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Another Life

She was floating. Her fat cells were floating higher; floating away. They clumped together, to smile and wave triumphantly before streaming into the other room. Towards the machine. It was almost comical to look at, sitting there so squat and ugly, like a little troll feeding on human fat. She wanted one for her own, could see how the pattern would go together, but there was no time for that now. Floating high above the bed, Abigail looped-the-loop in skinny, weightless joy and then floated out of the window. She gazed down at the odd little building as it fell away from her, and at the happy customers laughing and chatting at the doors. Then she soared into the cloudless sky. She knew that this time she would do it. She had to try, and besides, what did she have to loose?

Far ahead of her Tia began to laugh. Finally she had taken the bait.
***
Putting the phone down with a sigh, Abigail went to collect Harry’s lead from its peg by the door.

“Come on, boy, there’s no work for me today. Let’s go explore and then I can get some sculptures printed up ready for the craft fair next weekend.” Outside, the sun was shining and the street was bustling warmly. Abigail soon began to relax and enjoy herself.

“Not so bad, being off on a day like today, is it?” she asked the old dog as they turned down a narrow street. The buildings were older there and cuddled together happily, rather than standing proud and stiff like the newer ones around her apartment. Harry paused regularly to sniff at corners and cracks which took his fancy while Abigail drank in the sights around her. She talked almost constantly as they walked; pointing out anything that she found unusual or interesting, and reassuring Harry that they had done the right thing in moving here. There would be enough work, she told him; being a supply teacher was always a bit up in the air and besides, it was only temporary while she got moving in her new direction. Harry looked at her loyally; tail wagging uncomprehendingly as she spoke.

Abigail was just explaining her plans for the hotel when she suddenly stopped with a screech. Harry crouched low, casting around for the danger. The street was practically devoid of people, and there was no obvious threat so he looked at her patiently, watching to see what she would do next.

“Harry!” she whispered. “Harry, look! It’s for sale!” She took a dreamy step towards the odd, grumpy little building across the road but then had to jump back, off the road, as a bus rumbled past. Harry whined his concern and thumped his tail against the pavement where he now sat, effectively anchoring Abigail to the spot. Frightened out of her stupor by her near miss with the bus, Abigail bent down to scratch at his ears, apologising as she did so. Almost immediately, however, her attention was pulled back to the building opposite and she remained, bent over Harry, her eyes fixed on the hotel.

“Sorry boy” she shook her head to clear it and crouched beside him. “Remember how I said I was thinking about a change, about running a hotel? I don’t remember seeing it before, but that’s the one I’ve been dreaming about. It’s like a sign!” She giggled and scrubbed at his ears with her fist. “Can’t you just see me with my own hotel? Don’t get me wrong, I know it would mean long hours and hard work. There probably wouldn’t be any more days like this; just wandering around, exploring the town. It would be great though; like having my own little window into people’s lives…” Harry looked up at her, tail thumping as her excited voice rattled on, her eyes never leaving the little hotel. Eventually she stopped talking, but they remained for a while, looking and dreaming until eventually Harry grew bored and began to whine and pull. Abigail followed unwillingly. She would need to build a business plan, her father would never agree to lend her the money on the strength of a dream, but she also knew without question what she was going to do next.

***

Tia concentrated hard, Abigail seemed to be thinking more and slowing her momentum but it was important that everything was ready in time. If she missed this, there was no guarantee that she would be able to stay sane enough to ever try again. Already the scream of warped space-time had begun to seem like the only natural end to things. Her mind, confined in the time crystal and then cast out to endure the end of time, slid round the eternal curve. She was ahead of Abigail now, but catching up fast. It wouldn’t be long until she was behind her. There had to be something there ready to catch her or she would simply go round again, losing her mind as she slid away. She didn’t want to scare Abigail off, but she needed another push.

***

“He must really hate the idea of me as a teacher” Abigail said as she examined a scarlet top; taking it off the rail to show her friend then returning it swiftly when she saw her expression. “Ah, well. Anyway, Dad pretty much agreed to give me a loan to start the hotel up there and then. I don’t know why he sees it as more acceptable than being a supply teacher, but I’m not complaining.”

“He probably just thinks it will be more stable, let’s face it. The area is gorgeous and the few times I’ve been there it is always heaving with tourists. At least you will be in regular employment there my girl.” Sophie dropped her voice, trying to mimic the operatic tones of Abigail’s militarily flamboyant father. Abigail laughed and shook her head.

“I’m not sure what he thinks, but the main thing is that he has agreed to stand me the cash as long as I can create a feasible business plan.”

“And I guess that is where I come in?”

“Do you mind? I know it is a big ask, but I really don’t have any idea where to start.”

“Don’t be stupid, of course I’ll help.” Sophie laughed. “It’ll be fun. Besides, I can’t wait to see the hotel of your dreams!”

“Please don’t tell anyone about that part.” Abigail groaned. “Dad can’t know or he will pull the plug straight off. He still can’t get his head around the idea of me using a 3-D printer to create sculptures. The fact that it pays for my occasional treats or nights out doesn’t seem to matter. It’s all too arty for him and he’s just convinced that it proves I’ve my head in the clouds. If he finds out I picked that building because I’ve been dreaming about it; rather than because I looked through all the available options…” She tailed off with a shudder. Sophie made sympathetic noises and then returned to her shopping; heading to the changing rooms with an armful of clothes.

***

Carefully Abigail touched the delicate white plastic pieces together, melting them slightly where they made contact to form a weld. Behind her, her 3-D printer worked busily to churn out the next components of the sculpture. Scattered around her were drawings, calculations and scraps, as well as several other, simpler creations. She muttered to herself as she worked and didn’t appear to hear the door open as Sophie let herself into the room.

“What’s up, Abigail? Not got enough on?” Sophie let the sarcasm drip from her voice as she moved up towards the desk, looking at the emerging sculpture and picking up one of the drawings. Abigail laughed ruefully.

“Yeah, I wish! This is cathartic for me though, like you going for a run. Here, this one will give you a better idea of what it is going to look like once it’s done.” She held up a second drawing, laughing again as Sophie held it up, tilting and turning as she struggled to make sense of the squat, ugly little thing it depicted.

“OK, I give in.” Sophie declared eventually, handing the sheet back to Abigail. “What is it meant to be and why would anyone want one?”

“Promise you won’t tell? … Well, remember how I said that the whole reason I wanted that particular hotel is because it had somehow gotten into my dreams? This little machine was part of those dreams.” Her grin faded as she saw Sophie’s concerned expression.

“Oh, Abi…” she began, but Abigail cut her off.

“No, no. It’s not like that!” She covered her mouth as she let out a little giggle, “What, do you think I’m crazy now? No, I just thought it would be cool, like a little private joke to have the thing in one of the rooms. It’ll remind me of how this all started and give anyone staying in the room something to think about!”

***

Far ahead of Abigail, Tia imagined a smirk. “You just keep on thinking like that, sweetheart.”

The condemnation of the other minds rang loud in her being, they had labelled her immoral just before she had left them. The curve of time had become too much for her to resist and she had fallen into its embrace with relief and glee. The others had achieved the state they all longed for. They truly saw themselves as the blessed few; the chosen ones who had been selected to live out their immortality encased in time crystals. The only remaining witnesses to the universe itself. Long after its agonised, drawn out, heat-death the crystals had survived, as basic and orderless as matter could be. The souls within had no form and no weight for physics to tear apart; and so they had stayed until they had become one with the void. Nirvana for them had been a single, conscious community floating through nothing without needing for anything.

She had hated it; that passionless, lonely existence which might as well be death. The total lack of desire or ambition horrified her. They, the final witnesses to life itself had now become the absolute antithesis of everything that life had been. Without hope or expectation Tia had finally allowed herself to be drawn along the mobius strip of time’s curvature, but now she had hurtled past the beginning of time and had come to realise that this might be a way out. She had no idea what the effect on the girl would be, but she no longer cared about anyone else. Jealousy at life’s extravagant, mayfly existence had killed any empathy or compassion a life-time ago.

***

The night had been a success and the relief was making Abigail’s head swim. Not the champagne, definitely not the champagne. No. Her head was swimming with relief and, yes, with triumph. More people had turned up than she had even hoped for and they had all enjoyed themselves. She had overheard several complimentary comments about the changes she had made to the building, and only one or two negative ones which she could ignore. She had held on until the very end of the night and was one of the last to leave, finally pouring herself into room 205 just as the street lights went out for the day.

Glancing over at her squat, ugly sculpture she giggled to herself as she shrugged out of her evening dress. It had been built to work. All of the parts that had moved in her dreams were now able to move in reality and it sat leering down at her from its perch above the bed. She slurred a salute in its general direction and grinned at her own personal tribute to the dreams that had convinced her that this was what she really wanted. Shrugging out of her dress she stumbled through her ablutions before slumping into her bed and into sleep. She was unconscious almost before her head hit the pillow. Above her the little machine stirred to life.

Abigail groaned and rolled over, trying to pull the covers with her as she went. They slipped out of her hand causing her to groan again, grasping at her fingers as she buried her face into the pillow. Her eyes screwed tight against the lively sunshine that streamed into the room, playing in her hair and warming her freshly ravaged face. Futilely she flapped at it, trying to shoo it away as though it was a biting insect. When it refused to leave, when night didn’t return, she risked opening a bloodshot eye.

“Oh God!” she groaned a third time. “Why did I have to drink so much?” A second attempt to pull the covers over her head was more successful and she had almost slipped back into oblivion when the knocking started.

“Abigail? Are you ok?” Sophie’s voice, on the other side of the door, sounded concerned and Abigail lifted her head slightly before resorting to yet another incoherent grunt. “Abigail?” Sophie sounded alarmed now. “Are you in there? Are you ok? Look, sweetie, we are going to break the door in. We can’t find the master keys, your Dad seems to think you gave them to the cleaners ready to go in after the party, but there is no sign of them now.” Abigail curled weakly into a ball, trying to block out the unwelcome noise of Sophie’s voice. She barely looked up as the door burst inward revealing a stocky man with a crowbar and letting even more light in to assault her eyes.

“Hungover. Go ‘way.” She mumbled, trying to hold the covers in place as Sophie strode over to her and pulled them back, away from her head and shoulders.

“Phil, call an ambulance!” she immediately barked at the stocky man. He turned towards her, eyebrow raised in an amused expression that fled as soon as he saw Abigail’s face. Without saying a word, he turned away from the room and stalked off down the hall.

***

Ahead of Tia, the stream of matter sparkled and danced as it slid away from Abigail. It slipped over the time horizon and would now be forming a pool over on the back side of the loop. It would lie there, dormant and outside of time, until she arrived to claim it. A sudden surge of lust took her by surprise. It had been so long that she had forgotten about even the existence of such an emotion. She almost faltered, tried to recoil from the waiting matter but, like them, she no longer had any choice but to continue her eternal sliding. Recovering, she imagined a smile and relaxed into the unfamiliar pull of greed and desire.

***

“Please, just kill it!” Abigail was crying and shaking as she begged over and over for them to destroy the sculpture that she had so lovingly, so recently created. Sophie leaned forward to gently stroke her face, pushing the hair away from her eyes as she did so. When she eventually spoke, her voice was as soft as a mother trying to calm her frightened child.

“Abigail, it isn’t the sculpture that has made you ill. It isn’t alive, you must know that? Now, the doctors can’t find any evidence of bacterial infection, so it must be a virus. The good news is that you seem to have stabilised by yourself. We might never really find out what happened to you, but Abi, I promise you it wasn’t that sculpture.”

“No. No, Sophie, you weren’t there! That machine is alive and I don’t care how crazy that sounds. It was feeding off me and there was nothing I could do. It must have started while I was sleeping and by the time I woke up I couldn’t move to escape.” She shuddered as Sophie touched her again, shushing her and glancing around furtively. There was no-one close enough to hear and she leant forward to whisper to her friend.

“Abigail, listen to me. I am not going to destroy that sculpture; I think it would be bad for you. You need to get over this whole thing about the dreams. I know that it has been hard for you over the past few months. I know that you have made a lot of changes very quickly.” She paused and took a deep breath. “I just don’t think that you were as ready for some of them as you thought you were. This illness has really taken it out of you. I can see that, but even before then… I don’t know Abigail; you’ve been trying to hide it, which must mean you are aware of it at least; but you just aren’t right at the minute.” Abigail shook her head violently, fighting to control herself and to stop sobbing.

“I know what you think but I just need you to help me. Please, destroy the damn thing and I won’t ever mention it again.” She slumped back into her bed and lay, spent and hopeless. “Please, I promise, I won’t mention it again.” Her eyes closed and Sophie sat, watching her sleep for a minute or so before shaking her head with a sigh. Sadly she got up and left the room.

***

Tia snarled as she entered Sophie’s unconscious mind. They were going to kill the machine, destroy all the dreams that she had spent so long building. She had never been quite able to shake off her old humanity; the others had and had found their nirvana, but she had grown envious of those who had remained mortal. Even now, especially now – when she could at last see them again – that envy was turning to hate. She wanted to be one of them. More than anything she wanted her mortality back, and she was not going to let them stand in her way. Forget coaxing them into giving up their mass willingly, she didn’t have the time or the inclination any longer. They were going to give her what she wanted. There was no-one to stop her.

Sophie smiled tightly at the young woman behind the reception desk, but managed to keep her voice level, almost friendly:

“Look, I take full responsibility if anything goes wrong. You know that Abigail trusts me; I am her friend and her office manager. Unfortunately you can’t call her right now because she’s ill, but she has asked me to get something from that room for her.” She paused, took a deep breath and tried to ignore the woman’s sceptical expression. “Look, I know you don’t know either me or Abigail well. That must be hard when you are not long in a new job, but trust me. I need to get into that room because she really wants the sculpture. Don’t ask me why – hopefully she’s just realised that it doesn’t go with the rest of décor.” If the other woman noticed the strain in her smile, she didn’t show it. Instead she just laughed and commented that it was about time; the ugly thing gave her the creeps.

The receptionist led Sophie up to the room and unlocked the door. Rather than follow her in, however, she glanced nervously around and quickly made her way back to the reception desk. Sophie ran her eye around the room which had been tidied and cleaned; the squat sculpture hadn’t been touched.

Close up, Sophie felt just as repulsed as Abigail now seemed to be by the ridiculous thing. She still had no understanding of what had possessed her friend to make such an awful figure, let alone why she had decided that it was necessary to sleep in the same room as it. She picked it and up a shudder ran through her; causing her to jump back, and then to laugh and shake her head.

“Grow up, Sophie” she muttered “She’ll have you as daft as she is.”

She tried again to lift the sculpture before dropping it a second time. Chiding herself softly, Sophie grasped it more firmly. This time she was unable to stifle an alarmed squeal as she snatched her hands away. She looked at them in shock, turning them over so that she could inspect them thoroughly, they were unmarked. She stared at them for a bit and then shook her head in disgust.

“Get a grip” she said to herself then, licking her lips nervously, she positioned herself in a half squat with her feet either side of the machine like Indiana Jones trying not to trigger a trap. She snickered and rubbed her mouth, paused and then grabbed at the sculpture in a business like manner. Immediately she jerked backwards and tried to throw herself across the room, away from the thing which lurched into ugly, malevolent life. It didn’t work. The sculpture followed where she led, her hands still fixed firmly to its sides. It had her.

***

Tia let out a triumphant cry. This close to her goal, some of the living matter had already begun to coalesce around her. There was no turning back now but she needed more matter. The stupid friend was perfect. She wondered if having so much of Sophie’s essence meant that they would look alike. Would she be able to step straight into the arrogant child’s life? It would save her the bother of trying to build herself one. She had been watching her through Abigail’s mind for months, but now she was close enough to see the creature for herself. She imagined a laugh, no belly yet to do it properly. The irony was delicious. Willing herself further along the loop Tia began to imagine a life constrained by biology and matter. Like a lover leaving a bad relationship she worried that it wasn’t the right thing to do; but she knew deep down that she had no choice. Even if it was physically possible, she could never allow herself to turn away now.

***
Sophie screamed, kicking hard at the sculpture as she did so. Her foot stuck fast. Like a hysterical Br’er Rabbit she kicked again with her other foot, pulling back against her tormentor with all her might. Her scream was primal as the machine drew the life-force out of her. She could feel the strength, no, the muscle leaving her. Worse, she could see it.

The room was filling up with a fine, repulsive mist that clumped away from Sophie, swirling around her, just out of reach. She continued to desperately jerk and howl as the machine fed off her. With a final surge of effort she forced her legs straight and was rewarded with a feeble snap and her left arm sagged loose in its socket. Shrieking and crying, she tried to fight and pull against it, but was getting weaker quickly. The mist around her was growing thicker.

***

From an ever decreasing distance, Tia watched, delighted as the agonised woman began to fail. Cackling, she strained to reach the source of her future humanity. She would live this life so much better than that pathetic woman would ever have managed. She deserved this more, had waited longer, she wouldn’t waste a second. Desire consumed her and she burned with the need to get there, to take possession of what was rightfully hers.

***

Suddenly the door burst open as two men hurled themselves into the room. Weakly, Sophie called out a warning, but it was too late for the bigger, stronger of the two. Rushing to her rescue, he forced himself against the machine, using his body as a lever to try and push Sophie free. His screams were instant and intense causing the other man to falter in the act of grabbing at the sculpture himself.

“No!” Sophie whimpered as he turned in retreat. “Please, don’t go! Just don’t touch it…” Her eyes rolled back in their sockets. “Just kill it.”

He paused, uncertain what to do when the other man jerked suddenly, straining against their impassive, terrifying foe and scaring him into action. He turned to the nearest chair, grabbed it, and hauled it at the machine. Sophie’s other would-be rescuer threw himself forwards as the chair crashed into them. Landing on top of her, he lay breathlessly for a moment before looking over his shoulder at the twitching pieces of the awful sculpture.

Crying softly, Sophie finally allowed herself to slip into oblivion as around her the men set about destroying the living nightmare that had almost killed her. As the machine disintegrated in a storm of violence and fear, the mist that had filled the room began to coalesce and return to her.

***

Behind them it was Tia’s turn to scream. Unable to halt her advance, she continued to hurtle towards the now non-existent pool of waiting matter. Like a duck on an ice-rink, she scrabbled in retreat but failed entirely to stop her momentum. There wasn’t enough! She could see that, even from here. What there was, though, would latch onto her mind as she passed. It would force her into a semblance of veracity; force her to become real but in a vitally incomplete body. There was no way she could survive incarnation in such an inadequate form. The feeble cloud of matter was her waiting doom.

She howled as she sped towards it.

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