CORE

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It happened on a train. A man woke up as if from a long sleep, and was bewildered. He looked around him. Out the window to his left, the ocean lay behind drab, brown sandhills covered with low vestiges of dead and dying vegetation, wind torn. Then the ocean was gone from view behind a hill, and the hill was covered with ugly, squat hovels teeming with turgid life. Piles of rubbish lay on the tiny verges in front of the hideous houses, and rivers of stink ran, brown and gurgling with viscid decay, down the lumpy streets.

He looked around the carriage at his fellow travellers. A more motley collection of misshapen, festering and pustulent horrors he could not imagine. Look at that man there, a clinical example of morbid obesity with food stains all over his rumpled once-white shirt. That young fellow, dressed all in tatters and grinning with teeth that looked like shards of sharpened oak, his hair a birds nest. And that woman there, her skin a mine of glowing red and white pimples, all looking ready to burst, while her eyes weep yellow gunge. She is grinning too, for some unfathomable reason. They all are, in fact. All, despite their undeniable infirmities, distortions, grossness and offensive abominations, seem incomprehensibly pleased with themselves.

Who are these people, he wondered, that could live in such squalor and degradation – for the train carriage itself is a picture of dilapidation and neglect almost as bad as the streets and blocks flashing by outside – and beam with such apparent pleasure?

And then it struck him, with the full force of horror, that he didn’t know who they were, but worse, he didn’t know who he was himself. He looked at his ragged clothes, his old, scuffed and discoloured shoes, his tie carrying a complete menu of food residues, and had no clue as to who he might be. The vague reflection in the train window told him he was old and wrinkled. His grey skin sagged and his nose was far too large, and his eyebrows were like an outgrowth of steel wool that met in the middle above his sunken eyes. He was a mess as bad as any of his fellow passengers. He wondered how the hell he had come to be there, and what he could do to get out of it.

Just then, the door at the end of the carriage opened, and two fat, slovenly and appallingly dressed guards came through. They meandered through the carriage, looking with leery approval at the passengers, drooling and snorting back snot loudly, without a care in the world for decorum. They saw the man, and stopped dead in their tracks. The depth and breadth of their bloated foulness was hard for him to comprehend, and he could not see how in any way it could be surpassed. They were just hideous, gargoyles more than men, with bulging eyes over bulbous cheeks, and long, snaky tongues that darted back and forth over vicious lips.

“What have we got here then,” said the taller, slightly less grotesque of the two. “This one doesn’t look happy at all.”

The man stared at these two repellent apparitions, unable to answer. He felt sick.

“What’s your name, mate?” said the other guard, the one with the huge, dripping nose and the rancid breath.

The man stared at the guard for a moment, then swallowed and rasped out, “I don’t know.”

Both gargoyles rocked back on their heels for a moment, cackling with raucous laughter that grated the ears and insulted the soul of the man.

“Oh dear,” said the tall one. “Looks like he’s had a CORE malfunction.” He turned to his companion and said, “poor blighter. Can’t be pretty from where he’s sitting.” Then, turning back to the man, he said, or rather shouted, as though he thought the man was deaf. “You’ve had a CORE event, mate. A Construction of Reality Error. Essentially, it’s a media failure. Your internal media feed has packed up, and you’re not getting the Preferred Perception signal. The result is that you have come into uncomfortable contact with the truth.”

The guard shuddered at the thought of coming into contact with the truth himself – such a thing would be uncomfortable, probably in the extreme – and put his monstrous face close to the man’s own. “Never mind, we’ll have you fixed in a jiffy,” he said.

His partner produced a long, slender electronic wand with a wide circular protrusion at the top, and started to wave it over the man’s head. At some point, it started to beep. “There’s your problem,” he said as a dribble of spit curled over his hairy lip. “Your Putrescence Filter has gone into overload and shut down. It just needs a reset and you’ll be right as rain.” He pressed a button on the end of the wand, and a massive, numbing shock jolted through the man’s brain, shattering his consciousness and then restoring it an instant later.

He woke up just as the train was entering the city. The buildings gleamed in the bright sunshine, and on the wide, clean streets people dressed in stunning colours and beautiful fabrics stepped with light assurance, nodding and smiling to each other. The man looked up at the two handsome young guards, thanked them for their assistance and complimented them on their dapper uniforms, and got up to leave the train. He noted with satisfaction that despite the long journey, his silk suit had not retained a single wrinkle, and he stopped to allow a spectacularly beautiful young woman to get out of her seat and head to the door. It was going to be a wonderful day.

 

If you enjoyed this story, please consider buying a collection of my short stories The Burnt Islands and Other Stories and/or Good Things and Other Stories. And don’t forget to sign up for my mailing list – new novel is days away from being available, and there’s another in the pipeline.