February, at a bus stop

I’m tired enough to be rude. I squeeze in. She doesn’t move. I can just about fit on the bench. Her leg is resting against mine. It’s warm, almost hot. Warmth spreads to my right frozen thigh. The woman smells unwashed and sickly sweet, with an undertone of something spicy. Like incense in new age-stores, but it’s probably pot.

Lindex, Synsam, Konsum, wink the neon signs from the back of the shopping centre across the street. On top of the building sits a large H, for the municipality’s name. The crossbar of the H is a heart, blinking on and off. Next to me is the woman’s breaths, small damp puffs against the side of my face. She’s watching me. I read Lindex, Synsam, Konsum, waiting for her to turn away again. She keeps breathing on my cheek. I read backwards – musnoK, masnyS, xedniL. She’s breathing with her mouth open. The bus isn’t on time. Lindex, Synsam, Konsum. The heart blinks on and off. I turn my head.

She comes back in my dreams. I sit on the bench by the bus stop with her leg against mine, the warmth intimate, and she’s breathing on my cheek with her mouth open. I read the signs on the shopping centre in dream fashion: Lindex, Synaps, Korfu, waiting for her to stop watching me, but then I turn my head.

Maybe she wasn’t expecting me to look back at her. She might be unprepared. Before her face slides back into place again there is something else peeking out between the lank strands. Then an anonymous human face meets my gaze and turns away. I turn away, too. I read Lindex, Synsam, Konsum. The warmth leaves my leg. The bus comes. She is gone.

On the outskirts of Kota Bharu, in a rental Perodua

Mouseover Malay text for an English translation

Kami kat luar Pacific Hotel, pak cik,” said Jen down the phone. She was still pink with frustration from driving in circles all morning.

The voice that answered her was hard to make out, partly because it was fuzzed up by being on speakerphone, but mostly because it was pure Kelantan. But it only said a few words anyway:

Sampai dah? Awak tunggu!

“Eh!”

But the pak cik had hung up. Jen and Hwee Ning shared a look of confusion.

“See lah, read food blogs some more,” said Hwee Ning. “That’s what happens when you try to follow the hipsters.”

“Are there even any hipsters in Kelantan?” said Jen mournfully. She jabbed at her smartphone, as if in hope that that would persuade it to explain where they were and how they had got there. “If there was at least they’d update Waze!

Hipste Kelate by Alina Choong
Portrait of a hipste Kelate by Alina Choong

Notes from a Chicken Rice Apocalypse

time

“Oh no, I hate this part,” the demon boy said. “Sometimes, I hate being omniscient.”

Alamak! I’ve seen this machine before,” Ah Kong said, as he stood over the three desk-like control panels.  Each one had CRT screens embedded in the top half while the lower portion was covered by a motley assortment of buttons, levers and dials.  “I know this TV show, lah. I used to watch it all the time.”

Before Laplace’s Demon could stop him, Ah Kong pulled down a big, important-looking lever. The control panels began to hum to life and a small wormhole opened in the alcove in front of them. A boom tube roared into existence — a tunnel connecting two points in time.

Aiyoh, this thing is stuck!” Ah Kong shouted. He tried yanking the lever upwards but it wouldn’t budge. “Help! It won’t shut down!”

The ground began to shake and a most peculiar noise came out of nowhere. It was a strange sound that seemed like something hissing and clucking at the same time. From the center of the wormhole the silhouette of several large birds began to appear like Indonesian shadow puppets. The CRT displays began flashing words that Ah Kong couldn’t understand: “Deinonychus antirrhopus

“I suggest we start running, Uncle,” the demon boy shouted. “Come on — run, run, run!”

Within seconds, the first of several emu-sized creatures popped out of the boom tube. Ah Kong had never seen anything so frightening in his life.  The coarsely-feathered beast had a long, meaty tail; a big eagle head; and a dragon-like mouth filled with many jagged teeth. At the end of each wing limb were three sharp, sickle-shaped claws.

The monster and six of its brethren jumped into the gallery where the lights and the strange displays quickly disoriented them.  The time-tossed predators grew confused and irritable.  Startled by their own reflections, they attacked the thousands of shiny surfaces in a vicious rampage. Loud alarm bells began to ring throughout the gallery, further fueling their violence.

The biggest of the Deinonychus spied Ah Kong and his friend running down the hallway. It let out a piercing, raptor-like shriek and came after the pair. The other five soon followed suit, knocking down everything that wasn’t bolted in place. A terrified Ah Kong shuddered every time a glass case broke, or whenever the monsters’ claws hit something metallic. He thought that the noise sounded very much like death’s nails raking over a blackboard.

When the two of them reached the place where the Historioscope was, he unwisely looked back, checking to see how far their pursuers were. Thus distracted, he tripped on a Korean mailbox, dislodging a fragment of a long metal label that read “Il Mare”. The leader of the monstrous pack was just a few meters behind him. It jumped over several pieces of machinery and landed right on top of Ah Kong. The creature pinned the helpless young man with its hefty weight.

“Help!” Ah Kong yelled as the Deinonychus raised its furious talons to strike.

The demon boy ran over to another display case and quickly lifted the cover. He sent a tiny bolt of lightning through the dial of an extraordinary crystal clock, causing it to tick once and freeze time all around them. Ah Kong was stopped in mid-scream; the slashing claws of the Deinonychus were just a centimeter above his carotid artery. The rest of the monsters were also trapped in mid-jump, along with magically half-toppled displays, and broken glass that hung in the air like exploded flowers. The label of this museum piece was also suspended in mid-fall, but the words were too far away to read properly. Ah Kong could only make out a strange name “Pratchett”.

The boy quickly dragged his time-locked companion into a blue police box that stood next to a DeLorean DMC-12 and secured the door. Outside, time restarted almost immediately and the two heard a loud crashing din.

Stockholm, May 14

Stockholm, May 14

Question: What is reality?

Answer: A sphere where humans through consensus have established rules for how things work. Language is the most important method through which humans convey the rules for how the world functions and what it contains.

Stockholm, May 18

Question: Does reality have the same shape everywhere?

Answer: No, of course not. Local realities are always subtly different. For example, the American reality is dramatically more heavy on frightening imagery than ours. Interestingly enough: ”aliens” began as a defense mechanism in the brain, mixed with the influence of science fiction. These entities now have their own place. Reality has widened to include a new phenomenon.

Stockholm, June 9

Question: Do they have a purpose here?

Follow-up question: Can we understand that purpose? Would we find it relevant?

Answer: It’s uncertain whether we would understand. But the fact remains that in our pocket of the world, there are creatures who for some reason want to coexist with us.

Sixty years after the Great Houses War, Selene’s private quarters, Ile de la Cite, Paris

Selene disengaged her fingers, and gently, carefully, opened the packet. The pale yellow powder seemed no different from any angel essence she’d seen before–she knew addicts talked of structure and bouquet, as if essence were like wine or tea; that some claimed to have caught glimpses of the Fallen whose bones had gone into making the powder. It had all been terribly academic to her, until Emmanuelle had started the spiral of addiction that had led them both here. “What is it about it that’s special?”

“Nothing,” Emmanuelle said. “Other than the quantities. It’s on the market, plentiful and cheap.”

“Cheap” was not a word Selene would ever have associated with essence. Bones were not cheap; Fallen were not numerous; and gang-lords had a vested interest in keep the prices of their products high.

“It’s not cut,” Emmanuelle said. “Or tampered with. I could tell.”

Hence why she’d tasted it; or, at least, the excuse she’d given herself. She was right; the addiction never went away. Selene had been a fool to believe otherwise.

But that wasn’t the point; not anymore. It wasn’t about her and Emmanuelle; though, in time, she would have to deal with the ramifications of that as well.

Selene sighed, and closed the packet, all too glad not to see the powder anymore. “This isn’t House affairs, you know.”

Emmanuelle’s gaze was steady. “I know.”

 

The Green family goes to the mountains

DSCN1634“You’re just in time, Ah Guang Ge. Grandmother was asking after you.”

“Where is she? I must pay my respects,” said Guang.

Jiayi shook her head. “Don’t worry, she wasn’t angry. Anyway she’s distracted now. Your siblings are exchanging poems. Come and watch them.”

He shuffled off his shoes and followed her through the house. The smell of the cedar walls and floors, mingled now with the tart fragrance of oranges filling the house, brought back to him powerfully the Spring Festivals of his childhood. The tables were laden with golden fruit representing prosperity: besides the ubiquitous New Year’s oranges, there were fresh persimmons and the last of the winter’s dried apricots, a speciality of the City Between The Hills.

Though it was the start of spring it was still cold up here in the mountains, and as usual everyone was crammed into the large interconnected space of the dining room and kitchen. Guang stepped into the midst of warmth and laughter and the smells of good food. Shouts of welcome greeted his entrance, but these were immediately followed by hisses for silence: Zhenzhu and Bing were duelling.

The snow recedes from the mountaintops,” said Bing.

The apricot trees blossom, white-petalled
Winter bows out, allowing spring’s entrance
What joy to take wine with our family!

The apricot trees blossom, white-petalled,” replied Zhenzhu.

Like froth on the waves of the sea
What joy to take wine with our family
But remember our friends below!

This was a courtesy to Guang — and a challenge. He bowed, and replied:

Like froth on the waves of the sea
Is the morning’s first thin ray of sunlight.
Since your brother has travelled since dawn
Won’t you feed him instead of reproach him?

This was a breach of the rules, but it drew a burst of laughter.

“Have you forgotten your form, Fourth Brother?” said Zhen, shaking her head.

She was the youngest of their generation, the golden seventh child — sixteen years old and her grandmother’s special pet. The Lü departed from traditional Han culture in valuing their daughters the most, and allocating to them most of the power within the family, for though all the Lü children were magical the talent evinced itself most strongly in the female line.

Zhen was not only a daughter — and Guang’s family counted fewer girls among them than they would have liked, with five sons to balance out their two daughters — but the seventh child of a seventh child, born of the direct line that could trace itself back to the first Lü scholar-magician, Mistress Lü. With so many natural advantages she was outrageously gifted, spoilt, clever, charming when she wished to be, ruthlessly ambitious, and almost totally bereft of a sense of humour.

Siargao, 3rd Month of Madrina’s 23rd year

From where she stood, Siren could hear the boom of the waves as they crashed into the hollow beneath the cliffs. No one knew better how treacherous those waves could be, after all, this was where Siren had spent her childhood–the country where she’d honed her skills, where she’d discovered a joy that exceeded the dream of flight.

Her heart twisted at the look that crossed Adji’s face. They’d worked side by side these past few weeks, and she’d never once imagined that the surgeon was the one she sought. Siren had seen her handiwork firsthand and every single timoran who had passed under this woman’s hands would bear her mark. An indelible stamp to prove that they had passed through the hands of one of Ayudan’s most gifted surgeons.

More than catching her, Siren wanted to know why, but time was running out and the look on Adji’s face sent alarm racing through her body.

Don’t you ever feel it in your blood? Adji said. Don’t you ever wonder what it’s like? Surely the heritage that travels through your veins whispers to you sometimes.

I don’t know what you mean, Siren said. We are the same, aren’t we, Adji? Common. You and I. What other heritage is there?

Adji laughed.

You are no more common than I am. You who display the work of Corazon so proudly on your walls. I’ve seen your body map, Siren. I know what waits in your blood.

You speak in riddles, Siren replied. Come away from the Cliffside, Adji. It’s dangerous there.

Deny it all you want, the woman said. I know what I saw when I looked inside you.

You saw nothing I don’t already know, Siren said.

A flash of light showed Siren the look of pain that crossed the Adji’s face.

They took from us, Adji said. We gave and still they took until we were left with no other choice but to leave. We must hide the proof of who we are while they traverse the skies and the spaces that were once ours.

It’s not my intention to harm you, Siren said. I only want to ask you some questions.

Adji laughed.

It’s too late for talking, she said. No one listened before, and no one will listen now.

Please, Siren said.

Adji backed away from her, inched closer to the edge of the cliff.

Listen to me, Adji said. There are secrets you don’t know about. You think you’ve found your saboteur, but I will tell you this, it wasn’t my hand that broke the timoran.

Then why, Siren asked. Why run?

In the distance, Siren could hear the voices of the others. Finally, they were picking up the trail.

Adji heard them too, and her face twisted into a grimace.

You won’t understand, Adji said. But you will understand very soon.

As in a dream, she saw Adji reach towards her, her body jolted forward and then they were falling, falling through the darkness, falling through the rain, the sea was rushing up towards them and then Adji’s voice was in her ear, chanting a song, chanting a rhythm, strong arms closed about her, and then just when the spray touched her face, they were lifting up and away. Talons gripped her flesh, the arms that enclosed her were scaled and the body pressed to hers was no longer woman, but something other.
Qata, the word whispered through her mind as oblivion took her.