By Stephen Thom
The radio blared out some kind of tuneless, frenetic, pulsing beat. It leaked throughout the frame of the small car, crunching dully against the roof. Reaching down, Laurie tweaked the dial through a muddle of static, his wet eyes focused on the sky above. Trembling thumb and forefinger rolled the crackling sonic into a clean country ballad, and he leaned back into his seat to observe the shifting expanse of night from the layby. Empty thoughts and folds of black beyond black hung in thick layers. Thin variations of muddled dark texture swung in and around a cemented whole punctured by spotted, brilliant bursts of white. Dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief, Laurie clasped the little container close to his stomach and watched as the net began to ripple.
At first it was barely discernible. The endless stretch of late evening sky shivered with subtle convulsive motions, pillows of jet black creasing and pushing against one another. Whispered ideas of stringy, slick tethers snaked beneath the heavy dusk coating. Intermittently a sheer trail of colour would flash violently, distractingly past the driver's window as unaware people hurried on to unspecific destinations. Yet amongst the swelling ink waves far above, the great net unfurled, waxy tendrils glistening and blotting out stars.
Ducking down slightly to get a better view, Laurie groped at the radio dial again to silence the bland song and steady himself. This sudden quiet hung in the stuffy interior of the car, and he was at once reminded of the throbbing atonal beat that had prompted him to change the station only moments before. Pressing at the rear of his skull, he thought he heard the same vibration rising steadily in volume now, breaking into a stamping rhythm as the deep fields above skewered and convulsed. Great, sticky black lines, neatly woven and interspersed, flumped against the atmosphere as the net shook. Then the first sample spattered against the hood of the car. Laurie heard the soggy thwump and gripped the container. Through the hazy gauze of the front window, he saw a tiny, spindly black hand, thick with some kind of oilish resin, pressing against the glass. Matchstick-sized digits curled up and, momentarily...a minuscule, smooth black face; a popping, fish-like mouth, wide, white eyes...
There was another smacking sound on the roof of the car, and a blanket of rain collapsed over everything. Needling droplets rattled the windows and Laurie swung out the vehicle, snapping the container lid open. Torrents of wet pins drilled his head, soaking him within seconds. Vague rumbles stirred overhead, carried by gusts of wind through the crisp reverberations of rain pittering upon the road. Skidding round to the bonnet, Laurie grasped at the little black figure writhing on the smooth metal. It slipped through his soggy fingers, its tiny toes tickling the fleshy bulge of his forefinger, but he clamped the container down firmly and felt the sample banging against the interior. Dragging the vessel down the length of the hood to snap the lid on, a peaking rush of noise and crash of water carried another car past behind him, and he blinked up through the shimmering wet curtain to see the second sample struggling across the roof. Wedging the container against his stomach, he flung an arm out at the smooth body as it slithered about. His hand flapped at cold metal, smearing a palm-shaped layer of rain water, and through the blurry, irregular stitchwork of heavy rain he saw a twitching dark shape darting away into the shadows beyond. Disappointed, Laurie prised open the car door and settled back into the driver's seat, nursing the container and feeling the soft tappings vibrating against his skin as his sole sample twisted inside.
Pulling into his driveway, Laurie could see a tall silhouette peering through a gap in the front room curtains. At the appearance of the car the light inside vanished and Laurie rushed out, hurrying up the short path and through the front door. The air inside the house was clammy as ever and carried a slightly salty smell; groping forward in the sudden darkness of the hall, his left hand slid through a gluey coating of familiar oily resin, accumulated over time on the walls. Weaving round a crush of stacked boxes chirruping and jittering ever so slightly in a spray of candlelight, he stepped into the front room, holding the container out appeasingly. It fell from his hands as he saw the Collector tearing his previous samples to pieces.
'What are you doing?' He hissed, suddenly clutching the container close. Flapping wisps of yellow light stretched out from large candles on the dining table, peaking into livid orange tips. The Collector looked up slowly, absorbed in his chore of peeling sections of the samples apart. They scurried around his feet and balanced on his shoulders, blissfully unaware as he seized them individually between finger and thumb and wrenched off little heads, limbs and legs. Their wet, fishy mouths puffed and gulped; white eyes widened and expired as segments came free with a muscular snap.
'Streamlining,' breathed the Collector in deep tones. A spurt of black saucy liquid hit the inside of his palm as another sinewy sample was decapitated. Trembling with rage, Laurie set his container to one side and advanced. The living room floor, too, had become sticky and hard to negotiate as the energy the samples harvested manifested itself and leaked out. But collecting this was the next step. The tough liquid sensation restricting free movement was reward enough for now.
'Stop that. Stop it right now!' Laurie, struggling in the mire, leaned against the wall of piled boxes stretching in stacks from the corridor into, and around, the room. Vague tremors flickered against his upper arm, the samples inside excited by the commotion. 'I said stop it, they're mine too, they took me ages to-'
For the first time it seemed, a swell of candlelight caught the underside of the Collector's face and Laurie saw him as he had become. Once so handsome, the black mass of muscle that gleamed in the slight glow was the result of the same change to the walls, to the floor. His lips were white and bulbous - sores blistered and leaked as he breathed laboriously - and faded into the tight black links of flesh that pressed his face together around throbbing, glossy white eyes. There was more being harvested, more than they had thought.
'You can't affect this change,' slurred the Collector finally, his voice deeper, ever deeper, 'just by collecting. I knew this...I know this now,' his hands performed a particularly vicious dismembering, agonised falsetto squeals dying instantly.
'I'm sorry,' whispered Laurie, wiping a thick wad of oil across the front of his coat as it began to roll in heavier folds over the walls. The heaped boxes were shaking and bumping impatiently, as if increasingly aware of their own importance. 'But maybe this is the way it has to be,' he added, squinting.
'For me,' the Collector's fat white lips spat out. He cast a screeching, armless sample into the muck that washed around his feet on the floor, then slumped from his seat onto his knees to join it. He dipped his face into the slithering, sleek oil and when he looked up again Laurie could see it in the cold clear eyes - it was there, collecting and multiplying in tiny little bubbles, far within the white pupils; like eggs hatching, all you could possibly want from this...
'Nothing you collect will stay with you,' he hissed, 'there is no substance for you here.' The boxes, soaked by the gathering liquid, creaked and collapsed. Hundreds of reptile-like samples flooded the room, swamping over the Collector. As Laurie turned to flee he saw the white eyes glowing bright a final time, a bulging frame submerged on the floor in crawling samples, a great queen, a mother being eaten by its young.
Pulling back into the layby, Laurie wrenched open the car door, tripping through the pounding rain and creamy black puddles towards the middle of the road. Eyes turned skywards, he thought he could see the net amidst swirling dark patterns, disfigured as raindrops smacked and spread over his retinas. His clothes clung to his skin and growing yellow eyes rose through the storm to speed past him, blaring irate horns. Then it happened - as the torrential downpour danced on the pavement and he thought <I can keep these things, I can keep them close to me> - the net fell through and thousands of wet, writhing, slippery samples hurtled to the ground, tumbling in grainy black clouds around him. They skidded and thwacked onto the cold road; anthropomorphic drumming, battering raindrops; and as much as he flailed and snatched and lunged, he could not catch a single one. They converged into various groups and slithered through the darkness beyond the road. Melded crescents of twitching oil fanned out to leave him as he had been before, as everything had left him, as he had allowed everything to leave.