Patrick laid half-dead on the icy cold bitumen and unaware that his wish was about to come true, although, being an engineer, he had envisaged and planned for a less painful way to leave—in an old Torana GTR, with the engine running and windows down, in the garage of his holiday home down in Busselton.
The Vasse Highway, despite adding considerable time to his journey, was chosen because of its isolation from populated areas. It was Christmas Eve, and the last thing he needed was for the bright lights and cheer to remind him of his lost.
The chilled fresh air tethered him further away from the abyss. Bit by bit, Patrick regained sensation of his battered body. Every breath he took caused sharp stabbing pain in his torso. Broken ribs, he surmised. His arms wanted to push up, to lift his torso from its horizontal position, to inspect his car, but his world was still spinning.
Patrick let out an involuntary groan. One of his arms was broken.
Opening his eyes led him to a distorted view of his wrecked vehicle, its roof pancaked and panels wrinkled with flames licking from the rear, where the fuel tank was encased.
Still on the rough surface of the single-lane two-way road, Patrick struggled to remember the events of the last hour. There was a hard swerve to the left. Was there another car? Maybe a kangaroo? No. He was alone on the road, there was no doubt. Debris. That was it. He yanked hard on the wheel but had been just a split-second too slow. There was a brief moment of weightlessness, then the ground smashed into his windscreen several times. He must’ve crawled out in his confused state of mind and then passed out.
At least, he sighed, there wasn’t another person involved. Patrick didn’t want the feeling of guilt anchoring him back to existence.
What did bring him back to reality was the sudden splashing of liquid against his cheek. It took a split-second for the fumes to hit his nostrils. From half-dead to fully conscious and now inadvertent immolation.
I’m being punished by God for wanting to take my life, Patrick concluded and chuckled in disbelief. At least he was going to die, albeit in a horrible way.
A faint cry. It was inaudible, but as the moments passed, it grew louder and persistent. Patrick had dismissed it as a hallucination. Perhaps his mind was giving up and a sign that the end was near.
“Fuck sake!” Patrick cursed under his breath. If it was a real baby—however bizarre that seemed given that he was in the middle of nowhere—and he did nothing, Judy would never forgive him. And that was the purpose of suicide, wasn’t it? To join his family in the afterlife?
“Alright! I’m coming!” he yelled.
Patrick pushed down against the rough surface and grimaced, his left forearm going limp in an instant, the pain excruciating. Gritting his teeth, and with careful maneuvering to avoid using the left side of his upper torso, Patrick was finally up on two feet. He moved towards the wail, already sounding forlorn. As he approached the source, he noticed something odd—splintered stumps of Jarah trees before him, all collapsed away from an imaginary trajectory. Something had crashed.
“I’m almost there,” Patrick projected his voice. He felt silly a second later.
It took him a full minute to reach the epicentre, and what he found was an odd-looking object, resembling a gigantic capsule that was sleek and shiny. He reached out with his working arm and rested his palm on the surface having felt an odd welcoming sensation flooding his body.
The giant black footy hissed without warning.
Patrick lost his footing and fell backwards, both arms extending out. Searing pain barbed through his arm from the inside out, and up his shoulder. “Fuck!” he yelled again.
He was up again. This time, the placements of his feet more deliberate, his eyes more focused on the periphery. Patrick found himself rounding the soft corners of the large ovalised structure until he was peering inside.
There, just within reach, an infant swaddled within a transparent, gelatinous, synthetic... the words to describe what was being witnessed escaped the young man’s imagination. Eventually, Patrick settled with just the one: Surreal.
Have your suicidal tendencies subsided?
Patrick jumped, but caught himself. “Who’s there?” he searched the vicinity.
He stepped forward. “Are you...?”
Negative, I am not her majesty. I am the vessel. The space-ship.
“How are you talking to me without saying anything?”
Irrelevant. There is no time. The authorities will arrive within the hour, you will need to be ready.
“Ready for—” Patrick paused, his mind stuck somewhere between disbelief and incredulous awe. “Ready for what?”
Transformation. Place your hand on the protrusion.
Patrick watched as part of the glossy outer surface separated from the rest of the otherwise perfect curvature. The extruded section, large enough for an adult male palm, presented itself, indented and ready to receive an imprint. But he hesitated as his fingers came within an inch.
Patrick, the voice continued. Husband of Marguerite. Father of Harvey and Coraline. Life hasn’t been fair to you.
Tears streaked down his cheeks. Floodgates overwhelmed.
However, said the voice, for exactly three years, five months, one week, and eleven hours, your life was enriched by the presence of your family. Each day you awoke with the zest of a thousand lemons, worked tirelessly in a soul-demoralising job, understanding that your first and foremost responsibility was to provide for your family. You never wavered. Never faltered. And it is this reason you have been chosen.
For the gift.
Patrick blinked away the moisture. His brain and heart threatened to tear him into two. Far, far into the starry night, away from his current predicament, a different wail drifted into the back of his mind. Three highway patrols, two ASLAVs, and one 2-4 rural fire appliance.
He had no idea how he could discern the type of vehicles storming down the road.
Trust and have faith, Patrick. It has not led you astray.
Patrick bit his lower lip. Glanced over the lip of the opening, into the otherworldly cradle, where a beautiful baby girl sat, cooing and gorging on her thumb.
“I choose life,” he whispered.
He pushed his hand in. A warm vibration reverberated through his body. Patrick felt relaxed, enlightened, even optimistic. The entire process lasted only a few seconds, but already, he noticed the increased strength in both arms.
Protect her. Everything will make sense.
“Understood,” said Patrick as he picked up the toddler. No words were needed to convey his intentions as the little one snuggled right into his nurturing arms. He didn’t know what had happened, or what was happening to him, or what awaited him; but he knew that Margeurite, Harvey, and Coraline would be proud.
Her name is Amal
This is Amal.
She will never know the joy of falling in love, or walking down the aisle with her best mate, or cradling her newborn baby.
She will never grow up or old.
She will never laugh until she cries.
She will never ever see another sunrise or sunset.
We have sent people to the moon.
We have self-driving cars.
We waste food.
We drink and smoke and spend money on frivolous things while Amal dies of starvation.
The hundreds of faces in the rowdy marketplace froze, as though time trickled to a standstill. I looked around, each pair of eyes hurling disbelief at me.
Warm blood gushed from my palm.
My chest contracted and expanded so rapidly I could feel the air pressure fluctuate. Ahmed, behind me, was already retreating—his calf muscles strained to reverse his direction. Khaleed, two heartbeats to my right, was about to scream, wanting my head.
The warm viscous fluid flowed down my forearm, crimson tendrils reached down, droplets pelting the dirt below.
The first cry emanated, igniting the inferno of chaos. How could a girl do what I just did? Their tiny brains probably exploded millions of times over. I was property, a plaything, an object of desire to be used and abused.
My sister, Jameela, was crouched on her knees, papa's battered head lay cradled in her arms. The gaping hole just above his cheekbone still fresh.
The gun that killed my father fell from Hussein's limp hand.
I felt pure unadulterated rage. All papa did was leap to his daughter's defense, to shield her from prodding eyes as they tore her clothes off, to be paraded like a prized cow.
My eyes were scalding.
I released Hussein's mangled skull, letting it fall. I lifted my foot next, above the bloody carnage. The sickening crunch as I dug my heels into the mess of bone fragments, fleshy sinews, and brain matter was the last straw; but judging from their horrified expressions, it was more flight than fight.
Those animals never stood a chance. I could've vapourised them all with just a look, but I wanted them to feel pain. My father's pain. Jameela's pain. My pain.
I am Kale'na, of the House El, the last daughter of Krypton.
“What are we?”
“We are Vairens,” Syzygy replied nonchalantly by the portal-way, eyeing his partner surreptitiously. The couple had come into friction in the last few weeks, when the plight of the outcasts came to weigh on their collective conscience.
“You know that’s not what I’m referring to,” Amaranth said, her vision pulling upon the high mountains that loomed half a planet-width away. Any stronger, and she would’ve torn the peaks off with her gaze.
“We are Vairens,” Syzygy reiterated. “For eons, an illuminating pillar through the darkness, unbending, unconquerable, unquenchable. We were moulding light and shaping gravity even before the earliest civilizations had discovered heat or invented the wheel.”
“Yes,” Amaranth said, remaining unmoved. “We may have achieved a great deal, in most cases surpassing those of our neighbours, but if we subject ourselves, even one individual to such gross indecency…”
Syzygy stepped up, standing next to his symbiont. A moment passed and he turned to regard his diminutive other half. “We are no better than hive-chewers?”
“You mock me, Syzygy. I know you do.”
“I apologize Amaranth, it is not my intention to belittle your concerns. I—” he paused, exasperation crept into his voice. “We,” he corrected, “we have to preserve our way of life. It is who we are. It is… what we are.”
“And so I ask,” Amaranth said. “What are we?”
“A million-year old race of hyper-intelligent beings.”
“I could say the same of the Metamorphs.”
“Those savages aren’t of the same evolutionary pedigree as us. They had a biased advantage, and by all accounts—scientific or otherwise—should have supplanted us as the dominant species in the sextant.”
“So, what does that say about us?” Amaranth angled her shoulders, appearing to examine her partner’s façade.
“We are civilized. We have social structure, intricate culture, unparalleled ecosystems, each developed specifically to blend in with the unique characteristics of the terraformed planet. The shapeshifters simply acquire and assimilate. They are barbaric.”
Amaranth was quick to counter, “and we impose an inflexible doctrine on our young, even before conception, dictating how each individual is to function within the confines of their society. We erode our own freedom before we even understand what it means to be free.”
“Without systemic perfection,” Syzygy said, “we would not be what we are right now.” His eyes narrowed slightly.
“So,” Amaranth said, “it matters not that our individual rights are trampled upon, so long as we have the ability to subjugate every other species that we come across, friend or foe?”
“Our system works,” came the retort. Syzygy was facing Amaranth in full, arms folded.
“We have never enjoyed more holistic and accomplished lives. Our achievements in science, technology, art, philosophy—everything—remained unrivalled. Do you remember when we were first inflicted by the phage?”
Amaranth closed her eyes, memories from almost forty-thousand years ago sprouted into her subconscious, seeking to soften her stoic visage. The ability to store and retrieve every single thought and mental nuance was both a blessing and curse.
“We lost billions,” she said after a pause.
“Indeed,” Syzygy said, his chest puffing out. “But you’re still not convinced.”
“There has to be another way,” she said, again after a short while. Her eyes were semi-moist.
Syzygy arched an eyebrow. “You are emotional,” he said. “I haven’t seen you like this in a long time. Not since we lost Daedal.”
Amaranth turned away at the mention of their offspring, and stepped toward the other view-portal.
“This can’t be about those vagabonds,” Syzygy said, shadowing her departure. But before he could get within arm’s length, his genetic-mate turned around with an open palm held up, intended to prevent his advance.
“I implore you,” Amaranth said, lowering her arm, “we must seek an amicable resolution for these individuals.”
“You frustrate me,” Syzygy said from where he stopped. “Surely you understand, the pairing works more than just a marriage of ideology and thesis.”
“But do you?”
Amaranth did not reply. Instead, she had her back towards him again.
“I’m inclined to comment,” Syzygy said, observing his spouse of two-thousand years. Still, only roaring silence.
“Don’t,” she finally said.
“Without the pairing,” he said, “our species will go extinct.”
Her frame heaved up and down.
“One half provides genetic surplus, one half consumes. Without compatible—”
“I said don’t,” Amaranth shot him a glare, both hands perched on her hips. “Have you forgotten that I used to be on the science directorate?”
Syzygy held his tongue.
“Have you forgotten it was I who composed the entire compendium on pairing? Have you forgotten that I propelled your station to its current stature, high above your peers? Is your head so far up the stratosphere that you suffer from fluid deprivation?”
“Enough!” Syzygy said, lunging forward to grip her forearms. “Amaranth!” he jolted her, “this isn’t you. Why are you behaving erratically?”
Both of her eyes had suddenly turned a shade of dark emerald, with smaller hair-like tendrils boring just beneath the surface of her skin, permeating deeper and wider with each second.
“Amaranth,” he said softly as he joined her on the floor, shins flat against the malleable surface that had recrystallized itself to form a low-lying chair. “Why do you weep? Where is this grief coming from? Tell me, please.”
She took several steadying breaths. Steadily, the dark green pigments on her forehead and cheekbones dissipated, becoming less prominent. “I…” Amaranth said, her light-green orbs finding his. “I request severance.”
Syzygy released her arms in an instant, putting distance between himself and his partner. “You…” he gasped. “What is going on?”
“I do not wish to seem an ungrateful spouse,” she said, “for we have shared each other for as long as I can remember without synthetic aid. I do cherish our experiences. But…”
“No, Syzygy, let me expla—”
“No!” he said with flaring eyes. “I said stop!” It was Syzygy who was now spotting viridian patterns on his face.
“Please,” she hushed.
“I understand now,” he said with a forced chuckle. “Why you empathized so fervently with the outcasts and want to champion their cause.”
“We do not seek to abolish the pairing, only that we incorporate additional compatibility criteria during the mutual-selection process.”
“Am I no longer worthy of your exudations?”
“It’s not that,” Amaranth replied. “It has never been about that.”
“Oh?” Syzygy folded his arms again. “Tell me, then. Tell me what it’s really about.”
“Intimacy,” she said. “Harmonious rapport that provides a deep reciprocity of both individuals—body, mind and spirit.”
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “That is what we yearn. To have a choice. To have a say in the matter that concerns our existence. And in many ways, the quality of our collective
“You mean that’s what you want.” His voice was dripping ice.
“No,” he said in quick succession and edged away. “It’s not possible. It’s… you clearly stated in the compendium that any other pairing process will not guarantee the same probabilities of success. I will not have it. The leadership will not have it.”
“You don’t speak for the leadership,” she said. “You are merely one part of many. If the lack of scientific interest in the subject is holding—”
“It’s too risky,” he countered. “We cannot allow personal interests to threaten what is otherwise a perfect system that has guaranteed the superiority of the species for more than a millenia.”
“But we don’t know if it won’t work,” Amaranth argued. “We discounted so many branches of thought at the time, so many ideas were left unexplored. I’m confident we can find a way, a compromise, a resolution to mend the mainstream with the divergents.”
Syzygy spun around without warning and had his hands around her neck the moment he was within reach. “There will be no studies or investigations,” he whispered into her contorted face. Her legs weakened as her internal systems were unable to compensate from the forced extraction of genetic substance. Another moment later and his partner’s face was pale, mired in wrinkles. “I can see the terror in your eyes. You thought you could anticipate, you thought you knew me. But you don’t, you never did.”
Amaranth was on her knees, hands on his forearms, staring into his eyes, a frowned etched upon her forehead. Her neck and ears were a shade of dark aubergine.
“Yes, dearest companion,” Syzygy said, “fear my wrath. It’s funny. To think I augmented by skin pigments years ago as a means of subterfuge—to ensure longevity of ascendance—never once crossing my mind that I would need to conceal my anger from you. Funny. How things worked out.”
“What did you say?”
She squeaked again.
Syzygy eased his claws and drew closer, his ears almost touching Amaranth’s lips. “Yes?”
“I impregnated my blood hours ago.”
He released his grip, the color from his face drained. “What have you done?”
“Taking a stance.” Amaranth soared up as she watched her spouse stumble backwards, his skin percolating grey.
“You won’t get away with this…” he wheezed, trying to prop himself upright.
“I already have.”