Keep a straight face. Hold it close and work out what twins mean here where all the talk is of a chosen child. A child. Just one.

If you want one, you, glaring down at me, which one do you want? And what will you do with the other? I have never lost a baby. I don’t plan to. Not out here where there is nothing but death pressing in through every crack and crevice. Death might be your handmaiden but it is not mine.

The girl’s fingers are hot, wrapped around my cold ones. Always so cold, especially under Daniel’s hand in the back of the car. His hand jerking away from mine. Rejection, betrayal or survival? Or my will to push him away.

Doesn’t matter now. You’re far away Daniel. So far it doesn’t beg thinking about. I close my fingers around this girl who needs me. I squeeze hard enough to assert my presence, my belief in her ability to birth twins, but not too hard. I’m only here to support, not to control…not like the woman around us. Those who hold us against our will.

I’m so awfully afraid. But you are afraid too. Terrified.

What have I done?

I can’t…

The crone looks at me.

A piercing glance and the hairs on my neck bristle like a cliché. Everything is wrong about this. About her.  About the girl. This room and me in it.

Where is Sophie? Is she safe?

If only my beeper worked. I’d be able to let her know I’m still here. I promised her I would be there. And I will. I will Sophie. You believed in me. And I believe in you. I don’t go back on my word. I know you are scared. I’m scared too. If only the beeper worked. I could ask for help.

The crone looks at me, her gaze penetrating me like a rusty metal blade. Violent and deadly.

The pinnard is heavy in my hand. Not as heavy as the sentence I let go as I struggle to work out what to do. The words catch in a choking cough as though I’m not meant to say anything. They bounce off the crumbling walls of the room.

The crone nods. Oh my Goddess, she nods. And I have time.

The cold, sharp air… ahh, after the closed, stinking interior of the birthing room it’s a relief. Colder than the water I’ve just asked to bathe under. Colder than the glare Marcus, the man could as easily undo me as save me, gives me when I tell him what I want.

Are you for me, or against me? Tell me?

Your back is the only answer I get because, I can’t ask. The black cotton sticks in weird contours that defy anatomy.

One foot after another, after another, in the dusty tracks, leading me away from that building.

Lead me anywhere, away form there, deeper into the Dead Zone. It makes no sense, but I trust you. I shouldn’t, but I do. Keep me safe please, Marcus. Please.

I need to get back to Sophie. I gave a promise and I will do anything to keep it.

PS: Happy 500th post here at 1000 Pieces of Blue Sky!

Welcome, the Serpent!

serpentpendant

Ox starts a new lucky life cycle in 2013. Finally your hard work is rewarded. ~ Susan Levitt

I wrote a few weeks ago how it was hard to let go of the Year of the Dragon and here I find myself almost a month into the new year hanging back on the welcome. Well here goes, welcome year of the water serpent!

Like the dragon, the serpent is not demonised in eastern traditions. The serpent is a goddess, heroine and healer in the ancient myths of China. The year of the Serpent is a powerful year for rebirth and transformation in all areas of life. I’m an Ox and the Serpent Year comes with auspicious tidings, melding effortlessly with what is set for the Sagittarius, Aries and Virgo triad in my chart.

Consolidate

My theme for this year is: consolidate.

A quick flick through the dictionary turns up the following definitions:

  • to strengthen, solidify
  • bring together separate parts into a single unified form
  • to discard unused or unwanted items and organise the remaining

This year I’m setting aside business to concentrate on writing*. It’s time! The conversations I had in the lead up to the making this decision, and several things I’ve read since, all point to this being the right time (especially to bite the bullet and develop my idea for the sub-genre of birthpunk) to do so.

It’s the year to bring together all the skills, experience, lessons and connections I’ve made in the last five year and put them to work for me. Time to shed one skin and grow a new one.

Breaking Down Consolidation, The Year Ahead

Last year I just wanted to fall in love with writing. This year I want my writing to:

  • continue to push boundaries
  • reach a larger audience and,
  • begin to reap financial rewards for the creative investments.

It’s where the early blush of romance gives way to the practicalities of sharing your life with someone, for life! Where you take stock of your individuals lives and see what needs to be done to bring those two lives together in a permanent way.

With this in mind I’m focusing on these key projects/areas:

  • complete Post Marked: Piper’s Reach and do what is required to sub it to a publisher
  • repackage ELYORA for submission to a new publisher, as well as develop a feature-length script for it.
  • write the first draft of six interlocking #birthpunk novellas (aprox 180,000 words)
  • write at least one short story a month (with a view to overseas submission)
  • make one pro sale
  • strengthen and extend my network (including keeping in regular contact with my close writing colleagues)

In addition to writing I have con and festival panels in April (IronFest and NatCon), I’m presenting an editing and critiquing IQ seminar in May, am listed as a mentor with the QWC and have a podcast with Devin Watson in the works.

The Year of the Serpent is a slower paced year and I can already feel it. The list of things I’m setting out to do may seem huge, but in comparison to other years, it feels rather short! There is less pressure, I’m not working for others, I’m working for myself.

I’m shedding the skin that helped to nurture and develop many new writers and launch and grow a publishing house. This new writerly skin feels a tight, but I’ll suck in my stomach and not fling my arms around too much…until it feels and moves like a second skin.

What skin are you willing to shed this year, so a new one may grow?

* eP will go into moth balls for between six and twelve months to undergo it’s own metamorphosis. More on the eP website shortly about this

[FGC#4] Birthed

This week’s installment of the Form and Genre Challenge
FGC#4: write in the action-adventure genre
Word limit: 3000 words.

A low guttural cry tore through the cavernous interior of the abandoned Tavern on the Green and the hairs on Sylvie’s bare arms rose. The fire surged in the broken fireplace and a gust of wind rose from nowhere, extinguishing all the candles. She shuddered and tried to ignore the insidious feeling something was trying to get in. Something a drawn bolt and a chair beneath the knob wouldn’t keep out.

“Back off,” Sylvie hissed, picking up the scalpel lying beside her and pointing it in the direction of the ebony-haired Priestess inching closer, trying to see how far the baby had emerged. “I mean it.”

The Priestess retreated to the shadows, leaving her two Sisters supporting the laboring girl between them under Sylvie’s baleful glare.

They think I’m young and inexperienced. They think they can intimidate me. They don’t know how much I want what’s on the other side this. What I’m willing to do to get it.

Sylvie looked back to the pale legs and bottom hanging in the space between the tattered rug and the birthing girl. Two more contractions and the girl would birth the first child and then the Priestesses would be upon them. She wouldn’t be able to protect herself, much less the baby and the girl.

Where are you, Marcus? I should have kept you close. Not sent you away for the rest of my gear. But how was I to know? If only I’d ignored the summons. Taken the car and driven away.

It didn’t matter now.

Hurry, Marcus, please.

“You are doing beautifully,” Sylvie said when the contraction ended, grateful the dark hid the track marks up the girl’s skinny arms and the lips blistered from the raw garlic the Priestesses forced her to eat before Sylvie arrived.

Too young to be fucked up on Oblivion and caught in some cult.

The girl shook her head and panted. “I’m scared. It’s coming. It feels wrong. I’m burning—”

“Shhhh. You’re fine,” Sylvie crooned, gently wiping her burning face with a cool cloth. “Birthing is hard work.” She leant in so only the girl could hear and said, “Just two more contractions.”

She felt the girl tense up and squeezed her arm in solidarity, caressing her face and arms, urging her to relax.

I promised I’d keep you and your babes safe. And I will. Somehow.

On the next contraction, the girl grunted and fought against it. Sylvie leaned in, whispering words of encouragement, coaching her to breathe. When the girl finally surrendered, the baby’s stomach, rib cage and shoulders slid down. Sylvie checked the cord for a prolapse and the girl’s racing pulse, then sat back to wait for the final contractions, pushing aside the deathly sixth sense crawling over her skin like a plague of bugs.

Marcus. For Godsake. What’s keeping you? I can’t do this alone.

The contraction started and the girl screamed, losing herself to the terror she had barely contained throughout the labour. She lashed out and tried to stand. The ebony Priestess grabbed her arms and pinned them behind her, forcing her back onto the lap of the other Priestess. Sylvie reached beneath the girl and a moment later, the warm, wet skin of the baby hit her outstretched hands.

The baby opened its eyes and seconds later cried loudly, accompanied by its mother’s soft sobs. Sylvie worked quickly to tie off the cord and sever it, keeping herself between the baby and where she had last seen the ebony Priestess.

“Lie her back,” Sylvie said and the blonde and auburn priestesses threw the girl backward into the pile of cushions and blankets and stood, muttering curses and stretching stiff limbs.

Sylvie held the baby up. “He’s normal. Oh my God, he’s normal,” the girl cried, reaching her hand out. “My baby. My baby.”

Sylvie placed the baby on the girl’s stomach and the Priestesses closed in. Sylvie reached backward, her fingers searching for the scalpel.

Hell, where did I put it?

The Priestesses watched, transfixed by the baby’s slow crawl along the girl’s stomach, her fingers gently stroked his back. Loving words cooing from her lips. The baby reached her chest and she drew it into her arms, his tiny mouth finding her nipple and closing around it, sucking furiously.

The blonde Priestess, standing closest, moved to grab the baby, but as her hands closed in, the girl screamed, her body stiffening. The Priestess pulled back and fell over the feet of one of her Sisters.

“You can birth the second one here,” Sylvie said. Raising one of the girl’s emaciated legs to give the second baby room, she saw for the first time the tide of blood soaking into the old blankets and towels, inching its way across the bare boards towards her.

“Get my kit,” she yelled at the auburn priestess, closest to her battered kit. “She’s going to die. And the other baby.”

The Priestess didn’t move. “We have one live baby. The prophecy said—”

“Fuck the prophecy. I’ve never lost a mother and I’m not about to now.”

“Our work is done. We finished what Teleia started.”

The blonde priestess lunged and dragged the baby from its mother, passing it up to the hands of her ebony Sister, her arcane robe dripping with the girl’s blood when she stood.

The girl convulsed again and the Priestesses smiled, watching Sylvie caught between saving the mother and unborn twin, and reclaiming the baby held in the ebony Priestess’s arms.

“Marcus,” she yelled. “Marcus!”

Just break down the bloody door. Do what you did out there when those creatures were about to kill me!

“He won’t be back. Teleia took care of him,” the auburn one said, taking one last look at the blood and the convulsing girl. “And now, the Prophecy has been fulfilled. Vengeance is ours.”

Sylvie ignored them and let them leave. She couldn’t abandon the girl now. She knelt beside her head. “You stay with me… you stay with me,” Sylvie urged the girl, lightly slapping her cheeks. “I promised I’d keep you safe.”

The girl’s eyes rolled into the back of her head and her body shook before Sylvie got hold of her kit bag and the drugs she needed. When the girl’s eyes rolled back, the pupils were gone and the irises bleached of colour.

“Shit!”

She dropped the head and lurched back, watching in horror as the girl twisted and writhed in impossible ways. With a primeval roar, the girl threw her legs apart and arched her back, her womb disgorging the second baby in one massive contraction.

The second baby opened its mouth and howled an angry salutation as an explosion loosened a thick layer of plaster-dust.

Ignoring the instinct to run and put as much distance between the girl-thing and the building disintegrating around them both, Sylvie instead inched toward the prone girl and howling baby, crawling through the pool of warm blood. Her hands moved frantically across the wet floor, searching for the scalpel and string. When she thought it hopeless, the room lit up, the filthy panes in the French doors filling with iridescent green light. She located her kit and found a new length of string before the light faded and a series of explosions rocked the old restaurant, sending fresh showers of choking plaster over her.

I’ve got to get us out before this whole place comes down.

In the dark, she tied the string and waited for the next flare of light to find her scalpel, assessing the baby as best she could from touch. Even though the girl lay still, Sylvie heard the pop and grind of bones moving, accompanied by shallow gasping breaths. Sylvie knew the girl was changing into one of the creatures that had hunted her when she’d first driven into the Dead Zone. Before Mutt appeared. Before Marcus.

That old crone couldn’t have killed Marcus. Not if those creatures out there couldn’t. Or wouldn’t? Where are you, Marcus? I can’t do this. I can’t. Can’t.

And her thinking stilled.

I’m just thinking like a woman in transition, screaming I can’t, begging for help. Thinking I’m going to die. It’s just transition. They don’t die. And I won’t either.

In the next wave of light, she forced herself to find the scalpel in the congealing slick and wiped it dry on her singlet. She cut the baby free with a shaking hand, and slipped her hands under its bottom and head, bringing it to her chest and running for the open door before the next round of explosions.

The ceiling collapsed with the next detonation and a beam clipped Sylvie’s shoulder, tearing the joint from the socket and knocking her onto her back, punching the air from her lungs. She clutched at the baby with her uninjured arm.

Before the dust settled, flares lit the room, revealing the girl-thing crouched several feet away, a single milky orb staring at Sylvie. A section of ceiling had smashed the other side of her face. The baby wailed and the girl cocked her head to the side, rising slowly. The girl had not only survived the massive haemorrhage, but stood several feet taller, her limbs elongated and the deathly pallor of her skin had been replaced with a mottled red and purple hue.

“My baby,” the girl-thing said, the words distorted but recognisable. She took a faltering step in Sylvie’s direction, unsure in her new body.

“I’m only… protecting your baby,” Sylvie panted, the pain spreading from her shoulder into her chest. “I promised… I would… keep you… and your babies… safe.”

“My ba-by?” The girl-thing took several more steps forward.

Sylvie slid across the floor on her back, away from the girl-thing, and pushed against the wall when she reached it, trying to use it as a brace to stand. She screamed and slid down, the pain unbearable.

The girl walked to where she lay and looked down. “M-y. B-a-b-y.”

Sylvie tried again to stand, this time leaving a smear of blood behind on the wall. The beam had torn more than the joint. The girl-thing sniffed and Sylvie flinched, remembering how she’d been invisible to the orb-eyed creatures until she’d cut her arm trying to climb out the smashed rear window of her car after the electric locks seized. Then, with fresh blood on the air, the creatures had converged.

“Please don’t hurt me,” Sylvie said, her voice barely audible. She clenched her teeth and reached up with her damaged arm. “Help me up. I can get us both out of here. I know you’re still in there. You’re not one of them.”

The girl-thing’s face contorted and her human-like fingers flexed and released. Flexed and released.

“Please. Marcus will take us both out of here. Somewhere safe.”

The girl-thing reached down, icy digits closing around Sylvie’s.

The door shattered inward and a torch beam swept the room. The girl turned and recoiled from the light. A single shot thundered and the girl stood headless for a moment, then collapsed, Sylvie’s hand still in hers.

“Stand up,” the man said, motioning with his rifle, the beam dancing madly.

Sylvie pulled her hand free and glared into the binding light. “You bastard. She wasn’t dangerous.”

“Sylvie Jorgenssen?”

“Who the hell wants to know?”

He dropped the torch from her eyes and turned his back, pulling a walkie-talkie from his pocket.

“Alpha-Capa to base.”

“Base to Alpha-Capa.”

Sylvie shuffled forward on her knees, using the light from the rifle to guide her. There. The scalpel. And a blanket.

“I’ve got the midwife and the baby. Can’t see the mother.”

She wrapped the baby as best she could, cradling it in her busted arm.

“There was one of those things in here. Lots of fucking blood—”

She clasped the scalpel between her teeth and got to her feet. It was only then she saw the black and grey pattern of the man’s combat pants and knew it was over.

Mulholland’s raised an army to get me.

“—think it must have killed the mother. Was going for the midwife.”

Sylvie moved backward toward the French doors—

“Bring her in. Alive,” the voice squawked.

—and reaching them, kicked as hard as she could. The solider spun around, bringing his rifle up. The decayed wood gave way, panes dropping to the floor, but the opening wasn’t big enough for Sylvie and the child to escape.

“Turn around! Don’t move or I’ll shoot.”

Sylvie turned, taking the scalpel from between her teeth. “Your commander told you not to shoot.”

She held the scalpel in front of her and kicked backward with her boot. More of the door gave way, but each jolt sent a new wave of pain through her shoulder and chest, and her grip on the baby weakened.

In one smooth move, the soldier shouldered his rifle and pulled a tazer from his pocket. Chunks of plaster crunched beneath his heavy boots with each footfall. Blue electric tongues licked at the air, tasting the ever decreasing distance to her.

“Please. No.” She dropped the scalpel, knowing the current was calibrated for an adult and would kill the baby. “Please. I have a baby. I’ll come peacefully.”

The fire leapt in the fireplace, as though the smouldering ruins momentarily fed on petrol, casting chaotic shadows on faded wallpaper. The soldier turned too late and Marcus’s forearm crushed his throat, and in a single fluid movement, he caught the soldier’s falling head and twisted it. The sound of vertebra snapping preceded the thump of the soldier’s body hitting the floorboards.

Marcus didn’t stop to check the soldier, or give the dead girl-thing more than a fleeting look. His focus remained on Sylvie and getting her out before the building collapsed. He picked up a discarded coat from the floor and kicked out the remainder of the French doors, hustling Sylvie out, leading her through the courtyard and into an area away from the building. She slumped against a rusted garbage hopper as the iconic building imploded behind.

Marcus pulled the cover off a manhole. “You’re going down. It’s the only safe place for you.” He took off his t-shirt and tore it into one long piece of material. “Tie the baby to you and then put on the coat.”

“Tie the baby on,” she laughed, a terrible cutting sound. “If you haven’t noticed my shoulder is shattered.”

“I can heal your shoulder.”

“It’s stuffed.”

“Put the baby down and I’ll sort it out.”

“You’re not listening—”

“No, Sylvie. You are not listening. Put the damn baby down and let me see to your shoulder. Unless you want to be target practise for Mulholland’s troops.”

Marcus put the coat on the ground and his torn t-shirt. Sylvie laid the baby on top.

“Look away,” he said, and Sylvie turned to stare at the fence, waiting for the pain of his probing fingers to assess the damage and the pronouncement nothing could be done. The area warmed at his touch and she felt dizzy. A vortex opened in her shoulder, pulling bone and flesh inward, knitting it together, while she sipped a cup of her mother’s grappa. Before Sylvie grasped the implausibility and constructed a logical explanation, the sensation ceased. She reached for the injured shoulder and ran her fingers over the smooth skin. Rotated the joint.

“It’ll get you down the ladders. Maybe further.” He stepped away, and caught the look of amazement. “You’ll still go through the natural healing process.”

“How did you—”

A volley of flares streaked overhead and he turned. Sylvie saw two vicious scars, raised and jagged, running the length of his shoulder blades.

“Where my wings were.” She traced the ridge of one with her finger, the topography of the shattered bones. “When I fell, the Government dropped the virus on the Occupiers. Central Park became the Dead Zone.”

“Wings? Marcus, I—”

“Listen to me, Sylvie.” He turned to her and seized her upper arms. “My presence draws mayhem and malevolence, magnifies it. This fighting, this is what fallen angels bring. There’s no Devil, just my kind walking among yours, drawing out evil. Feeding off it.”

“You’re… feeding off this?”

“Not any more.” He released her and stepped back. “Get dressed.”

“Come with me.”

“Not until the fighting is over.”

Sylvie took off her stained singlet, unwrapped the baby and placed it on her bare chest. Skin to skin. Marcus passed the length of material and waited for her to position it over the infant.

“Okay. Tie it.”

Sylvie felt the air crackling with static electricity and Marcus’s breath hot and shallow in her ear. “You’ve no idea how hard it is for me to be this close to a baby.”

“I trust you.”

The material stretched, tightened and automatic gunfire erupted close by. He completed the knot, and picked up the damp coat. “The manhole ladder leads directly into a series of service tunnels beneath the main ones. Keep turning right until you can go no further and wait.”

“Keep turning right. I’ll go around in circles.”

“No you won’t.”

Bullets tore through the fence surrounding the courtyard and Marcus dragged Sylvie down behind the hopper, stray bullets ricocheting off the metal.

“Hurry. Get dressed. They’re closer than I thought.”

Sylvie pulled the singlet over the wrapping and then the coat, testing the sleeves as makeshift gloves. Marcus helped her into the manhole.

“Before I go,” Sylvie said, reaching up to touch his hand. “Was there actually a prophecy?”

“No.” Marcus shook his head and leaned down to kiss her forehead. “Go. I’ll see you soon.”

He lay on the frozen ground, watching the darkness swallow her, knowing he’d lied. He didn’t know if Teleia had succeeded in engineering the babies to carry a new form of rage virus. All he could do was hope the infant didn’t kill Sylvie before he got back to her. His salvation counted on it.

Final Word Count: 2999

– – –
Many thanks to my writing partner Laura Meyer for ensuring I wrote something this week (of quality), to Chris Chartrand who ensured it didn’t suck and Toni Rakestraw who ensured  a clean final copy.