One More Village to Kill

One More Village to Kill

Sky blue eyes that reflect everything and let nothing inside. The face loomed over me, fronted by those chilling little discs of metal. I was so focused on them, and my own bloodied face reflected in them that I barely noticed the hand extended towards me. I took it, of course. I had no desire to lie in the broken scrap while rusty water soaked further into my clothes. The arobot hauled me to my feet before immediately losing interest and wandering off to its next selected objective. I brushed myself off in a small shower of gravel and dust. Not much I could do about the damp trousers and jacket, but they’d dry off while I walked.

Well, that had all gone awfully to shit, hadn’t it. My rusty little puddle was just one of many such new holes in the little village where we’d staged our ambush. I mean, it was a village. If no building left standing more than four feet counts as a bunch of houses, then you could possibly make the claim that it had only lost its top half. In fact, the enemy shells and our own ambush had razed much of the place to the ground. We had made sure the village was unoccupied before we started setting traps and wiring the larger houses with proximity detonators. We’d not skimped on artillery either. Four squads, made up half with people, half of arobots with their vastly superior resilience, speed and accuracy. Couldn’t beat them in a firefight, though they would occasionally take risks that would never even occur to someone like me. That’s where this fight had gone off the rails.

We’d been perfectly placed, waiting for darkness as the enemy’s octal tanks rolled into the village and settled for the night in a nice spot of cover. Not knowing, of course, that we’d spent the day wiring the place up for our perfect moment and then scarpered for the nearby ditches and drains. Not a pleasant wait that, crouched in a drain for five hours. Still, it’s amazing how much sleep you can get in such situations. When sarge judged the moment, from reviewing the micro drones we’d placed in the trees on main street, we let the proximity detonators do their stuff and activated all the other traps remotely. No point letting them trip wires and stuff on their way into the village. Far better to let them all in and then kill themselves trying to get back out again. They didn’t make it out, obviously. We’d set our traps well, and an old church exploding next to a couple of tanks makes a serious mess of them, as well as of the church. We hadn’t really taken the graveyard into account though, and after the various bombs went off there were a lot of old bodyparts and bones scattered across the village square. Never mind. The octals took most of the blast, and once they were immobilised (or shredded, take your pick), we moved in for the more personal killing touch.

It’s one thing to pop open an octal tank hatch and toss a grenade inside, quite another to start hauling its occupants into the street and decapitating them. Not my style, but it’s what the arobot decided to do. Whether we’d been waiting too long and some internal metric had gotten mixed up with its orders, or if it had just taken too many whacks to the head, we never found out. First I knew of it was hearing Lieutenant Swires bellowing at it to stand down. I’d just finished off the contents of the tanks under the church rubble, so I saw the arobot turn to face Swires, with that familiar dead look on its face, eyes giving you nothing – no insight whatsoever into what might be going on in that plastic and metal skull. They always look to me like they’re on the verge of violence, because it’s that same dead-eyed look, the suddenly still face that you see on someone who’s completely lost it, and is about to either murder your mate in the pub or top himself. You can’t beat an arobot in a shootout, and Swires didn’t even think he was in a shootout, so he lost that. Voice of authority down, the arobot went straight back to pulling the poor dazed bastards out of the tank. You don’t have to hate someone to kill them, sometimes that’s just your job. It was my job, but I wasn’t trying to make them suffer like the arobot was. It was pulling them out by their over-long arms, pinning them down with one boot and with a  single blow, slashing through their necks with a brutal-looking machete, so their little three-eyed heads bounced off the top of the tank and onto the road. Their bodies slid over the tracks after them. God knows where it found that blade – for all I knew, it had been carrying it in its pack for weeks. The arobots do develop “habits” as they call them, over time. This once had a few too many habits for my taste. Plus, I was fond of Swires, and much less fond of a colleague who’s OK shooting my mates. I wasn’t the first to notice the lieutenant’s demise though – a couple of lads were much closer than me and went straight for shooting. That’s your best bet in a shootout with an arobot – make sure it doesn’t know you’re shooting at it. Unfortunately they’re wired to pay attention to these things, and it took exception before the first bullet took it in the shoulder. I’ve seen some knife throwing in sideshows, and it’s always impressive, but I’d never seen a machete throwing robot before. Weird bits of metal, machetes. Unevenly weighted, heavy. Not a problem for this arobot. It flipped the thing over while taking another bullet to its body and flung it straight through the shooter’s face. His mate hit cover immediately, but the arobot went after him.

I weighed up my options. I could stay where I was and pretend nothing was happening. That might seem a little cowardly, but sometimes “do nothing” is the best choice. It wasn’t in this situation – I was much more concerned that the arobot might decide we were all targets. My real decision was in how much risk I wanted to expose myself to. Some risk was unavoidable. I did a quick stock take of the traps and explosives I’d rigged and had the detonators for. As I suspected, not everything had gone bang – that’s just wiring and stuff, something always fails. But it did mean that the post box the arobot was going to pass on the way to me still had an unexploded bomb inside it. Alas, that meant I’d have to draw its attention. At least I had a plan, unlike the next lad who tried to take it out, and the other arobot that was unceremoniously torn apart. Yup, this one had gone bad all right. I took a deep breath, rolled, and shot the arobot in the side of the head. Yeah, that got its attention all right. It swivelled around, so its head never took its eye off me, the only sign of my shot being a slight dent in the side of its skull. Too damned tough, but I only wanted it to notice me. It was coming for me with that leisurely yet determined stride they have, but I had to wait until it reached the post box. That’s when I fired the grenade. Sharp bastard that the arobot was, it swatted the grenade out of the air, presumably thinking it was aimed (badly) at it. Thankfully it actually knocked it onto a better course than I’d managed with the awkward angle I’d aimed from. The grenade struck the post box and detonated the bomb. I had, I’ll admit, forgotten precisely which set of explosives we’d put where, and wow, that was quite a bang. The tank-buster in the post box incinerated the arobot and blew a fresh hole in the already wrecked village, hurling broken houses, tank parts and me through the air.

That’s how I ended up in yet another puddle, being rescued by a different arobot. Honestly, this war. I don’t know if I’m going to get killed by the enemy or one of my squad. Ah well, onto the next village. It’s a long walk, but I should be dry by the time we get there.

Functionally Immortal

Functionally Immortal

“You can’t learn magic.” That’s the first thing they tell you when you arrive at the Thaumatorium. Typically it provokes a host of “what the hell am I doing here?” type questions, angry faces, and sad, confused faces. It’s not the most promising start to arriving at a place of education. But, as they point out, none of us had applied for a placement, taken a test, or (mostly) even heard of the place. That’s not a huge surprise, I guess. Everyone knows magic exists, obviously. It’s as real as the sciences that enable us to construct buildings, drive cars around and launch junk into space. But the function of magic is a little harder to pin down. It fills the gaps in science, makes the leaps between concept and completion which science might one day learn to fill. Intuition then, sort of. At the Thaumatorium we were trained in intuitive jumps, hop-scotching logic that could take us not just from A to C, but from A to Three, skipping the established order and hopping into another mode of conceptualising entirely. That’s all understood by the public in much the same way as we “understand” how our televisions or computers work: once someone else has demonstrated the possibilities, we can make use of them too.

Not long after being told we wouldn’t be learning magic, we did learn something new. The gaps we’d be hopping over in our minds with intuitive hops weren’t so much gaps as they were gaping abysses in which something else most definitely waited. The usual chain of cognition follows a direct line, if one that can be twisty and unusual, but it’s continuous – a path through the forest, if you will. What’s not clear from that path is that the forest looms darkly around you, and hidden in its branches and just off the ground-down path of human reason lurk all the wolves, bears and all the serial killing clowns in Yogi Bear drag that you can imagine. Mostly we don’t see them because the path is there, compelling our mental feet along its worn path. Granted, that’s only a metaphor, but it immediately made me wonder what would happen if you wore the path out entirely… But that was a problem dismissed by our tutors – I was fixating on the metaphor, not the truths it represented. Unable to see the wood for the trees, if you like.  

As someone who hadn’t been a huge fan of regular school, I was somewhat dismayed to discover that we’d actually have to learn a lot more about the subjects that we’d be using our intuition to find new paths through. Makes sense: how can you skip a step if you don’t at least know the starting point? Humanity has very rarely made a leap from nothing at all to a unified theory of the universe. It happens though. One of the first such discoveries was religion – extrapolating out of nowhere that there must be a godlike figure overseeing all. The result of such wild leaps is, of course, madness. A madness inflicted on humanity ever since. It’s useful though, to thaumaturgeons such as we’d one day become, because madness doesn’t care about the path through the forest. It just smashes through the underbrush and might one day come out the other side. And on that other side might be a gleaming valley filled with golden light and hope. Often it doesn’t though, and the madness leads straight into something awful. Those ones don’t come back. We’d be learning how to direct our intuition, veering around the edge of madness while we found a fresh track to follow between some trees. And while we were tracing out that new road we’d have to be alert and aware of the wolves lying in wait.

It wasn’t a good first year. I learnt an awful lot more about animal biology and forest metaphors than I’d ever hoped to. The second year was better, as I learned to make tiny changes in the DNA of the various animals we were given as test subjects – imagining is doing in the Thaumatorium. Some died, some did not. By the third year, I was unravelling the genetic history of my charges, beginning to make the intuitive leaps that revealed the inter-related purpose and function of its genome. Two years later, I’d made my axolotls functionally immortal. You could still kill them if you wanted to, but left to their own devices with sufficient food and so on, their cells and being would now renew endlessly.

Using that new and painstakingly documented knowledge to find the same path for humanity would be someone else’s problem. That’s what science is for. But I wasn’t ready to let it lie. Rubbing up against madness is quite intoxicating. I’d felt it all the way through my studies, the yawning holes around me as I dreamed, guessed and hopped my way through the evolutionary history of those axolotls. I was pretty sure I could do it to a human too. The challenge, because there’s always an extra challenge, is that I was working with live subjects and tweaking them. Remember that not all of my subjects had lived… and the axolotl was a likely test bed for this stuff anyway, their being weird and regenerative beasts to begin with. Humans’ arms are notoriously bad at growing back.

I should note that I’m here as an object lesson in sticking to the path, or at least the path of finding another path according to the Thaumatorium guidelines and instruction. There’s a reason that even when going “off-book” as we do here, we’re going offroad in a really rugged vehicle that can handle the terrain and maybe kill one of those wolves when you hit it, rather than the other way round. The metaphors that this place hits you with all the time, confusing and mixed as they are, they’re all to help keep your mind and body safe and intact, at least until you graduate and it becomes someone else’s problem. Well, I didn’t listen well enough – that ‘s why I’ve got no left arm, but I do have two right arms, and one of them will probably live forever. Listen to your teachers, kids.

Shadow Joe

Shadow Joe

A long way away… over the hills and far away… It’s an almost inconceivable distance, yet the birds have been there, and they bring back stories of how the world could be different. Each winter they take from us a tale of woe, and return six months later singing of joy and hope.

I last saw them wheeling in the sky, preparing for their migration. They spun and soared high up above the gallows tree. They won’t sit in that tree, not any more. Beneath them old Shadow Joe swung gently in a counter-clockwise spin, drizzling a bloody figure of eight in the sparse grass below him. I don’t watch the hangings. Father says it’s not a thing anyone should watch, even though they do. But you should bear witness too, says mother. So I come afterwards. After they’re quiet, and still. All the breath squeezed out at the throat, and all the blood from a slash through the inner thigh, watering the earth. The ground doesn’t want it though – it stays glumly brown and the grass only ever grows there reluctantly. Doesn’t want to get too close to death. I’ll stay and watch Shadow Joe twist for a while. It’s sort of peaceful, once you forget that it used to be a person instead of this leaking bone sack. Of course, that’s all we ever really are – just some fat and skin wrapped around old white sticks. It’s amazing that we can be something more when we’re all put together properly. Makes you wonder where we go afterwards. I like to think that the birds will take Shadow Joe’s story and let him live again wherever they fly to. They’ll perch in some lovely trees, all blue-green leaves swaying in a warm breeze and twitter out about all the seasons Shadow Joe lived. How he was good to his wife, mostly. How his children got the best of him, how everything he did, he did for them. They’ll have to tell about the thefts though – even the worst things we do are a part of our lives, part of our story – and how Shadow Joe finally murdered Old Samuel when he was found out. It’s sad that people will remember the end of the story, not all the good parts in the beginning and the middle, just the end. Most people will forget about the snowmen he built, or that he’s why we have the big snowman competition in the coldest of midwinter, when there’s nothing else to do but stay warm and pray away the winter. Maybe we won’t even do that any more at all – no more going out once the sun’s properly up, wrapped in as many clothes as you can squeeze into, hardly able to walk because you’ve got three pairs of trousers on and four jumpers, with your dad’s coat the only thing big enough to encompass your new girth. Gloves only work for a bit against the cold of snow, before you warm too much of it with friction and before you know it, your hands are wet and freezing cold too. It means you’ve got to build a snowman even quicker, before you lose a finger. And then back into the glowing heat of home, wet gloves hanging against the hearth, while you’re wrapped in a blanket shivering back to warmth too. The next day everyone would go out and they’d be judged. I never won, but I came close, and it was fun. If we don’t do that this year, now that Shadow Joe’s hanging, well. I think that’ll be sad. Maybe we miss the things people do, or that they did, more than the people themselves. Maybe remembering someone is just remembering something they did that we liked, and thinking of them when you start to roll up a head out of snow. It’s sort of the same with my grandparents. I remember them doing, not just being. Even if that doing was a quiet, peaceful thing – like grandad sitting in that chair near the fire. Even when it’s empty I always think of it being filled with him, gently rocking, probably asleep, maybe reading. It’s not his voice, or anything he told me that I remember, just him taking up space, filling up a bit of the world with some life. That’s what we’ll all be missing from Shadow Joe. Big, boisterous space-filling. I hope others remember that about him too. Not that it isn’t bad what he did… No one should steal, even if they’re desperate, that’s what father says. But I do wonder if it shouldn’t be more like you shouldn’t steal unless you’re desperate, unless you’ve run out of choices and chances. If you steal before that, then you’re just a thief, but if you had no other option, no other way to feed your children, well, that doesn’t feel the same. Not like it’s good then, or anything, but surely it’s worse to steal when you don’t need something, just taking for the sake of taking. Stealing because you have to, maybe that’s not really stealing. Maybe everyone else stole from Shadow Joe when they wouldn’t share more when his wife fell ill, when his children caught it too. Maybe it wasn’t Shadow Joe who let everyone down, but that everyone else let him down. You shouldn’t kill either. Of course you shouldn’t! But things die all the time, and it’s all right if we do it to animals. But again, only if you need them. No one hunts for sport here, though some people talk about it like that might be a thing they do in other places. Just go out and murder for the fun of it. We kill animals so that we might live – because we need to. Not because we want to, I don’t think anyway. If we didn’t have to, I’m sure father wouldn’t mind not having to go out into the dark woods with the other hunters for days at a time. And it’s dangerous too – if you try to kill something, it’s a got a right to fight back. Unless you trick it with a trap, and maybe that is cheating, if you take a life without giving it a chance to run, or to attack. Maybe that’s what happened with Shadow Joe and Old Samuel. He didn’t mean to kill Old Samuel, or maybe he did mean to, but he never wanted to have to. His choices ran out again, and when Old Samuel found him in the store because that was all Shadow Joe had left, he was just defending himself, having that chance to fight back. Funny how it’s not all right to successfully fight back – we say they should fight back because that’s what makes it fair, but if they win, and kill rather than be killed, that’s not really fair again. It doesn’t seem like something you can win at.

The birds are getting all set to travel off again. Looks like they’re all up there now, in their thousands. No idea where they hide out most of the time, but they’re all gathered up, making strange shapes in the sky. I hope they remember the good parts of Shadow Joe and tell people all about him, wherever they go, and maybe tell them a little less about how he came to be hanging from the gallows tree. See you next year, birds, I look forward to your stories.

Captain Pigheart’s Hairy Adventure

Twas yet another dark night – it seems to be a theme of our venturin’ across the straits between Noster Fabreezi and the temple island of Blue Lycan. Not that yer noble captain is complainin’, no sir. The darkest nights are finest for sneaking, hiding and ambushing. It had just been an awful long while since we’d seen the moon. Ye see, before our present venture (which we’ll be getting to, calm your bristles lad), we’d ah, suffered some lunar mishaps ye might say. Allow me to whisk ye back in time about three weeks ago, when the lads went a tad off-piste in the charming seaside resort of Thiccorassi. Ye see, it was to be me pride and joy to officiate the wedding of one of me most beloved crewmates, Billy No Mates. At last we’d be marrying him off and shunting his miserable chops off to a life of drudgery and possibly happiness in a fine landlocked town where we’d likely never see him again. Twas a fine prospect. Maritime law, of course, dictates that yer mates must take the groom to be out on the town for a spot of debauchery and assorted acts of shame and humiliation. We were all looking forward to it, even Billy.

Now, Thiccorassi’s a fine place. Renowned for its hanging gardens, well-hung gentlemen and a gallows-themed theme park just beyond the harbour. Our leprous chef, Monty McBuboe, had consented to be Billy’s best man (at best he was but half a man, but ye can’t be too picky when you’re at sea), and he’d signed the crew up for a day and night of frantic drinking and sight seein’. Twas a beautiful night, with our big pal Captain Moon at his fullest, gazing down encouragingly at us all, with an indulgent smile on his lips and the hint of a wink in his eye.

I’ll confess that the theme park was rather more special than I’d imagined, with a wide range of rides and delights all based around the stretching of a fellow’s neck. Twas where we lost the first of our crewmembers that weekend: I’d had me doubts about the Long Neck ride where they’d just clamp a cage about the neck and shake you round and about in the air. In fairness, the kids that got off the ride before us seemed fine, if a little loose about the shoulders. Alas, poor Nikolai Shoebutt’s neck popped just minutes into the initial spinnin’. Perhaps it was me own admiralty-related fears that had my fingers white with how hard I clung on to that cage, but Nikolai’d been content to be flung about and his spine proved unfit for the challenge. They did at least return his head to us, which was a blessing since his body had been flung out across the park; we’d heard the screams that indicated its landing, but we were too busy to lug a torso about for the weekend. The head and cage we amusingly strapped to Billy’s shoulder so it appeared he had an intimate pal at last. Ah, how we laughed.

Onwards to the well-hung gentlemen and their impressive damsel companions. I’ve not seen so sensual a sashay and shimmy since I last braved the underwater realm of King Neptune and his saucy shark maidens. The ongoings of this particular occasion are to be fondly reviewed in our memories, yet ne’er spoken of again (until the rum flows in sufficient volume to drown even the most bashful of our seabound lotharios), suffice to say, “gaargh”. From thence we began a bawdy run about the wineries and ouzo parlours – all excellently well filled with libations from both grape and, I must presume, the fetid shart oysters from which ouzo is brewed. By the time we pounded on the gates of the hanging gardens, I could barely feel me eyes. All I wanted was to drag me fingers through the danglin’ flowers like a drunken fairy. After a bit we discovered that it wasn’t so much a gate as a portcullis, and with our mighty combined strength we raised it and staggered off into the garden. Tis a pity that none of us paid mind to the sign we trampled, with its strict injunctions against entering the gardens on a full moon. Still, you live and learn as they say, or, in pirate parlance, die a terrible death. The extending of life’s only good for increasing the likelihood that your end will be a vile and monstrous thing. Dive into a shark when yer young, that’s what I say.

The gardens were all silver filigree in the moonlight, rich black shadows framed by the horticultural treats of Thiccorassi. We were halfway through garlanding Billy in the flowers of the night when a dreadful howl quite split the velvet blackness about us. Twas shortly followed by a chorus of other howls, roughly torn from the throats of some frightful beast. Come to think of it, the sign we’d stamped over had had a curious red triangle with a wolf’s head turned in profile. Being a mostly sea-trottin’ fellow I’ve little experience of wolves and hairy, toothed monsters of their ilk. I’m more comfortable with a foe who’s arms outnumber the limbs on your average man. That night in Thiccorassi filled in some gaps in me education. An eruption of wolves from the undergrowth caused considerable alarm, especially given they were lurching about on two legs and snapping their foul muzzles wantonly at us. We lashed out, more or less at random with cutlass and pistol, for the beasts were swift, snapping in and out at our huddled circle in which we protected young Billy No Mates. Tis possibly the only time I’ve laid meself in harm’s way when that harm could easily have been absorbed by his unlovely face. Though we fought them off in time, the brutes had been cursedly effective, and all of us bar Billy bore their clawmarks and bloody imprints of their cruel fangs. We’d slain but one of the beasts, and were further startled when, as the full moon slid behind a cloud, the pistol-shot wolf-thing changed into a naked young lad filled with holes. Fear not, he was still dead.

We thought little of it, for stranger things happen at sea. We returned to general carousin’, after reading the sign and making sure it was replaced a little more at eye level for future visitors. Ouzo’s scarce fit to drink, but by god can it disinfect a wound. After the first rather full night of partying and drinking and violence we retired to an inn run by a rather waspish pair who seemed reluctant to grant us bed and board. Though they stared all moon-eyed at our somewhat bedraggled appearance, I swept their concerns aside with a description of Billy’s upcoming wedding. And also with me cutlass. Gaargh. Sleep came swift, and spinny.

The next day was to be spent in oiled wrestling, olive hurling and other Grecian pursuits, and we were as slippery as a jellied eel by the time night fell, and the moon rose once more. The reflected rays of Mr Moon fell upon our party as we rested in a moussaka garden. A frightful itching came over my teeth, and me arms looked a mite furrier than I recalled from earlier that day. In only a moment or two I watched Monty McBuboe’s arms and legs stretch out all furry and his head elongated into that of a snarling beast. He was not the only one. I followed too, which was wildly irritating as my peg leg and hook hand fell immediately by my chair, leaving me hopping about in new howling werewolf form! While we were still dimly aware of our human natures, the urge to bite and run rampant overwhelmed our better sides. None of us noticed Billy hiding under a tablecloth as we rioted out into the busy night streets of Thiccorassi.

It’s all well and good to put a cautionary sign up on your hanging gardens where you happen to pen up your local werewolves, but it was rather lacking in both detail and proper deterrent to a horde of drunk pirates. While we might be deserving of some share of the blame for the bloody mayhem that ensued that bright moonlit night, I’ll be damned if the real villain ain’t an administrative failing. We came to ourselves, naked and covered in blood, our pack in an unwelcome cuddle pile in the Thiccorassi cemetery. Twas potentially a mite embarrassing, but once Billy found us, pushing a barrow filled with what remained of our clothing and prosthetics, he explained that we’d quite decimated the local population, and there was no one likely to poke fun at our bedtime bonhomie.

So, Thiccorassi. Nice place, but no longer on the list of popular stag destinations. And now, near a month on from our hairy massacre, we sailed for the ancient temple on Blue Lycan, whose monks are reputed to have a cure for our lunar lunacy. Tis to be hoped they do, for otherwise Billy No Mates’ wedding’s to be a disaster, and worse, he’ll probably remain on board forever. Gaargh.

The Vending Machine

The Vending Machine

I’ve eaten all the Caramac bars, all the wheat tube crisp things and all the Kit-Kats. It leaves a disappointing selection in the vending machine, but I guess that’s just what a lack of self-restraint gives you. I told myself I should have been practicing the whole delayed gratification thing, but frankly when there are zombies pounding on the doors outside and grunting like the worst lover imaginable, I think I’m OK with the occasional treat. Serves me right for coming in to work on a Sunday I suppose.

One of the great things about a serviced office is that you can sometimes get the whole empty space to yourself. Being free of the endless distraction of people wanting to talk to you, either about work or whatever dreadful television experience they suffered through (those are my words, not theirs; they seem genuinely excited by the interaction of hand-picked wankers pretending to date on an island), and just the sight and sound of them. Really, an office to myself is an absolute dream. It’s not that I don’t like other people (despite claims of misanthropy), it’s just that they’re fucking annoying when you’re trying to get something done, and if I’m not ready to chat then the whole social hell is massively oppressive. So I’d taken to sloping in late and leaving early during the week, hiding as best I could in a little cubicle farm in the far corner from the entrance, where, if you hunker down and stay quiet, they might not even know you’re there. I might get interrupted by someone looking for a free desk, and have them look at me like I’m mad, sitting on the floor cross-legged with laptop actually on my lap. Then at the weekend I can both catch up on work, get some general peace and quiet and fit in a few hours of doing whatever I want. Ideally that’s getting loose and lazy leaning out of the window in the kitchenette with a vape and watching some kung fu movies. I’ll concede that this maybe doesn’t sound like the life you’d want to have, but I quite liked it.

Last Sunday I was in as usual at eight in the morning. Let myself in at the front faux-reception area which has swapped actual reception functions for a bank of buzzer buttons next to the elevator, not that you can even get that far without a key and keycard. No one likes unexpected visitors. From there it’s three floors up. The lift doors open onto the tiniest hallway, occupied by an emergency door to the utterly unused stairwell, my beloved snacks machine, the most plastic rubber plant imaginable, and the door into the maze of cubicles. We’re not a big outfit, or at least this little niche of it – twenty desks, maybe twenty-five staff rotating in and out including day to day managers. That Sunday I was once more alone, though I always held my breath going out from the lift to the office, just in case there was someone else there. If there’s just two of you it’s even worse. Like fucking magnets that have to smash into each other with trivia and banal exchanges of passive aggression. Fuck all of that. Mine, all mine! It had been the easiest cycle ride in, too. Dead quiet, hardly any traffic, not that that’s especially unusual first thing on a Sunday morning. It’s only the poor bastards with kids or an exercise dependency that have to get up early; or those whose bodies are too broken to lie in properly.

I did some work for a few hours, completing half the week’s jobs in under a morning (they really ought to just let us work from home), having selected the cubicle bang in the middle of the labyrinth, with a good view of the front door in case I needed to pretend I wasn’t there, and easy access to the kitchenette and the loos. Prime location. I was making my third or fourth dirty chai latte (my absolute favourite, something about despoiling an already perfect caffeine-free drink with espresso makes my heart sing), and wondering whether I could be arsed to do any more work if I should just drag my laptop in here and perch on the window sill for a vape. No, not that tedious nicotine stuff with the billowing clouds of candy floss vapour – a proper THC vape. It’s not always conducive to work, but I had a bunch of rote tasks that I could probably handle a bit stoned, with an appropriate soundtrack. I got myself balanced on the window sill, half-sitting across the window so I could exhale outwards, while watching a Donnie Yen film, and still have access to that glorious chai latte. The sound of a car crash outside gave me a fright and spanner that I am, I dropped the vape. Straight out of the window. Absolute motherfucker. Well, I wasn’t leaving that out there, so I awkwardly climbed back in, grabbed my keys and headed downstairs. The window I’d been leaning out of looks out on to a shitty little quadrangle between four identical micro office blocks. They must have been flats once, but some fuckwit decided to buck the trend for making billions off residential letting and had this half-empty set of offices instead. Smart people, everywhere. The quad is only accessible through a weird gate to one side of the main door, must have been a garage entrance or something. It was still very quiet for nearly midday, just a few cars racing past, seeking out adventure at Ikea, I imagined. The quad was as empty as ever, and my vape was unbroken, nestled between a sad attempt at a dandelion and an old Pepsi bottle. Win.

Less of a win was the guy staggering around the corner as I reached the main road again. I’m used to drunks, and weird fucked-up guys who aren’t actually homeless but they’re exactly what we’ve been told for years are what homeless guys look like. I suspect they’re actually landlords. This guy looked beyond fucked though. Belatedly I remembered the sound of crunching cars which had led me to this spot, and for a couple of seconds I wondered if he’d been involved. One side of his head looked kind of concave, and his left arm was all mangled, like it had been caught in a seat belt while he was thrown out of the windscreen (I watch a lot of action movies). Lots of blood. I hesitantly started towards him, and I guess he hadn’t noticed me until then, because I was dead sure I had his attention after that. His jaw dropped, like halfway down his neck, drooling like that dog we had when I was fourteen. His non-wrecked arm came right up, grasping fingers outstretched and he roared. I mean, big cats roar, and maybe bears, but it’s the best word for this outraged noise that emerged from him. He came right for me, and there was nowhere to go but back into the quad.

I pulled the gate shut right behind me, and dropped the latch. I was so freaked out that I just stood there for a second as he slammed into the gate, trying to shove his arm and shoulder through it. I was under no illusions though, this guy hadn’t been in a car crash – or maybe he had – but this was quite definitely a zombie, or zombie-adjacent murderous fuck. Thankfully he looked like he’d been pretty thick before whatever had happened to make him like this, and he wasn’t even trying for the catch. Enough banging against it might make it jump up though… I snapped a pic with my phone, because why not? Insta would need to know what was going on. I backed off, but he was pretty keen, and I realised I’d trapped myself in the quad with only a drop-catch as protection. I’ve seen zombie movies where they trick the zombies and do lots of running around. I’m not a runner, and that never ends well. As he managed to make the catch give a tiny bit, I made up my mind. My kitchen window was still open three stories above. I cycle, have very occasionally done a spot of recreational rock climbing and used to be able to do pull ups. Here we’ve got classic old hardcore drain pipes (none of that plastic crap), a bunch of window ledges and some decorative architectural things. I could do this. As the gate burst open, with the zombie guy blissfully caught with his wrecked arm stuck in it, I did it. I got up above the first floor as the zombie wrenched his whole damn arm off and came running to mash himself against the wall beneath me.

I might have been good at exercise when I was younger if a one-armed slavering madman stood screaming below me until I got to the top of the rope. It certainly worked now. Sweating like it was peak summer, my heart racing like I’d done genuine exercise so much that I thought I might be about to have a heart attack, I hauled myself in through the window and tumbled to the floor, knocking my latte and laptop flying. Still, I had my vape back. I peered back outside, and could just see the flailing arm of the zombie below. He hadn’t given up yet. Obviously I checked Twitter and the news immediately: we were fucked. The news was a bit worried about some ill people and telling everyone to stay inside; Twitter was screaming ZOMBIES. I uploaded my pic and wondered what to do. I was relatively safe. The adrenaline and the THC had kicked in and the munchies were coming on strong. That’s when I remembered about the Caramacs in the vending machine – an object I generally try to ignore, because a Caramac costs ninety fucking pence – but this seemed like an emergency.

It’s now Wednesday. The catastrophe continues to unfold outside, but the internet and power are still on. I’ve got a kitchen and the loos have a creepy “come watch me wash” shower corner, so it’s not too grim yet. However, I’ve completely run out of change, as has the tea jar in the kitchen, and all the drawers in the desks, and I’m not prepared to bankrupt my debit card. Fuck it, this is a zombie plague situation: I’m going to break into the vending machine.

Welcome to Cordeus Cex

Welcome to Cordeus Cex

“I’m thirty years old, and I’d like another ten.” That’s how I put it to the doctor anyway. Calling him the doctor seems awfully formal for a man I’ve known since his birth, right here on Cordeus Cex. He’s probably one of the last kids I did get to know all through their lives. You only have to have a couple of generations and suddenly there are hundreds of new people. Anyway, his name wasn’t “doctor” it was Campbell Seuss, and he was a good man. He was a second generation, from loving parents who were part of the original founders of the colony, like me. Unless you count the robots and auto-assemblies who arrived well in advance of course, along with the two arobots who unfolded themselves on first touch down and coordinated the initial mild terraform and set up the town infrastructure. Only one them is still knocking about, and it doesn’t get out much, not since it was broken down and integrated with the communications relay. 

Now, thirty doesn’t sound particularly old, not by Earth standards anyway, but Cordeus Cex is a good way further out from our sun, making our years three and a half Earth years. It was a nightmare trying to keep in time with Earth routines, but even so it took a couple of (Earth) years before we properly abandoned it. Why keep time with your old imperium? We all converted to CC time, which made me about eight and a half. Keeping track of both ages was a special torture, particularly when you’re also adapting to thirty hour day. It became pretty meaningless after a while, but if you really wanted to, there was always a computer around to do the maths for you. Still, I reckon forty’s not out of reach, not here on Cordeus Cex, where every indication from the second generations and upwards suggests they’ll be seeing ages perhaps double what they’d have got on old Earth. Not that they’ve seen it, I mean, we showed them pictures for a while. It’s good to get a sense of history, but Earth has millennia of history, most of which is interesting but irrelevant to them unless they’re big readers. Seuss’s mum preserved a lot of it as stories, the more interesting history tomes were written like historical fantasies, so you get a decent narrative. The odds of anyone going in search of them feel a bit slight. We’re rather busier expanding and adapting. And it’s further adaption that I was hopeful would take me up to forty.

It’s not that I want to live forever, but I was barely an adult when we left Earth, part of the big spiral wave, flinging colony ships out across the galaxy. Not all of them had a fixed destination, but luckily ours did – there’s only so much running on hope you can do. With Cordeus Cex as our destination we spent five years awake at either end of the trip on board the ship, plus forty in cold storage in between (Earth years – or fourteen and change in CC time – you see how confusing it gets). During that hibernation phase the automated builders were launched ahead of us, at terrifying velocity since they had no soft bits to get squished. By the time we arrived the colony was ready for occupation. A lot of work still needed afterwards of course, since one of the arobots had got it into their head that what we really needed were wild and sprawling monkey puzzle tree shapes to live in. No one managed to unravel that one, and since they were structurally sound we just moved in. Living in a miniature maze was a little strange, with the slightly reflective walls picking up sunlight and bouncing them all round in interior. Clever. Just… odd. 

By the time we moved in, we’d almost forgotten how many people hadn’t made it. Cold storage had been tested by the companies designing the colony ships, but no one had ever had the product testing time to try them out for forty years. Maybe five of continuous use and probably less with healthy people in them. Lots of dark whispers about testing them on prisoners and the long-term bedridden elderly – Earth isn’t a bad place to have left behind. So a failure rate of thirty-eight per cent wasn’t surprising, but it was shocking. Redundancy is hard to build in when you have no idea who’s going to survive. We were recruited, hired or chosen by lottery and arranged into functional pods of fifty. Each with a fixed number of specialists in medicine, engineering, mechanics, science, construction, agriculture – basically everything, including teachers, cooks and so on. Everyone had a bunch of other interests, but we were all young. All under eight – dammit, twenty-eight – young enough to have the best chance of surviving cold storage, young enough to have a full life ahead of us, and young enough to have studied, learned and experienced something that would prepare us for life on another world. That included the two years of learning about Cordeus Cex and everything we might need to know when we arrived. They didn’t cover handling the loss of one hundred and ninety people, or suddenly discovering them when we got out of cold sleep. The ship had been automatically jettisoning them as they died to save power and weight, so when we woke up there were just gaps all around us. Only me and Campbell’s mum survived from our pod. My particular specialty was logistics, with a secondary skillset in theatre of all things. Campbell’s mum, Keala, was a top-flight biomedical specialist. It was all quite traumatic, but we had five years of being awake on ship while we decelerated to get used to it. By the time we actually debarked, it was just part of the journey. 

CC, our common abbreviation for the place that is home, is a good deal warmer than Earth, the atmosphere naturally drier, but wetter on the ground. It hadn’t been entirely dead before we got there – you can’t add a biosphere to a world that has nothing. Not without hundreds or thousands of years to work on it anyway. Some of the others in the spiral wave were headed for such places. I shuddered to imagine how few of them might survive cold storage over centuries. We were lucky. We are lucky. The local bacteria that had survived a series of brutal extinction events like on Earth were more or less compatible, and nine or so CC years had been time for the arobots to seed the ground thoroughly with Earth contaminants and, with appropriate prodding, they’d interbred to produce something that wouldn’t kill us. No one expected the jellies though. Tiny translucent nets drifting through the air. They got stuck in your hair, your clothes, and worse – your skin and eyes. They hadn’t bothered the machines or arobots a bit, but all of a sudden we were crashing with respiratory failures. Keala and the others took a while to figure out what was going on. While the arobots had been merging the Cordeus Cex biosphere with ours, the jellies were doing it the other way round. A few people did die, but those who didn’t experienced something quite different. The jellies sank into their bodies, fragmenting and got busy breaching cell walls. It looked like an awful plague with all the inflammation and freaking out of the nervous system that you might expect. And you couldn’t get them out – not if they’d already gone through your skin. Then our people started waking up again, and they were fine. No, better than fine: stronger, more resilient, faster. Hell, even their hair looked shinier. The jellies had merged with the mitochondria in our cells, amping up every source of power in the human body. Once they’d done that to a hundred of our colonists, it started spreading by skin contact, breath, the works. In under a year we were all infected, though none of the rest of us had the same initial reaction. It was like a really bad cold for a fortnight (seventeen or so days to you…) and then I woke up feeling amazing.

We weren’t just going to survive, we were going to thrive. And we have. The younger kids – third generation and onwards are tall, dense and smart as hell. I just want another few years to see what comes next as we expand out of this valley and into the next, sprawling farmlands, a new closed loop hydro system due to be finished in the next year… and the theatre I set up is doing well. I’m it’s main patron, which means I just show up for the first performances and give occasional speeches and stuff. The old classics are still in use, but they’ve all been reshaped and recontextualised – the CC versions of Aristophanes’ The Frogs, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi are all but unrecognisable, bar the tone of the language. It’s nice to see us drifting further from Earth, becoming true Cordeusians. Campbell’s not even sure we could live on Earth again, not with the changes. So I’d like another ten, but I’ll take five.

Live Cargo

Live Cargo

The sky sparkled, every particle in the atmosphere like a falling crystal flaring in the sunlight. All of it drifting down to land like snow on the face and outstretched limbs of the man lying sprawled across the rock. The trail of shattered glass, some of which was embedded in the man’s clothing and flesh underneath, led back to the wreckage of the sleek space cruiser, smashed on impact like cheap pottery. The bits of stuff falling on him were tiny flaming fragments of plastic and metal, even so it took a while before he woke up. Eventually though the gentle fiery taps on his face and hands kicked him back out of blissful unconsciousness into a world where pain existed again. Corlton Jak snapped awake at a sensation most like his older brother flicking lit matches at him while they dawdled in the woods, drinking cheap hooch and making a nuisance of themselves. That would been preferable. Instead he sat up and slapped urgently at the fine rain of detritus from the mess he’d made of entering the planetary atmosphere. It had been a bad angle, and he’d been on the verge of passing out anyway after a series of high velocity twists and turns. At first, he’d feared he was going to skip off the atmosphere entirely, yet a series of unwise but effective readjustments had smashed the ship awkwardly and spinning through that thin barrier. The spin had been impossible to arrest, and the re-entry fried the outside of the ship and started to dig under the external panelling. Much of what was still falling was insulation, and inevitably, invaluable parts of the engines that had exploded as he came down. It was not far short of a miracle that he’d survived at all. He was very bruised, very stiff and with a killer headache, but it seemed nothing was broken. Yet, anyway. Corlton had managed to drag himself out of the ship just after the impact nearly shattered his teeth, out through the old-fashioned windscreen and far enough away to possibly survive if the whole thing blew up. Losing the engines on the way down had actually been a bonus, since they’d gone bang while he was spinning and spared them blowing on crash landing. There hadn’t been a lot of landing about it. He gently plucked shards of glass out of his suit, wincing at a couple of longer slivers that had dug in properly. Time to review the situation.

Well, it wasn’t good, was it? Chased around a moon by pirates or cops (he hadn’t hung around to check, and these days anyone could look like anything), sniped at until he took his best chance and dived for the crappy little planet below. Corlton had been approaching the end of his series of covert iminal-space hops, from shithead planet to the next, all nicely out of the way and intended to avoid the precise kind of attention he’d received. Seriously, could no one smuggle in peace any more? He’d plainly been rattled by the crash because it took until he unravelled how he’d come to be here that he remembered why he was even in the damn ship to begin with. Smuggling has ever been a risky yet lucrative profession, and Corlton mostly shifted medical gear and objects generally the subject of colonial theft. Getting medicine and tech into the hands and bodies of those who needed them, albeit at ferociously inflated prices had never felt like a bad thing, and depriving the various empires and kingdoms of the riches they’d have stolen from their conquests was also in the grey areas, for him. Sure, the cases of Vaulx artifacts he’d last run out to some old man on a frighteningly weathered space station were hardly benefiting the Vaulx, but given that the Mondarian Empire was busy annihilating all of the Vaulx anyway, at least that handful of bone-worked statuary would survive. The money was decent, the risks were manageable. Or they had been till now.

Corlton climbed back into the spaceship through the newly open front, wincing from the bruises and ducking under the crumpled ceiling. At the rear of the ship, which looked like a stamped-on drink can, he put a good deal of sweat and effort into prising the buckled panels off the floor beside the bathroom facilities (a fancy way of describing a miserable powder shower and a chair with a hole in it). Eventually, with a broken nail and the extra bruise of the crowbar bouncing up and whacking him in the collar bone, Corlton pulled the boards away and inspected his cargo. It didn’t look like much: a neat metal case, complete with handle and flip-up panel that told him the contents were alive, and also dead – he wasn’t the only thing that had taken a few blows in the crash. Corlton didn’t like smuggling living things. They required extra maintenance, and might not wish to be cargo which led to all sorts of additional trouble. Further compensation however, very impressive further compensation had compromised whatever ethics Corlton liked to pretend he had. He only bent those ethics for a decent reward, and the reward would be nothing if the contents of the case weren’t alive at the other end. Getting off this planet would be a thrilling next step, but Corlton dealt with problems in the order in which they could be resolved. If the thing in the case had died, then he wouldn’t need to lug it to the nearest city or station while figuring out how to get off-world again. That was a trick he’d learned early on – if you’re engaged in a risky adventure, you should balance the risks against the consequences. Like crashing on an unoccupied world that you’re then going to die on. Far better to inimal-hop between planets that might help save your arse. There were more than enough rough and ready colony worlds who had zero imperial law enforcement, but did have ports and comms rigs. And Corlton always had money; he dug that out next.

There was no sign of the gunship that had chased him out of the moon’s shadow. It was possible that his crashing through the atmosphere and into the ground had looked just as fatal as it had felt. No reason to hang about though. His geolocator had already identified a nearby town, a mere sixty mile hike away. Best see what he needed to take with him first. He’d pulled the secure case and the rest of his gear out of the ship, which seemed even more bedraggled once he’d exited it. A shame. She’s been a nifty little cruiser for the last ten years. A new identity and ship might not be a bad idea if folks were willing to blast this one anyway. It would be night soon, and he needed to get moving. Sticking with the ship was not a good idea, and he doubted there was much in the rocky scrub ahead to worry him, other than the lack of good-looking cover.

Corlton laid the case on the ground and tapped at the screen. The case hissed a little and popped open. Inside lay what he’d been an awful lot of money to transport. He’d seen pictures, but never the real thing: it looked like a tiny deer, but made of feathers and icicles – the most delicate frosting of an animal he’d ever seen. A Vicunxian snowflake cat, or at least that’s what humans had called it. No one knew what the Vincunxians would have called it since they’d fled their homeworld only a few years after the Mondarians turned up in orbit, looking for rare metals. They’d found those, and a wide range of really weird animal life. The Mondarians were more interested in mining than preservation, and alas it was down to various collectors and zoos to catalogue and rescue the creatures. The empire guarded all its assets jealously however, even the ones they didn’t care about. Even though this little thing seemed terribly fragile it didn’t look broken and sets of flute-looking structures along the back of its legs were waving all by their own, breathing presumably. At least it was light. Corlton turned away to grab the heavy-duty rucksack he’d retrieved from the ship, intending to stick the case, food, water and anything else he might need inside. But when he turned back, perhaps a few seconds later, the case was empty.

“Goddammit,” he muttered to himself, slowly turning in a circle. It made a sound like a chandelier in a breeze, glass chimes and pouring wine. He snapped round and spotted it, standing on its hind legs, one foreleg resting on a rock and the other reaching out in the air. He had no idea if it was looking at him – the snowflake cat had no visible eyes and he was only fifty per cent certain that the larger shape pointed up at the sky was its head.

“Alright you, let’s get you back in the box,” he said, sidling up to its glistening shape. The snowflake cat allowed him to get within a few feet before hopping further off, neatly skipping up the crumpled side of the space ship and posing on its battered roof. Already Corlton was deeply regretting opening the case, reflecting that the panel might have been right, or at least not wrong if it couldn’t tell if the weird little glass deer as alive or not. He scrambled up the side of the ship, barked shins and all. Once more the snowflake cat waited until it was almost in lunging distance before gracefully leaping off down towards the tail of the ship, and from there onto a larger rock. It assumed its previous posture. Corlton sighed, and slid back down the side of the ship. The game continued, with one sparkling and insouciant alien cat thing, and one very exhausted smuggler. Each time the damned thing got a little higher up, rearing upwards with one paw extended to the sky.

Concussion plays merry hell with thinking and common sense, and it wasn’t until the Vincunxian snowflake cat was halfway up a tree that Corlton paused, panting, and figured out that the cat was pointing at the sky. A star was steadily burning its way toward them. Corlton had messed about with the cat for too long, and whoever had gone after him in orbit was coming down to finish the job. Whether the snowflake cat was trying to warn him or what, he had no idea, but if he couldn’t get it down from the tree he was going to have to abandon it and put some distance between himself and the wreck. Hastily, he stuffed everything else he could in the rucksack, and turned back to check on the cat. It was no longer in the tree. It had hopped back onto the spaceship roof, and was no longer pointing at the approaching vehicle. That was good, but it was plainly too nimble to be caught. At best it might follow him and he’d get a chance later to seize it. He laid the case on top of the rucksack and strapped it all down. Time to get moving.

The terrain had looked awkward and slow from a distance but Corlton was making good time, despite his array of bruised and sore joints. The snowflake cat was indeed following, pausing now and then to check on the progress of their pursuer. It was definitely getting closer, and there was damn all in the way of shelter. Corlton kept going, turning now and again to check on both the cat and the spaceship. It disappeared for a while, presumably to investigate the crash site. But soon enough it was back on Corlton’s tail. There just wasn’t anywhere to hide – a dismal lack of caves, pitiful tree cover and not even a stream to try hiding in. Corlton had a small pistol, and a rather brutal knife, neither of which would be any use against a trans-orbital vehicle. He was hot, tired and unlikely to get away, so he gave up and sat down on a rock. The snowflake cat came and knelt beside him, it’s sharply angled head gazing outward with what seemed like anticipation. He didn’t have to wait long.

The ship did indeed catch up in no time, having found the wreckage abandoned. It only took them a few minutes to cover the miles that Corlton had strained for. As the dull grey shape slowed and turned, presenting one its flanks, Corlton made a show of veery obviously placing his pistol and knife on the ground. The side of the ship flexed down and out into a ramp, and Corlton reluctantly braced himself for either being shot or arrested. Neither of those things happened. Instead the strangest creature Corlton had ever seen unfolded itself from the open door. It was obviously related to the snowflake cat by his side, which was vibrating and making small anxious motions with its feet. The thing emerging from the craft had the same icicle delicacy, with multi-jointed crystalline limbs, like a spider and a scarecrow and a centaur all mashed together and made out of cake frosting. Corlton didn’t even breathe. He had no doubt at all that this was another Vincunxian creature, perhaps even one of the natives who’d left their homeworld. It tip-toed down the ramp, the fading sun catching it through all the planes and vertices of its structure. Dazzling, so much so that Corlton had to squint to look at it, and then suddenly it was right in front of him, leaning over him, that scarecrow torso tilted down to coolly regard him. Then it turned to the little snowflake cat by Corlton’s side, and it made a sound like champagne flutes rattling against each other. The cat hopped down, and with a single backward glance at Corlton, skipped off up the ramp and into the craft. The Vincunxian returned its attention to the smuggler. It uttered another sparkle of breaking glass before joining the snowflake cat up the ramp. The door sealed itself and the ship departed, leaving Corlton quite alone as the sun fell below the horizon.

Dark Mornings

Dark Mornings

Morning routines really matter. It’s so easy to just lie in your bunk, swaddled in damp blankets, doing your best to pretend you haven’t woken up – you’re still asleep and nothing in the world in real. Yet. But you have to wake eventually, and some awful bodily need will compel you out of that burrow and propel you reluctantly into the sheer hell of wakefulness. Best to get ahead of it, dims the resentment a little bit and gives you a Done Thing. Yes, I am down to counting getting up as a noteworthy achievement, because I’ve been through this cycle of just lying in my own filth and refusing to do the world. It worked for a while, but then it didn’t and nothing was getting any better. So now I get up. Not wild early – there’s no point in that – but in time that I catch the tail end of sunrise as it sweeps towards the hab dome. It’s quite a sight, and on occasion I do wake up in time to watch the whole thing. It’s so impressive, apparently, because there’s no appreciable atmosphere on this moon, so I don’t get the awesome polluted and cloudy haze of home. This is crisp, a sharp line of light breaching the horizon with a proper action movie glare, which sweeps over the pitted face of the moon and fills the hab with sharp white light. It’s well worth continuing to use up the supply of coffee for.

Once I’ve completed getting up, having coffee, and checking that the sun is present tasks, I amble about the rest of the day. All deep space structures, even though those securely built onto bodies with gravity, need a certain amount of daily maintenance. We’re well shielded, nestled in the side of a substantial volcanic outcropping, but you can’t do much about the showers of meteors and general space crud that rains down when there’s no atmosphere to burn even the dust away. Thus, the point defence lasers get a quick check to make sure they’re paying attention, aren’t losing power or turning against us. Only joking: it’s just me, and I’m pretty sure the lasers aren’t out to get me. There are dozens of systems like this, and I check them in the order of ways I’d least like to die. That’s why the lasers are first – I don’t want to get sucked out into vacuum to die. Next comes general structural integrity, for the same reason as above, it’s just slower. Then heating, because freezing would suck. Air and respiration are lower down the list than you might expect (or indeed, by the manual’s requirements), but I’m fairly confident that I’d die in my sleep and that’s possibly the best outcome I’ve got to look forward to. I do make sure these things are working, but honestly I’ve lost track of whether I’m doing a good job of checking them. This is “loss of spirit” in action.

There are other daily habits less to do with absolute life or death scenarios. I go to the greenhouse, marvel that anything is still growing, water them if they look sad, spritz the soil for the succulents that I’ve lined up to enjoy sunrise. I try not to eat anything from the garden, unless it’s desperate to drop off the vine, as it were. I don’t want anything to go to waste, it’s just – well, if I eat them all now, I won’t be able to ferment them into spacewine. I’m content to live off the huge but declining supply of tinned and powdered foodstuffs which were always meant to be the main component of our meals, with anything from the gardens as a treat or splash of colour. Thankfully this moon is pretty hefty, giving almost normal gravity so the plants that do grow aren’t freakishly wiry things, sprawling across the space. I probably wouldn’t go in the greenhouse at all if they were like that. I record the daily updates, just a summary of “systems nominal, all still fucked.” I left those out for a long while, and if anyone received the messages leading up to the weeks when I didn’t do anything, no maintenance, no getting up, no nothing, they weren’t concerned enough to get in touch. That’s a bit unfair. We’re a very long way from home, and I haven’t been outside the dome to check whether the dish is sending and receiving properly. It’s empty out there, and I don’t trust myself to just go out there and stay there till my air runs out. That’s fractionally harder to do in here. Even if they did get the messages, we’re three years away at minimum, and they already know that almost the whole crew is dead.

I keep saying “we” out of habit and even though it’s only one letter different from “me”, that slide down the alphabet feels less bleak. Besides, they’re all still here, they’re just not alive. Last checks of the day: the morgue. It’s less of a proper morgue than it is a store room I was able to turn the heating off for, so it’s somewhat colder than most real morgues. I come here every day to check that the door is locked. Then I wait, holding my breath, ear to the door to make sure it’s quiet. Then I open the window pane. Nine bodies. I count them, try hard not to name them. Their names are drifting away anyway, as their cold dead bodies began to intertwine not long after I stuffed them in here. Dallas and Vick are still in their spacesuits, and the big orange letters remind me constantly of who they were. The bramble thing they brought back from outside got inside them, and it’s bent them into unnatural shapes, limbs broken out in weird angles, piercing each other’s suit, and now they’re bound together. It might be near absolute zero in here, but those damn things are still growing imperceptibly. They’ve bound the rest of the crew as if they’ve all been rolled up in barbed wire and shaken violently. They’re all still, cold and quiet. I close the window pane, resist the urge to open it again and see if they’ve moved, and then double, triple, quadruple check the door is locked. Technically, checking on my dead crew ought to higher up the list because I really don’t want to die like that, but who can face that first thing in the morning?

Then I have free time. It’s the worst part of the day. All of my cellular experiments died when I took those few weeks off, and I haven’t the heart to restart them, which just gives me more free time. I read, I run around the hab’s exercise suite and ignore most of the equipment in there. I try not to check on the cold room again more than once. I open the spacewine. It’s not good, but with a spot of careful chemistry and use of lab supplies, it’s about sixty per cent proof. I stare out into the darkness beyond the dome. Maybe I’ll print a jigsaw tomorrow, spend some time on that. I wonder why I’m not dead too, and whether that tapping noise is coming from the morgue, or if it’s just one of the many perfectly ordinary sounds that the dome makes. One more check before bedtime.

Beefcake Magic

Beefcake Magic

With a gesture, a looming cyclone of gases and dust whipped up off the ground. In a few seconds it was taller than the clock tower in the town square, which it took no time at all to shatter into fragments which it then spat across the road. Fighting wizards is precisely zero fun. This particular dangerous lunatic had holed up in a charming little American town, Gilmore Girls but with a magical psychopath instead of a heart-warming mother-daughter relationship. He’d suborned the inhabitants and had them mining vitality – magical energy – for his own dubious purposes. Unfortunately, vitality isn’t like coal or tin, except for its appalling side effects on human wellbeing. You harvest it directly from living things. Wizards usually start with pets, their parents’ lovingly tended gardens or just their siblings. The escalation to drawing it straight out of people is often really fast as the wizard gets a taste for it and realises that although there’s a lot of grass, each blade doesn’t have that much vitality. It’s easy to be impressed by the green glow of photosynthesis, but that’s just powering a plant. What you’re looking for are the unique properties that come from the synthesis of all those properties. The good stuff, the real vitality is in humans. Animals have it, but not as much. It’s all about the factors of complexity, and in human beings there’s so much complexity that we develop actual minds – the supervening properties if you will. Harvesting a human soul, all those hopes and dreams and ideas and feelings, that’s basically meth for these wankers. So mining a town for vitality is pretty horrific. First you enslave your miners, that’s brute force charmwork, smashing their minds so thoroughly that they can’t resist you, stealing as much of their vitality as you can without killing them outright. They’re like the undead, but less chatty. Once you’ve got your basic vitality zombies, you get them to do the entrapment and murder for you. That means getting the parents you’ve suborned to abduct their kids and hook them up to the invisible magical web that you – the wizard – have strung up all through the town. Relying on the social and familial networks lets the vitality harvesting spread naturally through an area. There are very few people in any given town who aren’t tied up in some way to the rest. You might immediately think, ah yeah – the child molesters and serial killers, but actually no. Horrifying as it sounds, the former are far better tied into a social network than you’d hope. None of them survive for long if they just hang around playgrounds. People get creeped out and they get reported. No, they’re on the parent teacher association, run a local business, are your parents’ friends. Well embedded. And serial killers are just too rare for this situation. No, what we hope for in these situations is someone totally ostracised, who doesn’t even got to the local grocery store, or has only recently moved to the outskirts of town and knows no one. They’re the only people who aren’t in the social web, unless they get Amazon deliveries, and delivery folks are local, in which case they’re all fucked.

So who are we? We – in this case I – am one of the latest generation of an order with a  truly shameful past. Set up by Oliver Cromwell during his ill-fated, ill-planned and downright stupid Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland phase. Lots of innocent dead people because he was a paranoid fuckwit, and quadruply so that of the people who claimed titles like “Witchfinder General”. Still, they were right about magic being a threat, just utterly wrong about how to spot it, what it did, why it was dangerous and so on. Flash forward nearly four hundred years and the Witchfinders are still in business, properly now. Magic started waking up when European imperialists got really stuck into mass murder and genocide, all building up to the big bangs in the twentieth century. Kill a bunch of people and you end up with a lot of vitality sloshing about. Not that the arseholes behind these massacres were wizards. They were depressingly just ordinary monsters. The wizards came later, as all that vitality sank into the soil and into people as they travelled about the globe. It’s not those people’s fault that their kids became wizards because they survived a war, or escaped some awful situation. You want the best for your children, but there are other factors at play here.

So I found myself in a picturesque town in the Midwest, full of dead and dying people that a wizard had sucked dry of vitality. We got a tip off from an utter waste of space crypto-mining kid who lived in his mother’s basement. The mum had died years ago and he was sponging off her benefits having never reported that death. A real charmer, but that’s how far you have to go to drop out entirely. We alas did not save him, as the vitality engine worked through all those lines of association and eventually sent someone from the post office round to check on his mum. We arrived the next day. Tracking the wizard isn’t hard. These aren’t smart people who’ve studied for years and learned spellcraft. They can absorb vitality and direct it wherever their heart desires to the extent that they’re bright enough to imagine it. Sometimes they’re also smart people, but mostly they’ve been trained to learn they can suck whatever they want out of people without any real effort, so they’re lazy, often stupid and still very, very dangerous. For example, since we’ve got a prime case right here, this one, having murdered all his friends, family and town he lived in has transformed himself into a right swole guy, all thick muscle and tight clothes (plus a cape), like he’s either a WWE wrestler or has escaped from a Tom of Finland strip. He’s now too big to get into the ridiculous theme park his developmentally-challenged imagination has twisted the town into. There’s no way he could get into the rollercoaster cars now. Not that he’s want to. Even from the other side of town you can see how the rails go up and down, but just fade away where he’s lost interest. I’m no structural engineer, but I know that you need some supports. Moron.

But that brings me back to where we came in. Raising a cyclone is potentially a cool idea if you know how they work, but this wizard’s running on a memory of news footage or possibly Twister. All he’s doing is shoving a lot of air around, which does quite a lot of damage, but without comprehending the forces involved, he’s got to pay attention to it all the time. And so he is, standing on a bizarre half-throne half-pageant float in the middle of the square, the vitality web so full it’s actually visible in the air like tiny flaring fairy lights strung all through town, all feeding down into him. He’s working so hard at this, hands twisting awkwardly to get the thing spinning, big dumb frown on his face like a clown-sized Colin Farrell. In case it’s not clear, I’m the distraction. All I’m waiting for is for him to get precisely this invested in a stupid way to kill a single person. I might look like more than just one guy, but that’s a bit of magic too, as was my dismantling the awful “world’s strongest man” fairground game he’d created in his own image. Just getting his attention. Meanwhile… on a nearby building my sniper took the shot. Magic, yes. Immortal, no. As the bullet goes straight through one straining eye and out the back, the beefcake wizard topples off the platform. The vitality web drags with him. In a moment it’ll start to decohere and sink back into the world, ready to infect some other sod with wizardry. That’s the other reason I’m here. With my hands and my mind I wind up the dissipating web of vitality, reeling it in like a trawler’s net, packing it down and sealing it up. There’s no way to return the vitality to all the victims – they’re just plain dead, or braindead at least – we’re going to take this vitality back to the Witchfinders and use it to find more wizards. We fight magic with magic… and bullets.

Angelic Encounter

Angelic Encounter

A cold, cloudless night. Stars and moon pin-sharp, glaring down at the earth below. With a restrained caw of satisfaction the angel alighted on the very tip of a thin branch, folding its wings in close as it did so. It appeared unaware that it was being observed.

Less than thirty feet away, a man and a woman were crouched within a hide, camouflaged with the rhododendron bushes that sprouted ferociously and greedily from the ground. Unseen, silent. At the angel’s arrival they moved with minute care to make not a single sound and yet still angle themselves best to watch.

Apparently unconcerned, the angel began to increase its mass, causing the branch it rested upon to slowly bow down towards the ground. As its leaves pressed onto the freezing ground, the angel gracefully stepped off the limb and allowed it to snap back into the air, scarcely ruffling the angel’s feathers. Slowly, with agonising care, the angel extended its wings. The six joints in each of the four wings permitted the wings to unfold like the undulation of a centipede, its feathers stretching to their fullest extent. It turned side-on to the observers and began its dance. First one wing would pass over its front, pause, and then its eyes would open. All thirty-three on each wing would blink in a ripple of activity. Then the angel turned, almost hiding itself behind the wing as it took an oh-so casual step forward, repeating the action with its other wing. This was how they hunted, each wing speeding up stroboscopically, a hypnotic wave of feathers and blinking eyes.

The object of the hunt lay between the angel and the hide: a child. The small boy, aged perhaps five or six, gazed, enraptured by the angel’s display. In the hide, the observing pair grew tense with anticipation. The child was a lure, and lightly buried in the earth around the boy was a noose that the woman would draw tight the moment the angel stepped within the circle. Alas, they were not unduly concerned for the boy’s wellbeing. Such a child could be found anywhere in the stinking city that they inhabited, and his disappearance would be near-unnoticed, unremarked and unremarkable. It was yet possible the child would survive the encounter, which might present some small issues later, but was of little consequence for the moment. The boy was bundled up tightly against the cold, with a hot water bottle to keep him content, and ideally, quiet. The small bedraggled thing he clutched might once have been a stuffed rabbit, perhaps. He was utterly entranced by the motion of the angel, barely even noticing that it drew steadily closer, till it stood just outside the noose, shyly hiding its face behind the wings and its so, so many eyes.

The observers had long since ceased to breathe, excitement and anxiety warring with fear and adulation. Even though the angel wasn’t directing its attention at them, the undulation of its wings wrought its influence, and had they been the subject of its dance, they too – like the child – would have been unable to resist. The child’s consideration fully on the angel it lunged suddenly, wings snapping out, all one hundred and thirty-two eyes blazing, their vertical pupils wide in the starlight. Revealed – its withered husk of a body, scrawny neck and face that was nothing more than a hole ringed with razor sharp teeth. In an appalling, graceful movement it entered the circle and swept its wings around the silent, adoring child.

The action was so sharp and cruel that it broke the angel’s spell on the observers, and in haste they waited not a second longer, triggering the snare. The noose whipped closed, drawing tight around the two-toed fingers of the angel’s feet, each horribly like a pair of severed human fingers. The trap whipped the angel upside down and ten feet into the air where it flailed and screeched in a language not understood by humans for millennia. The eyes on its wings reeled, trying to understand what had happened to it, jerking around the bushes that surrounded the clearing as it twisted and spun in the trap.

With the angel at least held in place, the observers emerged from the hide. The woman, tall, dark-haired as far as one could tell beneath the furry hat, dressed for the cold, with thick leather gloves and carrying a thick sack; the man, shorter, also dark-haired (having spurned the earlier offer of a hat for no clear reason, and now regretting it), drawing a long thin tube from inside his heavy coat. Their eyes averted from the now-shrieking and enraged angel, the woman readied the sack as the man loaded the blowpipe with a dart – red, with a thin furze of feather at one end – and, side-eyeing the angel, spat the dart into its shrivelled body. With a vibration of musculature through its frame, the angel fell still. Its head dangled downwards, a thin stream of bloody drool falling from its toothy orifice to spatter the motionless child below. They’d have no need to return the boy where they found him. But they had captured an angel. To them, a fair trade.

The Pictographic Entertainment

The Pictographic Entertainment

In each of the last twelve days a gentleman had come a-calling. On each day my brutish manservant had refused them entry, picked them up bodily and hurled them into the street. Many of their landings were poor, pitching headfirst into dubious street waste, paving slabs or iron railings. It’s the advantage of having an orangutan butler. Though he lacks the gift of speech (not, I assure you, through lack of effort on my part – the lazy beast just will not use the vocal cords I painstakingly grafted into his throat, donated by a luckless burglar), his great flat face and lanky arms are marvels of self-expression.

Why, you might well ask, would a marvellous yet spurned creator such as myself, Franklyn de Gashe be so violently turning away erudite fellows of the Society on daily basis. It has long been the policy of the Society to reject my scientific overtures, the remarkable discoveries that I have wrought both in the basement laboratories of my home and in my travels overseas, tracking down lost secrets and improbable beasts. Of late however, their tune has grown sweeter, cloying even, seeking to repair the gulf between us with a thickly poured tide of honey. Thus far I have placed my nose firmly in the air, and their buttocks firmly only the cold pavement. The cause of their obsequious visitations hangs beneath the chandelier of the hallway. It’s not the ideal place to display one’s fresh pride and joy, but the damned thing is intractable.

Some months ago, while perusing the cave paintings of ancient French wretches, my ever-curious eye was drawn to a near-obliterated section of art, almost entirely blackened, covered over by fitful slappings of ashen hands onto the rough granite. What my peers had taken for either the correction of an error or a misguided attempt to paint the sea, my keen senses cut through their confusion and laid a finger upon the truth. After ensuring no other scholars could enter the cave, I set about cleaning off the top layer of paint and ashes. Thankfully I’d brought my usual equipment, beginning with a gas mask and rubberised canvas suit, and the regular-sized vacuum flask of mushroom-infused absinthe. Removing the marks of paint and ash that has decorated a bare rock wall for countless millennia is a somewhat destructive process, and the sulphuric acid that I misted the wall with would take not only the paint, but the skin from one’s bones. Alas, when I sealed the cave with a minor rockfall to ensure my seclusion, I had neglected to check deeper within the cave itself. Only the screaming, when it finally penetrated the sound of my compressor out pumping the noxious fog, alerted me to my error. By then of course it was far too late. From the remnants of their garb and the lead fillings in their teeth, I deduced that they were likely American. Very sad. I shook the bones out of the tattered cloth and scattered them deeper in the cave where they’d be less noticeable.

I returned to my area of special interest, and sat to observe the acidic mist erasing the top layer of markings as I’d hoped. Now the walls were bare save for the spot that had been crudely scratched out by its makers. As I had half expected, the figures and depictions therein showed a hunt in progress. Yet rather than little arrow gentlemen tossing their spears at some rustic beast, instead this was clearly a beast hunting them. The artist had not been especially talented, but even their illiterate mitten had sketched out a fascinating creature, winged with talons half the length of its body and a head like an anvil trapped in a suitcase. A second set of pictographs showed a number of unrealistically skinny tribesmen stuffing the beast into a rude cage and enclosing it in a cavern. The reasons for its erasure were instantly clear to me: a beast that had mastered its human aggressors, having been once pursued by them, was now feared, imprisoned and to be forgotten. Even back then, humanity’s natural pride had checked its reason, causing this censorship and the loss of its knowledge for generations. I, Franklyn de Gashe, would uncover the truth. The lost daubings included a handy map, featuring landmarks that even now were apparent in the landscape, and the usual number of dire warnings and images of dead people.

I left the cave in a pristine state, having preserved the formerly unseen paintings via chemical means on my trusty photo-camera, and hurried off to make the discovery of a lifetime. Repacking my rubberised suit and mask into the saddle-bags of the rather attractive horse – Dominique – whom I’d leased for this adventure, I paused for a luncheon of devilled eggs, jellied pigs trotters, and a banana. I’d grown quite addicted to the curiously dry yet sticky yellow fruit and rather admired its priapic powers. Traveling on horseback is not the ideal time for such warm in the loins, yet it proved a comfortable distraction from the spinal jolts of surmounting the nearby hills.

The map was an adequate guide, though it led me through several more recent streams, a ghastly briar that quite bedevilled my steed and ultimately to a cliff-face shattered by rockfall. I surmised that the imprisoning cave’s opening must once have faced me, before this unfortunate tumbling of boulders. Thankfully, I never travel in Europe without a sufficient supply of dynamite and other less common explosives. I’ve a fine associate in the Americas who spent a great deal of time building the railways who was more than happy to share his secrets of demolition over a bottle of well-aged port and a largely-abandoned Shropshire village. After stuffing sticks of dynamite in an optimal pattern throughout the huge stones, I merrily skipped off in retreat, hauling Dominique behind me and lighting another opium cigarillo. The poor horse had been rather scratched by the briars and I rubbed a healing balm into her injuries while we awaited detonation.

We had little time to wait, as I’ve a habit of leaving fuses slightly too short, the better to enthuse the mind and keep one’s senses sharp and alert. We returned to an exploded valley.  A number of boulders had been entirely vaporised, others tossed quite out of the area. Most importantly, a black hole now loomed open. I lit another lantern and hurried within. In all my travels and adventures, I’ve yet to uncover a cave that seemed truly suitable for human habitation – even those that infest the rocks of the city of Nottingham are mostly vile and noxious places, though that may simply be the presence of the city’s natives – and this cave was no exception. Dark, dank with dripping water and fierce stalactites made it appear like the mouth of some beast itself. To hide a monster inside another monster was apt, and a little spooky. However, my scientific mind slapped down the quailing fool within myself and we delved into the depths. At the very deepest point my lantern-light glowed off the bars of the cage I’d perceived in the drawings. In fact, the artist’s hand was better than I’d thought, for this structure was a crude thing indeed and surely would have as much chance of holding any creature as a silk purse. Alas, the beast within was quite dead. A considerable disappointment, yet in retrospect expecting a creature to survive alone in the dark for uncounted thousands of years had been a mite optimistic. I poked through its skeletal remnants with my walking cane, admiring the curious skull and daggered wing bones. And there I made my discovery. The thing had been female, for beneath it lay a rough nest and within lay an egg. Thrilled beyond reckoning, I kicked the cage down and retrieved the egg. It was quite unlike the chicken-spawning shells with which one may be most familiar. This was a thick and leathery thing, pulsing with heat. I bundled it in my knapsack, along with the more impressive skull and bones of its parent, and returned to Dominique.

Some months later, I presented my discoveries to the Society, with an enlargement of the image I’d taken in the cave. I’d grown accustomed to the scoffing of my so-called peers, but on this occasion it turned ugly, for it seemed that the cave I’d cleaned had been quite popular among scholars and they had been careless enough not to record the other paintings for posterity. Unfortunate. However, when I detailed the hidden cavern, displayed the skeleton and explained how it had terrorised our ancestors, they were more properly impressed. And yet, Professor Occulant Hotch could not help but bray that many members of the Society had uncovered bones and fossils – they were two a penny and my discovery worth less than theirs. In angry retort I whipped the covering from another box I’d brought to the podium and revealed the recently hatched juvenile to the members. Their shock, surprise, and growing applause enraged the little thing however, and the box rattled violently the more they clapped. Before I could do anything, the dagger-wing (I thought it a good name) broke out of its container and assaulted the now-screaming crowd. Alas, it did fully remove the face of Professor Hotch before I could net the little monster and drag it away.  Once more the crowd turned to outrage mingled with (I could perceive) respect and admiration for my triumph. However, given the gruesome attack on Professor Hotch, I was to be barred once more from the society.

And so I returned home with my little dagger-wing. Since then, my status has only grown and word has spread of my discovery. Jealously, other members of the Society now petition me at my door for access to the marvellous little predatory monster. Thus far I have refused them, for despite their acclaim, I feel entitled to a little sulking. Also, I cannot get the damned thing to come down from its perch, and I fear it may swoop upon me when I sneak downstairs in the middle of the night for a snack. Such are the trials of a fearless adventurer and wizard of science. 

A Better Future

A Better Future

The war had been going for ages. Like, a really long time. Just too long really. The battleground: the sprawling temple ruins that had been near-conquered by the ocean. Most of the lower buildings were entirely submerged, impossible to reclaim from the water. The upper storeys and the thrusting ziggurat at the heart of the temple were open to the air and fiercely contested. This is the war I was born into, and my father was the chief architect of that ongoing conflict. In the usual way of children, I was at first fascinated by my father’s role and responsibility, and dreamed of continuing his noble crusade to claim the land for our exclusive use. In time I grew disillusioned and the natural contrariness that comes from a new generation that cannot understand the motives of the elder became stronger. I mean, I get it, I think. The temple was the last remnant of liveable space. When the waters rose, only this vast ruin which lay on the very peak of the very tallest point in the region had been left dry. But even so, the waters hadn’t ceased their invasion. Every year it grew higher still. Desperation drove our people here, desperation drove us to embark on a bitter war to establish our exclusive right to dwell here. But without the excitement and horror of the world vanishing beneath the waves, born into this situation, the ultimate loss of all dry land seems inevitable, and lacks the intrinsic shock that pushed my father’s generation into action. Not that I think it’s hopeless, or that my generation dwells in despair about the future. On the contrary, just because we can’t stop the water clawing its way up the walls doesn’t mean we don’t want to live and be happy, and all those other things that father and his allies say they want. The problem is that we’re not the only people who want to live, and here is pretty much the only place you can live. I suppose there must be other survivors, other settlements that jut up above the waves, but they’re a long way away. We’ve even seen some of the mighty raft towns drifting in the distance. It doesn’t look like a terrible existence, but father has declared that such a life isn’t good enough for us. I’m not angling to get on a raft or anything, just saying that it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, we’re scrapping for shrinking space, and given that both of our peoples are fighting over the same land, there’s obviously enough space for both groups, otherwise we wouldn’t even be able to have the conflict at all. It just feels so damn wasteful.

So I descend through the upper reaches of the temple (because of course we live near the top, in the nests father and his cohorts established in the priest quarters and whatever the weird chambers where they did religious things were called), my feet easily pattering across the stone, weaving down the great blocks with all their handy textures for clinging to. I’m going down, much further down. Almost all the way down to the water. Down here is where the others live. Unlike me, in that they’re not all furry and warm, but just like me in that they have four legs, one tail, eyes and a mouth. I’ve tried to tell father that we’re really not that different. But he won’t listen. I do though, I’ve got the ears for it. A couple of years ago I got lost wandering around the temple, which is quite easy because it’s huge, and even we haven’t marked out everywhere with routes. It’s still filled with fascinating stuff left behind by the big people who lived here, worshipped and finally disappeared. I like to climb through the stacks of fabrics and textiles, those we haven’t salvaged and shredded for nesting material anyway. There are a thousand little cracks and holes we can squeeze through, and so I did. I was terrified when I popped out the other end because I was staring right into the face of one of those other people – they’d been about to squeeze through that same hole that I had. Maybe that’s what made it all click in my head – something about being the same size, their doing the same things I was. At first I was startled by that scaly face, often so still, unlike our constant motion. But once you get past the lack of ears and learn to read those same twitching signals in their tail or eyes, they’re not that different at all. She was my first friend among the enemy. From what they’ve said, both our peoples were always here. They used to live on the outside, basking in the sun and then scurrying off to hide in nice dark crevices at night. We’d always lived on top of and inside of the big people’s world. But now they were gone, so it was all just ours. They were scared of the rising water too. They needed a home just as much as we did. My father had described them as murderers, eaters of the young, and there’s some truth to that. Much like us, they’ll eat pretty much anything, except they’re not so keen on seeds and fruit, and we’re not as fond of flies and bugs as they are. I wonder if I’m being naïve sometimes, that father’s right that we’re just incompatible and one will have to win outright. But we never did before – before the waves. Maybe we weren’t friends then, but we coexisted, and I think we should again.

So I’ve been sneaking down here, through the tiny tunnels that run through the temple structure, and I meet my friend and we talk. She doesn’t want to fight either, doesn’t want to waste all that time and effort in stopping other people from living instead of just living ourselves. All she really wants to do is go up outside and lie in the sun. So we do, on a roof that’s just barely above the waves – it’s a little bit exciting and dangerous because a really big wave could splash up over the edge. But the sea is calm today. Looking a little higher up the temple we can see the fishing machines that our people built to snatch anything useful out of the water – floating seed pods, mysterious objects, seaweed to help fertilise the gardens that spread out over the field-roofs above. They’re still today, probably because the operators have been diverted into the usual tasks of blocking off holes and keeping the others out. My friend stretches right out in the sun and sighs. They’re a lot colder than we are but already her scales are growing hot to the touch. It is lovely and warm, so we lie together and talk about what it would be like if we all lived this way. Maybe one day, if there’s still land, and the older generation has gone and taken away all their reasons for jealousy and anger, we can live differently – better, together.

Meteor Shower

Meteor Shower

There was this lady in our office who always felt that the IT equipment was out to get her. Obviously we knew that she just sucked at using it. She wasn’t one of the guys who picked up the mouse and tried to tap it against the monitor, she just had that uncanny knack of clicking on things without even noticing that she’d done so, and then expected the helpdesk gang to be able to figure out what arcane set of commands she’d given her now weeping computer. We never expected that she’d be literally correct.

It had been a weird few months, filled with corporate takeover, endless updates and migration of both data and physical assets to a new location. The offices seemed fine, if a little too clean and shiny to those of us who had grown used to the grey tint that everything had taken on in the old place. Still, fresh start and all that. We’d spent much of a week crawling about, making sure all the right cables were in place, laying the ethernet properly. All according to the new spec supplied by management. That was the only time the place seemed especially strange. The building was laid out in a pentagon, with offices and meeting rooms around the outside and a larger conference centre in the dead middle of the lot. Made it a real pain in the arse to lay cable all around that conference room rather than just going straight through it. Still, needs must when the devil drives (a few of us were a tiny bit cynical about the takeover). Anyway, we go it all laid in – really nice quality cabling actually, all supplied by the new bosses. Heavy, high grade stuff. We threaded that building really well.

Folks moved into the offices just a couple of days after we finished, and immediately got down to the important business of insisting we’d placed the filing cabinets full of their junk in the wrong offices, exploring the new array of complimentary coffees and teas and angling half-dead plants to whatever sliver of daylight they could achieve in the new layout. That last may have been the first properly strange thing we did notice: they grew really well. It didn’t matter where the plant was, or even if it was near a window – the damn things sprouted like we were drenching them in BabyBio every night. Keeping them trimmed became a preoccupation for the building manager, though he didn’t go so far as demanding people actually got rid of them. That would have been as bad as making us all swap our own mugs for some awful corporate logo thing in an eye-bleeding shade of purple. So – odd, but not that strange.

Anyone who stayed beyond normal working hours – in at eight, out by six was the plan – reported that they thought they were being haunted or something. After everyone else had left they’d have this sense of rising anxiety that crashed over them and past them only to strike them again a half hour later, like a wave rolling round the building. Only the truly devoted workaholics (or human resources sociopaths) managed to get past that, though even the HR people said they found it unsettling. I just took it as an excellent additional reason not to work beyond our hours.

Then came the meteor shower. It had been heavily foreshadowed in the international press. Earth got a bunch of showers every year, but this was a special one that our orbit only wandered into every few thousand years. Even better, it wasn’t one of those you’d have to stay up until three in the morning in the Orkneys to watch. This was big and bright enough to be visible in daylight. Rather brilliantly, the new owners were excited about it too, and had arranged for everyone to meet up in the conference centre at the heart of the pentagon to watch it after lunch. Again, weird, but the three-line whip made it an inevitability that we could just shrug off. So we gathered in the rather nice chairs that no one saw in the rest of the building. They’d been arranged like the petals of a flower, so we were all facing the middle of the room. There was a proper big “ooh” when the false ceiling slid out of the way to reveal it was fully glass-roofed atrium and we were going to get a cracking view of the meteor shower. When it started it was just the odd bright shape flaring across the sky, but soon it was like being in the middle of a rainbow on fire – countless scraps of rock immolated by our atmosphere. It was kind of hypnotic, and each streak of light had a feeling associated with it, a constant rush of excitement and energy – you could almost hear them whooshing past. The excitement rose, and kept rising until the meteor show began to fade and the ceiling panels slid back into place. We went back to our offices, somewhat mindblown, but grateful for the interlude.

I felt a lightness I hadn’t felt for, well, ever. It was rather euphoric but I put it down to a combination of the very comfortable chairs, the light show and a little too much complimentary coffee. I struggled to sit down and get back to work, so instead I got tinkering with an old project to scan in a bunch of old documents for archiving which would eventually let us shred about a hundred reams of paperwork. It was while I argued with the damned twain drivers that I first became aware that something was wrong. I’d gone into a little room where they’d dumped all the paperwork, along with the huge photocopier-scanning machine and was tapping away as usual, when my laptop snapped shut, narrowly missing my fingertips. Odd. I pried it back open, thinking the hinge had broken or something when it did it again, closing so tight on my left ring and index fingers that I shouted out loud. Couldn’t get the damn thing off. That’s when I noticed the power cable snaking around my lower leg. I jerked backwards out of its way but failed to spot the RJ45 cable that had crawled up out between the carpet tiles and stretched out behind my knees. I went down hard, the laptop smacking me in the face as my fingers finally came loose, minus the last joint of my ring finger. The laptop flipped half-open on my chest, the bloody finger segment lying in the middle of the keyboard. I began to reach for it, still confused, when the keys started popping up like fangs. I wriggled backwards, over the cables and bumped into the door. That’s when the photocopier lunged at me. It was one of those massive things the size of a sofa and it reared up, printer trays and doors flapping open at me. I just scrambled to my feet and got through the door as it slammed into the other side, safety glass punching straight out of the frame.

In shock, I kept staggering back till I bumped into the wall. Then I took stock of my surroundings, and how much screaming there was. Down the corridor to my left a guy in shirtsleeves lay motionless in a pool of water underneath a water cooler which battered him repeatedly with its water bottle. To my right a tangle of wires held a man and woman in a web that stretched between the walls, while a pack of desk telephones tossed their handsets viciously at their faces. I figured the water cooler side was my best bet and I set off at a run, evading a jet of water from the cooler that punched a hole in the wall behind me. As I ran, ceiling and floor tiles popped up and fell everywhere as the cabling concealed under and over them came to life and lashed at me. The way ahead was completely blocked by a pair of women fighting another one of the giant photocopiers. I jerked to a halt as it coughed out a choking cloud of multicoloured laser printer toner into their faces, and followed up their sudden blindness by grabbing one with its flip up lid and battering them against the glass. I’d reached one of the doors that led into the atrium, and yanked it open. No cables in here… it was empty of people, and the chairs that had held us while we watched the meteors earlier were still laid out, and the ceiling had opened again. The meteor shower continued, and I noticed the distinct pentagram formed by the panes of glass, and how it was reflected in the layout of the chairs. It seemed like the meteors were coming straight down now, their light and power being directly absorbed by the pentagram above. I could feel it again, that thrumming euphoria, despite having just had a photocopier try to kill me.

Blood started seeping under the door I’d come in, and it was soon joined by a veritable flood that came under the other doors around the edge of the atrium. I got up on a chair as the blood flowed into the middle of the room, drawn into lines around the pentagram. There was only one way to go: up. I scaled the wall clumsily, feet slipping on frames and hints of railing until I was directly under the glass, feeling every seeming impact of the meteors in my bones. I hung three storeys over the bloody floor, which had filled up implausibly – the chairs were consumed by the crimson mass. Surely that was more blood than could possibly have been contained in the bodies of my colleagues. The windows in the roof, thank god, had regular catches and I awkwardly lunged out and pulled one open, then scrambled up and through, certain that the glass would shatter beneath me and I’d fall into that deepening pool of blood below.

I made it out onto the roof as the fusillade of meteoric light and sound continued. The sky was on fire, and so was the city. Everywhere I looked, fires were erupting, smoke obscured the meteor shower and the sound of sirens and screaming filled the streets. In the burning sky a vast figure loomed into the atmosphere, its outline starkly aflame… I guess I hadn’t escaped after all.

Return to the Alltree

Return to the Alltree

The outer surface of the sphere was coated in a thick layer of frost. It glistened, half-buried in the earth at the end of a broad gouge in the forest. Trees had been decapitated, shattered into splinters, mown down and crushed as the sphere ground through them. There had been no warning, no way for the alltrees to gather themselves and haul their bulk apart, and the sphere had been incandescent with heat when it boiled through the atmosphere into the forest. Several days had passed. The surviving trees had cautiously retracted their roots and stepped back from the crash site. It now rested alone in its torn up barrow where frost had flowered up over the mud and grass and stretched its icy fingers out across the blistered sheen of its spherical skin. Nothing happened for a very long time. The alltrees ceased to perceive it as a threat, and since the island they had established their colony on lay hundreds of miles from the mainland, they were not linked to the continental mass of alltrees. They had been established nearly a hundred years ago by windblown seeds caught in the crevices of rock and the feathers of migrating birds. And so they had found a new home, one not terrorised by humans with flamethrowers burning away the juveniles as they encroached on their cities’ limits. The alltrees were not the ideal neighbours. Massive, perambulatory and violently jealous of enough space to spread their branches and thick leaves so they could capture as much of the sun’s light as possible. Their colony was small, and they’d managed to come to arrangements whereby they shared the light. The new arrival had decimated that understanding and opened up a gash in the formerly dense canopy. In the absence of any immediate threat, the surviving alltrees seized their advantage and moved to fill the new space. Any gain was of immense value, for some years earlier the moon that they depended upon for its rich light had vanished, shattered into chunks that rained down from orbit. At night the sound of their leaves vibrating as they absorbed the moonlight would have been deafening, so many trees packed into so small a space. Yet now the night was a barren harvest and the daytime offered just the sun to fill their reserves. Their growth was stunted and they lacked the energy to become the integrated community they should have been. On the mainland they would have spread out so each tree could extend their branches fully. Here they’d had to compromise, restricting their own and each other’s growth and remained fiercely independent. Since they were not connected to the wider alltree community – a vast continental network of mature alltrees joined by the neuronal roots that extended through the earth – they had no idea that their world had recently been at war. No clue that the destruction of their life-giving moon had been the opening salvo in a fight that would last decades. No idea that the alltrees had been marked for extinction by a group of humans who vehemently opposed their existence. No idea that the world had been saved by yet another group of alltrees who had been left in space by their human creators. None at all, until the sphere opened. It began early one morning, weeks after the initial crash. The alltrees’ churning of the ground as they embraced the new moonlight opportunities had erased the scars of its passage, and the larger alltrees shuffling for space had nudged the sky-fallen object out of its crater, left to bump awkwardly onto worthless rock. For the sphere, and its contents, this was a boon. The crash had damaged the opening mechanisms, but the movement and space around it enabled a secondary exit. Like an armadillo unrolling itself, the sphere segmented and folded into itself until just a thick wedge of metal remained, tipping its contents onto the stone. Leaves and branches were evident, yet its shape made no sense. It had no dense trunk, just very long spindly branches that spread in all directions, and its roots flowered outwards in a similar spray to its leaves. This alltree had grown in space, in the vast colony ship infested by its ancestors as they drifted in zero gravity behind one of the planet’s moons. It struggled in the newfound gravity, used to pulling itself around in any direction without worrying about its weight, but here it would have to adapt. Already it felt a little weaker, lacking the constant light that the colony had integrated into its enormous spaceship. But it had brought a substitute. That night, the alltree from space awkwardly wrapped its roots around the object that had sustained it in the sphere and pulled it out of the remaining folded segment of its pod. With yet more effort, the alltree dragged the boxy thing into the forest. The other alltrees felt its presence, felt the touch of its spindly roots on the earth and responded as best they were able, in their weakened state, to the intrusion. They began to close ranks, drawing their trunks closer together to obstruct the invader, battering at it with their lower branches. But the small, bushy, space alltree easily evaded their attacks, and hauled itself into the heart of their little forest. As the other trees began to crowd in, it activated its treasure, and a rich milky light poured out of the box, bathing the underside of the forest in a glow that they had not felt since their moon was suddenly eradicated. The alltree had brought the moon back to them. The response was instantaneous, trees throughout the forest twisted, bringing their leaves to any angle that might intercept this glorious treat. From above, not a single ray of moonlight escaped, the hungry alltrees took it all. The little alltree from space allowed them to bask in the glory for a while, then turned off the device. Already their leaves looked glossier, their trunks smoother. Even now they were creeping steadily towards the device. The next night they received the same treatment, until the roots of the alltrees had spread out, allowing them to haul their mighty trunks towards the light. The space alltree judged them close enough, and in the full power of its moonlight device, it plunged its spindly roots into the earth, seeking out the native trees. The formation of the network was almost immediate, lightning zapping through the latent neural tendrils in the alltrees’ root systems. Suddenly, they were all awake, and filled with the knowledge that the alltree from the sphere had brought them: “you are greater than you seem, you are not alone, join us.” A week later, the island was bare, and the alltree colony in space had added another part of the alltree diaspora to its endlessly growing empire.

Night of the Moths

Night of the Moths

The grimy, ancient old boy was carefully maneuvered into the saloon and dropped with relative care into a solid wingback chair nearest the smouldering fire. He’d been found wandering outside the town limits, ragged and raving, plainly exhausted. That was also stank was unspoken in all but the distance immediately claimed by the two brothers who had brought him in.

“He was out past Darvell’s farm, in the fell,” said Ben, the taller of the two brothers, “I barely saw him, but Jesse spotted that shaggy head of hair.”

“Like a lost lamb, dancing on past the weeds,” added Jesse.

“When we got to him he just screamed, all wordless in our face. If he hadn’t looked so terrified, reckon I’d have knocked him down and left him there.” Ben was making a vain attempt to wipe the encrusted stench off his denim shirt.

“You did well lads,” the saloon owner congratulated them, “why not have yourselves a drink on me.”

The two brothers vanished for the bar without a second thought, leaving the saloon owner, one Barley Smith, myself and the sawbones, Doctor Murkell in a ring around the old man. Barley snapped his fingers and was brought tea and a whiskey to bring some life back to the ragged fellow. He took them without looking and swallowed without a care for the heat of the tea. His eyes kept falling closed but would flicker back open after less than a second, eyeballs rolling all around.

“He needs to eat too, before he does sleep. And I can help him along with that,” murmured Murkell who was peering into the old man’s face.

“That can wait. I want to know what brought him to our town in a condition so plainly unfit for travel,” I said, rolling a cigarette and jerking my chin at him, “nearest township is Mother’s Lake, some twenty miles north, near enough in the direction the boys found him wandering. I’ll send riders, but I want to know what they’ll be riding into first.”

“Well let’s be about it,” Barley agreed, and took the old fellow by the shoulders and spoke directly into his face, “hey, old timer. What’s your story?”

Apparently, being addressed was the thing he’d been waiting for, because his ancient gums flapped apart, treating Barley to atrocious breath that he visibly wilted under. The jaws open, he ground his teeth together inn a disturbing wet sound and began to speak. Not all of it made sense, not all of it was English, but for the sake of a proper record I’ve transcribed what I could here.

“I always liked animals. Kept a goat, dogs. Had a horse. Two sheep and a house of chickens. Liked the squirrels when they came in spring. Funny little things, always busy. Never stopping. The cat hated them, like they were some mortal foe. Didn’t get that many though, never mind how hard he tried. You know where you are with animals. They either need you or don’t, and they’ll let you know which. No doubts, no mistakes. I always sat on the porch at night, drinking Jenny Fenship’s moonshine with my pipe. Just the one lantern, seeing what it’d draw forth from the woods and grass. Ever seen a moth, sheriff? Course you have. We’ve all seen em. I liked to see them up close – you can catch em with a light if you put up a sheet in front of it. They’ll all just crawl over the sheet and you can get a good look. Funny little things, got little faces, and all furry and feathery – not what you’d expect when they’re just bottling around your light. Well, I did that sometimes too. Put up a sheet and see what I’d get. Sometimes drew them too, swapped them for Jenny’s moonshine, I did. She said she liked their little ears. One night, couldn’t have been more than a week ago I had my sheet up and light shining behind it. Got the usual horde of little bugs and moths when whoomph something bigger whacked into the sheet. I’ve had bats come down because they’re smart and know the light will draw out their dinner, but this wasn’t a bat. It had hit the sheet and apparently confused itself because when I shook the sheet it feel right off, didn’t even try to hang on like a moth would. Not that it was a moth, not really. Too big, but I called it a moth because it had a face like one, big triangle eyes and all these waving feelers on its head. Like a moth but the size of a squirrel. Heavy too. It seemed to have stunned itself so I popped it on the table next to my chair and let it gather itself. Wings were unusual too – not all delicate like a moth. You mostly can’t even touch those without getting their wing dust everywhere, and then they’ll not be flying again and you may as well feed them to the bats. This feller had solid wings, like a bat I guess, but feathered like a bird. Shimmered like paraffin poured in a puddle. Pretty, except for the teeth. You don’t really see moth teeth, though I suppose they have them somewhere in that little mess of jaws. This one had proper teeth, thin and sharp. Gave it a hungry aspect. Don’t know what I was thinking, but along with my moonshine that night I’d been chewing on a little sausage, and since we were sitting side by side I offered it a bite, half joking, but like I say you just need to find out whether an animal needs you or not. This one did, and it near took off my finger in its hunger. After a bit it flew off, and I didn’t think no more about it till the next night when it came back. Flew straight past the lantern and landed on the table, all friendly and hungry. Even let me pat it a little. Then it gnawed straight down a sausage I gave it. Stuck around a bit, vanished by the time I went to bed. Kept coming back, I kept feeding it. Nice to have a new friend, and he sat still enough to get drawn too. When I showed my sketch to Jenny Fenship she’d have none of it – just laughed at the mad thing I’d drawn and said she’s never seen it’s like. And that I’d a fine imagination, but she’d much rather have a nice drawing of a ladybug or somesuch. Then she reminded me that we were all set for a dance in the town that Saturday, and I should dig out my dancing boots. I’d forgotten, busy as I was out on the farm. During that day that is, by night I’d be out on my porch. Anyway, my little friend came back a few more times and then I didn’t see him for a few nights. I guessed he’d gone back to whatever animal business he had. We don’t think of animals right you know. Folks figure they’re sort of here for us to do whatever we will with them, but if you watch them, they’ve got their things to do. Ever watched a cat walk around a room, stepping around things you can’t see, taking angles it’d never occur to you to make? They’re all like that, animals. All got their own secret projects, plans and longings. Sometimes that longing is for a bit of sausage, but it seemed like my moth’s plans had changed, or I’d never really known how I fitted into them. Not to worry. I got all dressed up for the dance and let my horse Henry carry me into town. I love a good dance, all the townsfolk looking smart and fancy. The big Carlsson barn all done up with lights and bunting, and the instruments that emerged from wherever folks hid them when there was no dance. I’d never have guessed that young Adrian played – or had – an accordion, but he fit in well with the rest of the players. I did get a dance with Jenny Fenship, which I reckoned was a great honour, but it left me a little out of breath, so I retired to a table for a drink and chat. It was not long after that there was a thud on the roof – loud enough to be heard over the dancing and singing. Folks figured it was a bird confused in the night, but then it was followed by another, and another. Soon enough it was like night hail. The band stopped playing and there was a look of consternation on the faces around me. A sound like a big millipede running over a tin roof, except this roof was wood, and I reckoned there was no millipede big enough but that’s what it sounded like. Jim Danson, the big landowner from across the other side of the valley from me, he caught up a rifle from by the door and pulled it open, stepped quietly outside. He came back in fast enough, something stuck to his face. At first there was nothing but his shrieks and folks came running to help. But the door was open by then, and Jim’s troubles were the least of it. I knew what they were immediately of course, I’d had a moth sharing my porch for weeks. But there were a lot more of them now, a lot more. And they swarmed into the barn, spinning and dropping from the air onto the townsfolk who stood in the dancing square. As yet they’d not fanned out to the tables scattered, and being further scattered as folks stood and ran this way and that. Knowing what they were – the moths – I tried to take Jenny Fenship’s arm and draw her away before they grew tired with feeding on the other folks. And they were hungry still, that same hunger I’d seen in my little friend’s fangs, now buried in the flesh of people I’d known since I was young. I tried to explain to Jenny, and reminded her of the drawing I’d done, but those were the wrong words and she pulled away. One of the moths landed in her hair and bit down. I tried to bat it away, but it turned and hissed at me, frightening enough that I fell on my rear. There were hundreds, maybe more, a black whirlwind in the middle of the barn, and they were all teeth now. There was no escape, or so I thought. Young Adrian (of the accordion) was busy knocking a hole in the far end of the barn and he urged a few of us onward to help and flee. A few of us got through, and we ran. I think we’d all assumed the moths were all inside, engaged in their feast, but they’d left plenty on watch above. Without warning, young Adrian went down, as did the three or four others who’d followed us. I kept waiting for the feel of a moth landing on my clothes or my hair, but none did. Even when I stopped and stood there, dumb with horror. I couldn’t stand it, and I went back to the door of the barn and picked up Jim’s rifle where he’d dropped it outside, racked it and opened the door. I only wish I hadn’t. It was a massacre. There was nothing moving but the moths as they fed. Everything else was just red and still, save where the blood ran. One of the moths’ heads raised as I came in, looked straight at me. I’m not sure how I knew, but I did know that this was the same moth I’d shared my porch with, fed and nurtured. It was all my fault. I didn’t know their scheme, didn’t know what they’d wanted, thought I’d just made a friend. But I’d led them all to a greater harvest than that little one had ever imagined. So I ran, and kept running till I could run no more. Then I walked, walked till I could walk no more. And then I crawled, just kept crawling to be away. Away from that.”

His tale done the old man settled back into dull stupor, staring sightless into the embers of the fire.

“Don’t reckon you should be sending anybody into that, sheriff,” Barley said.

I couldn’t help but agree. Someone would have to go though, and I reckoned that someone was going to have to be me.

Don’t Screw Up

Don’t Screw Up

It’s easy, they said. Just don’t screw it up, they said. Even an idiot could do it, they said. Inspiring words which grew less inspiring the more I fretted about the consequences of failure. They were pretty stark. Here we were, the habitat colony in orbit around the third moon of Junas. Decent place to live, plenty of work. Crucially, plenty of non-space work. Most of the kids in my generation were mad keen to get outside, do some tooling around in zero gravity, maybe fly some shuttles back and forth between the moons. Hell with that. Space is exactly what I thought it was: a death trap. You can’t breathe out there, if you get exposed to it, the pressure is so low that your blood boils inside you. I mean, just no. No to all of that. Sure, being in a space station just means that you’re surrounded by vacuum, but it’s the closest you can get to being on a planet, which is just a space station so large you don’t notice that you’re surrounded by space.

It’s not like I had a choice. I was born here, I never chose to live in a bubble of air. Who would? My parents and their lunatic colleagues I guess, who had enthusiastically leaped at the chance to travel hundreds of millions of miles from their nice comfy planet to do a geo-survey of Junas, miserable death planet below. Of course, they didn’t know that when they set out. All the spectral analyses had shown a world with every chance of supporting life. But you really do need to see a world close up to make sure it’s actually what you’re looking for. Junas looked great from home, but when they arrived they discovered that it’s basically made of death. Plenty of nitrogen and oxygen, but they rain down in acidic compounds which are slowly dissolving all the land surfaces. And the “water” content is equally awful. It took them fifteen years of dodging cancer in a can of trapped farts to learn all this. It’s a hard ask to just turn back and head for home, knowing that you’ll mostly be sixty plus when you get there – if you get there – and you’ll have wasted thirty years in transit. I can see why no one fancied that. So instead they unfolded their spaceship and set up camp around the moons. There’s not much on the moons to write home about either, but they wanted to achieve something, anything. And then maybe they’d head back after a few years. The moons aren’t exactly liveable, but they’re where most of the real water and useful elements that aren’t being dissolved into slurry are, so I suppose it wasn’t the worst possible plan. The worst possible plan was allowing people to start having babies. The second that happened they were screwed. There was no way they could make a child endure the trip home – fifteen years away from a decent gravity well would play merry hell with their development. As it was they had to establish a moonbase just to handle giving birth and infancy. Then we all got shipped back to the orbital stations where gravity was spun up to a fraction below Earth-normal. And that’s why I’m here, because the great astronauts of my parents’ generation could not keep it in their pants. Or at least use contraception reliably. Gives you real hope for their successful operation of air and power.

Speaking of, the current hideous situation. As you might imagine, there’s a dire lack of jobs and work to do that aren’t all utterly critical to the survival of what’s turned out to be the Junas colony. It’s all hands on deck, all the time. Apparently the people back home are sending an expansion set of tools and materials to make the colony larger and more self-sufficient, but it’s been twenty years so who knows. I mean, who are you going to get to pilot that roadtrip to nowhere? There’s talk of taking the whole lot back to Earth once we’ve reached an undecided upon age. Hard to imagine that working either, rebuilding a shuttle out of the mess we’ve scattered around and on a couple of moons. I think we’re stuck here. And like I say, there’s nothing to do that isn’t mission critical. We don’t have any artists, or checkout supervisors or, I don’t know, bus drivers. Here it’s either water, air, food, heating, infrastructure. It’s all so intense and essential. Free time is for getting into awkward fights, awkward drug and alcohol use and awkward sex. Of all the people here, we’re the lot that really don’t want kids.

I’ve refused to go outside, so I’ve got a “cushy” job, in the greenhouses. They’re right up on the edge of the station, so while I’m not outside I’m as close as you can get, so thanks for that. The view, except for the bleak expanse of utter darkness is pretty good though: Junas looks amazing, and the sun beyond is even stronger (relatively, from this orbit) than back on Earth, apparently. That means it’s a good spot for the crops. I’m not the only one who works here of course. There are six of us tending to the nutritional needs of the colony, plus we’ve got another two on the meat tanks. End of shift, before we vanish behind both the moon and Junas for seven hours. I was just finishing up, switching all the ultraviolet lights on to keep photosynthesis going overnight, and everyone else had sloped off already. That’s when the “unthinkable” happened, or as I like to think of it, the “utterly obvious, bound to happen sooner or later” event of a load of space debris smashing into the main body of the space station. We’ve avoided plenty of events like this before, shunting the station around in orbit to evade meteorites or even our own jettisoned space junk. It was only a matter of time.

The klaxons and pulsing red lights are remarkable not only in being impossible to ignore, but for how they push right on whatever part of the brain generates headaches. They came on at almost the instant of impact, so even if you weren’t being sucked out into the death outside, you sure knew that it was coming. All the internal bulkheads came down fast and hard. I was trapped in the greenhouse, but that was on the opposite side of the station, and I guess there was enough station to slow the particles down before the reached me. I stood there feeling freaked out until I realised we should be checking in. That’s when I found out I was the only one in a position to fix it. The voices on the other end were intensely calm, quietly panicking – I recognised it from how all the original astronauts talk. They were trained to stay calm through utter disaster and keep it together even while people were dying around them and the air whistled out of their helmets. It’s quite scary to grow up with, and wildly intimidating.

There’s an airlock from the greenhouse, a legacy of when all these units were chained together to make a spaceship. All I need to do is suit up, which I obviously know how to do, open the airlock and go outside. Into that boiling freezing expanse of nothing. I can just walk across the hull, halfway round the station to where the main power coupling has been knocked loose. According to my parents it’s not even damaged, just bumped. I’ll need to shove it back into place and turn a massive switch. Then come back inside. The power will return, the air pumps will work, the station will heat back up and everyone will live. Everyone who’s not already dead. They’ve been evasive about that: “casualties yet to be determined”, but there’s no point worrying about who’s alive if everyone will be dead in two hours anyway.

I’ve got the suit on. It’s made for someone shorter than me. All us second generation are taller than our parents – we’ve stretched out in the lower gravity – and like the doors being fractionally too low, all the suits are just that bit too small. I squeezed in, and it makes me walk like what I think a dinosaur walked like, hunched over with short arms, like mine are because my shoulders are pinned back, and this suit sleeve feels like a flipper. I don’t know about this. I can’t see it going well. I have made it as far as getting in the airlock, but the voices in my helmet were starting to lose their infernal cool, so I turned it to silent. I can do this, I’m sure I can. I’m totally going to go out there and save the colony. Save us, and doom us to living in this tin can where everything is too small, and there’s too little of everything. That’s worth saving, isn’t it?

The House

The House

I’m hiding in a wardrobe, wondering how long I have left to live. It’s not a comfortable feeling even if we knew it was going to come to this eventually. The set-up: the House, an old country mansion, still grand but it had obviously been abandoned for decades before the company bought it and redecorated. Inside it looks how you’d imagine the wealthy lived: deep carpets, animal heads on the walls, an excess of textured wallpaper and wood panelling. They don’t make much of an effort to hide the bullet holes, though some effort is plainly made to clean the carpets and furnishings. I guess there’s only so much point in a thorough cleaning when another murder party is coming in. Not that it’s a continuous flow of killers – this is an expensive outfit, available only to the hyper-rich who simply cannot be touched by the law.

Fuck, there’s someone coming in the room – one sec.

Who doesn’t look in a wardrobe? Not that I’m complaining, but I’m pretty sure that guy was me. Or rather, I’m him. That’s unusual, apparently. I should explain. I, and the other five (scratch that – four) hiding in the house aren’t just some random homeless people rounded up by the company. Nothing so simple. We’re force-grown clones, created and matured solely for the purpose of being murdered by the rich and famous. At first they did acquire homeless people, abducted immigrants and the like from people trafficking operations, and let them loose in the House. While it was fun, it wasn’t enough for the billionaires. The next phase was plastic surgery, so the poor bastards were made to look like whoever it was the customers hated most. Still not good enough, so when human cloning was fully banned under any circumstances, naturally the company picked up the right tech and people to truly tailor their operation to their customers’ needs and desires. Exes, government ministers, movie stars, your family… you could have the company breed up a set of clones to take out your worst impulses on, the people you most want to kill but can’t quite afford to. They might be above the law, but even their elite scum still frowns a little on publicly killing your own children, even if they’re really obnoxious. So… us.

We get about six months of life. Not quite as much as your average lamb. We have to be up and running for a while because otherwise we’re just drooling idiots slumped on a chair, and while that might well suit a certain fucked kink, it’s so much better if we can run, defend ourselves a little and fundamentally understand that we’re going to die. We’re even briefed on who we’re clones of and who’s going to be killing us. I realise this makes us all sound really passive, but for half that time we’re reeling from the forced growth, getting muscle control and learning how to talk. It’s fast, but for most of the six months we don’t even know what we’re for. I wonder sometimes if real people know what they’re for, or if they just make it up as they go along. Seems like the people hunting us today have it all already.

The one whose face I have is a tech trillionaire, and the idea that he wants to kill himself is undoubtedly a fascinating psychological trauma, as is knowing that the rest of our little cohort are made from his wife, parents, uncle, and two people he once worked with. We know enough to look and sound like them, but there’s only so much point in learning to be them. I mean, they’re going to kill us regardless. Officially, in the company labs we’re just called substitutes, but I once heard one of the development techs call us something else when he thought I wasn’t listening: “killables.”

There are two killers in the house – the trillionaire and his twin sister. I caught a glimpse of them kissing after they shot his mother, so I guess this is all playing out some ghastly family psychodrama that I’ll never get the chance to understand. There’s a weird agony to the situation that I didn’t expect: we’re here to die and there’s no prospect of survival because we’re in the House, which is fenced in (at a decent distance so you can’t see it from the House) and surrounded and monitored by the company. And yet… if there were a way to live on, I’d take it, surely? Even though our lifespans are naturally short; all that forced growth comes at a cost. At most, a clone grown like me has a couple of years before cancer and organ breakdown aggressively overwhelm my body. But it’s better than six months.

It’s a thought that carries me out of the wardrobe and stealthily climbing the stairs to the second floor. That carpet’s good for lots of things. I duck below the banister as the killers step out onto the landing, shoving his wife hard into the railing. She’s bleeding from the shoulder and head. I’ve known her all my life. With a laugh and a shout, the trillionaire hoists her up and pushes her over the rail. It’s two floors down to a hard wooden floor. Someone’s running, and the twin-sister heads off alone down the hall towards the guest suites. It turns out that surprise is really useful: I follow the trillionaire as he walks back into the bedroom where they found his wife. He’s left his pistol on the bed. I take my chance. With an ungainly leap I knock him down before he gets to the bed. In the forced growth training there’s a lot of gym work to inject decades-worth of muscle growth and strength in just a few months. We’re slightly over-muscled as a result, and it makes up for my slacker reflexes and speed. My weight carries him to the floor and his head makes an incredible sound against the ridiculous animal claw carving on the feet of the bed. Quickly, I strip him and me, and I put on his clothes. Whatever they’re made of feels nothing like anything that’s ever touched my skin before.

Shots ring out elsewhere in the house, and I hurry to stuff the trillionaire’s unresponsive limbs into my clothes. It’s not easy, but they’re on him. Then I pick up the pistol. I’ve never held one before, but I’ve seen this pair use them. Flick this little catch just so, then I shoot the trillionaire in the back of the head. I feel dizzy, like I’ve just killed myself. Is this hope that I feel in my heart, this fluttering sensation? Is it fear that I’ve broken my purpose, done the opposite of what I’m for? I step unsteadily back out onto the landing and his – my – twin comes back up the hall. She’s whistling and spinning her own pistol around in her fingers. She looks happy. I don’t say anything, just gesture to the corpse of me in the bedroom. She squeals and tells me well done, then throws her arms around my neck and kisses me hard. It’s my first kiss, and I’m utterly carried away, lost in the sensation, the warmth and closeness.

At last we detach, and she steps back slightly, a frown growing on her face. I don’t wait. I shove her hard, and she flips back over the same railing they threw my wife over. So. I’m him now. And if I’m him, and if I want to leave this place as him and live whatever kind of life he lived, even if it’s just for a year, I need to do what he would do. I pick up my twin-sister’s gun from the floor, make sure it’s still loaded. Then I go looking for the other killables.

Harvest Time

Harvest Time

When I began gathering the eggs, it was a compulsion that at first hauled me up out of sleep and while still barely awake, out of my flat and into the apartment complex. That first egg was hidden away in the bowels of the block, down in the sub-basement level where no one usually went. Whether it was really an egg or not I didn’t know – it had the rough shape of a hen’s egg, but made up of flat planes, like someone had made a wireframe egg on an ancient home computer, and then then painted it all gold, but not very well – a rough crust of gold. That one was about the size of both my fists placed together, and heavier than it looked, for all that it might have been gold when I first picked it up. I walked out into the carpark in my pajamas and bare feet and only then noticed the cold under my toes. There was a car waiting for me and I handed the egg through the driver’s window to the man inside. There was something wrong with his face, like he’d been in an accident and had massive plastic surgery. He croaked out a thanks and I returned to bed. When I woke up properly it had the quality of a dream, and only my grimy feet which had left filth all over my bedsheets suggested I might not have dreamed it.

That was all a long time ago, and now that strange sensation that once roused me at night comes to me at all times of day of night. I’m not compelled to do it. More and more it feels like the right thing to do. Like I’ve been chosen for a great undertaking. It feels good to be chosen, to be useful. I was the kid picked last for football, and I sat at the back of the class alternately working and frantically colouring in the margins of every page of my textbooks. I can’t say adult life got much better, but office work is tolerable and it pays for my quiet little apartment. I’m a roundish sort of person – not unlike the eggs I collect, but I think the waistcoats mask it well enough. I’ve certainly been getting more exercise since the eggs entered my life.

It’s hard to explain how I know where to go, but it’s as if there’s some link between the eggs and a place inside me. Like a compass, or an invisible thread that links us and it reels me in as I draw nearer. Sometimes I imagine I’m stationary and pull on the thread, making the whole world move toward me until the egg is safely in my hands. They’re funny little things. Like I said, they’re not round like a real egg, more a rough approximation. And that gold colour comes off too. There are parts of my hands I just can’t get it off – it looks like I have gilded palms. I think about wearing gloves, but unless it’s brutally cold it doesn’t feel right. There’s something about the contact that is electrifying, that feeling of doing the right thing. I imagine it’s how someone who is really good at dancing feels when space on the dance floor opens up around them and they’re being worshipped by the other dancers. It feels like that. Accomplishment, satisfaction, reward.

Lately the frequency of eggs has increased. At first it was just every few weeks, long enough for me to almost forget about them, especially when they woke me up from dreaming. Now it’s daily and I’m having to invent excuses to leave the office, or extend my lunchbreaks. My supervisor seems a little concerned, but I explained that I have a health condition. I’m perfectly happy to make up the work time, and they seem mollified by that for now. Yesterday I learned that the eggs have a name: ir. I don’t know what it means, but apparently I am an ir-harvester. Sorry if this seems a bit jumbled, but it can be hard to place these things in order. I don’t mean yesterday, I don’t think.

It was perhaps the most unusual collection of ir I’d experienced. I felt the call in my head and my heart and in my feet and in the tips of my elbows. It was almost lunchtime so I ducked my head and made my way out of the office and into the lift. I realised I’d need a car, so I borrowed one of the office cars. They’re for meetings with clients and so forth, but the keys are just in a case behind reception. I drove the boxy little thing (no need to take one of the expensive saloons) and drove way out across town until I reached the edge of the shallow river that skirts the town to the east. A bit of a puzzle, as that thread led directly through the water. I got out of the car to get a better look, and on the other side, underneath the shadow of railway bridge that runs over the river, there’s a little sandbank or whatever. On it crouched a woman, and I could just make out the glint of the egg – the eggs, plural! – hidden behind her. I was immediately concerned that someone else might have found the eggs. That wasn’t supposed to happen – they’re not for just anyone. She waved. I got back in the car and carefully drove into the river. It was only a foot or so deep here in the middle of summer, but I proceeded slowly, just in case. Miraculously, the car didn’t give out, though it did fill up with river water. I drove to within a few feet of the woman, and got out of the car. Immediately she started pressing eggs into my hands to place in the back seat.

“I’ve never met another ir-harvester,” she said as she passed me yet another golden egg, “but of course I knew there were more of us.”

I didn’t really know what to say to that. I had never occurred to me that there were more of us. But then I’d never wondered what happened to the eggs after I gave them to the man in the car. This woman, this fellow ir-harvester, had seven eggs. Seven! Three were very large, bigger than my head with the others diminishing in size almost to the size of a hen’s egg you might find in a supermarket. We were both soaked up to the waist. I offered her a lift somewhere, but she said she knew that I knew where I was going, and she got out once I’d driven the car back to the riverbank. The car wasn’t in very good shape, with the footwells sloshing with water. I shrugged and drove off to meet the man who would be waiting for me.

His face seemed less like a face every time we met, though I felt mean for thinking it. The doctors can’t always put a face back together properly can they, not if the damage was bad enough. His face was more like a stack of thick fleshy wedges that somehow made me think it was a face. He accepted the eggs, and croaked his thanks. This time though he said something else, looking at me as I dripped water everywhere. He said “the time is coming” and “be ready”.

I left him excited and returned the car to the parking pool, taking some care to ensure no one saw me return the key for the rather soggy car. I sat in my wet clothes at my desk for the rest of the day, but I don’t think anyone noticed. I didn’t, I was too excited. When I got back to my apartment and showered and changed I discovered that the gold leaf or whatever it was had transferred to my stomach and arms, presumably from carrying all those eggs while wet. It wasn’t just paint though, the golden patches on my stomach and arms had that same rough texture as the eggs. Strange, but oddly comforting too.

Over the next few weeks I gathered many more eggs. I had to call in sick to work and pretended I had a doctor’s note because I just couldn’t make enough time to spend at the office. I harvested twenty ir one day. I saw the woman several times, collecting the eggs she had harvested as well as twice when I met the man who received them. She was excited too, I could tell. There was a smile that tipped up only the very corners of her mouth and her eyes were wet and warm. I knew the feeling – it’s the same expression I saw on myself in the mirror. Her hands were all golden too, and although she wore a thick cardigan buttoned tightly at her neck, I was sure she too was becoming golden all over. Her name is Kathryn55.

I’d had no phone calls from work. I’d sort of expected to be pestered about returning to the office, but they seemed to have forgotten me. I didn’t mind, it gave me time to do what I loved, and who would ever complain about something like that. I think we’re on to today now. It can be hard to tell. I spent last night retrieving ir from the roof the local art gallery. You’d think it would be harder to get into some of these places, but there always seems to be a way, and people don’t notice me when I’m on ir business. I was a bit tired, because the call came every few hours but I had become quite good at napping. I’d even rented a car, or I think I did. I had a car and its keys, but I don’t remember renting it, even though there’s a “Top Car Rentals” sticker on the dashboard.

Today is the big day, what we’ve been waiting for, Kathryn and I. I feel tingly all over, and like there are tickling pins in my stomach. First I have to collect some more ir. This time they’re precariously balanced in a child’s treehouse. It’s a bit of a squeeze and the rope ladder wasn’t much fun getting up, but there are three eggs clustered around the edge of the hole where you climb up. They’re encrusted together, so at least they are easy to pick up and hold under one arm while I sweat through the descent. With them safely in my car I set off. It’s a much longer drive, and it eventually leads me to one of the big hydroelectric dams. There’s a road that drops down the side of it and a set of low buildings. I drive between them and get out. Always knowing where you’re going feels immensely reassuring. I used to get lost all the time, but I always know where the ir is and where it needs to be. There’s a roll up door which has been unlocked, so I push it up and go under, shutting the door behind me. It looks more like a self-catering hotel room than a lock-up at a power station. I place the eggs on the breakfast bar and sit down to wait, scratching a little at the encrusted gold on the heels of my palms and wrists.

Kathryn arrives first, with her own ir which she places on the counter too, and then sits down on the bed to wait. We chat a little, but we’re both nervous with excitement and soon fall into a comfortable silence. It’s a while after that that the man arrives. Maybe it’s the different lighting, but for the first time I can see that he really isn’t a man at all. Those fleshy wedges that I thought made up his face only look like a face from certain angles when the light is right. It’s more like someone with a huge mouth has stuffed their face with slices of ham and tipped their head way back so the meat is all you can see. He too has crusts of gold like nodules attached to his skin. From a bag he pulls out two bags of prawn crackers that you might get from a takeaway, and croaks, “eats”. While we eat he asks me to unbutton my waistcoat and shirt. I feel a touch self-conscious with Kathryn there, but he asks her to do the same, so I do it anyway. My round belly is all golden now, though its texture is more like rough concrete. Kathryn’s is the same, though much less round, except for her breasts which are also golden, and all of the same texture as my body.

The man encourages us to keep eating while he takes the ir from the counter and gently pushes first one into my stomach, and then a second into Kathryn. Our skin isn’t really skin any more: the eggs part the skin of my belly like it’s molten metal or paint. Once they’re inside I feel warm and content, and a little sleepy. I sit on the bed with Kathryn and we lie down together while the man with the face made of meat keeps pressing ir into us. I feel very full, but good. Kathryn and I hold hands and lie facing each other. I think everything is going to be OK now, always.

Original Skin

Original Skin

I miss my original skin. This skin is thin and weak, tears easily, bruises, needs to be moisturised and cared for. Not like the skin I came to Daneer’s World wearing. We burned out of the sky, released just beyond the outer atmosphere by our hit and run cruiser. Four hundred of us, like flaming angels wearing just our combat skins and loaded for trouble. The feeling of being aflame against the increasing air pressure as we roared inwards. Our target was, of course, the troubled city of Kromesh. While an ordinary assault might require us to land outside and work our way in, we had a more aggressive mission. We landed inside the heart of the city, in a near-perfect set of concentric rings. The ash and soot from our entry was easily dusted off, that thicker outer layer designed solely to protect us and burn away had done its job. Underneath we were smooth, seamless creatures of combat. Weapons systems came online, moving slickly under our skin until micro-railguns stretched through the skin to rest on shoulders, velocity rifles through the forearms, and blades. So many blades. We felt every moment of it, felt the wind against our skin, local heat and humidity, electromagnetic fields, everything. It was the apex of feeling alive. The next hours were about taking lives. Daneer’s World had broken away, abandoned its treaties and duties. We were there to ensure it returned to the fold, no matter what it took. Funny thing about the combat skin is the sheer elation you feel while wearing it. It’s supposed to dispense drugs straight into the bloodstream to counteract the utter delight it is to move, feel and fight in, but they don’t always work. Especially not in the thrill of combat. We moved through the city like a tornado, a whirling storm of death. And it felt amazing. Knowing the precise temperature and density of blood splashing over you, even feeling the distinctive electric signature of a life fading away – all of it. We did our job, crushed the militia within the city, stormed the parliament and removed all obstacles to reinstituting imperial command. We didn’t know that while we were hard at work, so too were the imperial envoys. Their job is like ours, but with words, promises and threats. We’d already outstripped the worst of the threats they could have made, those who’d have been threatened were dead. That left them with promises, and when the scale of the massacre we’d been deployed for became clear, they started to backpedal. There was no doubt we were imperial troops – no one else wears combat skin, it’s too expensive and has to be grown specifically for the operative wearing it – so they had to work through their plausibly deniable alternatives. So apparently we’d gone rogue, or been dispatched by a rogue imperial unity alliance who had taken things a bit too far when seeking their beloved unity. A real shame, and all the envoys could promise was that there would be punishment and restitution – when Daneer’s World rejoined the empire, obviously. We were down less than a quarter of our invading force (those combat suits are really very good) and that was only a result of heavy artillery that you’d normally only sling at warships, and building collapse, a consequence of using weapons never meant to be deployed in a city. That left three hundred and some of us. We got the message from the hit and run cruiser who had dropped us off that we weren’t going to be picked up, that we’d been disavowed, dumped and abandoned. We picked up the transmissions confirming the public relations choices the envoys had made, and understood what they’d done to us. Daneer’s World folded to imperial pressure. Of course they did, we’d eliminated the vast majority of their renegade government and laid waste to their capital city. That compliance meant we were now the other half of the bargain, no longer the threat, now the hunted to be punished as a promise. It wasn’t clear whether we were going to be rounded up and arrested, shipped out somewhere else for a mission on the other side of the empire as had happened before. When we saw the shooting stars heading our way we knew what had been decided: another battalion had been dispatched to clean us up. Some of us were still spoiling for another fight, a fight that would utterly demolish this city, whether they sent overwhelming numbers or not. Or we could run. Or hide. We were no longer a coherent unit since our governance had been removed, and we were free to act as we pleased. So we split up. Those wishing to keep fighting stuck together, a lot of us fled the city seeking better ground and maybe a ship offworld. Some of us opted to hide, but we all had to get out of the city first. I chose to hide, to hide by exposing myself and sinking into Daneer’s World. The combat skin isn’t easy to remove. The application process involves being soaked in the stuff until it fills and penetrates every pore, and it’s undone by a bunch of enzymes that make it run off you like jelly. We didn’t have any of those, so I scraped and cut the suit off my skin. If you kill enough of the suit, it’s eventually dissolve on its own account, but you have to get something like ninety-five per cent of the external surface off to make it do that. It’s tough stuff, and not easy to get into – the weapons ports are the only time there’s a natural hole in the suit, and that only for a second – just enough time to get a knife under the skin. Getting it off my face was the worst, like shaving my eyeballs with a knife. Finally, when I’d pared back enough of it, feeling all those glorious additional senses compromised and failing, it triggered the breakdown sequence, combat skin bleeding back out of my pores. Free of the combat skin we looked just like everyone else. Well, I looked like the I’d just been in an awful accident, fire, shuttle crash and thrown through barbed wire all at the same time. Thankfully, there were an awful lot of people making their way out of the city who looked pretty much the same: the lucky survivors of our assault. It was easy enough to join the crowds fleeing the wreckage and seeking shelter in nearby towns and villages. I was a refugee now, surrounded by those I’d brought much suffering to. It wasn’t easy to fit in. I mean, it was appallingly easy to fit in, to just pretend to be one of them, trapped in skin that just felt pain. But accepting their help, sympathising with their grief and pain… It’s not what we’d come here for. Feigning shock and trauma got through a lot of questions. I’d lost track of the rest of the unit, apart from seeing the distant shooting matches in the city ruins. I didn’t know what any of the other troops looked like, and the skin removal damage wasn’t much worse than the state of half these people. It took months to be resettled, and now it seems that I’m a baker, of all things. The imperial troops are still looking for us, having successfully tracked down everyone still in combat skin, but they have the same problem telling us apart that I do. I suspect that I’m stuck here now, baking, living a life that I’ve stolen from somebody else. I still miss my original skin.