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The Space

You wake up underneath an antique wooden chair with several deep scratches carved onto its legs. Your pulse is beating against the inside of your skull, thumping behind your eyes as you try to stand up.

“You want some help there, buddy?” says a deep, pleasant voice.

You jump smacking your head directly into the chair and sending it toppling over into its fellows. It takes a couple of seconds for you to notice just how many chairs there are. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, gathered around almost as many tables. All different makes and sizes. A great black hall table, tiny plastic ones made for children, and picnic tables covered in graffiti. There are antique chairs, patched up armchairs, and spinning desk chairs.

It’s dizzying. You tilt your head back and look up toward the ceiling. Only there is no ceiling. The two grimy grey walls on either side disappear into the gloom forming a gigantic, cluttered corridor that, like the ceiling, seems to stretch on forever. There are no windows but every few feet are various kinds of lighting as diverse as the furniture they illuminate. Your breath starts coming in deep pants. The air tastes cold on your tongue as if you were standing outside, the smell of dust filling your nose, as though it’s just rained.

“Are you okay?” says the voice. Looking over your shoulder you see olive skin, army fatigues, and kind brown eyes. The man’s eyebrows are raised in concern a large hand outstretched as if to catch you. The crowd gathered behind him is a collection of eyes all looking at you. 

“Umm.” Whispers come from all directions, murmurs of curiosity, surprise, even amusement. You blink furiously, making sure your eyes are working properly. Wings, horns, scales, feathers, tentacles, fur, collections of mist with a vague humanoid shape. You point at them, mouth agape in a soft scream.

Perhaps, somehow, you are high? Perhaps it’s amnesia and this is actually the alien planet on which you live? Perhaps there is no explanation and you’ll have to live the rest of your life questioning your very existence? Your head gives a particularly painful throb that has you staggering back reaching for one of the many chairs. The man hastily brings one forward and you collapse into it.

“Whoa there, take it easy. It all takes a bit of getting used to,” he says, smiling in a lopsided way, keeping a hold of your shoulder making sure you didn't go sliding sideways onto the floor. There are a few sniggers from the mass of beings still staring at you. Slowly you close your mouth, clear you throat, your voice hesitant.

“Where am I?”

“Ah, well, that's a mighty fine question. We, that is to say a few friends and I, like to call it The Space.” The man spreads his arms wide in presentation. You stare at him nonplussed.

“The Space,” you repeat dumbly.

“Yep. There wasn’t a welcome leaflet so…” he trails off, still smiling.

“And you?”

“I’m Angelo.” He holds out his hand, “Nice to meet you.” You take it, feeling his palm that is rough with callouses. The gathering your arrival has caused seems to be dissipating. Looking around only a few glances are thrown your way,  but everyone else carries on with their regular business, which seems to be sitting around and chatting to one another.

 

It’s too much. Your vision blurs slightly and you feel Angelo grip your shoulder again.

“You okay?” he asks once more. You nod but you're not quite sure you believe it. “I’m going to explain what’s going on as best I can. Keep in mind I don’t have all the answers, alright?” He doesn't wait for an answer before ploughing on. “This place, The Space, is somewhere people end up by accident. There are people from everywhere and anywhere, millions of different worlds. We don’t know why, just happens. And guess what?”

“What?”

“You are one of those lucky, lucky people. We have food, drink, places to sleep. There’s a few of rules to keep things running smoothly," he counts them off on his fingers "No fights, no sex, no disrespect. But don't go thinking your'e going to get bored. The conversation here is the best in existence.” He looks around at The Space fondly, like he's introducing you to an old friend.

“So… I’m stuck here?” A twinge of panic creeps into your chest. Though the room seems to stretch on for infinity, you can feel the walls to pressing in on you, closing in like a trap.

“Don’t worry, most people get back home after a few days, a fortnight maybe. Whenever you feel the pull.” He slaps his chest as if that explains anything.

“The pull?”

“It’s a feeling you get, like a hook in your belly dragging you homeward bound. Follow it and it’ll take you back.” That’s not particularly comforting whatever he may think. In fact it seems downright contradictory given that 'The Space' is filled with people. You try not to gape at every passerby. It wasn't unlike being at a massive sci-fi convention but everyone except you had really good costumes. Angelo was right about one thing though.  If he was telling the truth and everyone here is from an infinite number of worlds, the vast collection of unimagined universes, all of whom in the same situation as you, then there were some mind-blowing conversations to be had. 

“C’mon,” says Angelo “I’ll show you around.” You let him drag you up onto your still unsteady feet, preparing to try and maneuver through the sea of chairs. But he doesn’t move. He’s staring at the patch of wall you had apparently just ‘come through’. It’s as grey and drab as the rest of it. A few smudges, a rusty old fashioned lamp jutting out above your head, and a small crack, maybe an inch in length, is all there is to see.

It's your turn to be concerned. “What's up?” you ask also frowning at the offending wall. He tries to speak several times, mouth opening and closing like a gasping fish. Finally he points. “Did you do that?”

“I don’t know...maybe?” you say looking between Angelo and the crack. “Why?” He hitches his smile back into place.

“No reason.” He walks away, weaving between people and chairs. You look back over your shoulder at the wall as you follow him. The crack is gone.

***

You’ve been traipsing behind Angelo for hours as he points out different people, areas, a particularly unusual design of chair. Even so, you’ve only covered maybe five hundred square metres. He stops to talk so often and to so many that you only manage a few steps at a time. Your headache has only grown worse. You’re swaying on the spot when he finally realises your fatigue.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he helps lower you into a large squashy armchair. “I was so caught up in adjusting you I forgot to check if you were adjusting.” You close your eyes and pinch the bridge of your nose.

“Do you want to rest for a bit?” Leaning back into the chair you groan. “Anything to eat?”

“Uh-uh,” is all you can muster.

“The process of arriving can sometimes make people…uh…feel a bit funny.” There’s a smile in his voice.

“No shit,” you say through gritted teeth. His laugh makes you wince as he walks away. The noise of the ever-shifting crowd fades to a low murmur as you attempt to remember everything about the last few hours. The people Angelo introduced you to, the rules, his bizarre theories about why we ended up here in the first place. Soon everything begins to blur. Random thoughts chasing each other around like frightened sheep inside your head.

***

It takes several tries to get your eyes open they’re so glued together by sleep. When you finally wrench them open you see thousands of chairs and tables. The memories of the last twenty-four hours rush back so fast they make you dizzy.

“Wakey, wakey sunshine!” Two hands clamp down on your shoulders, making you yelp in surprise. You leap to your feet, spinning around, nearly falling over in the process. Angelo raises his hands in supplication. “Whoa, there. Didn’t mean to scare you.” He flops into the seat you’ve just vacated. “You,” he points a finger “have been sleeping for the last twelve hours or so.”

“Huh.”

“Yeah. Slept through the whole nightshift too. This here,” he taps the arm of the chair “turned into a bed and back again without waking you up once.” You gawp at the chair. During the so-called nightshift all the chairs and tables would turn into a wide assortment of beds for those who needed them.

“You hungry?” Your stomach growls in response. Angelo’s grin grows wider. “C’mon.” He jumps up grabbing your wrist hauling you after him. You head toward the cafeteria area; an area peppered with an unusual number of picnic benches.  

“Voila!” cries Angelo throwing his arms wide and smacking a turquoise man with spiralling horns in the back of the head. “Oh, sorry Mr. Rubicae.” The man glares at Angelo and then at you as if you were encouraging this kind of behaviour. But the warm, delicious scent wafting from the tables distracts you completely.

Many long tables have been laid end to end covered in several patched and stained cloths. Every single one is groaning under dozens of plates, bowls, and platters. Food of every colour and texture imaginable, only a few recognisable. Three people acting as servers are occasionally obscured behind bursts of steam.

“Who are they?” you ask, careful not to gape openly at one. He was tall with fur of light lavender, long twitchy ears and a cat-like snout.

“The triplets,” he says grabbing a plate and a couple of bread rolls. You look back to the people behind the tables. A many limbed creature that looks like a crab crawled out of its armour is rearranging empty plates and new ones. The other seems to be a human woman, but you’re uncertain. If these people truly were from anywhere then she could be a vampire or something. None of them look related.

“Huh?”

“They’re not actually siblings.” He takes a large bite out of one of the rolls. “But they don’t seem to mind.” You look at them again, the woman is bringing up a new dish from underneath the table. It has blue tentacles covered in a bubbling golden sauce; the scent makes your mouth water. A plate is thrust into your hands, Angelo nods toward the dish encouragingly. Many others huddle around the food, jostling you and making you flush. The seemingly-human-lady smiles kindly at you. No fangs. She’s short and plump with fine chocolate brown hair tied back in a bun. Her small, bright eyes are set over rosy cheeks with a broad nose between them. You return with an awkward smile of your own before staring fixedly at the tentacle soup.

“Want some?” the woman asks picking up a ladle.

“Umm…”

“It’s alright,” she says “A lot of people are frightened when they first get here.” She gestures once again toward the ladle.

“Um, what is it?” You sniff again. It’s heavenly but that doesn’t mean you trust it.

“Gushir.” She spoons a few tentacles onto your plate handing you a fork with five tongs. “Try it.” She says enthusiastically. You carefully take a mouthful. It’s…odd, but delicious. The woman holds out a hand.

“I’m Elsie.”

“Nice to meet you,” you take her hand balancing your plate on the other.

“How’re you finding The Space?” You ponder, taking another bite of Gushir, then shrug. She nods in understanding.

“Angelo keeping you busy?” she glances over at him “He gets a bit excited whenever a new person arrives.” She absentmindedly scoops more Gushir onto other eager plates. What appears to be the ghost of a man in a stereotypical space suit apologises to you as he steps on your foot; sending an icy feeling rushing through your toes.

“Why does he…?” you don’t quite know how to ask what’s on your mind.

“Act like tour guide to The Space? It’s his thing, he’s in charge of that sector.”

“Sectors?”

“Oh yeah,” she says “We have to organise this place somehow.” You continue to chew as she launches into an explanation. “Angelo has that sector, Havlo has the one next to it, and after that is Krooka…” she trails off scooping more food onto various plates. You press your lips together to prevent yourself smiling. This Krooka has left quite the impression.

“So, it’s kinda like a council.”

“Exactly.” She grins brightly. “Plus, with all the weird stuff going on he needs the distraction.” As soon as she says it, she bites her lip, pausing in her serving.

“Weird?” You ask, curious.

“Uh… It’s nothing,” she cocks her head to the side suddenly cheerful again. “This is a gap in space and time, right? Weird things happen all the time.”

You squint suspiciously at her, trying to scoop another forkful of Gushir but your plate is empty. Another helping is ladled onto your plate as there’s a shout from the purple cat person.

“Elsie!” His voice is deep, husky like a purr.

“What is it Kuvasz?”

“It’s been two hours. The Hellbengry market will be open and the Chvka move fast.” He nods to you as if you understand the seriousness of the situation.

“Okay,” She turns back to you, “I’ve got to go. Kuvasz gets anxious if we don’t have any Chvka in stock.” She pulls a forest green cloak from under the table pulling it over her shoulders. “It was nice talking to you. Come see me again and I’ll bring you more Gushir.” She strides off into the crowd, vanishing from sight. You wave your hand in a weak goodbye.

“Making friends?” says a voice in your ear. You jump violently, dropping your plate and sending remnants of sauce flying. Angelo catches it before it smashes on the floor and hands it back to you, giggling.

 

“Not funny,” you mumble scowling at him.

“Aw, c’mon,” he slaps you on the shoulder, “I was just kidding. Anyway, how was your conversation with Elsie? She’s from an Earth like you, right?” You give him a thumbs up, taking another sip of your drink. “Hey, if you get in her good books, she’ll bring you cake.”

“Where do they get the food from?” You ask, frowning at the dozens of dishes all along the tables, new ones being brought out every so often. A glass of water catches your eye. It stands alone, abandoned by its owner, and the water inside is quivering slightly.

“Beats me,” Angelo shrugs and turns back to the food. “They just turn up with it, we don’t pay them or anything, not that we have money here.” He picks up a couple of sticks with what looks like chicken on them and hands one to you. Your eyes are still on the glass.

 

“Um, Angelo?”

“I find it’s better not to question and just be thankful.”

“Angelo?”

He keeps ignoring you, sniffing suspiciously at the maybe-chicken.

“Just enjoy the weirdness of the Space, my friend.”

“Angelo!” he jumps and turns to you with an offended look on his face.

“What?”

“Does water normally do that here?” you point at the glass. Angelo stares hard at it for a few seconds. Before you realise what’s happening Angelo has shoved his food into your arms and dived toward the table. Several people give cries of surprise as he pushes them out of the way, you mumble apologies as you follow him. His nose is an inch from the glass, his face hardening as he watches the water shiver.

“Not normal then.” He doesn’t answer but continues to focus on the glass. Very slowly he crawls under the table. “Err…” you croak watching Angelo’s behind still sticking out, draped in the red chequered table cloth. You can’t quite make out what he’s doing, but he’s only down there for a few seconds before he’s back, glaring at the water.

“Huh,” he says. He extends a finger and prods the glass. It wobbles, the liquid inside threatening to spill over. When it finally settles, the liquid inside is quite still. “Fixed it.”

“I really don’t think you did.” The corners of your lips turn downward in a disbelieving grimace.

“Nonsense,” he waves a dismissive hand at the glass “it isn’t moving anymore is it?”

“Was it supposed to move in the first place?”

He shrugs, coming out of his crouch. “I told you when you got here that I didn’t have all the answers.” You narrow your eyes in suspicion as he takes one of the skewers from you. He takes a bite of meat and promptly spits it out onto the already stained grey floor.

 

***

You’re sitting in a patched old arm chair, its scarlet colour fading and it’s stuffing squeezing out through tired seams. It’s been four days, there has been no mysterious pull to take you home. Not that Angelo hasn’t been keeping you busy, he seems to have designated you as his assistant. As soon as somebody arrives you and he are there, arms outstretched in welcome.

But now you’ve managed to find one of the rare quieter areas of The Space and settled yourself in for a feast. You’re surrounded by pastries, sweets, anything you’ve taken a fancy to including a bowl of Gushir. You had kept an eye on the water, waiting for it to move out of the corner of your eye.

A girl is staring at you. You pause in the middle of biting a pastry. She sits a good twenty metres away at a picnic bench empty tables and chairs surrounding her. It seems no one wants to go near her.

Her inky black hair falls in strange feathery strands that drift in a non-existent breeze. Pale skin and dark eyes that are fixed determinately on you. Her long finger trace circles in the wood, her thin lips murmuring indistinctly. The girl is unnerving to say the least. You are stacking plates already searching for a new spot. Angelo’s familiar face appears before you catching an apple before it hits the ground.

“You hiding from me?” He swings himself around and throws himself onto an office chair beside you. He goes spinning out of sight the wheels squeaking in protest. There’s a broad grin on his face as he shuffles himself back into view. You snort at him.

“Can’t blame you,” he says muffled by his chewing, “with this hoard to hide.”

“It’s not a hoard, I’m just hungry.”

“No way you’re going to be able to eat all of this.”

“Watch me,” you reply picking up the pastry again and taking a retaliatory bite.

You chew happily for a moment then your eyes find the girl again. With a wave of annoyance you stare back in challenge. Angelo follows your glare over his shoulder.

“Oh, that’s just Selkie,” he says offhandedly returning to his stolen apple.

“Who?”

“One of the few that have been here a long time.” He closes his eyes nodding in agreement with himself. You inhale a piece of pastry, coughing with tears in your eyes.

“You said … you said people get back after a few days,” you manage to spit out.

“Most do, some don’t.” He shrugs. “Selkie’s been here about six months now.”

Your eyes go wide with horror. “Six months? Six months?!” He nods sagely. You put down your pastry. Six months? “Why is she staring at me though?”

“She does that, sometimes.” He says eyeing your handful of chocolate bars. “She’s insane.”

“I beg your pardon.” Suddenly her gaze seems a lot more sinister.

“Yeah, she lost it about a month after arriving. She was perfectly normal when she turned up. Well, as normal as one gets here. She’s a shapeshifter y’know.” You choke on your drink and start coughing all over again.

“A what?”

“Shapeshifter. Quite a good one too.” His voice is a little sad, as if he is remembering something he lost long ago. “We never had one of those before, at least not that anyone remembers. Everyone wanted to see her change into their favourite animal and stuff. She had a great time shifting for people, liked the attention I suppose.” Angelo looks over at Selkie again giving her a little wave. “But after a while people lost interest, and she was getting lonely.” He sighs. “Have you ever heard of a mantis shrimp?”

“Um, it sounds vaguely familiar.” You lie. You have no idea what he’s on about.

“They’re sea creatures from Earth, related to lobsters and crabs. They have these incredible eyes; sixteen photoreceptors. Humans only have three. There are a couple of people here who have four, maybe five, but nothing like a mantis shrimp.” His is voice quiet, serious. “They can see things we can’t ever imagine, explosions of colour we don’t even have names for. Selk thought it would be entertaining to shift into one, see those colours for herself.” You listen with wide eyes. 

“Did it work?” you ask “Did she see them?” He puts the apple down.

“We don’t know what she saw, but she was never the same afterward.” You glance over at Selkie stomach twisting in sympathy. “Couple of minutes was all it took. She tried to tell us about it, but there weren’t any words. You try it. Think of a new colour and then describe it to me.” You know you can’t but you try anyway. Angelo watches your blank face patting you on the shoulder.

“Exactly.”

He tosses his apple core aside. A tiny creature covered in black bristles and bits of lint leaps from under a purple ottoman swallowing it whole before scuttling off.

“Imagine feeling that all the time,” Angelo murmurs, more to himself than to you. “She kept turning back but it just made things worse. Her mind couldn’t cope and…well…” You both sit in silence; wrapped in a whirlwind of thoughts. He looks up.

“Hi Selk.”

Your sit ramrod straight lifting your gaze. Selkie stands beside you silent as a ghost. She wears a night dress ending just above the knees of spindly dear-like legs with webbed feet. Her eyes dart left and right, searching for something only she can see.  

“Hi,” you breathe. Those dark eyes scan your face. They are the deepest shade of blue, the kind found in the deepest depths of the ocean. The pupils are vertical, thinner than a lizard’s. Her eerie stare makes you shift uncomfortably.

“The air has changed.” Her voice is soft, distant, as if speaking from far away. You glance nervously at Angelo but he says nothing.

“The air is cracking…it’s…it’s…” She grasps at the air in front of her pulling it close to her face, examining it.

“Alright there Selkie?” asks Angelo.

“Shake,” she whispers.

“Say what now?” Angelo rises slowly from his chair.

“Shake,” she insists, face hardening.

“Maybe she wants a shake,” you say “You know, like a milkshake.” He gives you a derisive look. “Well, what do you think then?” Before he can make a sound the floor begins to tremble, vibrating against the soles of your feet. The plates begin to clatter and slide toward the floor, you snatch at them.  

“Angelo!” He grabs Selkie as she collapses, eyes stretched wide in pure panic, pupils pulsing weirdly. People, chairs, and tables topple over as several screams fill the air.

CRACK!

As suddenly as it started The Space stills. You press your palm to the grey floor to make sure it’s no longer moving, as a floor should be.

“Shake.” Selkie reaches out from the circle of Angelo’s arms grabbing your hand. “Shake.” You give it a small squeeze.

“Shake,” you confirm. A little sigh escapes her.

“You okay?” asks Angelo. He’s pale and shaky. You give another sharp nod as he pulls Selkie off the floor. The air is full of fearful whispers and wary glances as people haul themselves to their feet.

“Selkie knew.” Your voice is a rasp. “How did she know?”

“She saw,” says Angelo. He grabs your hand pulling you after him as he plunges through the confused crowd.

“Where are we going?”

“Didn’t you hear that? Something broke.”

 

“So that wasn’t normal then?”

“No. No it wasn’t.” He gives your hand a squeeze picking up the pace and making you stumble. A frustrated growl rumbles in your chest. You wrench your hand from his grip.

“Stop.” He tries to take your hand again but you step out of reach. “Tell me what’s happening right now.” You can see his mind working away behind his eyes. He bites his lip, casting furtive glances at our surroundings.

“Now, I haven’t been here long, I still don’t get how this place works. But the way you’ve been acting I know something is up.” He sighs. “Even the first day, the wall, the glass, now this? No,” you jab him in the chest “Something is up here and I want an explanation.”

Angelo looks down at your finger, chewing his tongue.

“I…am not sure.” It isn’t the answer you’re looking for. You scoff and pull away but Angelo grabs your wrist holding you close to him. “I’m telling the truth. I don’t know.”

 

“Cracks,” says a dreamy voice behind you. Selkie has followed silently behind. She’s stroking the air again. “Cracks,” she repeats.

“Your right. Things have been happening that haven’t happened before. I’ve reached out to some friends across The Space, things are going wrong all over.” Your jaw goes slack as he continues. “That wasn’t the first tremor either. They’ve been happening in other sections. But that one was probably the strongest one so far.” He’s pulling you through the crowd again, Selkie trotting along behind you. “We can’t pretend it’s not happening anymore.”

A few minutes of walking and you reach an area filled with antique chairs. This is where you came through four days ago. The wall is split by a massive, winding, fissure extending up out of sight. It’s a far cry from the miniscule fracture that had been there a few days ago.

A loud wail makes you jump. Selkie falls to her knees beside you clutching at her head. Unsure of what to do you turn to Angelo but he’s gaping at the wall in horror.

“What do you see, Selkie?” you ask. She whimpers as she tries to find the words.

“I’ve seen it before…like the centre of black diamond broken where the light runs through… or maybe…underground jungles made of dust, fossil, bones…maybe shells…damp and dry…halfway…no, not quite…” You nod not understanding a word. Without warning she starts screaming at the top of her lungs. “I’VE SEEN IT BEFORE I SWEAR!” several people yelp at the sudden sound, “IT’S NEXT TO BLUE BUT IT’S NOT BLUE. IT’S NOT BLUE AT ALL BUT IT’S LIKE THE SKY AND THE SKY IS BLUE BUT NOT QUITE…AND…and…” She digs her nails into her skin, hissing through shallow breaths.

“It’s alright Selkie, we understand.” It’s Angelo. Her shouting has snapped him back to reality. She grasps at him like a rock in a stormy sea.

“You do?” she mumbles “You do.”

Heavy footfalls announce the approach of a newcomer. He’s seven-feet tall, broad shouldered, with skin like a rhino. His small watery eyes glower down at you and his voice is low and gravelly.

“Angelo, we need to talk.” Selkie is transferred to a chair gripping the wood as if it could fall apart at any moment.

“You gonna be okay?” he asks. She doesn’t respond. “Havlo, let’s go.” Havlo, the person in charge of the section next to Angelo’s and yours. He and Angelo are already walking away. You make to follow but Angelo holds up a hand.

“What?”

“You’re not coming.”

“That’s weird, cause here I am coming with you.” You walk right into his hand, he has to physically push you back.

“I know you want answers but this isn’t for you,” he says.

 

“Says who?”

“Me.”

“And who put you in charge?” Hands on your hips you wait for a response. Havlo huffs a laugh crossing his arms.

“That’s neither here or there-”

“Seems to me,” you remove his hand from your chest “that you decided that you were different to everyone else. Well, that’s what I’m doing. I’ve decided that I have a right to know.” You stride off toward Havlo before either can argue. To your relief Havlo makes no objections leading you toward a small circle of people. Angelo grumbles under his breath as all three of you take a place in the circle. Several curious looks are thrown your way but no one objects.

“Well, now that everyone’s here. We need to discuss what’s happening to The Space,” says a tiny mouse-like woman, her large, soft ears poking out of a deep red headscarf.

“Thank you Babish,” says Angelo “We never would’ve guessed.” Babish gives him a stern look that makes him quail like an admonished child. You press your lips together to stop yourself smirking.

“I have consulted elder members of The Space,” says Havlo “None of them have any memory of something like this happening.”

“That does not mean it hasn’t happened,” chimes in a man resembling a praying mantis in long sweeping gold robes.

“Very true, Bocra.”

“That doesn’t help us now,” rumbles a fierce looking woman. She seems to be some form of centaur, her upper body arching back like a snake rearing to strike. Her four thick muscular legs ending in feet rather like an elephant’s, deep chestnut skin crisscrossed with scars. “We have no information to help us form a strategy.”

“Strategy? Krooka, this isn’t a war,” says Babish. Krooka? You look the centaur woman up and down. This was the woman that had left such an impression on Elsie.

“Maybe not, but we cannot be idle while the situation gets worse,” she says.

“She’s right,” agrees Angelo. Krooka looks at his army fatigues, giving him a grateful nod.

“Well what is there to do?” asks Kuvasz, one of the triplets from the cafeteria area. “How can you fight earthquakes?”

“Are we sure that’s what it was?” Angelo looks around the circle for an answer. No one moves. “Earthquakes are caused by tectonic plates moving. I don’t think The Space has any plates, I mean we are not on a planet, right? The Space is another dimension.” The circle nods and murmurs.

“This all started four days ago,” says Bocra twitching his antennae “Did anything significant happen? Any explanation?”

“Nothing different,” says Angelo folding his arms. “Same as every day. People arrived,” his eyes dart to you “people went home. They talked, they ate, they slept.” He shrugs. Quiet falls. Babish scratches her ear. Krooka picks at a thick ropy scar on her arm.

“Maybe that’s the problem.” Your voice is so small that only Angelo notices.

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe it’s too much for The Space to handle.” You bite your lip looking past the circle to the crowd. More and more are arriving as everyone tries to get a good look at the new wall decoration. There are grunts and shouts as toes or other similar appendages are trodden on. You give a shake of your head; this many people and an accident is bound to happen.

“How many people arrived that day?”

“Four in my section,” offers Havlo.

“Nine,” says Bocra.

“Five.”

“Seven.”

“Just one,” says Angelo. “But we don’t cover the entire Space. As far as we know this place goes on forever, there are definitely more.”

“And how many went home?” Silence. Everyone stares at each other. It appears that the dumbfounded expression exists in all realities.

“So,” says Bocra slowly “You’re suggesting the increased number of people is causing the tremors?” Everyone seems to be holding their breath. Angelo looks like you’ve sucker punched him.

 “Then it can only get worse.” It’s Krooka, a deep line forming between her brows. “More people arrive every day.” She glowers at the circle.  “And we still need a strategy.”

“If this person,” says Babish waving a small clawed hand at you “is correct, then the solution would surely be to lessen the number of people here.”

“An ideal solution Babish,” says Havlo “But unfortunately we don’t know how to send people back.”

“You don’t?” you ask.

“No,” says Angelo running a hand ruefully through his hair “People just go back of their own accord. They feel the pull and off they go. This means…this means people are resisting.”

“Resisting the pull?” asks Kuvasz.

“Is that possible?” The way Angelo had described it, the pull was irresistible.

“It’s possible…” he trails off. Havlo gives him a pitying look; shifting as if to reach out to him. Angelo clears his throat and continues. “So, we find as many people feeling the pull as we can and help them get back home.” When no one objects he walks away.

“Er…” you give the gathering a little wave and hurry after him but he’s already gone, vanished into the heaves of people.

***

The next week passes in a blur of conversation and quakes. Angelo has you talking to as many people as possible trying to hunt down anyone feeling the pull. Walking up to a person at random, wearily introducing yourself, asking if they had been feeling an otherworldly beckoning lately. The shock of seeing an infinite number of species has worn off, the same conversation over and over had made your interactions mind-numbingly dull. If ever you try to talk about something else Angelo would materialise and usher you on to the next interrogation.

As annoying as he had become you couldn’t bring yourself to be mad at him. The stress of what was happening was clearly getting to him. His eyes are bloodshot, and his skin has a greyish tinge to it. Every time a new crack appears, he dashes off often abandoning you in the process. But even with all your combined effort only a handful of people had gone home. They all have the same reply. But why? They have made a home here, a home that no one wanted to leave. Endearing maybe but The Space just couldn’t handle it. It was like everyone trying to stand in the same spot the crushing pressure slowly building.

It has been another fruitless day; the night shift is coming into full swing filling the air with soft sounds. You find Angelo curled up on a cushion large enough for several horses to lie down upon. His eyes are wide open and glassy.

“You need to sleep.” You say gently. He blinks trying to get his eyes to focus.

“No, I don’t,” he comes to life, rubbing his palms over his face “I’m fine.”

“Sure, you’re the picture of health,” you scoff “You’re allowed to rest you know.”

“Not until we’ve stopped the cracks.”

“We’ve gotten quite a few people to leave already. Anyone feeling the pull.”

“They’re lying.”

“What?”

“Some of them are lying to you. They feel the pull and they’re ignoring it, it’s their fault,” he spits, scowling. You sigh, crawling onto the cushion with him.

“Angelo, you need to rest.”

“I’m fine!” he snaps jumping to his feet. You grab hold of his jacket yanking him back down. He gives you an indignant look, trying to rise again. You stand in front of him, hands on his shoulders holding him down.

“You are not fine.” Your voice is low as you give him your best glare. Angelo fumes silently for a second. Then all the anger drains away, his shoulders slump, his eyes go dull as he lets his head hang low.

“Angelo?” A single drop falls between his fingers and onto his trousers. A second later Angelo is shaking with sobs. You gape at him, the man that had been so sure of himself since the first day you had arrived was crying uncontrollably into his hands. “Angelo?” you murmur. He looks up at you, his face red and damp with tears, lips trembling, eyes shiny.

“It’s my fault…my fault.”

“None of this is anyone’s fault Angelo.” He snorts.

 

“You don’t understand,” he grips your shoulders hard. “I don’t want to go.”

“What do you mean? You’re not going anywhere.” There is a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. “Angelo, you’re not going anywhere, are you?” He hesitates for a moment then pulls you into a hug so tight you feel as though your ribs may break. But you don’t let go. You pull him tighter, forcing the air out of your lungs. The pair of you stay like that until you start to ache. It takes you a while to notice the quiver running through the floor. Angelo pulls away from you looking around. The tears have stopped but his face is still flushed.

 

“I gotta go.” He’s gone manoeuvring between the chairs and tables. You watch his retreating back, his name on the tip of your tongue.

“Leave him,” says a deep, gravelly voice. You look up to see Havlo standing beside you arms crossed.

 

“Havlo,” you sigh “Havlo, what is up with Angelo?” He heaves a massive sigh, his face troubled.

“He’s feels the pull.” Your breath freezes in your chest for a second. Havlo is staring hard at the floor. He looks as if he’s about to cry.

 

“But…he can’t…he’s Angelo...” You can’t imagine Angelo being anywhere other than The Space. As if he just popped into being here ready to talk any newcomer’s ear off. 

“He’s felt it for years.”

“Years?! He’s been resisting it for years?”

“He didn’t want to go. He loves it here. He loves…” The air seems to split apart with a deafening crack. The sound makes your bones shudder and your teeth rattle. You’re lying on the floor with jumbled together chairs, tables, and startled people.

“You okay?” Havlo scoops you up placing you back on your feet as if you weigh nothing at all. He doesn’t wait for an answer but starts sprinting away, leaping over furniture and fallen people.

There is a beat. I silent second and you know something is wrong. A scream reaches your ears. Doesn’t matter which universe someone comes from, everyone sounds the same when running for their lives. People are swarming toward you pulling others with them. You whip your hand toward your chest to save it from being crushed by a hoof. Your name shouted amongst the screams makes you jump. The crowd shoves past you as you turn, trying to spot that familiar face in the rush.

He appears right in front of you, gripping your shoulders so hard it hurts.

“You alright?” Angelo yells above the noise. You nod, heart pounding in your throat.

“What’s happening?”

“Something has come through.” Angelo drags you forward moving with the crowd, coming to a halt by one of the great grey walls.

“What do you mean something has come through? People come through all the time.”

“It’s not a person,” he pants. He fumbles inside his jacket, mumbling under his breath.

“So, what it’s an animal or something?”

“Don’t know.” Angelo shakes his head and pulls a handgun from his inside pocket.

“Angelo, what the f-”

“No time for questions.” He holds up the gun “Know how to use one?” You stare at him mouth agape. The gun seems to loom at you.

“The theory is pretty universal.” Angelo presses it into your hand. The metal is warm. “It’s heavy,” is all you can think to say.

“I’m not sure which universe it’s from but it’s violent.” He pulls a large blade from behind his back. He’s just full of surprises today.

“It got Havlo.” Angelo stares at the floor, eyes bright.

 

“But…” You had been speaking to Havlo mere minutes ago. He couldn’t be…

“And Elsie,” a strangled gasp escapes your lips. “Krooka went charging in there too.” The noise dies, you can feel blood pounding in your ears. Then there are roars, not lion-like roars or bear-like roars, but the kind you hear from the jaws of an animated movie T-Rex; half thundering growl, half shrieking cry. You take a tottering step backward.

“Hey, hey, hey,” Angelo says bringing a hand to your face. The two of you are close enough now that you can see flecks of honey-gold deep inside them, his eyelashes are strangely blue. “We’re partners, right? And I need your help.”

“Partners.” You tighten your grip on the gun. “Uh huh.” The corner of his mouth twitches.

“And partners have each other’s back. So, I’ve got you, okay?” There’s a wad of fear in your throat but you nod tightening your grip around the gun handle which is already slippery with sweat. Something passes over Angelo’s face, surprise? Gratitude? Pity? Another roar sweeps through The Space and your head snaps up. Before you have a chance to resist Angelo pulls you along behind him toward the sound.

The area is empty now, everyone has fled and it’s a mess. The furniture is trampled, sheets torn and splinters scattered everywhere. Your eyes are darting left and right, you don’t know what you’re looking for but you have a feeling that you’ll know when you see it. But you’re not entirely sure you want to.

Angelo pulls you into a crouch behind a toppled sofa-bed pressing a finger to his lips. A cold sweat trickle down your spine as you peer over. You see it.  

Ten feet long, mottled brown-black from head to tail. It moves in a lizard-like manner, its powerful body swinging from side to side as it circles something heaped on the floor. Six legs bulging with corded muscle each ending in a foot boasting talons the length of your forearm. A patch of spines on its hunched shoulders stand on end like a porcupine’s and a similar cluster of spikes on its tail is leaving scratches on the floor. Its face is wide and flat with heavy jowls surrounding a set of serrated and lethal-looking pincers. Its beady eyes glitter with intelligence. Blood is spattered all over its face, a few threads of flesh dangling from its maw, one of which ends in a bloody eyeball. You recognise the muddy brown, the horizontal pupil. You realise who the heap on the floor is. You should be screaming, or running in the opposite direction, but you can’t move.

Havlo’s body has been torn apart by the creature. The giant man no more than a seeping scarlet puddle on the floor. Bile rises in your throat and a you can feel your breathing turning ragged. Angelo wraps an arm around you and pulls you into his chest.

“I know, I know,” he murmurs “Breathe, just breathe.” He traces smoothing circles on your back and you close your eyes, wanting nothing but blackness. “We’re going to do this, okay? We’re going to do our jobs and keep people safe. We’re going to make sure that thing isn’t going to hurt anyone else. That’s what Havlo was trying to do.” You grit your teeth opening your eyes once more. There’s pained determination in every line of Angelo’s face.

He launches himself over the sofa-bed, knife in hand, and charges at the creature head on. The creature seems momentarily stunned by the sudden challenger. It doesn’t take long to recover however, it pounces. Without breaking stride Angelo ducks into a roll letting it sail over him. There is a flash of silver and a black substance drips from Angelo’s blade. The creature staggers as it lands, black blood leaking down its sides.

You still haven’t moved. It turns to face Angelo once more, you see your opportunity. But you don’t move. You just crouch there, trembling like a new born kit. Your mind is blank, all you can see is Angelo, completely alone. The moment passes, your cowardice hangs over you like a shroud.

Angelo walks backwards his feet sweeping debris from his path. The creature mimics him. Its pincers clicking madly a constant growling that makes the air vibrate. A whimper comes from close by. It takes everything you have to tear your eyes from the stand-off before you and search for the source. A leg sticks out from behind a collapsed bed frame. A dull chestnut elephant-like leg.

“Krooka.” You start to crawl toward her. Wincing as you disturb the wreckage you glance back at Angelo still circling. “Krooka!” you whisper urgently, praying for a twitch or even one of Krooka’s typical grunts. When you reach her your stomach turns. She’s not unconscious, her eyes are screwed shut, mouth twisted. Her entire upper body is shaking with the effort of holding herself up. Beneath her lies the unmoving form of Elsie. You let slip a shuddering breath. Krooka opens her eyes a fraction and looks at you. Her gaze is screaming seems to be screaming. Those huge legs of hers are awfully still. Krooka flicks her eyes toward the gun in your hand, at the still circling creature. You give her a tiny nod and climb to your feet.

There’s an explosion of noise behind you. The creature lunges at Angelo, a curved claw catching him on the back as he tries to dodge, dropping the knife. The two are locked together Angelo has grabbed hold of its pincers forcing them apart. It thrashes in his grip letting out an enraged scream. It rolls, forcing Angelo with it over broken furniture and smears of Havlo’s blood.

You raise the gun. You’re surprised it hasn’t gone off yet you’re squeezing it so hard. Angelo screams. The creature’s spiked tail is buried in his leg, pinning him to the floor. The pincers thrust another inch closer to his face as his grip slips.

BANG!

The kickback travels all the way up your arms, vibrating in your gritted teeth. You don’t see where the bullet lands, but the noise is enough to make the creature jerk back wrenching its tail with it. Angelo, panting through the pain and covered in black and red blood, scrambles away toward the knife.

The creature roars as its prey escapes. You squeeze the trigger again. A squeal of furious pain as a dark wound appears on its flank. It whirls around, you look into those beady, faceted eyes.

“Shit.” It stalks toward you, wary of the gun in your hand. “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.” You stumble backward toward Krooka, who has stayed silent in her agony. Its gaze is calculating, its pincers click menacingly as Angelo crawls toward the knife. The creature hisses, demanding your attention.

The air itself seems taut as you and the creature stare at each other. Like a rope pulled tight by the tiger on the end of it, and the rope is about to snap. Angelo’s fingers are inching toward the blade, the muscles in your hand are starting to twitch, and the spines on the creature’s back are slowly standing on end.

There’s a tiny moan of pain. Like an idiot, you look over your shoulder to see Elsie shifting. It is all the distraction the creature needs.

“NO!” screams Angelo. The creature leaps at you claws reaching, pincers stretched wide. You see a flash of silver as Angelo hurls the knife. It passes just over the creature’s head. You’re firing the gun again and again but it keeps coming at you. A scream rips through your throat as those massive talons sink into your shoulder pushing you to the floor. Stars burst behind your eyelids as your head smacks the concrete. The screaming, the pain, the rusty smell of blood vanishes in a rush of darkness.

***

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. God, I’m so sorry.” Angelo’s voice is hoarse. Strong arms are wrapped around you, rocking you gently.

“You can make it up to me with food.” Angelo gasps as you open your eyes. You can feel his shaky laugh against you. He’s covered in blood. “Where’s…”

“It’s dead,” he jerks his head. Out of the corner of your eye you see it, curled up beside you. Angelo must have pushed it off you. You close your eyes again as your skull throbs. “You emptied the clip into that thing.”

“That’s cause I’m a tough bitch.” He laughs again pulling you tighter against him. You groan, trying to persuade your arms and legs to move.

“You shouldn’t move.”

“Well, I’m gonna.” You practically climb Angelo as you try to get back onto your feet. Both of you wince and swear under your breath as you jostle each other. You look around.

“Krooka? Elsie?”

“People came to get them. A few others who got hurt too.”

“Will they be okay?”

“I…I don’t know.” He stares into the distance. The pair of you stand in silence amongst the wreckage.

“I have to go.” You step back.

“What do you mean go?” He sighs.

“I have to go home.”

“No.”

“Maybe…maybe…if I…” his lip trembles as he tries to find the words. “Maybe if I go-”

“No.” You try to make it as final as possible.

“Listen I’ve been here for years so maybe it’s me. What if I’m causing this?”

“No.”

“When I leave the cracks will seal and this will all be over.”

“No.” You’re going to say it as many times as it takes for him to understand. “You are not leaving.” He laughs. It sounds strange in the quiet.

“That an order?” He rubs absentmindedly at his chest. You reach out and place a hand over his.

“The pull.” He stares at you. “You resisted all these years, you can do it now.” Another laugh.

“And look at what’s happened because of my resistance!” The shout makes his voice crack. “I think it’s time.” He grips your hand. “Time to go.”

“Why?”

“Nothing here is supposed to be permanent, but here I am. I’m the straw breaking the camel’s back. Remove me and it can start to heal.” His smile is like seeing a glimpse of sunlight in the rain, the warmth of it doesn’t quite reach you. “So, I’m going to go okay?” You shake your head and cling ever harder to his hand.

“You can’t, Angelo. You can’t leave me here alone!” You see him flinch at your words. What are you doing? You shouldn’t be yelling at him.

“Shhh,” he strokes tears away from your face “You’ll be alright.”

“I’ll come with you. We can go together.” He shakes his head still giving you that watery smile.

“No, my dear. I need you to stay here look after whoever comes through.” It takes you a moment to answer, trying to force down sobs.

“Like you?”

“Yes. Just like me.” A groan echoes through The Space, you can hear even more cracks appearing somewhere in the distance. Angelo rubs his chest again, gasping as if in pain.

“Angelo?” He staggers to his feet gripping a deck chair for support. “Angelo?” He starts walking away staring ahead. You keep calling his name as you follow, eyes on his back so they don’t wander over to look at the mangled corpses here and there. You pass the spot where Havlo lies, curling your hands to fists you hold your breath as if you might disturb him by breathing too hard.

“Here.” Angelo has stopped with one hand resting on a patch of wall beneath what looks like a lava lamp glued horizontally to the concrete. “This is where…”

“You came through,” you finish. It seems too plain; the wall doesn’t even have a crack in it here. You place your hand next to his.

 

“I don’t want you to go.”

“I don’t want to leave.” He presses his forehead to the wall. His scream makes you leap away from him. He pounds the wall furiously, veins popping as he continues his attack. There’s blood on his knuckles by the time he stops. You reach forward enclosing him in a hug. You cling to each other, two people in an immense never-ending universe who somehow, impossibly, managed to meet. And now you have to let go.

“We may never see each other again.” His voice is low and hoarse, you can barely make it out. “I won’t be able to find my way back.” Your throat is so tight the words you force out burn from within.

“Thank you.”

“For what?” he asks.

“For being you. For being you whilst being here. And I’ll wait, y’know.”

“You’ll wait for me? Why?”

“You’ll exist,” you swallow a sob “And that’s enough.” He turns around. There are mere centimeters between you. You feel his warm breath on your skin.

“I-” His words are cut short.

 

It’s like blinking into wakefulness from a dream so much kinder than reality. For a moment he is there, real and alive, the next he is gone.

You reach up, hoping to find some trace of him lingering in the air. There is nothing. You are all alone, surrounded by broken tables and chairs.

The End 

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