Smoke and Gold

Written by Carl Malcolm
Art by Anato Finnstark


The cave was inky dark, and unseen things could be heard scuttling about. The drip, drip, drip of water echoed through the stillness, a much slower rhythm than the rapid thumping of Aaron’s heart. Still, he forged ahead. The curiosity of an eight year old wouldn’t be beaten by the dark.

Aaron followed a strange glow that called to him, feeling his way along the slimy walls. The end of the tunnel opened up into a huge cavern, bigger than any building he’d stepped foot in, bigger than the church that Mother dragged him to every Sunday, and even bigger than the smelly warehouse by the river that he wasn’t supposed to go near. His jaw dropped open and a whispered wow escaped.

The whole place burned with the honeyed glow of gold. Red rubies the size of his fist, delicate silver crowns, jewel encrusted rings, more than his eyes could take in, all nestled within an ocean of golden coins. His mouth watered at the thought of all the food he could buy with this fortune. He could have real chunks of meat instead of discarded gristle, and loaves of bread fresh from the oven instead of the burnt heels and green-spotted slices he’d grown accustomed to.

He skidded down the slope of gold in a scattering of coins that actually hurt a little more than he was expecting. As he came to a halt, a gout of smoke erupted from an enormous black stone in the centre of the cavern. A burning bright orb appeared on the stone a few paces away from the smoke. Aaron’s skin turned clammy and cold, despite the warmth of the cavern, once he realised the orb was an eye, and it was fixed on him. The eye was bigger than Aaron’s head, and the smoke was coming out of the creature’s nose. His eyes traced the huge body attached to the head, its gleaming black scales and spikes half-buried in gold. A dragon!

Mouth dry and heart pounding, Aaron couldn’t move, paralysed by the great beast’s glare. But after a painfully long stretch of time, he realised that the dragon wasn’t moving either. He began to wonder, could it be friendly? Maybe it was like Uncle Douglas, who looked big and scary but was actually very nice and gifted Aaron wooden figures that he whittled with his knife.

“He… hel… hello,” Aaron stammered out. His small voice echoed meekly around the cave. No response. “You… you have a lovely home.” Mother had told him to say polite things like that to people, even when they weren’t true at all, but he wasn’t lying this time. He bent down to pick up a coin, so he could continue complimenting the dragon on his decoration choices, but as soon as his fingers touched the gold a terrible, earth-rumbling growl boiled out of the dragon. Aaron threw the coin as if it had burned him. “Sorry! Sorry!” he squeaked.

Aaron backed away, holding his hands up to prove he wasn’t taking anything. The dragon continued to glare at him as he retreated but refrained from lifting its head to attack. Aaron stumbled as he backed away and landed on his back in a splash of coins. He scrambled to get back up and ran for the tunnel. The back of his neck prickled with the fear of being burned alive, but he made it out of the cavern and into the tunnel. The pounding echoes of his own frantic footsteps had Aaron convinced that the dragon was chasing after him. Something twinkled at the end of the tunnel, and it wasn’t gold or rubies. Daylight! He launched himself from the cave, and only then, panting on his back with green grass beneath him and a cheery blue sky above, did he realise that the dragon hadn’t been chasing after him at all.

Sweat soaked through his clothes and plastered his hair to his forehead. After a long moment of getting his breathing back under control, he sat up with his feet splayed out before him and dug around under his shirt. He pulled a glittering diamond free and sat there marvelling at all the colours dancing around inside it. Mother had always told him that stealing was wrong, but he was sure the dragon could afford to lose just one diamond. Plus, maybe with this Aaron could afford to buy the medicine that she needed so badly.

Sanctuary

Written by Carl Malcolm
Art by Sylvain Sarrailh


Doris sat swaddled in her favourite knitted blanket, that was as blue as the morning sky. She swayed gently in her rocking chair on the deck of her treetop hideout. She had her silver curls bound up in hair rollers, a steaming cup of tea in hand and a content smile on her wrinkled face as she watched the sun rise over the lush forest.

Her smile widened at the sound of her rope-pully system creaking. She set down her floral teacup, eased herself up, and by the time she had feeling back in her feet and shuffled over, the bucket was there waiting for her, loaded with fresh supplies.

Doris rifled through the bucket as quickly as her arthritic hands would allow. A ball of turquoise wool, a stick of butter, pocket tissues, teabags and her favourite low-sugar ginger biscuits. Everything that she’d put on the list was there, as well as a nice bottle of sherry. A neatly folded letter sat at the bottom of the bucket with a smiley face scrawled across it.

Doris clutched the letter to her chest, and after tidying all of her supplies away in the cupboards of her treehouse trailer, she settled back in her rocking chair and popped on her good reading glasses. 

Grandma,

I tried your sausage roll recipe this morning but managed to burn them. I’ll give it another go, and if they’re edible then I’ll send them up with next week’s supplies.

They’ve stopped mentioning you in the news, but I know they’re still on the hunt. I couldn’t find much info, but apparently you’ve put construction of that pipeline behind by at least a year. The CEO of the oil company was on the news the other day complaining that you’d cost him millions! He actually turned beetroot at one point, it was brilliant. You just need to hold out up there for another month and then we can move you. 

You’re the greatest,
Love, Meg.

Doris chuckled to herself and drained her teacup.

THE DEMONSTRATION

Written by Carl Malcolm
Art by Billy Lundevall


Jacob sat on a cold, metal stool dressed solely in a pair of flimsy, paper-like underwear in front of a large group of medical students, all of whom stood in silence. Some of them busied themselves, pretending to check their clipboards, but a lot of them seemed to be perfectly comfortable examining him from across the room.

He hated this–these rooms were always too cold, and the smell of antiseptic hung heavy in the air. The walls and floors were covered in white tiles, and the sterile lighting made it feel even colder than it already was. Goosebumps ran up Jacob’s back and across his bare chest as he looked at the medical apparatus arranged on the tray beside him, all brushed steel and gleaming sharp edges.

He started cracking his knuckles, a nervous habit. He pulled on his middle finger until he felt a satisfying pop. A couple of the students started furiously scribbling on their clipboards and watching him intently. He sighed and folded his arms over his chest. The only door in the room swung open and bumped against the wall, shattering the awkward silence.

“Finally,” Jacob muttered under his breath.

A doctor in a white coat walked in, checking his expensive-looking watch. His square jaw was clean-shaven, and his thick, greying hair was perfectly combed. He stood before the group of students with his back to Jacob.

“Good afternoon everyone, sorry about the wait.” The doctor spoke with a subtle accent, and his tone suggested he wasn’t sorry at all that they’d had to wait for him. “Please take note of the subject’s resting vitals if you haven’t already, and pay attention to the changes in blood pressure and heart rate.” He gestured toward a wall of screens, all illustrating one function or another of Jacob’s body with lights, lines, and beeps.

The doctor checked his watch again and then glanced over the students. “Ready?” He asked. Jacob went to answer but then realised he wasn’t talking to him.

The students stayed silent as the doctor pulled his gloves on. The sound of latex snapping sent a couple of the bright lines and lights on the wall flashing and spiking erratically. Jacob took a deep breath and sat on his hands. He hated this part the most.

Without ceremony, the doctor walked up behind Jacob, grabbed his chin, and ungently pulled his head back. With his other hand he grabbed a gleaming scalpel from the tray and cut Jacob’s throat open in one swipe.

Blood sprayed across the room, almost reaching the students. The lights on the wall exploded and an alarm started ringing. The doctor tutted and pressed a button, silencing the alarm. Jacob clutched his neck, then remembered he’d been told not to do that, but couldn’t help it. The room started to spin around him and he flopped sideways onto the cold, hard floor.

The students just watched him, not a scrap of concern on their faces. Some were scribbling on their clipboards, while others couldn’t seem to tear their eyes away. “How does it feel?” Asked one girl near the back.

Lying in a growing pool of his own blood, Jacob tried to suggest she try it for herself, but it just came out as a gurgled slur, and then the world went dark and very, very cold.

ONE DAY

Written by Carl Malcolm
Art by Alena Aenami


The sun rose. It brought warm tones to the cold, grey smudge of city that stretched out before Charlotte. She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear, but the bitter wind quickly freed it again. Her backpack hung heavy with clothes, food, a toothbrush, and a little bit of money, just in case this morning would be different.

The train clattered to a halt far below in its station, late as usual. Charlotte chewed her lip as she watched the people clamber around each other off and on the train, the whole scene looking like a disturbed ant nest. She wished that she could work up the courage to go down there and join them, let the train carry her over the horizon to new life. But she knew this morning would be no different.

The train pulled away and Charlotte hopped down from her perch. She swallowed against the ever-present lump in her throat and entered her building’s stairwell, promising herself that tomorrow would be different. Her mother was already awake when she reentered her apartment, clanging pans in the kitchen. Charlotte stuffed her backpack in the bottom of the closet by the front door, ensuring that the coats covered it.

“James, I’m making eggs for breakfast,” her mother called from the kitchen, “or do you just want cereal?”

Charlotte entered the kitchen. “Eggs would be good.”

Her mother turned and smiled. “Oh, you’re up already.” A frown spoiled her smile. “Gosh, we really need to get you to the barbers.”

Charlotte nodded her head and looked down at her feet. Maybe tomorrow would be different.

CHANGE

Written by Carl Malcolm


The beast that rocks the boat,
Sends us running, rabbit-hearted
Cringing from murky uncertainty
Bound to our beaten path

Bliss or break
Cradle to grave
Scraped knees, climbing trees
Wrinkled ring-finger

Linger

But each and every
Rose-tinted memory
Was a dreaded change, raged against
Until it hit, and became the mundane

Nuclear Family

Written by Carl Malcolm


The skeletons of concrete towers dotted the east-side of the city. Buck had always thought they made the horizon look like a row of wonky teeth, but Gilly argued they looked like the wall of a castle. Buck had seen plenty of wonky teeth in his life, Gilly had never actually seen a castle outside of her storybooks, so he decided that he was right.

A brilliant glowing river cut through the ruins of the city. Buck stood on the riverbank with his arms out to the side while Gilly tied a rope around his middle. Oil danced along the surface of the river, bending the water’s glow into a kaleidoscope of pinks and yellows and greens.

“Okay, you’re all set,” Gilly said. “Now remember, we only want metal. Don’t waste your time on rocks.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek and a smack on the bum and he hopped down into the glowing water. Buck giggled as he felt the mud squishing between his toes. He loved to watch the bright colours ripple along his skin as he trailed his hand through the water.

Other people stood on the river’s edge, casting improvised fishing gear into the water and seeing whatever scrap they could pull out. They were too scared to go into the river. They reckoned the glow came from poison left over from the bombs that people dropped on each other all those years ago. Buck wasn’t afraid though, he’d been going in the water for years and he hadn’t grown any extra eyes or toes.

His foot hit something hard as he waded. “Oop, think I’ve got something!” He called to Gilly. The people on the bank stopped to watch, curious as to what he’d found. Nobody had ever tried to take their stuff, but Gilly always carried her big pointy stick just in case one of them got brave enough to try their luck.

Buck bent down and tried to scoop up his prize. It was half-sunk into the riverbed, and he had to dig his hands down into the muck to get a good grip. His face hovered just inches above the surface of the water, and the glow was so bright that he had to close his eyes. A grin split his mouth once he got a hold of it and recognised its shape. A metal cylinder with shallow grooves around its middle and a ring pull at the top.

He strained to lift with his knees and not with his back, just like Gilly had shown him. It didn’t want to come with him. Buck clenched his jaw and pulled with all his strength, and almost toppled backward as it came free. He brandished the can in the air and grinned. “It’s a full one!” He shouted to Gilly.

“Brilliant! What is it?” Gilly asked, hopping excitedly on the spot.

Buck’s face turned serious as he held the can next to his ear and shook it. The grin returned to his face and he shouted back, “It sounds like beans!”

Sheeple

Written by Carl Malcolm


Dance music thumped and the bass from the speakers rattled Otto’s ribcage, adding an extra thrill to his already rapid-beating heart. A glossy, black catwalk split the crowd down the middle, and models strutted its length. Otto had an excellent view of the fashion show near the stage, but wasn’t watching the show; he was scanning the audience, watching for their reaction.

The crowd was a sea of pastels: baby-pink suits, powdered-mint shawls and duck-egg blue hats. It was the latest craze, and anyone who was anyone had snatched up the trend and shunned those who were late to the party. All the celebrities, fat cats, and skinny girls were dressed up like easter eggs. 

Each model was dressed in the same boring uniform as the one that had come before them; a black cape engulfed them from neck to foot, and an over-the-top headpiece. Just as Otto had suspected (but hoped otherwise) the audience was eating up this vapid display. Some in the crowd mouthed wow to each other while others nodded sagely, as if they’d somehow seen this coming. Otto rolled his eyes.

The last model made her turn at the end of the catwalk and the music receded as she returned backstage. Otto took a deep breath and wiped his palms on his trousers before climbing onto the stage himself. “And here is the man of the hour, the designer himself, Otto Nilsson!” The presenter’s voice rang sickly sweet over the speakers. Applause erupted from the crowd, they clapped and cheered like he was a rockstar. A stagehand ran up and gave Otto a mic, and he grimaced and waited for their noise to die off.

Otto raised the mic to his mouth and flinched at the squeal of feedback. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Hello everyone, I am Otto Nilsson.” Another round of cheers, thankfully more short-lived than the first. “Ah, yes. Thank you. I see that you all liked my line this season.” He nodded along with the clapping, his mouth was suddenly very dry. “But then what else should I expect from a group of sheep?” The large room fell into near silence, broken only by a stuttering applause from a few of the slower members of the audience.

Otto’s heart was hammering away in his chest and his face flushed with heat, but he carried on, “I designed this line as a test for you all, and I use the term ‘designed’ very loosely here.” He paced the stage before the now deathly-silent crowd. “I threw a plain black cape together with ridiculous headgear and you clapped like hungry seals. They look like gothic Teletubbies for crying out loud!” Otto threw his hands up in the air. “This isn’t fashion! Needless to say, you all failed the test. I don’t want to design if there are no critical thinkers left in this world.” Otto left the stage, his clipping footsteps lost in the confused murmuring from his fans.

The following week the clearance rack was awash in pastel shades and everyone was strutting about in their chic uniform of black capes and uncomfortable headwear, while Otto went into hiding and tried his hand at pottery.

Mercury Fields

Written by Carl Malcolm


Mission Specialist Tanaka battled against the gravity, one foot in front of the other. His breath fogged the inside of his helmet. It felt like he was wading through honey, and the ground he walked on fluctuated between solid and liquid, crunching and sucking with every step.

Light broke upon the metal around him. It shattered into a harmonic rainbow, a chaos of colours dancing and clashing, brawling and embracing each other. At odds with the strong gravity, great globules of mercury blossomed into the air, rising from the ground and floating like bubbles on a careless breeze. Tanaka watched it all with a lazy smile.

Static buzzed in his ear, “Tanaka, please report.” His commander called over the radio, a slight quiver in her voice. “Have you retrieved the samples yet?”

The samples! He was here to get the samples. He couldn’t even remember why they were so important, something to do with fuel? They’d flown millions of miles for them, into unchartered corners of the universe, he’d left his family behind for them. He shook his head and huffed; it all seemed silly to him in the moment.

“Tanaka, report.” The quiver was gone from her voice, replaced by outright panic. “Jin, answer me! Don’t look at the lights! Jin?”

He laid down on his back and watched the colors dart around. He wore a vacant smile on his face, oblivious to the shouts coming over the radio, and the burning sensation on his back as the liquid metal burned through his suit.