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  • James Aichinger

Short Story - The Verge of a Cataclysm

“One thing is for sure,” the newsreader said, turning to camera. “Time is running out for a peaceful resolution to this conflict.”

Elizabeth shook her head and disconnected her earphones. Overhead the carriage lights flickered as the train rattled out of the tunnel and into the gathering dusk. She slipped her phone back into her pocket and looked down at the book on her lap.

It was a translation of an ancient Greek text about the goddess Artemis, her murder of a man who assaulted her mother and her cult following of hunter maidens. It was said she had perfect aim, could track any being on Earth and turn herself into an animal at will.

Although some of it was likely exaggeration, there was an undeniable pattern emerging the more she looked. Elizabeth’s eyes skittered across her notes. Artemis, the sorcerer Emrys, Ninigi and his divine sword: history was littered with supernatural people that appeared more frequently than idly embellished stories could account for. Always emerging during times of political upheaval, they were a harbinger of change and an undeniable force.

And now they’re appearing again, Elizabeth thought as the train slowed to a stop, what could these people possibly want from disrupting such a peaceful world? She bit her nail and stood up, slinging her satchel over her shoulder and brushing past a short, thin man in a light grey hoodie. A handful of jostled steps later and she was walking away from the station, looking all around for a sign.

Washington Square, he should only be a few streets away. The man from earlier bumbled past muttering to himself and leaving an earthy stench in his wake. Elizabeth wrinkled her nose and started walking. It would have been easier to call a cab, but the university expenses rules wouldn’t have covered it. She was lucky her supervisor agreed to pay for the train ride at all.

“Excuse me, miss.” A policeman flashed his badge and motioned for her to come over. “I’ll need to see your ID, please.”

Elizabeth sighed and opened her bag. These stop-and-searches were becoming intolerable. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the man in the grey hoodie watching from a nearby intersection.

“Hmm,” said the policeman, inspecting her driver’s licence. “Elizabeth Novak… Got any family in Russia?”

“My parents were from Croatia,” Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “They emigrated before I was born.”

Her tone didn’t go unnoticed. The cop frowned. “Gotta ask. We’ve been told to check. Who knows where those Reds are hiding.” He looked around the emptying street. “You’d best be getting on. Curfew will be starting soon.”

Elizabeth snatched the card back and stalked off. Glancing over her shoulder at the man in the hoodie.

Professor Rivera would know what to do. He was one of the most influential academics in the world. A lead lecturer in psychology and politics who sat on a dozen councils at the UN. If anyone could convince people to sit up and take notice it would be him.

As she turned into Camp Street she glanced back. The hooded man had been stopped by police. She breathed out, feeling the knot of tension loosen.

Darkness was falling fast now. The sidewalk was a series of orange pools, isolated from each other by a clawing impenetrable blackness. Elizabeth shook her head and forged on, kicking up dried leaves from the drifts that covered the concrete.

She was a few hundred yards away when she heard the gunshot. It rent the air like a clap of thunder and echoed around the houses. Elizabeth looked back.

Walking around the corner of the road, the front of his hoodie stained in blood, was the man.

Elizabeth started to run. She could feel his eyes on the back of her neck. He was moving from streetlight to streetlight, as though the darkness between was no distance to him. She ran up the drive to Professor Rivera’s house and hammered on the door.

“Professor, let me in!” She screamed as the hooded man closed in. “Let me in!”

The stench of cannabis enveloped her as the man slowed to a walk, his bloodstained hand reaching for a pocket.

The door opened and she fell forwards into the carpeted hall. She looked back and saw the man’s glittering black eyes fix on the figure beside her. Then, very slowly, it backed away into the night.

“Sorry about that,” Professor Rivera said, closing the door and offering her a hand. “It’s getting a bit dangerous around here.”

“It’s fine,” Elizabeth lied, getting her breath back. “Thanks.”

She looked him up and down. Professor Rivera was handsome, young and attractive, with a face that inspired the utmost trust. The knowledge appeared in her mind without ever passing through her eyes. Elizabeth felt a blush start to creep towards her cheeks and she looked away.

“Would you like to come into my study?”

Elizabeth nodded mutely, thinking desperately of her boyfriend back in Pittsburgh.

“I hope you don’t think I’m being too forward,” Professor Rivera said, guiding her through the house. “But your message intrigued me. You really think that these… supernaturally gifted people are the cause of all this?”

“I’m almost certain,” Elizabeth said, brushing a cobweb off her face as they stepped into the pristine study. “Take a look at the deterioration in politics due to those attacks. So many people claiming to have been possessed or acting out.” She sat down on a comfortable leather chair.

“There are other explanations,” Professor Rivera said, sitting opposite her and steepling his fingers. “Less… fanciful ones.”

“Look at what happened in São Paulo,” Elizabeth insisted, shifting uneasily in her seat as something scuttled behind her. “That ‘lightning strike’ when the metrological data indicated there were clear skies.”

“It is in people’s nature to attribute what they do not understand to the mystic.” The professor fixed her with a hard gaze. There was something in his voice now; a slight metallic ring. “Do you really think your evidence could convince people?”

Elizabeth rested her hand on the wooden chair and opened her mouth to speak. She looked down. Leather, leather chair. “I… do, sir.”

She looked at him. At where he used to be.

The décor of the room was beginning to fade; the lush carpets giving way to dusty floors, the light giving way to darkness.

In the corner a hooded figure stirred. And on the wall above it was a grinning, metal mask.

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