From Start to Finish. Another Short Story. I guess you'd call it fantasy contemporary

A cutting edge Australian video game writer is hired by SquareSoft to create the next big hit. As he delves into his work, reality and fantasy, his life and the world of the video game begin to fuse, throwing him headfirst into a spiral of surreal sex and brutality.

Here it is!

Start to Finish


Paul Stephanus

He’d just moved to Tokyo and things unexpected seemed to be the only things that happened to him. Everything was so separate from his frames of reference that he resorted to papering fantasy over the quotidian, for fantasy seemed more real than reality. Every train ride became a journey through subterranean dragon lairs. As he walked the back alleys for hours at night, stumbling upon dark shrines amongst the glass skyscrapers, his wanderings were endowed with a precise purpose, a quest as it were. He wandered along the paths and between the trees of the massive central city parks, listening to the midnight sonatas of indefinable instruments, nodding cautiously at the silhouettes of passersby in the dark, deciphering the conversations of the surreptitious crows flitting overhead. When he arrived back at his small apartment in Kichijoji, an hour train ride from his work he felt amazed that he’d survived another day without being consumed by the glance of that homeless wizard who lives in Inokashira Park, which he walks through from the station to his apartment building. He’s stunned that the wooden stakes of the graveyard he visits at midnight when he cannot sleep do not conspire to hold him hostage beneath the fading stars.

            His work barely gives him respite from these imaginings. In fact, it is a continuation of the fantasy, in a more cement format. He sits in a cubicle, in a white shirt and tie, a Caucasian among hundreds of Japanese workers, in cubicles of their own, in white shirts and unobtrusive ties of their own. The accountants, the graphic designers, the programmers, the database people, the salesmen, the copywriters. He smiles at the secretary on his way in who greets him with the same nod and the same welcoming, in the same tone, without fail day after day. He sits among the subdued din of the clattering keyboards, clicking mice, and muted sales calls. It would all have seemed very constraining if he had thought about it as a third party, but being amongst it, he felt nothing but a bemused calm. The air-conditioning hummed gently, sweeping the open-plan office with a cool wave of refreshing vivacity. When he listened hard enough he could even hear the computers humming in harmonies to the drone of the aircon, the surround sound percussive keyboards, with the occasional syncopated kick of the water cooler depositing into a plastic cup.

            He sat down, in the same seat, across from the same person he had yet to hold a conversation with, and pick up where he left off the day before. And as his solitary walks through Tokyo were chaotic and unexpected, framed by non-sequiturs in every direction, his mind merely pasting fantastical meaning onto the physical realities, giving undeserved (perhaps) potency to the constant spiritual glow of a vending machine on the corner of a dark empty street whose streetlights flicker off and on; finding narratives for a single fallen cherry blossom among the tens of thousands that flutter from a tree above and settle beneath the swooping chassis of a lazily gliding taxicab; in an empty cup-o-noodle container sitting on a electric transformer box on the barrier between suburbs he deposits a cartoon figurine he’d found dirty and trampled on in the dirt of Arisogawa park, to placate whatever God holds dominion there. As his leisure time in Tokyo was his mind keeping up with the symbols around him, his work was a reversal. He was appointed as the creator of unique, colorful fantasy, in a white, homogeneous office-block. He sank into himself and wrote narrative, dialogue, plot twists, character biographies, descriptions of new lands, he described in detail the neuroses of the enemies and virtues of the good guys. He was the rogue element, the unpredictable westerner snatched from a small Melbourne game-developer, and lavished with higher pay (but still not that much), and an environment where fantasy comes more easily than reality.

            The daily outpour was unrelenting. He filled himself up when he was off work, and at work he spilled out what he’d collected. It came out in waves and torrents, a deluge that organized itself organically on the page, in neat compartments, self-edited, a blueprint ready for the builders of such worlds. He was told when he arrived that there would be other writers joining him soon. Some would only speak Japanese, but don’t worry, we’ll provide you with a translator. We just want you to get started on the preliminary plot, the framework, while we wait for the other writers to arrive. Then you can delegate. Then he hadn’t heard from any of his managers since. Sometimes he sees them walk by, they nod or smile, and one of them winked awkwardly at him once, but they never say anything about his work. Sometimes he looks up from his desk and wonders if he is actually there, if that manager had just been dislodging something from his eye and not winking at all. For nobody speaks to him. He sits pounding furiously at his keyboard, never resting, never eating, day in and day out, and at seven PM he gets up to leave. Nobody greets him apart from the secretary, nobody comments on his work, and if it wasn’t for the payment that appeared in his bank account every month he would believe that they had forgotten about him completely. It had been months. Where were the other writers? Had he been doing the work of five, and so convinced the management that the extra employees were unnecessary? Did they think that he was in a feverish trance and that any disturbance would undermine his productivity? Did they issue an office-wide memo to all the workers explicitly instructing them to ignore the western story-creating machine, for fear that he may break?

            During his one hundred and fiftieth day in Tokyo, with over three hundred pages of story on his computer at work, something finally happened. Something different. The sounds of the office were so predictable and orderly that any anomaly in the air around them stood out like a swathe of bright red across an expansive canvas of dead white. When the noise started he tried to ignore it, but it continued. It sounded at first like someone was playing a video game, or was it an ad on the radio? The sound completed a cycle and began again, the same tune, at an ever-increasing volume. He looked up from his desk to see if anyone else noticed. No one showed any reaction. The volume became louder and louder, and the song went into its fourth cycle. He felt sweat build on the nape of his neck, wondering if this was some practical joke, and then was hit full in the face with realization. His phone. He’d bought it when he arrived, had put it habitually in his pocket every day, had used it as a timepiece, but never once used it to call or receive calls on. He reached into his pocket and pulled it out, and sure enough the screen was flashing. DIANA it announced on the screen, behind a flashing background. He pushed firmly on the green phone symbol in the top left corner and held the tiny instrument up to his ear.

            “Hello?” he whispered

            “Danny. Oh! He picked up. You picked up. Wonderful. I was about to hang up.” Sang the women’s voice on the other end.

            “Your name was stored on my phone,” said Danny, intended mostly for himself, but out loud and into the phone nonetheless.

            “Of course it is, I put myself in, oh, about three months ago. You remember.”

            Three months ago?

            “I’m at work,” said Danny.

            “Of course you are, it’s 12.”

            “I can’t really talk at work.”

            “No, that’s fine Danny. Look we’re having a party tonight, come on over afterwards. Sorry it took so long to get in touch. I’ll text you the address. See you there,” she said, and hung up, just like that. Danny kept the phone to his ear, listening to the beeping sounds, rather stunned, and then listened to the voice of a lady explaining something very politely in Japanese. He brought the phone from his ear and pressed the red phone-with-a-line-through-it button in the top right corner. Just as the phone was again in his pants pocket he heard it emit a screeching sound, which he promptly sought to silence, pulling the machine out his pocket again and furiously pounding on all the buttons until it shut up. He looked up at his co-workers. Nobody paid him any attention, not even a split-second glance, not even a disgruntled clearing of the throat.


Danny went through the settings and set the phone to silent, looked up at his computer screen, and hovered his fingers in place above the keyboard. The cursor blinked. And blinked. For the first time he’d been working there he’d lost his train of thought. He read the sentence he had just finished. “Cardinal discovered then, surrounded by the possessions of his past, that it wasn’t him in his own body at all, but that he was a clone of his true self, for he felt no emotional attachment to anything”. What? Where is he? How did he get here? What kind of a name is Cardinal? Danny lost everything. He could barely recall anything about this Cardinal fellow, who, it seemed, after scrolling through to the top few pages, was meant to be the main character. He saved the document, shut down his computer, put his notebook into his bag and got up. He left a note at the secretary’s desk saying that he’d left early due to sickness and that he would be back on Monday. He went down the elevator alone, in silence, plodded out the sliding glass doors and into the heart of Shibuya. The streets were bustling and the sun was directly overhead, unobstructed by the skyscrapers. For the first time he felt like a piece of the picture and not an observer from the outside.

He took out his phone to look at the time. 12:30. He decided instead of going home he’d explore Shibuya for awhile. Instead of going home to change he’d buy some new clothes in town and freshen up at a bath house before going to the party. Why not? And just as he was putting the phone back in his pocket he felt it vibrate in his hand. A new text. He opened it:


Danny passed the next six hours in tea shops, eating udon and little fried balls of dough and octopus meat on the street, buying clothes, going to a bath-house. He stopped and talked with people, using the small snippets of Japanese he’d attempted to learn, the conversation usually warping into English in a matter of half a minute or so. Then, with nothing but glee, in a brand new button down summer top and light khaki pants and sandals, he made his way on a network of interconnecting subways to Roppongi 1-Chome on the Nanboku line. It was a quiet, upscale neighborhood, each side of the road lined with embassies, each with its own architectural bent seeming to have nothing at all to do with the country it represented. The Swedish embassy was domineering and gated; the Malaysian was quaint and built of stone; the Canadian a tall white building without any flourishes, its grounds furnished only by a single white box out front with a guard sitting in it; the Spanish a series of red-bricked houses, each at different levels, with windows placed without plan in its walls. He looked across the street and there stood the 15-storey apartment block, the Homat. He walked across the darkening street and put his finger up to the buzzer for the 12th floor. The last name was in Kanji. He hesitated before pushing and it occurred to him then, as it had occurred to him when she first called, that he had no idea who this Diana was. Three months ago? How did she get her hands on his phone? He scanned backwards through his memory, through all the strange uninterpretable adventures and revelations. Sure, he had met people, but to him they were characters in a fantasy. If his fantasy adventures of the past few months had gone down in book form they’d have filled a 2000-page tome. What with the intricate details, the pounding significance attached to discarded items on the ground, the deepness of meaning extricated from brief interactions with strangers in parking lots, on rooftops, beside the open tray of a magic mushroom vendor outside a club. He’s communed with stray frogs emerging from puddles in temple grounds in the dead of night with the same fervor he’s communed with humans on the street in broad daylight. He’s been pushed up against the bodies of men and women in hoards on the commuter trains, but had longer conversations with the stones at Tokyo harbour. This Diana, she was but a sentence in the 2000-page tome, a word even, and how could he be expected to recall every detail, when he was left with nothing but the feeling, the aura, not the specific memories.

He took a deep breath and pushed the button. The door buzzed open almost immediately. The foyer was laid with dark marble, and the doors of the two elevators were a sparkling bronze color. He rode up to the 12th floor and got out. There was a single door in front of him. He knocked twice on the hard, dark wood carved with elegant floral patterns. He waited, at least a minute. He heard many voices inside and clinking of glasses. He started to look around him, wondering if someone was spying on him through the peep-hole. The rippled wall-paper caught his attention, and as he started to get lost in the pattern the door was thrown open. A Japanese woman stood there, dressed in an elegant white gown, with one sleeve missing, exposing her arm and a portion of her midriff. The dress ended high up around her thighs, elongating her legs. Her eyes were heavily made up, black drawn from the edges outwards. Her hair was pitch black and swept over one shoulder and over her front. The features of her face were inexpressive, but the small quantity of emotion one could read from it spoke kindness. Her subtly lip-sticked mouth curled up faintly at one end. They stood at the same height and looked directly into each other’s eyes.

“Why’s your name Diana if your Japanese?” asked Danny, unabashed.

“My father’s Italian,” she replied. “I thought I already told you all this.” She leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead, and said “come in.” Diana took him by the arm and led him around the room. There was a thick cloud of smoke settling on the ceiling, and wafting about as people walked underneath it, disturbing its stillness. Everyone was well-dressed, sipping colorful drinks between drags on their cigarettes, and filling what was left over with low-toned banter. He was introduced to people and forgot their names immediately. Diana never left his side, filling him up with drinks to ease his palpable ill-ease. She glided through the room as if her path through the crowd was preordained, holding Danny’s hand, guiding him through the many rooms of the apartment. Eventually, after walking down a cramped hallway they arrived at a room that Diana unlocked. She pushed open the door, pulled him in, closed the door behind them and locked it again. She let go of his hand, wandered into the darkness, leaving Danny to stand at the door. A dim light flicked on from a corner of the room, illuminating Diana reclining on a leather couch. She looked up at Danny.

“You’re very different from when we met before,” she said, suddenly.

“Yes, well I suppose the adventure is over now,” he replied, without bothering to find the right response, without caring if she understood what he said. He couldn’t strain himself with thought.

“Well, all adventures end,” she replied immediately. Danny nodded his head. Only half her face was illuminated, while the other half was just touched by light on the periphery, and then blended into the darkness of the room. It gave her a half-sinister, half-sensual look. There was silence. And then: “you don’t remember me do you?” she asked, with a slight tilt of the head.

“No. I’ve met a few people, I’ve been up to a lot.”

“Were you on mushrooms when we met?”


“Well I was.”

“I didn’t realize.”

“How do you know you didn’t realize?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well if you don’t remember meeting me, how do you remember realizing or not realizing that I was high on mushrooms?” Danny thought about it and said, truthfully:

“I usually don’t think about those types of things, whether people are high or drunk, or anything like that, so I’m guessing I wasn’t thinking about that in this moment we’re discussing.”

“Almost everyone at this party is high on mushrooms,” she said, without skipping a beat.

“I didn’t realize,” said Danny.

“No, because you don’t think about those sorts of things,” she replied. Before Danny could answer she continued. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what you were saying that night. We were in the basement of that closed bar, if you don’t remember. Anthony and I had snuck in. The door was left wide open and so we just walked in. It was late at night, and soon it dawned on us that the place was still in preparation stages, it looked like it had another few weeks before opening. The walls still needed painting, the floor had been torn up. But the bar itself was finished and the shelves behind it were lined with alcohol. All kinds of expensive alcohol, so we dug in, of course. Do you remember? And then, after an hour or so we heard the door open. We were terrified, thinking it was the owner or the cops. All sorts of businesses are managed by the Yakuza, and we didn’t want to get our heads smashed in.”

“Understandable,” Danny interjected.

“Well it was just you. No cops, or Yakuza, just you. But we were hiding behind the bar at that point. You said nothing, I guess you hadn’t seen us, but you just wandered around the whole place, peaking into rooms, taking things off the shelves and replacing them, and then sat down. I decided, after I couldn’t stand being cooped up, curled in a ball underneath the bar anymore that I’d say something. I stood up slowly as to not surprise you, in case you had a gun or something. You looked up at me and began laughing. Just sitting at that big round table, laughing. Do you remember any of this?”

Danny scanned his memory. Had he seen a woman pop up from behind a bar? Had he broken into a place like that? He seemed to be able to recall a distinct emotion attached to the incidents, but not the incident itself.

            “No,” Danny concluded, not really.

            “Well I remember. We spoke for hours. You, me, and Anthony. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. What you said. I’ve thought about it every day, it bothers me at work. I design the window displays for all sorts of companies. Clothing, handbag, upscale fashion companies. I get paid well, I don’t do much. But I haven’t even been able to do that correctly. I talk to Anthony about my thoughts, but he doesn’t listen. He’s sick of hearing about you. He thinks I’m attracted to you. I guess I am, or was.” She stopped speaking and narrowed her eyes at Danny. “Do you remember what you said?” she asked.

            “Probably lots of things.”

            “Yeah, lots of things. But one thing in particular. ‘We don’t do anything from start to finish, as humans,’ you said.”

            “Doesn’t sound too profound,” he observed.

            “Nothing we do,” she continued, ignoring him, “can be done by a single human. ‘We need the whole structure,’ you said, otherwise we are helpless. Even a subsistence farmer in Guatemala probably has his 1960’s John Deer, a cheap Brazilian machete, and an array of Chinese tools, all powered with gas imported from Venezuela, or Saudi Arabia. To design and build a tractor with your own hands is unimaginable. But, even a farmer with nothing but a hoe. Could he have forged that metal for the hoe himself? Melted the bronze out of ore and let it settle in a mold? A mold made out of what?

“Poverty stricken fisherman in Indonesia (I went to Sumatra with my family when I was a girl), use nylon lines made in factories in Thailand. Starving Somalian peasants make footwear from the remnants of plastic ice-cream containers.

“My father took me camping when I was younger and we’d start fires together. Just us, alone on the beach, up in Hokkaido, where nobody’s around to bother you. But even that small piece of wood, with a bit of sulfur on the head, scratched against a cardboard box. Such a simple contraption, the match, but with such vast institutions, chains of resource exchange, economic systems behind it. How could I ever make a match for myself?

            “It seems like a fairly innocuous idea, something to wonder over idly if you have nothing else to do. But it’s consumed me. Every object I’m surrounded by is layered now with its history, its implication, the vast hordes of organized humanity past and present needed to construct it. I try to imagine a scenario where we are able to create something with our own bodies and this world, simply, without any excesses. I think about pre-modern man building fires for themselves, without matches, candles, lighters. But most of them carried tinder boxes with them, I suppose, or even the fire itself, carried from place to place. But let’s suppose they didn’t, let’s say they had the knowledge of how to build fires from the resources around them. Who taught this to them? Does the concept of fire creation exist instinctively in the brains of man, or again is it just the sediment of our human history that allows us to create such things. We are nothing on our own, we can create nothing on our own, yet somewhere along the line a human did create these things. There were humans, once, that did create things between their own bodies and the world. Are your legs tired?” she asked. Without answering Danny walked through the dark, stubbed his toe on something, and sat on the cold leather couch next to Diana. Diana looked at him. He couldn’t see her eyes now that the light was behind her, just the outline of her hair, disheveled now although Danny hadn’t seen her touch it once throughout the monologue.

            “But there is something. Something that doesn’t require logic, reasoning, anything learnt, or any object. Humans can still create something without any of these things. And I want to try. But Anthony won’t try. So I thought you would,” she said, looking into Danny’s eyes. 

            “Well, I don’t know what it is.”

            “You go downstairs into the foyer and wait for me. I’ll be twenty minutes behind you.”

            Danny didn’t question her. He left the room, and as he went out into the bright hallway he came face to face with a tall, olive-skinned man in an unbuttoned black top. The man glared at Danny and stood his ground as Danny, as politely as possible, squeezed by him back out into the living room. He didn’t look back but heard yells coming from back down the hallway, an argument building. He peered into the open doors of rooms that lined the hallway as he went. In one room a group of people were bathed in a neon light, partaking in what seemed to be some intense ritual of hand clasping and staring into each other’s eyes. In another room two people were having sex under a bright halogen bulb on a bare mattress with the door wide open. A girl sat in a chair in the corner of the room, watching them. He squeezed through the mass of people in the main party area, and now that the music had switched on he could sense that an aspect of civility had disappeared from the gathering and that the real party would begin soon. He half-wished he wasn’t leaving. However, there was no reason not to do what Diana had told him to do.

            Danny exited the elevator at the ground floor and stood in the middle of the foyer, staring at the patterns in the marble floor. After what seemed to be twenty minutes he decided he’d either go back up to the party, or go home. Although it was Friday he decided against exploring the city, a decision he’d made for the first time since arriving in Tokyo. So it was back to the party, or home. Finally, unable to expel the colorful images of the party from his mind, yearning to melt into the medley of human bodies and drugs, he made a move for the elevator. The up arrow illuminated a sickly yellow under the pressure of his forefinger and he looked up to see the light counting down from the 12th floor. There was a single BING and the door opened, and standing in the middle of it was Diana, still in the same dress, her eye makeup running, and her hair absolutely disheveled.

            “Sorry I’m late,” she said, gliding out of the elevator and past Danny , “I’m parked in the basement.” Danny followed her down a flight of stairs behind the apartment building and into a parking lot. It was dark but he recognized the shapes of sports cars parked in almost every space. Eventually Diana climbed into a dark black Lexus. Danny climbed into the passenger’s seat. The engine rumbled to life, sending miniscule vibrations through his body.

            “Put your seat belt on,” Diana said, and then thought about it, and added, “or not.” Danny put his seat belt on and an instant later felt his body propelled forward against the seat belt as the car whipped out of the parking space backward. The car pulled out of the driveway onto the quiet road full of embassies and glided on into the night. Danny didn’t ask where they were going or what they were doing. He saw the empty streets begin to fill with people as they moved closer to the center of Roppongi, and felt his body pressed against the door as they made a long arcing turns at high speeds onto the highway on-ramp. He saw the Kanji for west written on a sign above the highway. ‘West’, he thought to himself, and with Diana’s smell potent in the enclosed space, a mixture of perfume, smoke, fruit, and women’s sweat, and the rhythmic flashing of the streetlights blasting through the window of the car, he went to sleep.

            He awoke from time to time on the road. It seemed they were on the highway for many hours, and then as daylight started to break behind them, illuminating the long road ahead, they whizzed alone down an empty, tree-lined highway, snow-covered bulbous mountains rising in the distance ahead of them. He awoke fully when they reached a twisting mountain road, and looked over at Diana. Her eyes were wide and she didn’t take her attention from the road.

            “We’re almost there,” She said, in a monotone. Danny didn’t answer. “Don’t you care where were going?” she added.

            “I suppose not,” he replied, and wondered why that was true. And Diana didn’t tell him either. Soon, once the road had bypassed, traversed, climbed, and descended down a number of small hills, a vast stretch of houses appeared in front of them. Small, quaint, wooden houses, dotting the hillside. The Lexus dropped down into the village, and passed through the quiet streets at a crawl. Danny looked into the windows of the houses as they glided by and saw nothing moving. He thought at first that everyone must still be sleeping, but then he noticed there were no cars parked in front of any of them. The verandas out in front of the houses were empty, none of the chimneys were smoking. The place was deserted.

            “What town is this?” he asked.

            “It’s not a town. It’s a collection of vacation chateaus. No one is here this time of year. My family owns a place out here. There it is, right there,” she said, pointing to a wooden, two-storey house that looked more or less just like the others, and drove on.

            “We’re not stopping there?” asked Danny.

            “No.” They turned off to the left at the end of that small road and followed the curvature of a large hill around the side. The road was winding and treacherous, with a steep drop-off into oblivion on the right, but Diana took the turns with total abandon, testing the limits of her machine. After about half an hour of this they whipped off to the right down a dirt road, the Lexus straining as it passed over the larger obstructions beneath the wheels. It was not an off-terrain vehicle, and anyone could tell it was taking a beating, but Diana didn’t care. The scraping of metal against gravel didn’t seem to bother her, in fact she seemed to relish in the sound.

            A large river came into view at the end of the dirt road, and she sped full speed up to it, and just as Danny thought she might be suicidal and bent on drowning them, she pulled the emergency break, turned the steering wheel and skidded up parallel to the running water. She flipped the ignition off and the car was enveloped in a cloud of dust. The view outside was obscured by the brown mist of an air-borne roadside around them, and this accentuated Diana’s serious expression as she turned to look at Danny.

            “Take your clothes off,” she said. Danny stared at her, trying to find the hint of a joke somewhere in her eyes. “Do you want to do this?” She asked.

            “I’m not sure what this is,” said Danny.

            “I’ll go first,” she said, and pulled the fabric of her dress that draped over her left shoulder down, exposing both her breasts. She wasn’t wearing a bra and Danny took a moment to stare at their shape before looking back up into her eyes. She stepped out of the car and a flurry of dust moved into its interior. She stood between the open door and the body of the car and slipped the white dress down into the gravel road, particles of floating dust sticking to her sweat-covered body. She had no underwear on. The sun had not yet filtered into the valley they were in and the cold morning air twirled around the car, bringing the strong scent of her body in towards him. He admired her shape in disbelief, and then opened his door. He removed his pieces of clothing one at a time. And laid them on the seat of the car.

            “Is that everything?” she asked.


            “Even jewelry? You’ve taken off everything?”


            “We’re going to cross that river. We’ll have to swim across, and on the other side we’ll be human. Without anything other than ourselves.”

            “And our thoughts,” Danny reminded her.

            “I know,” she said and made her way towards the river. Danny watched her dip her toe into the fast flowing water and then leap. It swept her down river, and for a moment Danny thought she’d be lost from sight, but she swam quickly and managed to crawl up the bank on the other side, her body caked in wet river mud.

            Danny put his toes in the water and instantly recoiled. It was freezing. He looked up at Diana and she stood, stoically, not showing any hint of a shiver, completely naked, her feet buried in the river silt. Danny didn’t want to seem weak so he jumped in without thinking and felt a shock blast through him and pump through to his head. He fought for the surface and swam for dear life just to keep warm and to get out of the cold. The current was strong and it pulled at his floundering body. His mind was empty, utterly empty. There was no thought other than warmth, and survival. He felt mud with his hand on a stroke and then plunged both hands into it, securing his position against the current. He fought inch by inch through the mud up to the bank until his body, too, was dripping with the black silt. He exited the water about a meter downstream of Diana. He couldn’t think of anything. Just joy and the excitement of adrenaline.

            Before he could compose himself Diana stepped forward and pressed her naked body against his, burying her breasts into his chest. She wrapped her arms around him and entwined her left leg behind his knees. She whispered in his ear.

            “There is only us. All we want is warmth and each other. These aren’t taught thoughts. They are instinct, they are emotions given to us by nature. I want you to give me a baby, here in this state, and I’ll create something without anyone.”

            “Other than me,” said Danny.

            “Yes. You can’t create anything by yourself. You need at least one other. That’s the best we can do. Now stop thinking, or it won’t work the way it should. Just instinct allowed.”

            Danny’s body was freezing, and even simple thoughts were a struggle, so it was easy to follow Diana’s instructions. He felt the warmth of her body radiate into his. He felt his penis become erect and press against her, and then he felt it rub against a moist warmth. He moved as close as he could to the source of that warmth and pressed his penis into it. Soon they were on the ground, sharing each other’s warmth and pleasure, and within minutes it was over, he’d released himself into her, and suddenly it was gone. Thoughts came back to him and instinct disappeared, for it had been satiated. She pulled him in close to her and gazed up through the trees, which now filtered light in through the million openings through the leaves, shifting position in the wind. There were any number of awkward things they could have said to each other at that moment, but they didn’t. And it was better that way. Danny saw a large patch of sunlight open up between the trees to his left and rolled into it, pulling Diana along with him. Warmth spread across them, dissolving the sweat and river water off their skin.

      Danny felt his eyes droop, pulled Diana a little closer, and saw the happy images of sleep flit before him, and as his consciousness was almost lost over the precipice of sleep he heard a growing rumbling over the din of the flowing river. At first he thought it was still just the river, amplified by his pseudo-dream state, but then it became distinguishably separate. A machine. A heavy machine. He opened his eyes and lifted his head off the ground. Beside him Diana was already fast asleep, her mouth slightly open, her muscles twitching uncontrollably now and then. He didn’t want to wake her. Even when the large white truck pulled up in a cloud of smoke and parked beside the black Lexus, he wanted to let her rest. Even as the figure of a man climbed down from the driver’s side and walked up to the bank of the river, staring over it at them. Even after he’d stripped of his clothes and jumped in the river. For Danny was at peace. What could this have been other than a man going swimming? Only when he’d crushed through the waters of the river and mounted the other bank did Danny wake Diana. He gave her one definitive shake which jolted her upright and brought a half-silent scream to her lips. It was if she’d known what had happened before it did, for it was the fright of awakening that terrified her and not the sight of Anthony walking naked towards them, his fists bared, tears streaming down his face, his face blood red. Danny stood up and tried to say something. Did say something in fact, but nothing substantial, just nonsensical mutterings. He approached Anthony, still thinking that the joy of life could somehow overcome all other emotions. But it was not Anthony who had just held a warm body of a beautiful woman against his own, it was not Anthony who had lain in the perfect temperature between cold river and thick morning sunlight. For Anthony, life was something completely different. He grabbed Danny without missing a beat and tossed him by his shoulders against a tree with a grunt. Danny hit his head against the hard birch wood and felt the dream images again floating through him, this time distorted and mutilated. He tried to recover, but had gone momentarily blind, seeing only grey, and holding onto the tree for stability. As he recovered his senses he first heard short gasps of air and the kicking up of dirt as footsteps took off into the distance. He took a footstep towards the sound but stumbled onto his knees and breathed heavily a few times, imagining the air filtering into his head and clearing the grey from his vision. And it worked, above the din of screaming and the sound of bone against bone in the distance, he cleared his vision, regained his composure and stood. And as the blurry distance focused he saw Anthony’s naked frame, a head-sized rock held with both his hands in the air, and Diana’s feet between his straddled stance. He brought down the stone with a smack and then all was quiet save Anthony’s heavy breathing in the distance, and Danny’s stifled breathing, circulating in his own head. Danny steeled himself for a fight as Anthony turned around and walked away from Diana’s unmoving body, towards him. But he walked on towards the river, deviating from Danny, glancing up once at him, but then continuing down towards the river. He jumped in and swam across to other side. Danny saw the door of his jeep open, and a moment afterwards heard a gunshot. And then nothing.

            Danny was back to work on the Monday. He went to the police, of course, and through a translator was able to explain what happened. The investigators didn’t seem too surprised by the story, which Danny had considered rather unbelievable.

            He sat in a meeting room off to the side of the open office with the four writers who were joining him that day. They informed him that his document was translated as he’d written it, and they’d all had a read. They were impressed by the original ideas, the complex plot, the characters. But they all seemed worried that he’d hit a block, that they would have to pick up completely where he left off.

“What happens to Cardinal?” one of them asked, in a heavy Japanese accent “Now that he knows he is not really himself. Where is the real Cardinal?” Danny stared at them, looking them each one by one in the eye. He had no idea how to answer. Then something came to his lips and he let it out, without thinking. Was it a good answer, he didn’t really think so, but it had the other writers nodding their heads and rubbing their chins in thought, so at least it might get them off his back until he can think of something better.

“Cardinal needs to find somebody unassociated with his past. He needs to create something with someone that is separate completely from who he thought he was. This is the only way he can become a person unto himself, even though he was created as an identical clone of someone else. He needs to have a child with a woman. He needs to perpetuate himself somehow, but he needs other people, new people. This is where a whole new plot line begins, you see? This first 300 hundred pages was just an introduction. This game will continue, become bigger. It will be a true epic.”

The writers muttered their approval and one of them lightly pounded the desk in a subdued fit of determination. They all knew they were on the verge of creating something great.