Tuesday 24 March 2020

Don't Drink the Water

This is a short I wrote for the SFX "Pulp Idol" contest in 2008. I think this was the third such contest, and it was the first I entered. These contests were a brilliant idea, allowing anyone to submit fiction for consideration, and given pretty much free reign as to content and subject. It just had to be SF of some variety. The winning stories were published in a small paperback book that was included with the magazine, and there were some really exceptional works included. A few successful authors got a kick start from these contests.

"Don't Drink the Water" did not win anything, although it did get a mention in the "We also heard from" column at the end of the 2008 collection, which listed other story titles and their authors, that had particularly impressed the judges and made it onto the longlist at least. So that was encouraging. Reading it now, I think I'd do rather better with the idea, but I still quite like how brief and to-the-point it is. I think I was reading a lot of Neil Gaiman at the time, which might be obvious, and Haruki Murakami, which is probably less so. I wrote the story with paper and pen originally, sitting at a riverbank outside Chiang Rai in Thailand. It's a shame I didn't win, as that would have been a wonderfully pretentious author biography to go with it.

Don't Drink the Water

Kyungay fell, landing on the dry mudstone floor with a thud and a snap. He tried shifting to a more comfortable position, but was rewarded only by an intense pain in his left ankle. Cautiously, he brushed his hand along it - a sliver of bone was jutting sharply outwards, threatening to break the skin. Kyungay forced himself to his feet, gritting his teeth and grunting with the pain. The pain didn't matter, he reminded himself. Once he'd found the Fountain, he could stop worrying about pain and injury forever.

He reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out a miniature torch. The chamber into which he had fallen was hardly more interesting once illuminated than it was when dark. The featureless stone walls gave no clue as to the importance of Kyungay's location. He knew, however, that he'd almost made it. All of his researches had shown that, beyond any reasonable doubt, the fabled Fountain of Youth would be found just beyond this chamber.

Doing his best to ignore the pain in his left foot, Kyungay ran his hands along the walls, trying to find anything unusual, any kind of irregularity that may show the way beyond this room.

His heart was pumping hard in his chest. Breathing deeply, he endeavoured to calm himself. After five years, though, of searching and researching, of false hopes and dead ends, simply being this close to his goal was almost too much. He was seventy years old, after all, and, although undeniably in excellent physical condition for his age, fit and well-muscled, the strain this journey had put on him was all too clear. He couldn't forget that he was an old man; that, of course, was why he was here.

In the event, he almost missed what he was looking for. His fingertips brushed over a tiny crack in the stone, almost too fine for his weathered skin to pick up. Eager for any clue, he dug his fingernails into the hair's-breadth fracture. He felt it give, slightly, under the pressure, the stone fragments moving apart a fraction. Certain he had found what he was looking for, he pulled his knife from his belt, jamming the edge into the crack, forcing the wall open. There was a barely audible click, followed by the grinding sound of stone upon stone, as the wall split in two, opening just enough for Kyungay to slip through.

Shining his torch into the next chamber, he knew at once that he had finally made it. The room was just as featureless as the previous, save for a stone-lined well in its centre. It didn't look like the stuff that legends were made of, but it could be nothing other than the Fountain. So overcome was Kyungay at finally reaching his goal, he didn't notice for several seconds that it was guarded.

The figure sat on the stone floor, hunched in the shadows, and quite naked. It's skin was black - not the African black of Kyungay's own, but the black of burnt wood, with the look of well-worn leather. The figure stirred, creaking as it stood to its full height, eye-to-eye with Kyungay. It was emaciated, almost impossibly thin, its kneecaps and elbows bulging obscenely from its limbs. Kyungay couldn't tell its sex - it seemed to have no such external features, save for its twisted, scowling face.

It spoke - beginning with a guttural cough, as if it was clearing its throat, after years of silence. Its words were a throaty whisper.

'You're here. Finally. And, to think, I almost slept through it.'

Kyungay held up his knife. Even aged and injured as he was, he could surely take out this sorry specimen, if it meant he could drink from the Fountain.

'Still, sleeping's about all I do these days. Put that knife down, it'll do you no good.'

Kyungay was not about to let anyone stand in his way, not after this long. He lunged towards the guard, reaching out with the knife and jamming it in the creature's chest. The being knocked him back with a back-handed slap, its surprising strength flooring him. Kyungay watched as the creature pulled the knife from its torso, flinging it across the room with no apparent sign of discomfort.

'Listen, Kyungay, I'm getting too old for this sort of thing. How about you just sit back and listen for once?'

Winded, Kyungay managed to gasp, 'You know who I am?'

'Naturally. I also know why you're here - although, there's only one reason why anyone would come here. I've been waiting a long time for you.'

'Why?' aked Kyungay.

'To tell you not to drink from the well - or the Fountain, I think you preferred. I'm here to stop you becoming immortal.'

'Why?' asked Kyungay again. 'Who are you? Why would you stop me? All I want is youth, and a long life.'

'All you want?' snickered the creature. 'Just listen to my story. You see, I drank from the well, took the water of youth. I was an old man, but immediately I felt invigorated - younger, stronger.' The creature - the man - sat down, flexing his talon-like fingers.

'I admit, it was wonderful to begin with. The first few decades, not ageing, impervious to injury... I felt like a god. The centuries went by, and slowly I began to realise the curse I had put upon myself. Life can bring such pain. Injuries that would have annihilated an ordinary human being - my body torn to shreds, crushed, immolated - I survived all those, unable to die, but still able to feel. My body would regrow, though never quite as it was.

'The rest of humanity, though - they kept me going, for a time. I lived dozens of lives, being different people, loving so many. I outlived them all. For a time, I became a monster - giving only hatred and cruelty, to shield myself from other emotions. This, too, left me hollow. Humanity continued with its own endeavours. I survived hundreds of wars, seeing the world come to the brink of devastation. Eventually, though, mankind pulled through to a peaceful existence.

'I was among the first to leave the Earth. I remember the thrill of it, the first feelings of excitement and adventure I'd had for centuries. I had exhausted the novelties of Earth; in time, I would exhaust all the other worlds.

'I'd seen everything. Done everything. I wanted to end it. I researched, using technologies undreamt of now, into the strange energies that kept me alive. They came to nothing. No measurement or technique could explain how I continued to survive, nor how to overcome the water's power, and end my life.

'I tried another tactic. I reasoned that I could go back, prevent my drinking the water. I spent a century researching and experimenting with time-travel.'

'So you came back?' asked Kyungay, as the ancient paused his incredible tale. He looked back at him with sad, weary eyes.

'No. Time-travel proved to be impossible, even with the most advanced sciences. In my anger, my madness, I threw myself into the sun - but even this did not kill me. I awoke, aware of nothing but the pain, the flames constantly feeding on my body, only for it to recover, to regenerate. I have no idea how long it took me to crawl out of the sun, or for how long I drifted. Millions, perhaps billions of years passed. The numbers became meaningless. Over time, I watched the sun expand, devouring the planets as a fish snaps up flies. In time, its flames dwindled. I was left in darkness.'

'How did you get here?' asked Kyungay. 'I don't understand.'

'There are many thoughts on the nature of the Universe. One states that, after it has expanded to its limits, it will contract, until it reaches the point from which it began. After an eternity, I discovered this way indeed true. Yet, even that great fire did not destroy me, and I awoke in a child Universe.

'Again, aeons passed. Over time, I began to recognise the solar system that was forming around me. The Universe is cyclic, I discovered. It creates itself, as time and space return to precisely their original state. So, I waited - I slept on the newly formed Earth. I became buried, under millions of years of building rock. Once I had finally clawed my way out to the surface, I found this place once again - and sat here, waiting once more, for the time when my younger self would arrive.'

'My God...' muttered Kyungay, finally understanding, with horror, who the ancient creature was.

'You know, that ankle never did heal properly,' said the older Kyungay, smiling a hollow, toothless grin.

'Now, I'll say this one more time: don't drink from the well.'

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