I exited the 40,000 Flux Hotel with my mother, stifling a yawn in the hood of my coat and rolling my eyes so they wouldn’t clam shut. It was still dark, and the entrance lights dazzled in contrast. Shuffling over the red welcome mat felt like the residual sensation of a dream. I was ready to float away. A pinch at my wrist was startling as she picked me up and lifted me down the steps outside. I landed in a small puddle and splashed dirty water up the shins of her silver foil space boots. She landed next to me and kicked it right back, right into my eye. I couldn’t believe it.
In the taxi she had me hold a Gatta-ray-rifle while she fiddled with her mask and readjusted her respirator. The rubber belt had snapped from overuse and was hanging lopsided in her lap. She made do by tying the broken band to the chest-frame and looping it through the hoops on her jaw mount, but even I foresaw the respirator dropping whenever she looked down. I mentioned this to her. She squeezed my knee and smiled.
‘Then I won’t look down.’ I was tired, I didn’t know what I was saying.
In the taxi, my mother pointed to a corroded patch of grey fabric on her shoulder and asked if I’d spray it over with a can of silver, which I did. There was a cluster of worn lines, creases in her inner elbow that had also lost their shine. I asked if she needed me to cover those too. But she didn’t want to waste it. I sat back and looked around. I was too short to see anything outside and the cab had nothing to read. I pointed mother’s gun at a pair of old eyes framed in the rear-view mirror. I thought of Sherriff Death from the Cranberry Gardens and his helmeted, fierce mutant-eyes, and fired a few warning shots his way. The gun whirred and flashed a toxic green. The driver heeded the warning and turned his eyes to the road. The radio clicked, fizzed, and started to squeal.
Most journeys were made in the early hours or late at night and almost all were soundtracked by strange radio programmes playing Martian-like jazz or chaos-prog. They became mission themes for a Saturnian Queen on an interstellar quest for revenge. She never listened to anything similar in the day, but once suited for the mission, futuristic space melodies became numinous phrases that echoed about her mind, cementing her character like a mantra. I knew this because I saw her tapping her foot and nodding her head whenever they played.
I’m in orbit. While Seth is making external repairs on Orbona’s portside relay station I’m curled into a loose ball, high on smuggled peyote, hovering in the air like a buoy. The hum of super circuitry is the sound of an ocean’s wind blowing across my space suit. I’m blinded by the light of Earth. It’s a second sun, bathing me in an oasis of cool blue radiation. In the shaving cuts on my face, where the pores are filled with sand, a kind of leaf is growing, caressing my cheeks like the tendrils of a stinging sea jelly. I can smell the whole planet through the pressurised window. It’s a beach.
Three weeks before our stay at the Flux Hotel, I was combing matted debris from her orange hair while she practiced her opening lines. We were at another gathering, sharing a table with a girl painted like a fish. I dabbed the Kensington Gore weeping from my mother’s eye, catching the fattest orbs of red whilst being careful not to smudge it across her face. She was a sand assassin long before I was born. The role was a vestige from an earlier life. From when she was opportunistic; desperate to cement her name. I’d never actually seen her in action, though her exploits were numerous.
The assassin had her fans, a parade of obscure and mad faces. Ones that stared from a distance, too shy or voyeuristic to step forward. And ones that never left us alone. They were my least favourite trips. One man, after seeing me exit my mother’s booth, handed me a small slip of blue paper with a mangled biro sketch of myself, my mother and him.
‘It’s from the year 2092’, he said, ‘we’ll live forever’.
Once per revolution, Earth rises and meets my gaze. I see two eyes forming within a storm. They ache across the northern poles. They roll into the back of her head as I flip counter-wise and continue the daily cycle. My heart thumps an awkward rhythm, getting faster, racing a warning light on the comms dashboard. I close my eyes, smell the beaches, and listen to the sand. I can press my hand to my breast and plunge it into the sea.
It was down to me to comfort her the day she learned of her death. She’d betrayed the gang after accepting a gift from Mister Vertigo and Mother Pearl. It tore the team apart. The bikers never understood, they underestimated her abilities and her loyalty. She was abandoned by the team and left to die. In the end, her death was unremarkable, a premeditated failure on the part of Mister Vertigo. She had no revenge, no redemption. And no one knew the truth. I couldn’t stop her crying on the way home from the funeral. I asked if I could wear the jacket, but she shook her head.
‘I’ll need it for the shoot.’ I feigned a yawn and laid my head across her lap. Closing my eyes and smelling the motor oil on her knees I thought of robots and wondered if she’d ever had chance to be one.
Earth collides with my jaw, a sucker punch that corrupts my stable orbit and sends me spinning towards the science room. I kick back before I’m lost and float right out the window.
If you squinted your eyes at the margins of page four you could see it accented by a bright yellow bubble, WITH SPECIAL GUEST, EVE KIRBY, in red capital letters. They’d be coming to see just her. I sat on a grey beach and pawed through the pamphlet while my mother dug a small den in the sand, just big enough for a fist. I held the pamphlet against the bridge of my nose and watched her cup her hands and whisper something inside. Then she filled the hole again. We had a portable radio playing country pop. It sat on a mound between us.
‘We can go back to the hotel if you’d like?’
‘Did you say anything about me?’ She was shielding her face from the sun with a general’s salute that reminded me of her days in the Stella Corps. There was nothing but shadow where her eyes should’ve been. ‘Yes, I mentioned you. The tide will come in soon and wash it all away.’
‘And they’ll dissolve into the sea?’
‘And turn into rain’ she replied, then stood and dusted sand from her legs. I stretched and did the same. As we walked down the concrete steps, she grabbed my wrist and lifted me down the final three. I landed like Superman, splitting the earth with my fist.
Suddenly everything appears so small. I could crush the planet with my hands or swallow it whole. I’ll bury it in a hole on the beach and wait for the tide to come in. When it rains, the clouds will split, and all the whispers will come raining down.
‘But that’s not Earth. This isn’t even your galaxy.’ I look up at the chin of colossal alien. A being of white phosphorous, humanoid in structure but skewed in proportion stands with one foot on the planet. With a head like a lit match and arms like neon tubes, the being is posed proud like an adventurer, hands cocked on hips.
‘It’s a planet of sand assassins and it’s ravaged by storms.’ says the alien. ‘Its past is now its future, fathers are now the son, and the beaches are boulders waiting to roll into space. His voice is a whale call filtered through a ham radio. The planet looks just like Earth.
We had our own table. No longer a prop but an attraction; the longest queue in the Mastodon Hall. I helped with a bow tie and touched up the white makeup where damp from her hairline had drawn a trail down to her brow. Her flaming scarlet mullet was replicated on several heads throughout the room. Each one a dragon’s tail stretching down the back of a black tuxedo. I piled up the photographs for her to sign, flipping them the right way up, keeping the stack straight, and made sure her glass was always full of water. The noise of the crowd sounded like monotone static. It floated as haze round the tables and echoed through the high chambers of the hall. I closed my eyes and imagined floating in space, surrounded by fizzing electronic equipment. Few words made it through. Tangled conversations were broken messages from CAPCOM. I thought there might be a problem.
‘Are you okay?’ she asked. I opened my eyes and nodded. She gave me a hug. I yawned over her shoulder and felt like drifting away. Whispering under the din of the room, close to my ear she asked, ‘would you be able to do my cuffs, darling?’
I’m looking out over the storm ravaged planet, and I see rain swelling a cardboard box left out in the street. It bloats, bursts and is shredded to pieces. The matchstick alien rolls out and lands face down. Someone grabs their wrist, lifts them high and helps them down a set of stairs where a torrent of rain cascades into a river. I’m pressed against the space station’s window. In my hand Earth is no bigger than an apple. I’ve replaced everyone inside with my mother. She’s pilot, killer, detective and priest, space princess, sand assassin, and the pacifying voice of a supercomputer. She’s president and pope, she’s a movie star.
It begins to rain inside Orbona. Each drop is a secret whispered into sand, then dissolved and dispersed. Sounds like the muttering of a crowd.
I almost fell asleep on the train while making shapes out of the clouds. My face, sticky with saliva, was stuck to her silver foil spacesuit. Her hand rested lightly on my head. Someone approached. A young woman asked my mother if she could have a photograph. She apologised but politely declined. Then kissed me softly on the ear. I closed my eyes, relaxed and felt my whole body float away.
Max Barker is a short story and comic book writer from Sheffield, England, specialising in magical realism, speculative fiction and bizzarro science fiction. Previous work has appeared in Arboreal Magazine and Soft Star Magazine. Can be found at www.mlincolnbarker.wixsite.com/website and @ghostmutttt on twitter.