Cole stood alone on the beach watching the waves roll over one another before crashing lazily onto the dirty grey sand. The strong November wind tore at his ears, whipping at his coat. Overhead, fat bloated gulls, some bearing the blight of mutation squabbled petulantly. He couldn’t quite remember the last time he had visited a beach. It had been twenty years since he had stepped foot on Earth, almost thirty if he counted the years he’d spent in the chemical slumber of hypersleep. However after all those years, he found something soothing about the beach, and was enjoying the gentle calm that had slipped over him. Out to sea, the skeletal outlines of huge rigs were etched against the dull, dirty white sky like gentle brush strokes on an old canvas. Cole was a aware of the risk he was taking coming back to Earth, but a man in his line of work went wherever the money called to him. Unfortunately this time, it had brought him back here. As far as his enemies were concerned, Thomas Cole had been dead for almost seven years, yet that knowledge struggled to fill him with any shred of confidence. The Company had never been the forgiving sort, particularly to somebody who had all but destroyed an eighty billion dollar weapons project. Whether he liked it or not, he was here, work paid money, the one thing he needed to put as much distance between himself and Weyland Yutani as possible. It was a risk he was more than willing to take. Cole checked his watch, he still had twenty minutes until he had to meet his contact. Enough time to grab some cigarettes on the way he thought, tossing an empty packet onto the sand. He then turned, leaving the mutant gulls and the gray waves, and made his way back along the beach.
Earth was a great deal more ugly than he had remembered. It was much more industrial. Anything green and natural had been chased away, replaced by ugly concrete high rises, all chrome and glass, looking more like an overgrown colony than the planet that had given birth to humanity. On his flight in from Gateway, he saw from one of the viewports that the cities had spread like a cancer, covering almost all of what was left of the U.S and Europe. In the two days he had spent in New San Francisco, he saw that the people of the city had been segregated into two distinct classes. The rich lived safe and warm, in huge glass palaces at the top of skyscrapers almost half a mile into the sky, everybody else scraped whatever living they could in the grim, ugly slums on the ground. Nothing had changed in twenty years in that regard it seemed. The sand crunched like broken glass under his boots, and without thinking, he played with the zip lighter in the pocket of his coat. Cole paused for a moment, behind him the waves rolled into a crescendo, like the closing notes of a percussion filled orchestra. He took the lighter and held it in his palm. The lighter had belonged to his father, and was the only thing left to him after he died. On it’s scratched surface was stamped the faded insignia of the Colonial Marines. His father had been killed on active duty, Cole had been only ten years old. He could never quite fathom just why he had kept the lighter all of these years, he and his father had never been particularly close, and Thomas Cole certainly had never been the sentimental type. However he was his father’s son, after spending his teenage years being passed between orphanages and countless foster homes, he himself had enlisted in the Marines. He suddenly found himself craving a cigarette and pressed on.
Cole was so lost in his own thoughts that he practically stumbled over the little girl sat in the dirty, grey sand.
He sidestepped, almost falling, boots kicking up clouds of sand, carried away by a gust of wind. The little girl paid him no attention. She simply continued to fill a small, green plastic bucket, gouging out clumps of sand with a cracked, pink spade. Cole righted himself, allowing the momentary scream of panic that still echoed in his chest to slowly fade away, before continuing along the beach. He turned right, walking towards the dunes, lipped with dead brown grass. Beyond, huge skyscrapers reached towards the cloudy sky like tombstones. He cast another glance towards the girl. She wore only the slip of a dress that might have once been white. It was now a faded, grimy grey. Her brown hair fell in a tangle around her bare, pale shoulders. It struck Cole as odd, and a little worrying that she should be here, and alone. It was cold enough for him to keep his coat wrapped around him, and the beach itself was secluded. Her dress was thin, and he couldn’t help but notice the whispers of her shoulder blades pressing against the thin veil of her skin. It was no secret that gangs combed the streets of the slums, snatching up children to be sold as slaves to the rich and more gravely, the depraved. For a moment some sense of morality fell over him, wrapped in iron chains to break free from his guilt and he knew that he should at least check that she was okay. She continued to fill her bucket, blissfully unaware of him. Her work was cumbersome, messy but filled with an energy that only ever seemed to be reserved for children. Sand spilled in gulps over the edge of the bucket, falling from the spade as she brought it about. Cole knew that he should be getting to his meeting, but that part of him, a misguided voice of morality that had gotten the best of him in the past wouldn’t let him.
“What’re you making?” He found himself asking, siding alongside her. The girl didn’t answer, she patted the spade on top of the now full bucket, then with effort, flipped it over. She then banged on the base of the bucket with a balled up fist and waited for a moment. Then, she tossed the spade aside, and as delicately as she could she lifted the bucket upwards. Cole remembered trying to build the same sandcastles as a boy, in his minds eye flashes of trips to the beach with his mother flickered and faded, long lost slides on a broken projector screen. The girl’s attempt was disastrous, the sand didn’t seem to take shape inside the bucket, and instead sloped onto the ground like dead mud. Undeterred despite her failure, the girl began to slap fresh spade loads into the bucket again. Cole took a knee beside her.
“It’s not the weather for sandcastles.” He said sympathetically. Again the girl didn’t reply, she didn’t even acknowledge his presence by turning to look at him. She simply shoved pile after pile of sand into the bucket, spilling some onto her dress in the process. Cole’s eyes scanned the beach for any signs of her parents, perhaps walking a dog, then he looked over to the dunes, but saw nothing, only hearing the pollution of the city’s voice spilling over it’s lip. There must be somebody with her, if not a parent, perhaps an older sibling. But he saw nobody. He suddenly began to feel a little exposed, and felt unseeing eyes crawl over him, he found himself feeling glad of the weight of the pistol in it’s holster against his ribs.
“My mommy and daddy aren’t here.” The girl suddenly said, without looking at him, still shovelling piles of sand into the bucket. Cole rocked on his haunches for a moment, unsure.
“It’s not really safe for you to be here alone.” He began. The wind carried drifts of sea water, and he felt the ghost of salt and sand begin to invade his nose and mouth as he spoke.
“Are your parents nearby? Perhaps a brother, or sister?” He asked.
“No.” The little girl replied with a weight of sadness. “They died, before you ask.” And this time her words were cold, and matter of fact. Cole thought for a moment, suddenly not caring about his meeting.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” He said finally, as the girl repeated her tipping of the bucket, and failing again.
“You should be mister.” She said, turning to face him. Cole was taken aback by what she had said, but before he could muster a reply.
“It’s your fault they’re dead.”
It was as if a hammer had struck him between the eyes, leaving Cole dumbfounded. He sat there in silence, a combination of shock and confusion stalled whatever words might have been gathering in his throat. Through the fog of his confusion he saw that a thin trickle of blood had begun to snake from the little girls right nostril. She swivelled around on her bottom to face him, her green eyes transfixed on him, and somewhere in their depths he saw hatred begin to take flame.
“It’s your fault they’re dead.” She repeated, and from her left nostril crawled another train of blood, bubbling over lips and chin, falling onto her dress in scarlet beads. Cole suddenly backed away, flailing into the sand with both hands. The little girl pulled herself to her feet, chunks of sand clung to her dress, and her blood spread like inkblots across her waist.
“It’s your fault they’re dead.” She said again, hissing as Cole began to crawl backwards. He tried to speak, tried to make sense of it. He had never met the girl before, he struggled to understand what was happening, and sudden terror gripped his insides with cold sharp fingers.
“It’s your fault they’re dead!” She screamed, snatching up the bucket, heaving it towards him with all her strength. It struck him above the right eye, he felt the skin split, hot pain clawed it’s way across the right side of his face. He felt his own blood begin to run into his eye, warm and stinging. He tried to plea, but the words were lost in the iron fist of his own terror. He stumbled backwards, kicking at the sand with his boots. Blood now seeped from the corners of the girls eyes, carving a crimson track across her porcelain cheeks. She took slow, barefooted steps through the sand, reaching out with one skeletal arm, pointing a finger angrily at Cole as he fumbled backwards.
“It’s your fault they’re dead!” She cried with hateful fervour, her voice carried on the wind like a distant thunder.
“No…” Cole finally managed pitifully, turning over onto his front, trying to pull himself to his feet, but all of a sudden it was as if his legs were made of lead. He stuggled, scrambled and eventually forced himself up only to come face to face with a crowd of people. He took a step back, panting, his heart thundering in his chest. Over one hundred people, men, women and children all stared at him in silence. Blood ran from their noses and the corner of their eyes. Cole was beyond terrified now, and should he have turned, he would have saw the girl retrieve the bucket from the sand again and launch it in his direction again. It hit him between the shoulders, bouncing harmlessly into the sand. Cole turned, but as he did a younger man with a wild, tangled red beard struck him across the face with a wooden club. Cole fell, lightning bolts of pain tore through his face. He felt teeth loosen as he landed on all fours hard. He spat blood into the sand, instinctively going for his sidearm beneath his coat, but to his horror, found himself groping at an empty holster. He must have dropped his gun, he realised, but before he could search for it, somebody, perhaps the same man struck him over the back of his head. Warmth rushed down the back of his neck, his head span and Cole found himself struggling to stop blacking out. Before he could, a swarm of hands grabbed at him, pulling at his coat, tearing at his hair and skin. He fought as best as he could, beyond terrified, but there were too many of them, and they dragged him roughly to his knees. His head swam, eyes fluttering fitfully, pain lanced his jaw and drove hot spikes into the back of his head. Before him stood the girl, pointing. Only this time, it wasn’t at him. She pointed at her chest, just below the arch of her ribs.
“IT’S YOUR FAULT THEY’RE DEAD!” She bellowed.
Cole tried again to plead, to make sense, to tell them that they were mistaken but he couldn’t. His jaw was locked, and broken. He didn’t understand what was happening, all of a sudden the world around him didn’t seem real. The girls dress swelled all of a sudden, her solar plexus bulged outwards. It was like a fist forcing it’s way through her dress. Blood blossomed, and as the light of the world began to dim, to his horror Thomas Cole suddenly realised what was happening. Blood soaked her dress, spreading outwards like a dark red cloud. Her face was a dark mask of hate, but no pain.
“IT’S YOUR FAULT…” Then the dry snap of ribs breaking, the wet tear of flesh splitting. The girls eyes were wild, her dress bulged once more, began to rip as something clawed it’s way forth.
“THEY’RE DEAD!” She screamed finally and the chestburster emerged in a burst of crimson, slick with blood, gore and entrails. It shrieked in the cold November air, it’s tiny arms pulling itself free. The little girl smiled, her green eyes burning with white, hot hatred. Cole tried to scream, tried to look away, but unseen hands held his head still. The chestburster scanned the world around it with it’s pink, eyeless face, then finally looked into Cole’s eyes. Then it’s jaws moved, and somewhere in the depths of it’s tiny snake like body it rasped.
“It’s… your… fault!” Then it leapt forward, dragging with it the moorings of the girls innards, leaping into Cole’s mouth and down his throat, clawing, tearing, filling his insides with shards of broken agony and Cole
Leapt up in his bed, screaming silently. He sat forward, his skin slicked with sweat, his heart pounding, threatening to punch it’s way through his chest. He tried to gather himself, making sense of the world around him. Slowly, the shattered pieces of reality began to slip back into place and he realised where he was. Outside the hotel window, a small transport hovered by, it’s lights cutting swathes through the gloom as they crawled through the gaps in the blinds of the windows. Beside him, the nameless redhead slept undisturbed, the gentle arch of her spine peeking from beneath the bed sheets. The sour stench of sex hung in the air, cloying. Cole felt his stomach lurch and he stumbled from his bed on legs seemingly made from jelly. He staggered into the bathroom, dropped to his knees and vomited into the toilet. He tried to catch his breath, then vomited again, feeling acid burn the back of his throat. He hovered over the rim of the toilet on trembling hands, then satisfied that he was done he fell back, resting against the cold bathroom wall. His heart still pounded, his chest felt tight, and he allowed his head to fall into his hands.
“Fuck.” He mumbled to himself, in the cold dark depths of his bathroom.
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