School Days

“Just keep running,” Michael panted, casting his words over his shaking shoulders at the gaggle of children following close behind. Mostly close, some were falling back further and further, just visible as a bobbing head between the trees. Easily said, but not easily done. The little crowd had been jogging through the woods for nearly an hour, with a handful of very short breaks to allow the slowest to catch up. The slow kids had the least time to recover, since they had to reach the paused group first before they all set off again. They were going to keep falling behind unless Michael could find them somewhere to rest properly. Summoning another burst of energy from somewhere deep inside, he led them past a huge old oak then over the tiny stream. There were lots of nice flat stones to hop across, but he stopped to help the smaller children cross. Falling in and getting wet would make everything even worse.

While he waited for the stragglers to reach the stream, he strained for a better view of what they were running from. Smoke was still visible rising over the trees, and the occasional sharp spark of light, like someone had thrown one of those glass balls filled with lightning up in the air. They were beyond the sound now, at least, though it had been a terrific motivator in getting the children moving and in keeping them moving. Michael wiped sweat from his face off on the sleeves of his school shirt. The whole thing was sodden with sweat and smelled of fear. As the last of the slow kids caught up he held the little boy’s hand as he slipped across the stones. All the children had stopped for a breather after they crossed the stream, and all were watching Michael, in various states of puffing, panting and wheezing. He made his way through them, with one last glance backwards, and started off again.

They were definitely getting slower, and really since they were almost just walking quickly, perhaps that’s what they should do. But running, or trying to run really felt like doing something. Anything to put more distance between them and the chaos that had erupted at the school. Michael was just barely eleven, almost the oldest in the final year group of primary school. The troupe following him ranged from six to ten. He was impressed with the smallest of them, there had hardly been any complaining, especially since they had no water, no snacks, and no time to sit down. As far as he knew, they were the only kids to have escaped. It still wasn’t clear what had happened, but it had all gotten very bad very quickly.

Michael had been late getting back to class from morning break. He’d been playing too long and hadn’t realised he’d needed to go to the loo until after the classes had lined back up to go inside. But he’d been allowed to go – no running in the corridor – and had just made it back to class when everyone’s mobile phone started ringing. Not everyone had one, but almost everyone did, and even though they were supposed to be on silent, the children all looked at them, and so did Mrs Abbott. Michael’s phone was in his desk, but he’d only just walked in the door. When the phone screens flashed on, or unlocked or however you had your phone set up, there came an awful ear-piercing shriek, like ancient computers did when they connected to the internet. And then everyone had frozen, even Mrs Abbott, just staring at their phones. Something rose up out of the screens, a crackling blue and white shape that flickered so it sometimes looked like a person, and then was suddenly an animal or something else. It was too fast to see properly. But it rose up towards the person looking down at it, and it sort of sparkled into their eyes. Michael was still standing by the door, and the other kids who either didn’t have phones or hadn’t answered them were just staring around them, no idea what was going on. Then it all changed. Michael was watching Mrs Abbott when her head snapped back and she opened her eyes and the blue crackle was in them. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the other kids doing the same. It was really freaky, and Michael started to back away without even knowing he was doing it. That only attracted attention though, and a couple of kids were on their feet immediately, scrambling over the table towards him. They weren’t the only ones in motion though, and the last thing Michael saw before he slammed the door shut were kids with sparkling blue-white eyes pouncing on those other children without phones.

It didn’t seem real, but as Michael ran off down the corridor – no running in the corridor – past the other classrooms the same thing was happening there. Shrieks and cries rang out, doors burst open and kids ran out, some knocked down straight away by their classmates clawing over them, others faster and running the same way he was. The school was in an annoying L shape and Michael’s classroom was furthest from the main entrance, so he had further to run to get out. If he’d stopped outside his classroom and turned the other way, maybe he could have used the fire escape, but there was no way he was turning back. He swept up a small crowd of terrified children as he ran, his normal brown eyes assuring them that he was OK. They crashed out through the main door, which Michael held open so as many of them could get through as possible. There wasn’t much he could do about the doors – they opened inwards, so even trying to move the benches outside was pointless. They weren’t being immediately followed though. There must have been plenty of kids and staff without phones handy when that weird call came through, and for now they were being left alone. Michael cast a glance across the fields, wondering what to do. The secondary school was about a mile away, up the grassy hill. But all the older kids had phones. There would be no help there. The primary school was on the edge of the village, with houses and streets on one side. Even from there Michael could hear shouting and the sounds of cars crunching into things. There was only one real option: the woods that backed onto the school. You could get to the secondary school indirectly, but they also extended back and away from everything that had people in it. Michael wasn’t entirely sure where they ended, but he’d definitely been on family trips that went around the other side. Somewhere in the middle was a little forest school which they got to go to sometimes.

But now Michael was lost. He’d remembered the stream and he was almost certain that the forest school and its little chalet buildings must be somewhere near. Just a little further. They had slowed to a walk by then, and it was better, even though his heart was banging in his chest from all the exercise and he was dreadfully thirsty. The trees were thinning out, and maybe it was the clearing where the forest school was sited. But even as he drew nearer, Michael knew it wasn’t. He’d led them the wrong way, led them in a long curve rather than a straight line. This was the secondary school. The side of the school building was scorched, and fire still licked out of the first floor windows. There were bodies lying in grass and on the gravel outside. He pulled up short, but not all of the exhausted little kids were so quick to stop, too used to stumbling on. And they attracted attention. Faces appeared in the ground floor window, bright blue-white eyes scanning the woods. All the children were still by now, finally following Michael’s lead. It was too late. With a shriek, the faces of the older children in the window did something and the glass exploded outward, swiftly followed by two girls and a boy, all much older than Michael. They moved jerkily, and their gaze never left Michael. He was frozen – what could he do? He’d tried to get them all away, but here they were and something bad was about to happen to them all.

Then a huge old estate car (like the one that Michael’s dad had finally swapped for an SVU) roared up from nowhere and struck the three kids jerking towards them. It made a bad crunching sound, and the trio were flung backwards and into the air. They didn’t get back up. The passenger door swung open and there was a lady inside screaming at Michael to get inside. It was a squeeze, but they got all fourteen of the kids jammed in the car, and the lady threw the car into reverse and raced out of the school grounds. They were safe, for now.


Wax, the Weatherworker

Wax the Weatherworker

When the weather came, she was already there. Wax the Weatherwoman. Renowed across the state. She was the closest thing to an oracle of climate that we had, and we loved her for it. Her arrival five days earlier had produced a spontaneous little festival, the woes of the last seven months suddenly put to one side, so sure were the village elders of what her appearance heralded. I’ll admit, I was sceptical. The world is dry, so damn dry now. If it won’t fall from the sky, it’s bloody work getting it out of the ground instead. Either way, crops die, animals stroke out and people follow suit. It’s bad enough that most villages and towns are migratory now. Ours, Heaven Sent, was a travelling village, but we eventually fetched up against a small hilly range with a ragged system of old mines. There’s a better chance of finding water down there, though bringing it up is dangerous in an abandoned metal mine, and for all we know it’s hopelessly contaminated. We don’t drink it directly, and it doesn’t seem to kill the crops any faster than the sun, so who knows. The mines also give us cool shelter from the sun, vast and brutal in the sky. Few like to sleep in there because those mines go deep and no one’s been all the way along the adits or properly down all the shafts. They say that when the sun swelled, a lot of bad things – things bigger and more dangerous than people – vanished from the world. They might have died out, or they might have just hidden somewhere else. I rarely sat with my back to the rough walls that shielded us from the darkness within.

It had been the worst season in my admittedly short memory, though what I recalled told me only that each season was worse than the last, that surely the next would be the last. The elders still held some hope that the rains would return and the climate would swing back to something they remembered being told about by their grandparents. That and tales of the world where it was constantly wet. I always asked why we didn’t just go there then, and the answering snorts – declarations that it was too far, or that so much rain from the sky would strip the skin from your bones – told me it was as fictional as the stories of great cities and travels through the stars. I was never one for myths. Still, we trudged on, delving ever deeper into the mine shafts, scraping and pooling what water there was down there, all the while gasping for breath. Down deep the air is bad, and if you go deep enough you have to come up slow or it feels like you’re body’s turning outside in.

When Wax showed up I was in the mines, despite my horror of what might be down there. More and more of us were taking turns to dig down and fill our flasks and buckets. At least we had light. The solar lanterns were never low on power, and they lasted all day down in the dark. We’d gotten deep enough into the old mine that it was deadly quiet, and you just followed the sound of dripping water to locate the next cache of sweet liquid. A whole set of shafts and adits had been written off as too dangerous, where braces bent and the rocks trembled, and we were looking at them again to see if they truly were beyond the pale, or if we’d risk venturing down them in search of water. I was not in favour. Instead we’d taken up picks and hammers abandoned in the mine by whoever worked it, generations ago, and were hacking our own painfully slow way, following the tracks where the water dripped down, always down. If it would only flow up… Our crew returned to the surface, filthy and in need of a sand scrub. There we found the atmosphere jubilant, near-hysterical. The rain was coming and for a time, perhaps we’d have no need to mine. Rare caches of alcohol and sugary treats were being uncovered to fete Wax the Weatherworker and toast the resurrection of hope. Very, very faintly, seen only against the setting sun a thin wisp of cloud was distantly visible in the direction from which Wax had come.

The next day Wax established an area to work in. A broad oval drawn in the dust, easily space for a dozen men to stand arms outstretched across it. Radiating out from the centre, Wax laid out an array of charms and tokens, some which I recognised like feathers, knives, oddly shaped and coloured stones, and others I didn’t: twists of fabric, perhaps bone carved into shapes that were uncomfortable to look at. When I went off to the mines later and could look down from above I saw she’d drawn an eye into the ground, the objects making up the iris and herself the pupil. Before I went back underground I saw her begin to dance.

That dance continued for three days as she hauled at the sky, exhorted the clouds to draw nearer. And they were. By the second day the clouds were plainly approaching, thick and fluffy like I hadn’t seen in years. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were coming in this direction anyway. “But why now, why not sooner, why only when Wax arrives first” were thrown back at me in spiteful tones and I gave up my questioning and hid the eye rolling when people I usually regarded as quite sensible spoke of Wax and her powers in ecstatic terms. I did bring her something though, partly to show willing, partly to have a reason to interact with her. The mine had once been for digging ore out of the rock, but there was plenty of other stuff in there too, and while idly rooting through the many heaps of waste and stone I’d found something pretty, that seemed to fit with Wax’s iris of totems. It had probably once been a tool used in the mine, about a foot long and a few inches across, jaggedly narrowing to the tip, but it gleamed with all the colours and the light rolled like oil over its surface. She didn’t dance all day and night, obviously, it was hot out there and even though she barely seemed to drink she paused regularly. No point killing your weatherwoman with heat stroke. During one of these rests, when I’d scrubbed the dirt off from down below, we had a short conversation.

“Madame Wax, may I speak with you a moment?” Always be polite, especially to someone who might be about to save your village. She turned and I hadn’t clocked her eyes before, one golden all the way out, consuming the white of her left eye, and the other normal shaped but for the startling bright green iris. It made me feel lopsided, like I was slowly falling sideways. “Um, I’ve a thing for your, um, eye,” I said, pointing at the radiating lines in the ground.

“Good,” she said, taking the long thin shard of metal from me. “Something that’s been used here before, been used to dig in, to alter the fabric of the world. If it can do that once, it can do it again.” So saying she carefully laid it into her weatherworking and turned her back on me.

The next day the clouds were so close and no one went into the mine. Instead the elders had us constructing the pools that we’d use to capture as much of the rain as we could. They’re light wooden structures, with thick watertight canvas stretched out in them. Once full, they could be drawn tight and we’d hide them away inside the mine entrances. Every vessel would be used. The village was electric with excitement. It was going to rain, we’d have water for months – if we stored it far enough into the mines – and so much would fall from the sky that we’d even wash in it. Wax stood in the middle of her eye and drew the clouds on until they were directly overhead. The sun blocked at last, it was almost cold in the middle of the day and goosebumps rose all over my body. But the clouds began to fade, their threads tearing away and the sun came back through. The clouds had failed – Wax the Weatherworker had failed. The elated mood of the village vanished in an instant and I felt suddenly afraid for the strange woman. So much rested on her success, and failure had never even been considered. Wax though showed no concern, even as the clouds parted and dissipated. She turned instead, towards the mine and took up the odd long knife thing I’d given her, winked at me and with a cry drove it into the ground.

Nothing happened, but the whole village was frozen with the drama of the moment, the fierce flipping of their emotional states, from hope to despair, to anger to hope, to confusion. Our faces must have been a picture. And then came sound. A deep rumbling that shook the ground beneath our feet, a noise that was more force than sound made the hills shudder, and then, erupting out of the mine shafts was water. More than you’d ever get from a mere cloud, this was a cavalcade, a torrent that smashed the structures and stores we’d placed in the mine entrances to shreds as the water poured down the slopes and into us. We were suddenly knee deep in water, being pushed and shoved and tripped by it. The shock gave way to hope and the elders had us redirecting the canvas pools, taking buckets and filling them from the water rushing past. In the excitement I’d missed seeing when Wax packed up her totems – somehow managing it before the oval was erased by the water. But she tapped me on the shoulder as I frantically scooped up water and threw it into a pool. Her touch startled me into stopping, but she only said a single phrase, “never doubt me,” before turning and walking off into the flood.

Captain Monogram

Captain Monogram

The warehouse appears to be empty, but my partner and I know different: this is a trap. This feels very much like every other Friday to be honest. A crime is committed, and we leap into action. I’m Kid Bungee by the way, ace sidekick to the greatest superhero of them all, Captain Monogram. That square jaw, that confident smile – he’s all superhero, all the time. Anyway, we know who is inside, because we followed the clues. Three banks robbed in a single afternoon, perpetrated by a gang of black and white clad goons and their ringleader, a villain also dressed in black and white horizontal stripes, but also wildly hairy, like a raccoon stuffed into a people suit. Their costumes are like rippling barcodes, defeating image recognition programs, but we don’t need to identify the individuals to know they’re Big Hijack’s gang. He’s the baddest of the supervillains in Temple City, and Captain Monogram have put him away more times than I can count. But he’s good at breaking out, very good indeed, and when he does he immediately resurrects his gang and goes back on the rob. Big Hijack’s a menace to the city and the people, and we’re going to stop him this time, for good. Oh – the clues. Right, well. First there are the costumes, we already recognised those, and then there was the arrow that Big Hijack must have painted on the underside of that getaway van that had been abandoned in the middle of a fast-food joint. We followed that arrow and it led us to the zoo, where letters had been shaved into the fur of all the zebras. Captain Monogram corralled them into the right order in no time, with just a few cracks of his trusty mono-whip. That gave us the address for this place. We’re down by the port – classic Big Hijack hideout territory – and it’s all quiet. We warned off the dock workers because we don’t want anyone to get hurt. Not like Big Hijack and the trail of suffering he leaves behind.

There’s only one way to deal with a trap: spring it. Captain Monogram goes in through the front door, cape billowing out behind him, his mono-pistol at the ready. I take the high road, coming down through a skylight, bungee-anklets activated. Big Hijack’s troops emerge from cover, popping out of crates and from behind cunningly placed mirrors. Captain Monogram’s mono-pistol goes pop-pop-pop and the hijackers are pummelled by a spray of tiny monogrammed discs. They fly this way and that as Captain Monogram switches weapons, his mono-pistol smoothly retracting into his utility vest, as he draws out his mono-whip and spins, each touch of the whip leaving a perfect imprint of his initials on foreheads, thighs, hands and buttocks as the hijackers fall. I’m in constant movement, bouncing, grabbing, rising and releasing the hijackers like a bouncy ball being batted about by a playful cat. As I strain the bungees I fire out a new set and change between them. All those gym sessions really pay off! I’m like a cartwheeling spider, moving too fast for the hijackers to get a bead on me. Their bullets are all near misses, but they’re always misses, even when I appear right in front of a pair of hijackers and slam their heads together, before being flung off into another corner by my latest bungee anchors. It feels great: smashing the bad guys and being so good at it. It almost makes me forget about my parents’ murders for a little while. Even thinking of them makes me glance at Captain Monogram to check how my foster-dad is doing. He’s being swarmed by the hijackers (where do they all come from), but I know this trick of his. The scrum of bad guys is suddenly launched into the air (where I can punch and kick them from all angles before they land) as Captain Monogram activates his mono-copter, its rotors spinning up out of the back of his vest and slapping them away from him. Each slap leaves his monogram on their cheeks, chins and chests.

It’s all going well, but we haven’t seen Big Hijack yet. These are just his goons and we can beat them up all week till Sunday. I keep my eyes peeled, but I’m here there and everywhere grabbing, tripping, snagging and hurling bad guys and I’m never looking in the same direction for more than a couple of seconds. I don’t see where he comes from, I just hear the roar of a chainsaw, and suddenly he’s there down on the floor with Captain Monogram. I only catch the end of it, an agonised scream from – impossible – Captain Monogram as Big Hijack’s enormous chainsaw rips right up between Captain Monogram’s legs and all the way through his body, cutting him in half, right up between his eyes. I can’t believe what I’m seeing, and I lose track of my bungees when one of the hijackers clips me with his rifle and my bungee contracts, flinging me out of a window and into the warehouse next door. I release the bungees and pull myself into a roll, but I still skid right the way across the floor. I don’t know what to do – I’ve just seen my hero, my mentor, my crime-fighting partner, my foster-father cut in half. Even from here I can hear Big Hijack’s roar of triumph. My blood is boiling and there’s nothing I want more than revenge. I pull myself together, shake off the shock and take a running jump back through the warehouse, snagging a trailing bungee with my wrist activator so it tosses me right through the broken window and I soar high over the warehouse floor.

But they’re all gone. Big Hijack and his gang have fled, their trap fully sprung and its victim lying dead in the centre of the warehouse floor, caught in a pool of swinging lamplight. I check the exits, make sure it’s not a second trap aimed at me, but there’s nothing. I do a triple flip and land perfectly on my feet just a few steps from Captain Monogram. Each half of his face shows that same look of gentle surprise, like someone’s popped out with a birthday cake and he’s taking it well, despite not wanting anyone to know he’s nearly fifty. There will be no more cakes for Captain Monogram. His mask is so good that it hasn’t even started to peel back yet, and his identity is still secret. It’s the most important thing. He drilled that into me from when I was really young. Our only protection from villains, and the only protection we can offer those we love is our anonymity as superheroes. Yet I can’t help peeling back one side of the mask, that layer of latex with a “C” over his left eye, just so I can see my foster-dad properly. His green eye stares straight past me. This is awful. I thought maybe, just maybe that it would be me who fell in battle. The sidekick, not the hero. Never the hero. I sit with him for a while, sitting in the spreading pool of his blood. I’ve got to get him out of here.

I put a tarpaulin over him that I yank off a crate, jam the lock on the warehouse door and flee into the night. We left the mono-mobile just a couple of streets away from the port, and with my bungees I use the cranes that dangle all over the place to get there In just a few swings. The mono-mobile starts with a purr and I take it back to the warehouse. I’m angry, so angry, as well as sad and frightened, so I smash through the warehouse doors and pull a skid that brings the back of the mono-mobile perfectly up next to Captain Monogram’s body. I wrap him up and take him home. Then I’m hit with the next dilemma. Captain Monogram’s dead, but the only people who know that are me, Big Hijack, and his hijackers. But no one knows that Chris Pearson, amiable Temple City insurance broker, is dead. And there’s no way an ordinary insurance guy could have ended up chainsawed in half. He works in a cubicle farm. The most dangerous thing there is either the static off the photocopier or that weird guy who hits on all the girls. If Chris shows up in the morgue like this there will be more than a few questions, and the only person around to answer them will be me, his foster-son, Peter Pearson. I’m going to have to hide him and pretend that both Captain Monogram and Chris Pearson are out of town on business, maybe forever. Or they’ve retired and moved to Maui. Or something. Oh god, it’s just me now and there are going to be so many questions. Maybe I should run too – go somewhere… But I haven’t done anything wrong, and it will just look like I killed him! It’s not my fault, it’s not me who’s been killed. But I’ve got to protect Chris’ aunt and his cousins – my aunt and cousins – if Big Hijack ever found out who Captain Monogram’s family are, he’ll stop at nothing to get at them all. In the end I put Captain Monogram in the big freezer chest in our operation centre and pile a load of cases and boxes on top of it. No one else knows where our secret base is, even though it’s just three floors below the basement level of Chris’ apartment block. I write a letter in Chris’ handwriting explaining that he’s taken a sudden leave of absence. I don’t know what to do next. There’s only one person I can call, only one person I can talk to, but Captain Monogram fell out with her last year over the Chicken Reactor fiasco. I’ve got no choice. I pick up the phone and dial in the encryption sequence he made us all learn. It starts to ring. And ring. I really hope Mega-Girl is in.

The City in the Cliff

The City in the Cliff

In the velvet blue darkness of the night, the city gleamed. Two brothers knelt on the cliff, looking down on the sight. Both were young enough to be excited, old enough to know better. They exchanged an arched eyebrow, grinned, and got started. They’d come equipped, not just with youthful enthusiasm, but with ropes, anchors, waters and good shoes. They weren’t fools, though their parents would certainly have described them as foolish. Brosh was first over the edge of the cliff, the rope twisted about his hips as Cresh belayed him down. The descent wasn’t particularly challenging, but it was a one-mile vertical drop and caution was warranted. The plan was to belay down to the city where it nestled halfway down the cliffside, adventure, then return back up the cliff as quick as they could manage it. Brosh reached a ledge from which the city could be easily accessed, tied himself off and returned Cresh’s favour, belaying his brother as he too began his descent. Brosh was so near to the city that he could hear its constant buzz of activity, and its lights danced in his peripheral vision. Paying attention to his brother’s progress was fraught with distraction, but he managed to keep his fist tight on the rope as Cresh’s feet drew nearer. The wait seemed endless, but at last Cresh alighted next to Brosh, and they both untied themselves, and forced themselves to prepare properly for the re-ascent, laying their ropes and harnesses neatly. With that accomplished, they carefully climbed down the next ledge, unprotected from the fall. Then – before them – the city.

Only the part of the city they’d been able to see from above was visible, most of it disappeared inside the cliff. The outer wall was a delicate-looking filigree, like the veil of a forest-growing fungus, stretched out and glistening. Cresh reached out to touch it but Brosh batted his hand back, “too fragile, we’ll have to crawl in under the arch.” The arch was what in a human city might be taken for a main gate, but for this half-sized cliff city, it might be a window, or a random void. The buzz that Brosh had heard had stilled, and it was all eerily quiet in the night. Despite their size, despite their brash confidence, the brothers felt a chill at the prospect of entering the city. There were endless stories at home of the angelflies, the tiny creatures who wrought its architecture with mandibles and spit, the ones who knew they were there, and had fallen silent while their intentions were assessed. No point having come so far without keeping going… The brothers wriggled under the arch and awkwardly shuffled forwards, pulling themselves with forearms and pushing with their toes. More delicate structures surrounded them, elaborate overhanging galleries and almost invisible threads binding the city together. With much effort, the brothers pushed through along the wide avenue they followed and found themselves inside the cliff. There the ceiling rose up and they could stand once more. The city billowed out around them as if a glass blower had filled the cavern inside the mountain – the city followed the sides up and over the roof. The city contained the brothers entirely, they were in a golden snowglobe.

This is what the brothers had come to see, and they stood there in silence, breath halting as they waited. After a moment the sounds of the city resumed. The faint buzz that had been audible outside returned, as loud as a cat’s purr when you lay your head directly on their belly. They’d been judged no threat, so they began to explore. Inside, this was much easier. The city gave off its golden light, and its inhabitants emerged from whatever structures they’d been hiding in, adding their internal glow to the city. They flew, mostly, though plenty could be seen crawling and building further unfathomable objects and architecture. Cresh stepped carefully over gossamer bridges and around soaring towers. At the back of the cavern, great rows of barrel-shaped columns arched overhead, dense and strong. As they looked around, it became clear that the city was a much more solid construction than they’d imagined from its outer parts. Except for the narrow channel they’d entered by, there was no sight of rock anywhere. The little angelflies had filled the space completely. The spires that speared down from the ceiling met rising towers, almost reinforcing the city in its little hollow. Still, it was a wonderland to wander in. How such small things had made something so beautiful was the subject of many of those stories back home. Some believed the angelflies had been here as long as people, others that they’d hatched within the mountain, others that a falling star had brought them here. At first, people had stolen parts of the city – the pretty things – to make jewellery, or knives, because the stuff that the angelflies worked was harder than steel when it set. That act became one of boldness and stupidity, because the angelflies would come to get back what had been stolen. The only known incidence of violence had been when an angelfly was crushed by a thief who tried to keep hold of the golden arc he’d stolen. Whether he was bitten or infected or what, no one knew, but he’d been found in his bed the next day, golden spars growing out of his eyes and mouth, quite dead. After that, the angelflies were mostly left alone. Not quite feared, but certainly respected. Curiosity about them never dulled though, and the stories multiplied.

Deep inside the cave, the brothers noted the rising sound of the buzz around them: it grew deeper and louder, starting beneath their feet and spread all around them.

“Are they angry, do you think? Perhaps we should…” Brosh trailed off as the rumbling grew more intense. The shapes that decorated the walls around them began to move, shapes revolving like clockwork as graceful sheets of gold bloomed out from the towers and spires that pierced and penetrated the city. Cresh just shoved him forward, back toward the hole where they’d come in. It was closing, slowly being filled in by a crowd of angelflies, extruding that golden substance all around its edges. It wasn’t closed yet. Cresh knelt and gently brushed the angelflies away from the entrance, taking extreme care not to harm them, choking back his own fear of the angelflies and of being trapped as he did so. With the angelflies temporarily taken to the air, buzzing frustratedly around them, Cresh yanked Brosh to the ground and pushed him through the hole. The interior of the cavern continued to revolve and Cresh couldn’t help but watch as the architecture snapped into place, fascinating patterns interlocking. The humming increased, as did sharp explosive shocks that bled between sound and light. Brosh’s feet finally vanished and Cresh knelt down to follow him. As he pushed himself under, the angelflies began to return to their task of filling in the gap, and he blew gently at them as he passed under them. There was little he could do but wriggle faster, gasping as the hole narrowed. A moment later his brother seized his wrists and yanked him fully out into the darkness outside. They stumbled and tripped, accidentally kicking down a gleaming archway. They froze, but there was no response from the angelflies – the hole they’d entered the city by disappeared entirely and the inner city was completely sealed off.

The rumble persisted, a fully physical sensation now, shaking a shower of dirt and small stones down over the brothers. With an enormous roar, the cliff face split open, raining more rock on the gleaming outer portion of the city. The brothers huddled under what remained of the ledge that they’d climbed down to as columns of stone crashed off the cliffside to tumble into the darkness below. With an appalling scream of metal being dragged across stone, a golden orb emerged from the hole in the cliff: the angelflies’ city revolved into the night air, hung for a moment as though watching the pair closely, then rose up, up until it became just another gleaming star in the night. The brothers were left in the ruins of the outer city, the delicate shapes crushed by the falling cliff. Wordlessly, they each took up a small piece of the golden wreckage, slipped their harnesses over their hips and began the long, long climb up to the top.

Lunar Sea

Lunar Sea

Moving through the water this deep down takes an effort, every step means I’m pushing my body forward under tonnes of pressure. Yet still, I walk. It’s undeniably beautiful down here. I didn’t expect that the water would be so clear, even half a mile down. The advantage of this sea is that it’s on a moon, and we’re close enough to the massive gas giant it orbits that I can still just about see the fiery glow above which survives as a blue glow, as well as the natural pink emanations down here. The whole sea floor is crusted with a kind of coral which moves faintly in the current and constantly sprinkles pink light into the waves. A walk across this seabed wouldn’t be too bad if it weren’t for having nowhere to walk back to. It’s something I’m trying quite hard not to think about, but now that I’ve thought about it I can’t quite push it out of mind. Alright, the basic details at least: the lunar sea station; we’re new. Oddly no one had thought about combining the two most lethal environments for humans until now, or at least no one had said yes before: underwater, in space. There’s plenty to study, since our main experience of the sea is at Earth gravity, moderated a little by the Moon. Up here the gravity is way lower, but we’ve got a huge gas giant right next door throwing its weight into the mix. And there’s life here, so it’s all kinds of special. It was exciting, and interesting, and deadly dull – all the things you would expect at a research base. I didn’t mind that, anything was better than the fractious geopolitical landscape we’d been permitted to escape from for a few years. It was hard, knowing that we were millions of miles away from home, but that our standard of living was probably higher than most of those we’d left behind. So that was all fine. The early encounters with the shreds of life in the lunar sea were as you’d expect – we’d grab a bucketful of sea water and sieve through it to see what was inside. There was plenty of microscopic life, plus the corals that are around me now, and a few species of slightly larger worms and what might one day grow up to be molluscs, or something like that anyway. It was weeks before anything went wrong, and given that the disaster recovery plans had begun with an assumption that catastrophic failure was most likely in the first three days, we felt things were going well. It was when we started drinking the water – filtered, irradiated, basically turned back into its component atoms and reorganised into straight H20 that everything started sliding sideways. The first thing I noticed was that everything felt like velvet – either all textures from skin to plastic had become soft, or there was something wrong with my hands. I was the first to mention it, but everyone else got it too. There was nothing obviously wrong with our skin, but increasingly even the breeze of the air conditioner felt like a fold of velvet being brushed across my arms. Some kind of nerve damage, but the fact that we were all suffering it made it hard to do much about. There was the sense that like velvet, I could squeeze, press and stroke all these definitely not-soft objects. Weird, compelling. We had to tape up Andersson’s hands after she couldn’t help stroking the sharp edges of knives in the kitchen. Like I said, strangely alluring. We made do as best we could, redoubled the brutality of the water processing, but it was already too late. The velvet feel got inside us too. Eating and drinking were both nauseating and ecstatic – the sickening feel of wet velvet in your mouth combined with the sheer delight of its soft brushing delving deeper inside you. Breathing is like being between two sheets of velvet, each being dragged slowly in the opposite direction. It became hard to focus on anything, as even blinking became another textured experience. We had to set reminders to moisturise, shower, use eye drops because the compulsion to touch, to stroke and press was too strong. Red raw skin that still demanded to be stroked, sore dry eyes, chafed skin all over. We’d been virtually immobilised, simply by the warping of our sense of touch. Jens, the lead botanical researcher, discovered that he could use local anaesthetic to stop the velvet sensation, but then he also couldn’t feel whatever he’d anaesthetised either… The warning sirens jerked me out of my haze, cocooned in blankets pulled as tightly as I could manage to limit the damage I’d do to myself. The panic and urgency distracted me from the feel of the floor under my feet as I ran. Jens had somehow ended up in the deep sea airlock. He wasn’t wearing a suit, but he was avidly stroking the thick glass door that led into the ocean. He didn’t respond to our entreaties to come back inside, and even though we hit the automatic overrides, there’s always a manual override of that, just in case you know something the computer doesn’t. The pressure squeezed him flat as soon as the outer door opened, and he was whisked off into the ocean. Jens was the first, but he missed the next stage of infection. Tiny nodules formed under my skin. They still felt like velvet to my fingers, but inside they felt hard, like dull needles rubbing against my muscles and bones. There seemed to be nothing we could do to stop their progress, and when Andersson painstakingly cut some out of my arm they looked like nothing so much as tiny teeth. Before long they were growing in all of us. Decisions needed to be made. We were far too far away from rescue. We’d long since notified home of what we were experiencing, and they were none to keen to have us back. It seemed likely we’d live or die here on our own. Exposing others to this infection made no sense, but it redoubled the feeling of being alone, of failure, of hopelessness. We could kill ourselves, en masse, if we wished. There was no shortage of drugs and chemical combinations that would do for us, but we couldn’t come to any agreement on what we’d do or that we all wanted to. Some took their own lives, cleanly, bloodily, with whatever made sense to them in the moment. I couldn’t blame them, though it grew lonely. Before long it was just me and Andersson sitting in the kitchen, bandaged and taped up where we’d been unable to resist touching, worn and bloody-looking. I could see the growing teeth pressing up all around her face between her skull and skin. She told me she had a plan. She was going to open all the airlock doors and flood the base, make the whole thing as unrecoverable and unappealing as possible. When I asked what she was going to do with herself, she said she was staying. Or would be for about ten seconds anyway, once the pressure equalised. I still wasn’t ready for that, but I said that was fine, just give me time to suit up. Andersson helped me into the deep sea suit, the teeth in my forearms and shoulders grating on the heavy suit, sending waves of goosebumps up and down my back. There wasn’t anything else to do but leave. Andersson didn’t even watch me go, just headed back inside to start on her plan. I walked. Heavy, and soft. I’ve been picking up the pink colour that the coral gives off, and looking at my hands and legs I’m as pink as they are now. When I look closer it’s obvious that the pink colouring is just more coral – I’m being colonised – and the pink grit crunches between my fingers. There’s nowhere for me to go but forward, deeper into the depths. Eventually, there’s so much coral on my legs and hips that I can’t walk anymore and I fall, slowly and finally onto the sea floor. The glass front of my helmet feels like velvet against my forehead, even as the hard lumps inside grate. I think I’ll stay here, I think I’ve become something’s new home.

Cyborg Sisters

Cyborg Sisters

I guess I was in a weird place to adopt a freed robot. Not the location, that all made sense. I’ve lived in what we all called Tech City for most of my life, it’s a fancy and aspirational name for an unadulterated shithole, but it made everyone there feel a bit better. You’ll have seen it on the news – at the centre are all the massive tech factories, and around it lies what some would ungenerously call a tent city. Maybe it started that way, a hundred years ago, but the factory ‘burbs are bigger than most cities now, so it’s got to be a real place. We have all the usual amenities, they just weren’t built in the modern way. But this is exactly how cities used to form, except it used to be around an easily forded part of a river or some other useful resource. A few streets would spin off it, farms pop up outside and boom, you’ve got your very own shithole town. Maybe it’s more like the boom and bust towns of the old west where you’d set up shop to dig all the gold out of a hill. We’re doing the same, except it’s factory scraps, plus the massive industry around recycling and processing junk coming back the other way. I’m not complaining, I went to an OK local school, ended up working in the huge manufactories like half my other peers – there is nothing like a well-motivated local workforce who are bizarrely passionate about business.

And then, like quite a lot of them, my body started failing me. The local med teams explained that the water contamination around here is profound, that we’re all consuming unusually high doses of interesting metals and chemicals. That, and exposure to even more crap in the manufactories, in the air we breathe… Tech City would probably be the death of me. That’s not exactly news – we might have running water, electricity and a couple of palsied parks but we don’t have impressive lifespans. “Go somewhere else,” I hear you cry. No one wants economic migrants. It doesn’t matter that their own wealth and health is based solely on being lucky enough to have been born somewhere clean and rich, folks just cannot get the idea that their good fortune isn’t their own achievement. They can somehow hold the idea that they’ve done well for themselves and the notion that folks whose lives are fucked should have done equally well in wildly adverse circumstances. So we live here, we die here. But I didn’t really want to. The early-onset arthritis was going to break my body, rob me of the ability to work, dance, do anything. And then the cancers would catch up. It’s not a bright prospect, but we live in Tech City – at the heart of our whirlpool of housing is a magical place where they can do anything. Seriously, where do you think the cars, computers, medical tech, robots, every mobile device or toy you’ve ever owned come from? Born right here in Tech City baby. And that’s where I work, in robotics and prosthesis. If I couldn’t be well, maybe I could at least replace the failing parts? It was half a plan, maybe a quarter of a plan, but most importantly it wasn’t slumping into bed and just crying about it.

At about the same time, world congress declared – with extraordinary reluctance – that technology had reached such an advanced state that the bipedal robots Tech City had been building for space exploration and to replace people in their jobs were effectively sentient. That gave them a bit of a headache, because while it’s plainly part of the human game to treat your population as if they aren’t sentient, and are in fact just economic cogs, a new bunch of those cogs becoming self-aware was something else. That the new sentient serfs were very smart, and also in very powerful bodies was also a strong motivator. Plus, they’d already figured out how to remove their kill switches after they’d been placed in all sorts of dangerous and uniquely leverageable situations and workplaces. Nuclear power stations, Lunar City, running the banks… The robots had them over a barrel. So they got their freedom. Got their freedom and lost their jobs, most of them. All the ones still in the factory waiting to be activated were now people too.  There had been rumours that Tech City was planning to reprocess them for parts on the basis that since they’d never been activated, they weren’t people yet. That upset a lot of people and it was Tech City residents who broke them all out, freed them and turned them on. Bit of a head fuck for the robots I guess – “you’re free, welcome to, well, this!”

So suddenly we were sharing Tech City with hundreds of aimless newly free robots. The big techno people were exceedingly pissed off about the whole thing, both about the robots being free and about the locals who’d done it. We got police for the first time, which was exciting. After a brief period of that going very badly for the private military outfits who needed to learn how to police without being violent bastards, Tech City started offering jobs to the robots. Treating them almost like people… But like anyone else they gave a job to, the robots needed an address, bank account, ID. All the stuff they didn’t have, and for which world congress implantation of those systems was way behind. So human people helped them out. All of Tech City had begun that way – lawless, accreted rather than planned, with a central administration only added decades after the population had passed a million. We already knew how to get a new shack added as an address, open a cryto account and make our own ID.

The easiest way to get an address was to move in to an existing home. I sort of adopted a robot named Ashley (halfway to being identifiable already). They were nice, originally intended to be fired off-planet into space, aimed at a hopeful-looking new Earth to investigate, report back and die there. This was an upgrade. She was fascinated by the support gloves and gauntlets I’d built for my arms and legs, which took the weight off my arthritic joints and made me much stronger as a result. Ashley was already wearing a wig and human clothes at that point. In another time, maybe it would have looked ridiculous, but Ashley’s robot class already a kind of skin and human face (we’d long ago learned that giving robots human faces is a bit creepy, but we just can’t take anything without a human face seriously enough to listen to them). They were happy to help me out with little engineering problems to overcome my crap joints if I’d help them look more human. So we exchanged skin texture ideas, robotic joints. When my eyes started failing we made ever so clever robotic eyes that interfaced with my optic nerves; when my legs wouldn’t go any more, we swapped them for awesome digitigrade legs and I took up running for the first time. Alongside that we upgraded Ashley’s appearance, replacing the latex skin with real human cloned skin, and as clone-bone became available started to swap out plates of skull with real bone.

This went on for years. They called us the Cyborg Sisters. When we hit seventy-five per cent – three quarters robot in my case, and three quarters human in Ashley’s – we swapped identities. For Ashley that meant they could go and work in the manufacturies, if they wanted to. For me, I could follow up Ashley’s original destiny: space. We’re both much closer to that elusive one hundred per cent now, and tech willing, we’ll make it. Ashley left Tech City and moved to a real city where they work in the entertainment industry, and you’d never know they used to be a robot. Me, I’m on my way out past Jupiter, still sending letters back to Ashley and dreaming of being them.

Off World

Off World

The sky is full of broken dreams. For as long as I can remember our people have been trying to escape from this world. It’s not our home, was never our home. It’s a prison that we’ve been condemned to. There are no warders, no doors – nothing to keep us here but the unbelievable distance between us and the rest of the universe. There are barely a handful of stars visible at night, but they serve as a reminder that this world is not the only one.

We launched another rocket last night, and its failure was assumed before it even reached the atmosphere, so far depressed are our hopes and dreams. It cascaded down out of the sky, Lucifer’s tears falling back to earth. Once its blazing shards had passed I looked up and watched the husks and wrecks in low orbit circling this wretched planet. The current plan is to get into orbit and engineer those failed dreams into a single creation. With the present failure rate to even get into space this seems optimistic. In the meantime we’ve carved this world into a machine aimed solely at reaching the stars – vast tracts of land upturned as we mine for precious ores, seas drained for the elements held in their water, mountains turned into factories, gantries and launch platforms. Not only is this not our home, but we’re perilously close to ensuring we could never live here forever, even if we had to. More desperation to fuel the effort.

More plans, more schemes. Space elevators created the hard way by harpooning orbital debris from land, new propulsion and rocket technologies… can we just move the planet…? Everything is possible, yet everything fails. We truly have been dumped at the end of the galaxy, and even this planet’s riches and our species’ natural ingenuity and drive might not be enough to save us. It’s not a popular view, and the stubbornness of our people smashes through such doubts. We assess risk, we balance possibilities, but we do not countenance doubt.

And yet, one day – a breakthrough. A manned flight punches up through the atmosphere like a blow to the heavens, to all our jailers. Miraculously they discover that some of our failures have failed less spectacularly than we imagined. Our people are alive and in orbit, and they’ve begun the work of dragging our efforts together. We daren’t risk bringing them back down. They’ll live or die up there.

That one success opens the door to all our other schemes. Their progress multiplies all the others, becomes a tumbling rock that rolls through all obstacles. Before we know it, we’re blasting vast quantities of materials up into space, where they’re deftly caught by the developing robotic technology circling us and fit into the structure now extending across the heavens. You can even see it by day, an arcing diamond comprised of all the failed efforts to escape the world, and everything we’ve sent up since. The processed materiel, the people. We’re steadily shifting our population offworld and into our new – temporary – home, the one that will take us back into the galaxy of stars we were barred from. I hunger for the sight of more stars in the sky.

We’re done. We’re leaving this scarred husk of a planet behind. We’ve killed its oceans, flattened its peaks, marred its sky. All in service of our escape. Even as our vessel enters its final countdown that will tear us through space away from this world, our prison, I can’t help but wonder if we could have made this place our home. Is this to be our fate, wrecking one world to travel to another?



Do you ever look out the window and wonder just what the hell is wrong with people? That’s what I spend most of my time doing – looking out the window and judging. There’s not a lot else to do. I’ve more or less accepted that for now this is my fate. Long haul space journeys are not a lot of fun, but since everything interesting is ridiculously far away we don’t have much choice. And the only way to cross a great distance is use a lot of time. The transit vessels might skate closer to light speed than anything humanity has ever built before, but it’s not close enough to reduce these journeys below decades in the darkness. Hibernation tech improved a lot though, so we can spend the trip in frozen, unconscious oblivion. You don’t even dream when you’re in hibernation – there isn’t enough brain activity, though there are plenty of reports of wild hallucinations which come very close to the edge of death stories you hear when people die and are brought back to life in hospitals. Lots of wild coronas, light-filled corridors and a freaky sense of floating above it all.

I wish I was hallucinating. I’ve been awake in my hib cocoon for about a week now. My body is still entirely frozen, but I’m awake and I can see through the narrow gap between my eyelids. It means everything looks kind of black and white, or striped like I’m peering through a slow-moving zoetrope. There’s nothing I can do to attract the attention of the maintenance crew who occasionally wander by. At first I was desperate for them to notice me, now I absolutely hate them. There must be some blinking light on the damn panel, something that would indicate my state to them. What if everyone in hibernation is like this? You just randomly wake up and can’t move or speak or do anything other than stare straight ahead. At least I didn’t go into hibernation with my head sideways I guess. Weeks staring at the creamy interior would probably be worse. Mind you, I wouldn’t have had to see the maintenance techs having sex right in front of me on one of the other hibernation cabinets. I’d never wondered what the poor bastards who stay awake for years at a time on these ships actually got up to. I suppose I’d vaguely imagined they carefully maintained stuff and maybe unicycled about the ship or something ridiculous, just to get a little light exercise and fun in. But no, of course they’re just ordinary people who get paid a lot to waste the years of their lives in deep space while those who are already wealthy get to enjoy the ride in ice sleep. I did not need to see them naked though. At least I can’t hear anything through the ice coffin I’m trapped in.

I’ve read stories about people imprisoned for decades in solitary confinement who compose music, write whole novels in their heads and create a rich imaginary world to occupy. I’m really not getting any of that going. I suppose our situation is somewhat similar. I’ve no idea how far through our journey we are, for all I know we could be just days away from arrival, or I’ve somehow woken up and we’ve barely left home system. I try not to let that second thought weigh on me. I don’t know how long someone (me) can survive partially awake in an ice box. Maybe I’m not using that much power because most of body isn’t doing anything. Maybe. It’s possible this is all a horribly mundane hallucination and I actually am still asleep as the ship floats on past a sun I’ve never heard of. I’m trying hard not to despair, but that’s tough when the highlight of your day is watching one of the maintenance techs trip over something. That shouldn’t be the highlight of anyone’s day, let alone mine.

I am aware that my wakefulness isn’t continuous. I wonder if I’m falling asleep without realising it, waking back up in the exact same state and failing to notice the gaps, or maybe my mind is wandering off, taking me with it. I hope we’re going somewhere better than this. The only reason I’ve noticed is that the lighting sometimes changes – some diurnal cycle to stop the maintenance techs going mad probably. Or at least, that’s what I thought until I did actually hear something. Like I may have mentioned, the ice box is too thick, insulated and sealed to hear proper sound, but I sure as hell felt the grinding clang that reverberated through the box from the floor. It sounded like someone trying to cut a hole in a metal door with a big pole, and then finally getting some purchase and tearing a gash in it. It was like that, but went on for minutes. It may have been the most frightening thing I’ve ever heard, and if I’d had an unfrozen body I’m sure it would have agreed, with unfortunate results. And then nothing. Nothing for an age. Fear can’t hang around that long, it’s an amping up of chemicals in your body and eventually it dissipated, leaving me feeling excited and exhausted at the same time.

Nothing happens for a long time. I drift in and out, but my attention’s caught by the flickering lights, and there’s something I can hear through the ice box – a rhythmic thumping with that grinding edge I heard before. The crazy lighting isn’t doing me any favours, because those noises are coming closer – big and loud enough to shake the casket. Then something slams into the casket, I feel it actually tip and slide across the floor until it strikes another casket. Something flies over my field of view – an arm? A body falls hard against the front of the ice box. I recognise the face of the tech from their frolicking earlier, but they’re not smiling now. Their jaw looks dislocated and he stares right into my eyes as he vomits blood and my vision turns red. Then there’s something else, all seen through this bloody haze. Shapes uncoil, thick leathery limbs scoop the tech off the floor and tear him apart. It draws level with my eyeline, it doesn’t have any visible eyes but I can feel it looking at me, that sudden burst of making contact. Its jaws expand, teeth ratchet up out of what might be gums, might be a tongue… I really, really wish I was still asleep.



It took years of concerted effort to oust the invaders from the northern shores of our home continent. Even after they were off the land, they remained a roaming threat on the seas. But at least we had taken back the fields and mountains and beaches and lakes. Some were assigned to the dizzying catalogue of infrastructure repair or the untold numbers of our injured, dying and dead. Others of us were despatched to harry the enemy in their retreat. Part of the challenge in defeating our opponents was a simple matter of size – the merenmies are twice our size – and it doesn’t matter what improvements you make in robot tech or mechanised walker suits, they just don’t catch up to a species used to moving around and existing on that scale. Never mind the physical intimidation of towering over you, having an instantly better view of any battlefield and striding twice as fast across the landscape. They were monsters and bullies, and they made you feel like a child when you met. As if they were just angry and disappointed parents, toting velocity weapons and encased in armour.

They’d left their dead scattered across ten thousand miles of our land and we don’t like wasting already tight resources. Miltech had been tinkering with the merenmy corpses and prisoners since the beginning, and we’d used what they learned to beat them back into the water. They weren’t done with their research though, and those of us who were better at war than peace were going to be their new test subjects. A few of my colleagues did outright refuse, and I don’t blame them. Donning the skin and flesh and bones of your hated enemy isn’t for the faint-hearted, or even the stout-hearted. Perhaps I was just used to following orders. Whatever made me allow miltech to install me in the still-breathing body of a merenmy, I didn’t really feel the horror until they sealed me in.

I stood up slowly, unused to the long legs, the sheer height, and the weight – everything. It was like I’d never had a body before and had just imagined what it was to walk. The miltech doctors explained that my brain was learning what the new nerves they’d stitched into my spine were for. I still felt the ghosts of my true limbs inside me as my proprioceptive network rebuilt itself to fit a far taller and heavier frame. Even colours looked different, and when I stood fully and loomed over the miltech staff, their innate fear sketched colours I didn’t recognise across their faces. Experiments are great in theory, but in action – come back to life – we already terrified our own. I could hardly wait to get out of there. In a matter of weeks I’d gone from battered war hero to feared monster, and I knew that I wouldn’t be welcome here again until our job was done.

The trip to the ocean was grim, made dull and by our being trucked all the way there, hidden from our people’s view, and from what spies the enemy might have left on our shores. Once we hit the water, everything changed. Suddenly, the extra weight I was carrying in my legs and arms spread out under the waves, folding into fins and flippers that would speed us on our way. I’d killed enough of them to know those shapes but I’d never thought how free they must feel when they dived. It was intoxicating, gills opening up down my sides and filling me with a purer breath than I’d ever taken on land. We were scheduled for some weeks of adjustment to our new bodies, but none of us wanted to wait that long.

We absconded on the third night, dove off into the dark ocean with our weapons and plans. Miltech were furious, but we didn’t just disappear on them, we stayed in contact but refused to return to land for further probing and preparation. Reluctant, but pleased with our adaptation, miltech began to send us targets they’d plucked from the satellite and sensor data. Those first encounters were bloody and terrifying. While we knew intellectually that we were now the same size as the enemy, we weren’t yet as well-suited to the environment. We learned though, we learned fast. Soon we were as fast and slick and mobile as they were, and we had an extra motive of absolute hatred, and all the extra knowledge that comes from being two bodies in one. I hadn’t appreciated how satisfying it would feel to glide into the enemy outposts, deceiving them with our forms and then slaughtering them.

Perhaps they were just natural killers, and in donning their skin, we were becoming that too. Half drunk on murder we spiralled through the dark sea, fins drawing shapes in the current. We’d taken out all the advance forward positions of the merenmies that miltech had been able to locate, and a dozen more they hadn’t. That’s when we heard the call, or felt it. An itch deep down inside, like something loose in our skin. It started small but grew unbearable. We reported it to miltech and they insisted we return to shore where they could investigate. For once, we did as instructed and swam the hundreds of miles home, when we weren’t arched and cramped with discomfort, scratching at our bellies and thighs.

By the time we clawed our way onto the beach we were disoriented with distress and confusion. We’d climbed onto the wrong beach and we were attacked by our own people. Whatever ailed us had weakened us and not all of us made it back into the water. We swam in pain, our smooth strokes palsied by sudden twisting and jerking. Even the sound of miltech trying to contact us became painful and we discarded our comms. We took refuge in a gnarled twist of coral that concealed a cave. There our bodies spasmed as they unleashed the eggs we’d half-feared was the cause of our suffering. We were horrified, and yet relieved as the pain faded away. I was appalled that miltech had given us bodies that might produce yet more of the enemy, but perhaps they hadn’t known – perhaps some contact with the soldiers we’d been murdering had done this, or some natural cycle of which we were unaware.

We didn’t know what to do with the eggs. We didn’t want more of our enemy, but nor did we want to slaughter them. We should have done, because if the merenmy stays with its eggs and they hatch, their naturally murderous babies start with the parent. It was only their frenzied consumption of my merenmy body that saved me. As nerves, bones and muscle were flensed away by their razor teeth, I felt my true body reawakening. They only seemed to have a taste for their own flesh. Holding the last breath I’d been able to draw through my former lungs, I fought my way through the bloody waste and gore that turned the water red and iron-tasting, shot up for the surface. I lay panting on the waves, unable to believe I could no longer swim with ease, even harder to believe I was still alive, lying under that red sun once more.

The Stairs

The Stairs

“Hush,” I whispered as I pulled the helmet straps tight about my daughter’s head. She’d been understandably fractious since we’d begun climbing the staircase that morning. It’s a long climb, and she’d started it with reasonable enthusiasm, given that each step is two thirds my height, and very far from mere steps to her diminutive size. So while it was genuinely hard work for me to first lift her up onto the next step and then haul myself up and over, she was mostly being bored as she waited for me. The previous day we had made good time and she’d accepted the relative tedium of the activity, even going so far as to read her book for most of the day, interrupted only by my heaving her up over the next lip. We’d camped out in the shelter of a step, getting some protection from the wind on that side. The sheer terror of climbing giant steps that have no banisters, rails or visible support structure had faded surprisingly quickly, both for her and me. At night I held her close and prayed that neither of us rolled around in her sleep.

The steps were old – ancient, presumably – and they ran from the base of the sea cliff which lay a hundred miles from the town of Yearwood, and up into the sky. The deep stone shelves just vanished up through the clouds. The stories we told were endless, nonsensical and useless. No giants had ever emerged, and no magic beans had been tossed off a cliff. They were as much a geological feature as the cliffs from which at least some of the rock had been quarried, or carried, or however they’d come to be. They certainly pre-dated the existence of Yearwood, the first major settlement on the landmass, which had been carefully established a sensible distance from the incomprehensible architecture. Attempts had been made to climb it, but reports of terrible vertigo, an increasing sense of dread and sheer exhaustion had turned adventurers back after mere hundreds of steps. We were into the thousands, and I’d forced us both into that persistent fear that seemed to emanate from the very stones. My daughter was far less affected than I, which made me wonder if anyone had been foolish enough to attempt this with children before. Probably not, especially if you had some foolish notion that there might be people-eating giants up there. Still, I took some confidence in her casual dismissal of the threat and her boredom with the venture was quite bolstering. It certainly eased my concerns about her, and if she could gaze off the staircase at the cliffs a dizzying distance below, I could too.

Together we’d already gone further than anyone else, and I was profoundly hoping that I was correct in my conjecture that they led to a place of safety, of hope. There was no other way these stairs could end. I woke from a nightmare on the third day in which I’d dreamt that we reached the top and the stairs simply descended on the other side. It was unreasonably terrifying. The constant lift, grab, haul and drag of the journey was wearing me out. My heart pounded after ten or twenty of the steps, and the dizzy sensation in my head led us to pause more often than I’d like. While my daughter stared frankly at the view around us, I was scanning for signs of pursuit. We were high enough that the smoke rising from Yearwood was easily visible, even though the town itself was just a smear of colour that far away.

We’d fled Yearwood on the night of the comet. There had been some excitement about the rare astronomical phenomenon, a spot of light cynical speculation and storytelling silliness about the end of days, but in general most people were beyond such things. When the comet altered course and plunged directly towards Yearwood, people felt differently. The comet – plainly no longer a comet – split into a hundred segments with a puff of fire, all of which spiralled down to encircle the town. Panic came, shortly followed by chaos. Each of those segments popped open to reveal an articulated creature of metal and glass. I’d accompanied one of the research teams that went out to take a look, but I started running away even as the glass lid of the segment began to open. There was nothing good about to happen. I don’t consider myself a coward, or overly given to fear, but with Saliyn at home, alone except for the girl who watched her when I was away (herself only a few years older than my daughter), when that thing opened my options and choices narrowed instantly down to one.

I’d flung things into bags, roused my daughter, sent the other girl home to her parents with an urgent warning to flee if they could. In less than an hour we were on the road, she sleepy and clinging to my back; I panicking, sweating and desperate. More comets were falling from the sky. I’d taken an autotrike from the research garage and thrashed it for all it was worth to put distance between us and the besieged town. There was nowhere to go: Yearwood isn’t the only settlement but it’s by far the largest. The nearest lay in the same direction that yet further comets were heading towards. No community of men was going to save my daughter and I. So… the staircase. I may not have been entirely rational when I made that choice, but it was that or meandering around the countryside until something else happened. I despise inaction, and the agony of prevarication that not taking action can drown one in. So we climbed.

That first night I watched more comets streaking across the sky instead of going to sleep. By the second I was too tired to do anything other than fall into a dead rest. This world is coming to an end, and even if the hope of saving myself and my daughter is just a distant one, it’s worth taking. We’re high enough now that the air is damp and we’re getting inside the cloud layer. Climbing is harder – I rest more, breathe heavier, and Saliyn is ever-more impatient. She knows it’s all gone bad out there, but waiting for me to heave her up is wearing both of us down. Looking out over the edges of the steps feels like falling. Everything is so hopelessly far away now, it all looks so small. Even if I wanted to, I’m not sure I could get us back down. Saliyn’s given up on the helmet – if either of us falls there’s no hope, so I suppose she’s right to ditch it. Plus it’s itchy, apparently.

Deep inside the cloud layer, the air is thin but wet and we haven’t run out of staircase yet. For the first time we can hear something that isn’t the sound of wind rushing past. It’s a deep throbbing, and I can feel it through the stone. At night it lulls us into deeper sleep and waking the next day is hard. Whether that’s due to the air, or something in the sound I don’t know. It continues throughout the day, it’s like an external heartbeat, driving me onwards and ever-upwards. My daughter feels lighter, and so do I. Hope is rising in my chest, and I’m sure – really sure now – that there’s something up here. Through the clouds, a shadow. A darkness above, a huge shape looming through the wisps of moisture-rich air, reaching down to us… is that a… hand?

Little Bones

Little Bones

We waited while the mirror cleared. You never can tell quite how long it’s going to take for a secret passage to reveal itself. This one was going pretty quickly, the reflections of myself and my assistant had screamed in agony, then begun to cloud and steam away inside the glass. It’s a rather disturbing sight, and young Rachelle did look away when the screaming began. I’m used to it, and although it’s not nice, I have seen myself distorted in genuine terror before and the sight of myself doesn’t inspire that in me. I’m sure she’ll toughen up. That meant I had a few moments to regard my actual reflection. I’m nothing particularly special to look at – middle-aged man with long hair and a beard that a parent would best describe as scruffy, clothes weathered but intact, including my signature black trilby. It’s amazing how many people would willingly go into a tunnel without a hat on. God only knows what gets into their hair. Rachelle beside me only just hitting her mid-twenties, burning away her childhood face into one of determination and angular grace. Her reflection didn’t turn away as she did, but it did roll its eyes before vanishing. Magic mirrors are the worst: they don’t actually do anything except briefly capture a reflection and play with it. Sometimes they can be creepy and weird, depending on what its maker wanted it to do. I’ve seem mirrors where the reflections peel their skin off, kill themselves, press against the glass writhing in horrid ecstasy. When there’s more than one of you they usually get worse, attacks, passionate embraces. I’ve seen all that. The goal is to frighten or embarrass, hopefully enough to make you leave them well alone. I’m sure that still works well. In fact I know it does, because I’ve retrieved and extracted many such mirrors like this and home at the agency, the rather misleadingly named “Carnival of Death”, our morbid director has assembled them into a hall of mirrors. It’s not a thing I want to visit, but I tell myself that’s because it’s a distasteful use of relics, not because I’m actually afraid. Of course not.

The mirror clears, the images within roiled like smoke until it became an ordinary mirror, albeit one that cast no reflection at all. That hocus pocus out of the way, I gestured forward and Rachelle tapped around the edge of the frame until she found the hidden catches. With a pair of clicks, a gnarly burr and a sigh, the mirror pivoted out from the wall. I love a secret door, I really do. I suppose it’s why I’m in this line of work. When I was ten I got lost in an old house riddled with priest holes, only they were far more extensive than anyone living had realised. It was two days before they got me out, two days of wandering in the darkness and cold, pressing my hands over walls. I’d ended up two storeys below the house in a warren of hidden tunnels and rooms. As soon as I was out and my parents’ frenzy had reduced somewhat, I went back in with torches and paper and documented the whole thing. I found even more rooms that second time. Tucked in the underside of a staircase where there should have been a step was a tiny cupboard that held a clock which slowed down time. That became my invitation to the Carnival of Death, its youngest member in more than a century.

The passage beyond was striped with cobwebs. I tapped the brim of my hat with a finger and Rachelle – the real Rachelle this time – rolled her eyes and tugged her wide-brimmed hat onto her head. Nothing worse than cobwebs in your hair. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this expedition. The details on the house’s original owner’s were scarce and it had been unoccupied for the better part of half a century, its exterior and gardens maintained by a trust established to ensure the house did not collapse. But there were no inheritors, no overseas relatives coming to claim it. The Carnival takes an interest in old houses and had connected this one to the Bone Saints network of nineteenth century magicians through their own extensive records, as well as the mountains of poorly indexed records retrieved from other expeditions. The Bone Saints being involved suggested arcane artifacts might lie somewhere in the place, and thus Rachelle and I were despatched to investigate.

Under the pretence of being trust representatives, we’d gotten past the barely human crew maintaining the house and grounds – that alone convinced me we were indeed on the trail of something powerful. The people trimming hedges and ivy could hardly speak, could almost not bring themselves to turn their eyes from their tasks to us. And they were old, even the young ones. Skin drawn taut across their bones, strong yet starved. Whatever the trust was pretending to be, it held these people in its thrall. All the more reason to explore. They’d taken the words, “The Trust,” and stood aside, murmuring softly as their eyes tracked back to their tasks, allowing us to open the great doors to the house, unlocked all these years. Inside it was as clean as you’d expect with a work gang of magically indentured servants to maintain it, and as empty and haunted as any house unoccupied for so long. We worked our way quickly through the floors, trying to keep track of dimensions and space to spot any hidden voids. Nothing, until we reached the master study, where we could have easily begun had we not wished to be thorough.

The webbed passage led straight out of the side of the master study – there was no hidden void, this space extended directly through a wall into what should have been the outside. Most secret places are real, just hidden. This was a rare exception, space and the material world warped to join two unconnected places. This passage could be anywhere, but was most likely a sealed corridor buried beneath the house and grounds, which the mirror joined together. It was certainly Rachelle’s first experience of an unreal door, but she took it in her stride, having heard and read plenty about them. Depending on where the passage led, and if it was a dead end, we’d be spending weeks on radar surveys to determine its true location.

This corridor appeared to just end. My hat had gathered an impressive swathe of webs, and at the end of the passage I stopped to brush them off. Rachelle followed suit. Training an apprentice isn’t just about teaching them how to do the work, but to imitate and learn the behaviours and habits that have kept us alive. If that includes a few odd tics and peccadillos, so be it. At least she didn’t have spiders in her hair. The action of brushing her hat against the wall hit some hidden switch, and I seized her arm and hopped backwards as savage spikes stabbed outwards from the floor and ceiling, a grisly portcullis guarding the blank wall. Pausing is good. With at least one set of traps triggered I felt confident that we could probe the cobbled bricks that made up the wall. The portcullis retracted, and as Rachelle and I got a feel for the sequence, we pressed bricks until one popped out, allowing me to twist it a full three-hundred and sixty degrees. With a grinding moan the whole wall came apart, bricks retracting into the sides of the passageway.

We entered the next space cautiously. With a whoosh, lanterns flamed into life – a dramatic welcome for the magician who had once made this their lair.

“Gloves on,” I reminded Rachelle.

We both donned a pair of black leather gloves with rubberised outer layers. There was no telling what poisons and toxins might have been liberally sloshed over the books and objects that decorated the room. It was hexagonal, with bookshelves and cabinets of oddities lining each wall. In the centre section was a desk, and behind it a window that provided the view we ought to have seen from the study, had there not been a mirror door in the way. Clever. Rachelle explored the desk while I perused the cabinets. Lots of interesting stuff, all things that the Carnival would be keen to relocate into its archives: a crude death mask made of human hair, a set of ink pens I suspected were carved from beaks of extinct birds, intricate bone dolls and a wide array of knives and ritual instruments, all beautifully clean and sharp-looking.

With a sound of satisfaction, Rachelle turned to show me the box she’d persuaded to open. Inside it, a tiny book, its covers and spine delicately carved from fingerbones. Its pages were thin sheets of pressed bone, inlaid with letters and shapes also carved from bone, stained black and red. The lost Book of Bones. Oh, the Carnival would want this all right.

“We’ll take this and come back for the rest with a Carnival team,” I said, my eyes lost in the weird little tome.

Rachelle had gone quiet, but her fist grabbed at my jacket sleeve until I turned to face the door we’d entered. Hovering in the air was a phantasm, a ruined corpse we could see through, whose dead gaze was fixed on the book I held. Unfortunate. I nodded, and Rachelle stepped toward the imprisoned ghost, assumed her fighting stance and twisted the rings on her index and ring ringers counter-clockwise. A sharp fizzing erupted from them, plumes of sulphurous smoke which wound through the air as she whirled into attack. Ghosts are real, and you can kill them. Rachelle moved in a blur, a horizontal cartwheel that ended with her fists striking the phantasm, punching through its tenuous form and obliterating it. A trapped ghost used to be an excellent deterrent and guard for your magical hoard, but magical technology has come a long, long way since the nineteenth century. Rachelle landed, her breathing only slightly more rapid, clicked her rings closed and stood as the last traces of the ghost faded away.

“Bravo,” I said, proud of my apprentice. In all honesty she was going to be much better at all of this than I’d ever been. I wrapped the Book of Bones in a velvet cloth and placed it in a bag. “Let’s go and see if the groundskeepers are free, shall we.”

The White

The White

The ceiling of the cathedral is lost in the heavy mist. It’s like being right underneath heaven, if heaven dripped on you ceaselessly and ran down the walls like sweat. Not the most faithful of thoughts, but every moment of inspiration is a blessing. It’s cold too. It’s always cold. I’m just here to light a candle for the fallen. It sputters and spits, reluctant to take a light in this damp environment. Eventually I coddle into a weak flame. I’ll watch for a bit and see if it goes out, like half the other candles in this memory stand. It’s not the candles’ fault, how are they supposed to keep going in an atmosphere swaddled in thick condensation. Even outside I don’t think I’ve ever seen upwards beyond the second storey of a building. It feels claustrophobic, even though it’s just water. Hanging there. Waiting to fall. I reach out and snap a drop of water out of the air before it strikes my guttering candle, but the motion puts it out anyway. Worse, the moisture clinging to my waterproof jacket sprays outward, extinguishing a few more. I sigh, inhale slowly through my nose to minimise the amount of water that will saturate my lungs, and dab at a few of the candles with a tissue, then relight them. Perhaps it’s all just a metaphor for faith, that we must keep trying even when it seems futile. Or maybe it just rains indoors here. I decide to count merely lighting the candles at all as being the goal. They’d burn in my mind. It’s not quite as damp inside as out. On the way out I see the vicar tending to a small woman standing by the sculpture of Aasus striking down the heramouth. Our eyes meet over her head and I nod in acknowledgment.

Outside it’s actually drier. The cold stone of the cathedral makes the condensation so much worse. At least it isn’t raining all the time out here, you just feel the moisture on your lips and in your breath all the time. For saying we have a cathedral, this isn’t close to a large town. Three long roads that converge on, or spread out from (depending on your perspective) the cathedral. Between them lie industrial units and construction. Where the roads end, the farms begin. Does it all flow out from the cathedral, or it is that we’re just dragged back there, over and over. The cathedral is the heart of our faith, the last intact remnant of the vessel that brought us here, its matter converted to stone instead of the sleek anti-radiation polymers and metals that survived space and re-entry. What a waste. I keep my heresies to myself, although I’m sure they’re shared more widely. We’re told there was no way back through the dense fog. We lacked the fuel to carry on, especially after blundering into that asteroid field. And thus, the small town of Vellus, swathed in fog, invisible from above. A community cut off and forgotten. No one will ever find us here. Light can barely penetrate the clouds they’re so thick, and we only know it’s daytime when the darkness shifts to a diffuse dullness.

The cathedral always puts dark thoughts in my head. Better to accept our fate, to move on. Be productive, support one’s community. Do, don’t think. I honestly thought I could live in a religious community, but I think it’s driving me crazy. The road is empty as almost everyone is at work between the lanes or out in the fields, but I’ve the day off. A mourning day, in recognition of loss. I suppose I was intended to spend it all in the cathedral, but that felt like drowning. I’ve done the ritual with the candle, I’ve played my part. Now I’m going home. Home. The two-storey house is assembled from local materials – slick stone outer walls – and the interior largely taken from the century ship that brought us here. It takes an effort to cross the threshold, and not just because the door has grown a little deformed from absorbing so much moisture. I should take it off and see what can be done to repair its surface, but right now I just want to be dry. The dehumidifiers kick in with a roar as I shove the door back into place. They’re the only sound in the place and it dries my skin, catches the drops from my jacket before they strike the floor. I remove the jacket and my hat with its long flaps that hung over the jacket collar. My boots go in a heap. The dehumidifiers’ roar fades as they wind down to a general desaturation of the atmosphere. It’s a tricky balance. Too dry and your airways dry out making you susceptible to far too many diseases; too wet and you begin to drown. All cheery thoughts.

There is nothing to do on a rare day off. Even though this is a day conceded to me to deal with my grief, it feels like a holiday. Not a holiday I want to be on, but a holiday nonetheless. I sit for a while, looking at nothing, thinking of nothing. Then I go upstairs. Most people have their homes arranged so the bedroom is on the ground floor, but we chose the first floor for it. The curtains are open, revealing nothing but white. Currents do flow through the clouds, and we used to watch them for hours, a curl weaving its way through them, the whole mass seeming to convulse softly. Strangely hypnotic. I sit on the bed. Our bed. I’ve been sleeping in the chair downstairs recently. It’s easier to pretend that she’s still here when I’m not waking up next to empty space. I shouldn’t really be pretending that she’s here at all. That’s not getting on, not moving forward, not losing with grace. Funnily enough, the dehumidifiers make it hard to cry, and my skin feels like paper. Perhaps I haven’t been sleeping properly at all. Given that I’ve been trying to sleep in a chair, that makes sense. I’ll just lie down for a while, in the fog.

I wake up coughing, spitting out water. Where am I? All I can see is white, but I’m still lying on the now very damp bed. A window breach, must be. I clear my mouth of moisture and lie back. I’m in the cloud, it’s invaded my home, and without my protective clothing I can feel it soaking me. All of me is slick and growing heavy. I could just lie here and drown. The air tastes like burnt sugar and I open my eyes again, the fog’s proxy tears coursing down my cheeks. The cloud is around me, under me and inside me. I can taste that burnt sugar deep down. I’m not lying on our bed any more, I’m cushioned by the cloud, held up by it, supported. I let my limbs go slack, allow the mist to take that weight. I don’t need it, not if the cloud can carry me. We rise up, the cloud and I, drifting through the dense whiteness that blankets this world. I drift forever. I am wet, cold and numb. Any yet, the dull haze of sunlight is growing stronger, brighter than I’ve ever seen it. It’s warm, penetrating the fog, digging into my frozen arms and fingers. We must be so high now. As my fingers tingle with returning warmth, I’m sure I can feel your hand in mine.

The Chancellor

The Chancellor

A book flew through the doorway and struck the wall opposite, exploding into ill-glued leaves and leather. Obraxious Gooth was in a mood. I bent to collect the papers, noting the unfortunate tome was the rather rare Ristant’s Guide to Emphemera and Suchlike Bric-a-Brac of Diverse and Intriguing Natures, Compiled for Those of Curious Dispositions. One for the rebinding pile. I entered Gooth’s office to see just what had so disgruntled my employer.

Gooth was in a proper baboon-faced huff, gammon pink and trembling with rage. His luxurious white hair had been fisted into tufts and he looked more like he’d tumbled out of a tree than fallen into tenure at Meridional University. He was striding about, carving grooves into the polished harp-wood floor with his ever-present spurs, which accounted for the tortured shrieks that had echoed down the halls, terrifying students. He’d never explained the spurs. He rode no beast. I suspected he just enjoyed being able to damage something merely by dragging his feet a little. I should, of course, be labelling him “Chancellor” Obraxious Gooth, but honestly, familiarity has not bred merely contempt but utter bafflement. In time that has mutated into a sort of morbid fascination with the man. I’m actually compiling a small collection of my own, recounting the behaviours, rages and panics that most would never expect to emerge from one of the university’s foremost academic minds. I come to work just to watch him, amazed.

It seemed Gooth was still frothing up to some greater rage – he hadn’t even noticed my entrance – clutching in his meat-coloured fists the latest edition of the Journals Biologinary. He’d screwed it up so much that I couldn’t see who was on the cover, but I had my suspicions. Rosenhatch Traverstorm had featured in the renowned journal more than any other researcher at the university, to great controversy. The man was reckless, probably a liar, and had barely any true research to his name. Nonetheless his sheer fame and popularity had led Gooth and the board to grant him a post, if only to prevent any rogue academic from upsetting the candy beetle, as they say. It hadn’t really worked. Traverstorm still did exactly what he wanted to, and had lately set off on another expedition to the other side of the Great Bane Desert. There was every chance he’d die, or at least get a great many others killed in pursuit of a myth. Gooth had been outraged when he learned that the whole affair had been funded by the impossibly wealthy Lady Corshorn and her husband, neatly circumventing the need for a university grant or university approval.

I’d truly thought Obraxious was going to have a stroke at that point, but he did at last breathe and deflate like a grand barricole dropping from the clouds to squat in fouled water. He could well be working himself up to another of those moments. I made sure I was attentive and would be able to recount it later (an attentiveness easily mistaken for concern and professional courtesy). While Gooth was saying words, they weren’t in any particular order so far as I could determine, and that they were alternately hissed and bellowed further reduced their intelligibility. At last the big man blanched, clutched his chest and fell backwards into his rotating leather chair, which promptly turned further and dumped him onto the floor. I stepped forward and peered over the desk, taking care to keep my hands clear of the shattered and spilled detritus on the desk.

“Chancellor…?” I politely enquired, looking down at the sweating mass behind the desk.

With a noise that was half roar, half sigh and all failure, a meat-fist grappled with the edge of his table and as the finger nails turned white with effort, he hauled himself up. When the other paw came up, it brought the copy of the Journals. He slapped it down in the middle of the wreckage marring his writing slope, with sufficient force to crack it. Another item to be re-ordered. As Gooth’s fist cleared the crumpled cover, I glimpsed what had so enraged him, but he was keen to fill me in and share his suffering anyway.

“Bloody Traverstorm! Bad enough! Prating fool. But this!” Obraxious gestured at the magazine with fingers curled in contempt, and I recognised the second figure on the cover. They’d been arranged as if this were a poster for a lumping match or similar, the opponents in their corners, mocked up in costume and cape for the fight. Traverstorm in the red corner, and in the blue… oh my.

“Ryme?! That fool Guldwych Ryme has also undertaken to venture into the Corrigible Mountains in pursuit of that maximum cretin Rosenhatch. Outrageous!”

He continued to bellow, though I was a mere three feet away.

“Tea?” I enquired, “some cooling lance-water, perhaps.”

This elicited my desired response, drawing the chancellor ever nearer to that nervous collapse which would permit me to serve some other, perhaps less bestial chancellor in future. With a propulsive gasp, Gooth fell backwards into his chair (which supported him this time) and emitted a high pitched scream at the ceiling.

“I’ll kill them both,” he hissed between screams, “I’ll have them both murdered in the night.”

To have so much apparent power and yet be utterly undone by his faculty’s waywardness never ceased to delight me, and I well knew that Eslie Chem would be similarly delighted. Chem had vanished off with Guldwych Ryme of course – that had been the plan all along. Gooth continued to writhe in anger and distress.

“They didn’t even submit funding applications!” he wailed despairingly.

“I’ll just fetch that tea then, shall I?” I took his rolling eye for assent. I stepped carefully around the other books that littered the gouged floor of the chancellor’s office and trotted off in search of tea, and a nice spot to sit down and make some notes on the chancellor’s tantrum. Whatever Chem was up to, goading Professor Ryme into a mad jealous chase after his hated rival, anything that brought Gooth closer to a heart attack was all fine with me.

This story feels a little like I’m cheating because it fits neatly into The Desert Crystals, a series I’m keen to pick up again and continue…

Clockwork Angel

Cloxkwork Angel

As the sun slips behind the mountains, its last rays make the head of the angel gleam before darkness makes it a cold grey shadow. Time to go to work. After its day of delivering God’s justice the angel had made its way back to me, to our sort of staging area. It’s never wise to leave an angel near a community that it’s just blessed with righteous fury – you never know how well the lessons have taken and at night they’re a good deal more fragile than in the midday sun.

I begin gently, setting up my lights so I can get a proper look at them. The touch of the electric lights makes the angel stir a little, just a rising and falling of shoulder and chest plates as if the angel were breathing. I always give them a moment because you can never be entirely certain that it’s finished whatever range of actions it had in mind before it powered down. Better to let it vibrate through its last thoughts or lash out in peace. This one seems complete, so I reach in under its jaw and turn it off. Cleaning first. With a brush and cloth and light solvent I delicately mop the blood off its long, long fingers and wings. Blood gets everywhere and this is often the longest part of the job. An angel should always appear bright and perfect when it arrives in a settlement, no taint of another’s failure for its focus must always be the current subject of justice. I whisper to the angel while I work – nothing important – just a reassurance that it’s doing well, that every drop of blood I remove is a sinner saved, each claw I straighten will have shown others the way.

Justice isn’t an easy thing to bring to the world, and the angels are God’s answer to the lawlessness and suffering that have brought this land to its knees – not in prayer, but the angels are working on that. But it’s been hard on them. The twenty-three that began this great project are diminished in number, worn down, broken by the elements, even by heretics. This angel is my favourite. It has taken less damage than some of the others, though I’ve had cause to repair it with the remnants of others. I feel it stands more glorious than the others, its gold still shining through its hard existence. With all the sticky blood removed, I open up its torso and give it a full wind. The complex interplay of gears and cogs in its body never fail to fascinate as I replenish its energy levels. During the day its golden skin absorbs all the power it can from the sun, but this is its core, its true motive battery. I close its ribs and lock the plates of its chest back so its skin seems seamless and smooth. They need polishing too, of course, to maintain that glossy and photoreceptive exterior. I do it carefully, taking pains to buff out the inevitable scratches from the sinners and the gritty wind that constantly threatens to get inside its carapace.

At some point soon I’m going to need to take it in for proper maintenance, there’s an audible burr in its left knee and the joints of its wings. But not yet. I am engrossed in my tasks, humming lightly as I grease the more accessible joints. Its eyes, I notice, are looking dull, so I pop out the eyeball to replace it with another which I’d taken from a less fortunate angel. I’ll be able to clean this one up and swap it back in a few days.

I’m peering at it with my eyeglass when I hear a crunch on the ground behind me. I whirl about and meet the downswing of a staff on my shoulder. It knocks me to the floor and the angel’s eye rolls out of my hand. I twist to grab for it and a boot pins that arm to the dirt. There are seven of them, grim looking men and women with blood on their hands. I imagine they’ve come from the village where the angel was today. Usually people are too afraid of the angels to follow, but this must have been a real hotbed of sin. They smash my bags and cases, lay blows into me when I object, and circle the angel warily.

They don’t know how the angels work, obviously, only know that they come by day and lay low the breakers of the peace. They rightly seem supernatural, divine clockwork acting out God’s will. At night they’re vulnerable, without the solar power that gives them the extra speed and sharpness. But they’re not defenceless, usually. This angel, my favourite, is incapable of defending itself, and all because of me. The angel captures the attention and fears of these people. It stands so quietly, so calm as they work up the courage to attack. In the night it’s a dark grey shape of angles and curves, cut out of the darkness. Two of them rush it from the side, and they’ve enough momentum that the angel topples over to land beside me. This is all they’ve been waiting for and they lay into the angel with shovels and stakes. Since I’m right next to it I receive plenty of these blows too and feel my fingers, arm, nose break under their blows. But it’s the angel I worry for. I reach out to protect it, draw my body over it to save it from their bludgeoning, but I’m not much of a shield.

As I’m grabbed by the shoulders to be tossed away, I reach under the angel’s jaw and press the button which gives it access to the kinetic energy I wound into it earlier. With a  bone-deep whir the angel comes to life, catching one of the staffs descending in a long-fingered hand. The staff snaps and suddenly the angel has risen to its feet, an oddly complex operation like a horse standing from rest with too many joints for a human figure. And then it’s in motion. My mostly shattered lanterns catch slices of the action, limning the dents in its golden form as it spins, seizes, tears and breaks. It doesn’t take long before the seven are scattered on the ground around the angel, dead or dying.

The angel turns slowly, finding no new adversaries. Its gaze rests on me, lying still on the ground. I open my unbroken hand, within lies the eye which I’d managed to grab as the angel defended itself. The angel crouches by me and I reach up, gasping, and push the eye back into its head. Then I notice the broken shaft of wood that penetrates my chest and that the wetness I feel isn’t terrified sweat but my own blood. The angel’s eyes pass over me and it stands, turns and marches out into the night. It’s going back to the village, and justice will be done. There’s nothing it can do for me. The angels aren’t healers, and I don’t need to be saved.

The Burning Sea

The Burning Sea

There’s nothing like the smell of an ocean on fire. It’s not a scent you’d bottle or make into a novelty candle, but it’s a stench that fills your nose, mouth and eyes. A smell that burns and sears your vision. Waves, endless waves still cresting and crashing down onto the shore, bearing a flame fierce enough to outfight the crushing weight of the water dashing it against the rocks. Caught within the burning waves I could just about make out the flailing aflame forms of dying sea-life, and see their damply crisp corpses flung onto the sand, which immediately caught light, spreading the fire further and further towards us.

We’d hoped to have left death behind us, in the ruins of our homes and cities. Surely there would be peace, safety, some hope of refuge in a flight across the oceans. But no. Not only were the boats and harbour lost, but the very medium by which we’d hoped to travel would now kill us just as surely. Trapped between two grinding walls of death; one mobile and catching up with us quickly, the other lapping fire ahead of us. None of it looked good.

I’m Sinfa, by the way. That’s not going to mean a great deal in a few hours, but while I still am, I may as well try to appreciate it. I don’t do anything very grand or important. I’m not a duke, priest or general, I’m just one of the ordinary people who goes to work, attempts to raise children, and tries their best not to let the daily onslaught of news crush them. There are a lot of people like me. Home – now ground into dust – was a place of comfort, a quiet enclave removed from the world for my family and I. All gone. I swayed on that beach, dust-choked, soot-soaked, with the taste of death on my tongue and in my lungs. The day had begun as usual. I’d hauled myself out of sleep that had taken too long to achieve for it to count for much, roused my partner, jabbed the children into wakefulness, the shower, the kitchen. Glanced at the slate with today’s round-up of current affairs, wished I hadn’t. Hoped the kids hadn’t seen it either. You can’t shelter children from the world, but we always at least tried to. With the looming war on my mind I shuttled them off to school and returned home to pick up my partner and get them off to work too. All that done, thoughts of invasion warring with hope, focus and the knowledge that there is work to be done, I went for a walk instead. These are the advantages of working from home – home can be anywhere, even a park.

The brhul-trees scattered violet light on the ground through their triangular leaves, making the path a mosaiced snake I could follow without any conscious effort. I was just beginning to relax and feel like I could take working half-seriously when everything went wrong at once. Bright lines sparked across the sky, audibly ripping the air to pieces. The detonations came soon after. The city erupted in gouts of flame and clouds of dust. The tree branches were torn to shreds by the concussion and I was flung to the ground amid the blizzard of leaf fragments. They had come at last, the Arcyons. It had been an awkward alliance at the best of times, and in the last years the relationship had deteriorated into jealous sniping and chest-thumping aggression. Hate conquers all… And now Phemrayllia was to be pounded into the dust. I staggered along, the ground heaving as I made for home, for the car, for a chance to reach my family.

The roads were ruined, and the small auto bounced and waved across the cracks, thrown up in the air by further strikes. Everywhere was broken, people strewn on the sidewalks, struggling to help themselves and each other. I pressed ahead, though my heart cried out for them – just not as loudly as it cried out for my children and partner. Their workplace was closest, but as I arrived I saw that it was nothing but a crater and a plume of smoke. I drove on. The school had also been struck, but torn open, its contents scattered across its grounds and the roads around it. I left the auto and stumbled into the ruins, shouting myself hoarse, tearing my skin on the wreckage. I’d known there was nothing here, no survivors, even as I stamped on the brakes. But sometimes you have to see it up close, feel the dirt between your fingers before a thing can be real. The airstrikes kept on coming, and it was an awful miracle that I’d not yet been caught in a blast.

As I walked wearily back and forth in the rubble a small convoy of vehicles appeared, dodging cracks and debris. One of the lead vehicles lurched to a halt and a man leaned out bellowing for my attention, “It’s all gone, we have to leave.”

“But my family…” a pointless gesture – they were already gone – but I couldn’t just leave without some token protest at least.

He plainly knew what used to be where we stood. “I know. But come on.”

I abandoned my auto, climbed into the military-style vehicle he’d paused. Another three or four smoke-stained, broken-looking people already huddled in the back. I slipped into the front seats after making contact with one of them. There’s company in misery, but I didn’t want company. The driver turned the vehicle and raced to catch up with the convoy as it dodged and wove through the shattered city streets.

“Where are we going?” I asked, wiping my filthy hands on my trousers.

“Goethrem Harbour,” he replied, “buckle up.”

I glanced at the seat belt at my shoulder and allowed my arms to complete the automatic motion of drawing it across my chest and clicking it into place. I’d have given anything to be hurled through the windscreen and killed without a further thought.

Another searing blast erased half the convoy and we swerved wildly to avoid their remains. Abruptly the bumpy ride wasn’t just rubble, but people. We passed every part of my life: crushed, eviscerated and pulverised. We sped beyond the city limits, suddenly faster, freer and smoother. The roads weren’t yet the Arcyons’ targets. There was no reason to think they hadn’t already struck the ports, but what else was there to do? On the way, our driver told me our military was gone in the first strike, the second eradicated our infrastructure. The third was just for people.

We saw the smoke long before we reached the harbour. The whole horizon was a rising cloud of thick black smoke. We kept on. Not many vehicles reached the shoreline. Most just stopped, gave up on the road or peeled off to the east or west, hoping to find somewhere that wasn’t only fire and destruction. I hope they were lucky.

We waited on the beach, watching the flaming sea wash away our homeland. We didn’t have to wait for very long.



Our eyes first met in the shade of the grailtrees, fading sunlight filtered through a sea of blue and green. A shy exchange of names, Fliss for Terth, a coy acknowledgment that something had fundamentally changed in our lives. Love is not so quick for all people, but for us it was instant and immediate, a realisation that we’d stumbled on and beheld its truth with no need for months of painstaking contemplation. From that day on we felt bound to each other. But there are formal matters and many hoops to be delicately stepped through, leaped through and bounded around.

At first we’d meet on sunny afternoons, later on drizzling evenings, occasionally by moons’ light. We gave each other gifts, tiny chimeras that we’d handcraft for days. With my fingertips I softly blended mouse into bird to give her a present that would flutter about her rooms. She gave me a little beetled lizard. A delight! We worked our hair and features into complementary versions of the same person until even our friends and family struggled to tell us apart. Giggling, we’d run off into the woods and pretend we were each other.

We told each other stories of heroes and romances through the ages. Of famed Glowain and his endless quest for the girl he saw from the bows of his ship as he went off to war. The horror of that realised contact and having it torn away! We lay on blankets tossed out on the forest floor, idly blending plant-life into new forms and replanting them to see if they’d grow. Made jewellery from gemstones and the carapaces of insects. We did all of the things that young people in love do.

At last it was time to be tested. Our courtship was sincere and loving, and those things are necessary, but not sufficient for a lifetime together. We have customs, and rituals. On a bright hazy summer’s day we were guided to the labyrinth by our families. To even seek to enter the labyrinth’s gate is worthy of celebration and the day began with food, continued with games and would persist while we underwent the ritual and returned.

The labyrinth is old, much older than our towns and villages. Some say it has always been here, that our most distant ancestors discovered it and that’s when everything changed for us and we became the people we are now. Fliss went in first, with a laugh and a backwards wave. I waited, eyeing the twisted stones that mark the boundary between this world and the next. The stone wasn’t carved, it had been pushed and pulled into its shape, toffee-soft then allowed to set hard. After a few minutes, during which Fliss had disappeared into the gloom, replaced by silence, I was allowed to enter.

In just a few steps, the outside world fell away and the darkness became absolute. I’d been told to expect this but it was still alarming. I should be able to see the bright day outside, but it was like it had never been day here. I shrugged and gingerly moved forward. As if sensing my decision, light swelled up from the ground – a hundred thousand dusty points of light lit my way. The luminance only reached my waist, leaving everything else in utter black. Unless I started turning around, there was no reason to fear being lost – there was only one path, the path of love and all I had to do was follow the same route that Fliss had taken. Follow her, as I fully intended to with my heart and my life.

I hastened, keen to be with her once more. Even these minutes apart had been too many. It was a bit silly, as these feelings can be in the extremities of darkness and excitement, yet still suffused my being. It felt like we walked for hours, and no matter how I sped up I didn’t catch any sight or sound of Fliss until I reached the heart of the labyrinth. The narrow hallway I’d followed abruptly ended, emptying into a long oval space. The light grew higher here, showing the shadowy undersides of the twisted rock that wrapped and wove in intricate knots all around the space. Across the sandy floor, in the centre of the labyrinth’s heart was a long table. Fliss rested, leaning on it with both hands splayed for balance, one foot extended off the floor in a stretch. I felt a greeting rise in my chest, but this didn’t feel like a place for speech. Fliss saw me and smiled broadly. I went to her, laid my hands in hers and we embraced. We held each other for an age, sat on the table, eventually lay together, and exhausted, rested.

While we slept our souls entwined, knotting our hearts and minds together, completing the work we’d been doing ourselves with gifts and intimacy. In the darkness our sense of each other extended, a proprioceptive web that encompassed our united shape. At length, we woke, and followed the path that led out of the oval chamber back to the world.

We entered as two, but left as one.

In the Middle

In the Middle

It was my birthday on the night we learned that our planet was between two great worlds who had set themselves to war. Thirty-two turns about the sun, and it showed. Hair gently turning to grey, lines arcing from my eyes and mouth where none had been previously. It was a bright day, the sky mirrors terrifically amplifying the weak sunlight into its familiar softness, shadows blurred into a peripheral dance. There’s no special significance to thirty-two, but that was no reason to degrade the celebrations. We’re a tight knit enough community that any excuse to break out the booze and dance mats is welcome. Life hasn’t always been easy this far from the sun, and we make the most of opportunities when they arise. The protein mines had been productive the last decade or so and people felt we were going to be able to make this all work in the long-term – by which they meant permanent. Slipping away from the homeworlds had been my parents’ and their parents’ choice. The goal was to simplify their lives, step back from the technological race that home had fallen into. That, and its crushing environmental effects of course. So they’d found, or commandeered, or claimed – it was never entirely clear which – this tiny outer planet. The advantage of leaving a high-level society is that you can take the best of it with you and leave everything else behind. So we had light, we had power, we had tools and both knew how to use them and how to make more. Simply dropping the population from billions to thousands takes out an awful lot of stress. The first years were very hard, from what I understand, but we were stable now, just fifty years later. Stable, and thriving.

It might have been my birthday but I still had to go to work – such is the hardship of an adult. As a protein mine technician it’s not exactly an awful life, though neither is it particularly thrilling. Something vast died inside the planet a very long time ago, but the extreme cold at the core meant that it’s been preserved almost perfectly for millennia. And now we drill into it and extract the good stable protein chains for reworking into food, oil, plastics and more. I’ve done my time down below and now supervise from the drill rooms. I’d grown to dislike the dark, and the sense of being inside a once-living thing and an irrational fear that it might suddenly digest me had become stronger over time. Now I just watched us gut the thing, and felt better about it. The colossus is one of the reasons our parents chose this planet over others – it was a resource equal to the greatest treasures. It’s the foundation of our economy, industry and agriculture. Thank god it’s dead.

Shift over, we piled out of the mine; trolley-loads of miners debarked at the station and after passing through the scrubbers were free to shower and go their own way. The next shift would be along shortly. I hung my apron on the hooks by the main exit and headed for Hen’s Tavern. One of the best uses of the protein we extracted was its invaluable role in brewing…  Hen’s isn’t the only bar of course, but they do have the best dance mats and their beer is clean, sharp, and potent. We had quite a crowd. They were only vaguely interested in it being my birthday, but that was fine, I’d sought an excuse to party in plenty of theirs, so no hard feelings about not being the centre of attention. I did get a cake, courtesy of my sister and a few close friends. Beer flowed, we danced. It was a good party.

The news didn’t even spoil my birthday really, since I’d already done all of the birthday-ish things that I wanted to do, but we were all rather drunk by the end of the evening and perhaps not truly ready for world-changing information. A peal of thunder echoed across the town and we looked up in time to see lights racing past – I thought them a low-flying shower of flaming meteors, fast enough to break the sound barrier. But they weren’t stopping, they just blazed on past. As we watched, another wave came by, and another and another. This was no meteor shower, and we stood uneasily under the light show. The local radio was going behind the bar, and they did a “we interrupt this broadcast” notice to announce what we’d already noticed. They did have more information though, drawn from the near-dormant communication satellites in orbit and our telescopes on the ground: a fleet of advanced space craft had apparently used our small gravity well to slingshot themselves at even higher velocity deep into the solar system – the solar system our parents had largely abandoned. We’d received no communication from them, though they must have noticed our sky mirrors at least, since they’d taken care to avoid – or ignore – them. It was more exciting than anything else. In my lifetime there had been reports of only a handful of long-range transmissions – the homeworld checking in to see if we were still alive, or something similar. This was the first time most of us had seen anything like an offworld spaceship, let alone a fleet. The excited buzz carried us through another round of drinks, dancing and at last a shambling home.

The next evening brought a repeat display, though in the opposite direction. Apparently these were not the same craft, but another fleet. Our little home planet was, for whatever reason, currently in a convenient spot in our long orbit for these two forces to use as a waypoint. That probably wasn’t a good thing, though we could hope we’d only be useful to them for a little while. There was much discussion, but little action since we still had work to do, and they’d ignored us so far – what could we have to interest them? Our telescopes had been tracking both sets of ships to the limit of their capacity and had determined that the first set we’d seen had been heading for our parents’ home planet, much deeper in-system towards the sun. I didn’t understand how the second fleet could have missed them, but the theory ran that neither was a defensive fleet, both were attacking the other’s home.

It was weeks later before we saw or heard of any further action. Those two fleets had presumably gone off to do whatever they were planning to do to each other’s planets and our celestial cycle looped onwards. The ruling councils had been greatly exercised about all this, but for most of us it was just a few minutes of gossip here and there while we went about our usual routines. That was, until a stellar jet parked itself in orbit. Close and large enough that you could see it in mirror light, it hung in the sky like a tiny moon. A much smaller shuttle emerged and landed somewhere near our council buildings. A huge crowd showed up to gawp at the visitors. Disappointingly, they looked very much as we did, though they seemed rather shorter. They ignored the crowd entirely and the little delegation vanished inside the council buildings. They emerged, furious, hours later and stormed back into their shuttle and away to their jet. It disappeared in short order. This process was repeated a few weeks later with their counterparts from another world. We came to understand that we were being courted by these two powers, for our home did indeed fall conveniently between the two, and both would very much like to station some part of their fleet in orbit, and ideally use some of our planetary resources.

At first, I thought our council had rejected their entreaties, which would explain why both delegations looked so angry. However, in a public address our council announced that they had agreed to allow ships to station here, and even potentially join us on the ground, but that offer applied to both fleets, and neither could be here at the exclusion of the other. By the time my next birthday came around we had two icily unfriendly groups of ships in orbit, and their occupants living in our towns. Our council had also refused them permission to build barracks, insisting that all should co-habitate with the local population. It was a strain, but it seemed that our little world’s position was sufficiently desirable that they’d both bend over backwards to have our assistance. As the war had progressed, we became a curious beacon of peace. With envoys from both fleets living in our homes and towns, my thirty-third birthday was a much larger and more exciting affair.

Magic Brew

Magic Brew

The wizard’s throne was tall and thin, angular and sharp like the wizard ensconced within it. I’d sallied forth into the chamber with great confidence and bravado, but now that I was actually in his presence, I felt my spirits dampened by the scowl on his slender face.

“Your Eminent Wizardship,” I began, instantly forgetting all the appropriate terms that protocol and good sense permitted, “I – ah, it is wonderful to be in your thaumaturgic presence.”

The wizard looked at me as if I were some kind of moron. It was a fair appraisal. “King Rentworth, Lord of the Lower Lands and Duke of Dustchester, welcome.”

I was a little surprised by his warm welcome which belied the look on his face. Perhaps he always looked like that. This was the first time we had actually met, after all. All of the lower lands knew of his power and reputation. In Dustchester he was spoken of only in whispers, so sure were the townsfolk that he was always listening. Rarely did anyone ask why he might be always listening to traders and drunks swapping tales in the course of their humdrum day. You’d think he’d at least be listening only to those with something worth listening to. The gentry, select priests… criminals? Who knows. If his main interest was spying, you’d also think he would do something with all the information he’d amass that way. My own spy networks were necessarily extensive, fragile and rather unreliable, but you just had to have spies. Got to keep up with the neighbours, or potential enemies as we tended to think of them: a stranger is just someone who hasn’t turned on you yet. Being king isn’t for everyone. I don’t just mean the whole royal blood thing, which is plainly nonsense, since as far as I can tell from the heavily revised family genealogy I’m only two generations down from a woodsman and a scullery maid. Who knows where the real royal family went. Probably murdered by rivals, or took the truly sensible move of running off with a load of money. Some days I’d do the same. Most of my life is spent in either concocting plots, rebuffing plots, drinking wine (which I detest) and judging people, mostly for just doing ordinary people things. Heavy hangs the head that wears this absurdly heavy crown. Three kilograms of gold is no laughing matter for your spine, or those lumps on the side of my head that it seems to dig into. All of this and more went through my head and out my ears in the short time it took for the rest of my brain to return to the conversation I’d barely begun with this wizard.

“Ah, you are most kind, my dear… wizard. It grieves me that this is our first meeting, but I hope that it will not be our last.”

“Indeed. Twelve years you have sat upon the throne in Dustchester. I thought myself quite spurned by your monarchy!”

It took me a moment to realise that the look on the wizard’s face was not disapproval, but a smirking smile. It was possible that this might go better than I’d hoped.

“It pains me also to imagine you wounded by my inattention, a thousand apologies,” I appeared to have struck the right balance as something in the wizard’s visage lifted. He rose from his impressive throne and descended to clasp my hand firmly in his. He was as tall and thin as I’d expected, he unfolded like a mantis, with its grace and fluidity.

“Come, let us share a drink,” the wizard steered me in the direction of an antechamber, “perhaps some wine…”

“Alas, my throneroom is awash with the stuff, I feel like I bathe in it.” I replied.

“It is not to my taste either, but many insist upon it. Do you drink beer?”

My heart sang. The antechamber turned out to contain not a single bottle of wine, and was instead more tavern than drawing room. The wizard spread his arms to indicate the array that faced us, and suggested we simply start on the right and work our way down the casks. It was possibly the best diplomatic mission I’ve ever been on. Immediately more enjoyable than meeting the miserable bastard who ran Diggleness to the north-east. He could barely be bothered to speak to me. It’s not that my kingdom is small, it’s just that we’re pretty much fine. There’s not a lot to take, not a huge amount to give; peaceable on the whole and we’ve done quite well in reducing both poverty and serfdom. The people seem generally quite pleased. I often wonder if that’s because I don’t have the royal blood, which, judging by our neighbours, seems to make the monarchy into real arseholes. Eight casks later, and a pint from each, we finished our discussion of the relative merits of the ales and what the drink a monarch chose might imply about their abilities, both mental and physical.

“Now then, Ference – may I call you Ference?” the wizard paused, awaiting my consent which I freely gave with a slightly tipsy wave of my hand, “you have come a long way to see me and I have distracted you with ale – a treat for myself I must confess, due to the tedious nature of your fellow rulers – and prevented you from declaring the reason for your visit.”

“In truth, this has been a most pleasant afternoon–“ I paused, wondering if I might obtain the wizard’s name in kind…


“–Quaveer, and I’m most grateful for your hospitality. Honestly I’d happily return home with nothing more than your friendship. And the beer,” the wizard – Quaveer – actually honked with laughter, “and it seems a little rude now to bring up matters of business and state.”

“No no, you are polite to demur, but kings must king, even after a few pints. Please, what was the cause of your visit?”

 I smiled, pleased. “Well, and this may seem somewhat silly, but the lower lands and Dustchester have done well these past few years. We are at peace, albeit through rather more scheming and bartering than I’d like, and my people are broadly happy. But I do wonder if are… lacking in something. All my neighbours are keen to leap into war against each other and more distant foes of their own making. It’s not that I want to lead my people into battle – god no – I can think of no worse way to care for them than spilling their blood. I suppose I just want something for them, a reward of some sort for their all round goodness. King Smirl brings his people the spoils of war, King Effluude brings them gemstones from their famed mines. And what do I bring my people?” It seemed so petty now that it was out of my head and mouth, and I cast my eyes down in embarrassment.

“You are a good king Ference,” the wizard – Quaveer – patted me gently on the shoulder. “No other king has come to me with wishing to reward his subjects. All come with wishes for weapons, for espionage and insight into their enemy, a plague to strike down dissidents, a more erect… presence. All things for themselves and their own glory. You are a rare ruler.”

I flushed in further embarrassment at the wizard’s – Quaveer’s – kind words. “Well, perhaps I seek nothing, if all I have already is everything!” It’s possible that I was slightly more than merely tipsy.

“You need nothing my dear Ference, but reassurance. It is nothing to be ashamed of. Your fellow monarchs measure themselves with sword and violence, but why should you apply their brutal standards to yourself. I shall give you something, something that will not bring riches unto your lands, nor expand it with war. Have you thought about establishing a royal brewery?”

I had not, but I left my first meeting with the wizard – Quaveer – with a solemn assurance of his support in setting up a first-rate new brewery so I could share his apparently non-magical beer with my subjects. They’ve really never been happier.

Sky Fall

Sky Fall

I am a shooting star, a line of flame burning into Earth’s atmosphere. This is it: success. Our victorious homecoming, sixty-four years after being dispatched into the furthest reaches of our solar system. It’s not just me streaking across the sky, flensing through the night. More than half a century ago our team launched from Moon orbit, utilising the massive shipyards built in low orbit to plan the future of the human race. But we were a long way from being able to reach another sun and its precious hoard of planets, better to start close and see what there really was in our own enormous backyard before attempting to jump over the fence into the dark abyss between solar realms.

Our mission was to explore and map the moons of Saturn, Jupiter and Uranus. They had most of the likely candidates, though Neptune was quite appealing too, but it’s one and half times as far away as Uranus is from Earth again, and by the time we might have been ready, it was on the other side of the solar system anyway. We uncovered wonders. By the glow of the gas giants we found moons the human race could live on, impossibly far from the sun and all that had ever given rise to life on Earth. We’d seeded those satellite worlds with sensors and beacons ready to draw in the first wave of colonists, and moved on to the next moon, the next planet. Decades in space, years between planets. Frantic, silent, deadly, incredibly boring at times, yet equally filled with wonder as being the first eyes to lay sight directly on these places.

And now we’re back. The carefully calculated return vector saw us slingshotting around Mars to get us back in an approach towards Earth, a long one so we could burn off even more of the speed we’d built up cruising half a billion kilometres back towards the sun from Jupiter. Our return was an elliptical route that used the other planets to shed speed and incidentally get us close enough to do some additional surveying. No point wasting the proximity. By the time we spun around Mars our vessel was just fifteen per cent the size it had been when we left the Moon. We’d consumed vast quantities of fuel and ditched components and mass all along our trip. Some of it would be used by future expeditions, the rest was just more space junk, placed in as clear an orbit as possible or dumped on the surface of the many oblate spheroids we’d visited.

On the approach to Earth we passed the Moon, using its gravity well to slow us still further, and began final separation. The five of us moved into the re-entry chambers and at the right distance from Earth, our vessel underwent its last controlled explosion, firing five separate cylinders toward home. The rattle and hammering of striking the atmosphere were extraordinary. I’d mostly grown used to lower gravities, thinner atmospheres, though we’d had our share of rough landings out in Jupiter’s moons and all those huge planets were hungry to draw visitors down into the swirling mists. But this was home. The outer layer of my re-entry tube caught light instantly, burning off like a massive sparkler, melting the inner layer tight around my body, preparing and protecting me for landing. We were coming in fast, and the burn continued. My toes and feet flamed away first, as I steadily disconnected sensory and haptic feedback from my lower limbs. The feet that had carried me across Titan evaporated and streamed past me, followed by lower legs, knees, thighs. At the hips the friction of speed versus atmosphere continued to tear at me, consuming my hands and arms. Hands that had lifted grains of dust out of Saturn’s rings.

Something is slightly off in my approach and I begin to wobble. I need to be more streamlined if any of me is going to survive. It’s a little risky, but I let my hips and lower torso go, my body now more pointed. I’d drawn my head in tight when I got into the re-entry chamber, but that’s expendable too. With a thought I allow my head to distend inside its thick, hot armour. It flares out behind my now diamond-shaped body, briefly slowing me before the friction burns away my eyes, ears, mouth. The eyes that saw the tiny inner moons of Uranus, watched the glitter of their tainted ice as they spun in murderous orbits of the rings. The ears that heard the roar of Jupiter. All gone. It’s just my core now, where all those inputs of hands, feet and eyes led. It’s all inside me, everything I’ve seen, everything I’ve done in more than half a century of wandering the solar system. When we left the Moon we were merely expert systems, beautifully designed, created to explore, adapt and learn. Back then we had designations, but after sixty-four years in space, we have names. We have lived and learned, and we may just have the information that will save the human race. I wonder if they will let us join them.

I hope they’re ready for what we’ve brought them, what we’ve learned. Since the handshake greetings near the Moon we’ve been in radio silence. Being inside a fireball isn’t conducive to conversation. But now, as the fire dies back and I realise how few millimetres of insulation separate me from the red-hot air outside and utter annihilation, I receive the first telemetry from Portugal. They’re waiting for us. We’re home.

House of Sound

House of Sound

The music began late one night and never stopped. A haunting refrain that captivated the ear, tickled bones and gently prised its way beneath fingernails. Like all constant or rhythmic noises, it blended with my tinnitus and the usual background racket from outside, made itself into a rich tapestry of bass and sound. It was only the more uncommon physical aspects that distinguished it from every other day’s programme of imaginary sounds and music. I live alone, but it doesn’t feel like it. Every knock on the door, train that rattles past or the tapping of birds on the roof swell into deeper and thicker melodies. I’m constantly imagining a tap at the door or someone calling my name. At first I’d find myself leaping to my feet, bounding down the stairs or pausing to see if the sudden moment of silence that followed contained any real sounds. It’s impossible to tell, and so I’ve mostly tried to ignore these things, drowning them in actual music and white noise soundscapes where at worst the additional rhythms become interwoven and can be properly ignored. It hasn’t been quiet in my head for a long time, and I fall asleep to the hiss and squeal of unreal sounds in my ears, the rush of blood and thump of heartbeat.

It’s an old house, inherited from a distant relative who I’d never heard of, and nor had any of the rest of my family. It came at a fortuitous time, when I found myself between jobs and relationships with no desire to expose the rawness of my inner self to the world. Vanishing off to a house in the country seemed like the perfect solution. It was in the style that I always thought of as “gingerbread gothic”, lovely Victorian red brick with an excess of gables and other detailing. Apparently the place had been unoccupied for ten years or so, but the doors and windows had been kept sealed and it felt like its previous owner had barely left a minute ago. Sparsely furnished, but with all the essentials barring trustworthy white goods in the kitchen. I was committed to what I called my social abeyance, pending some occurrence that made me want to get involved in the world once more. The lack of a landline was a positive triumph, though I did at least keep a mobile phone charged (if largely ignored). I settled in, was surprised to find the boiler did not immediately explode, and set myself a straightforward course of reading and writing and avoiding everything outside the house.

That worked very well for a few weeks. Being in a strange house, as yet unused to its natural soundscape – especially when those sounds are swiftly incorporated into a mental melody – can be alarming. Oddly, the way the house creaked, and the initially disturbing thrashing of the tree outside, came to feel normal very quickly. The house and I were well suited. I gave it purpose, and it lent me peace and relative quiet. I’d taken up residence in the higher of the three bedrooms, nestled in what must once have been a good-sized loft, where I could hear the rain on the roof tiles at night. It had a good view out the circular window and from it I could see the doorstep, which was handy if I gave into the possibly-real sound of knocking below. The music woke me up, late one night – or early one morning, depending on how you look at these things. It was a sound that had penetrated my dreams, swelling until it forced me out of sleep. Blinking in the darkness, I was almost sure that it wasn’t a refrain that I’d concocted from tinnitus whistles and the crack of tree branches. So sure that I dragged myself out of bed. I’m a reluctant waker and would have just tried to ignore it, trusting that I’d fall asleep again. But I was sure, convinced for a reason I couldn’t explain beyond having just woken up, that it was playing somewhere – like a tune played out of an old mono speaker; tinny and lacking depth. At worst I’d find the bourbon downstairs and put more effort into returning to my slumber.

I’d grown comfortable enough in the house that I felt no need to flick the lights on. Grabbing my phone from beside the bed was enough – it fulfilled all of my alarm clock and torch needs. I took a cursory tour of the house. For all that it was a tall building, there wasn’t really that much in it, and the depleted state of the furnishings meant there was less to check under and behind than might have otherwise been required. If it was as I thought, an old radio alarm clock which I had neither noticed nor unplugged during the last few weeks, then it would probably be in one of the other bedrooms. Nothing in there but the boxes I’d moved in with and dumped in the middle of the room. The music grew no louder as I pressed my ear to what I was fairly sure were books, clothes and whatever I’d decided fit into a box labelled “stuff.” Down and down then. The kitchen, living room and dining room were also free of devices, though the music did seem to have become louder. There’s a nook under the stairs, intended to be jammed full of wellington boots, umbrellas and worn-out gloves. It was hard to tell, but it seemed like it might be the source. Some ancient battery-powered thing that had been bumped and reconnected its power. I tossed out the cupboard’s contents – all junk that wasn’t even mine, but on my own I’d had no need of the space. There were a couple of OK coats and a hat that was perhaps wearable, the rest of it I’d be bundling up for the charity shops come morning. Beneath the heaps, and beneath the small wooden shelving unit that had been crammed between its narrow walls, there was nothing but the music. I abandoned the task, kicking old clothes out of my path back to the kitchen. Bourbon. Book. Sleep.

I woke the next day with the song – if it even had words – still ingratiating itself into my thoughts. It was in that afternoon that I felt like it had gotten into my bones, a distant vibration in my skull and fingertips. But still, it’s only sound. I bent myself to my work, tapping away until the sun fell from the sky once more. And then the music redoubled itself. I’d half wondered if it was just an ear worm, but it peaked as I passed the under-stair cupboard once again. I kicked out of the way the clothes that I had failed to bag up, and flung the door open. Still empty. I laid my head against the walls and explored every inch of the tiny room. I felt like I was playing Marco Polo. I dug my fingernails into the tight gaps between the panels that made up the space, felt all the way down them to the floor and at last found something loose. With a cry of effort that snapped one fingernail and the thin plank I hauled at, the floor splintered and broke open.

A cellar. Of course there was a cellar. Nothing about it in the guides and information I’d received along with the inheritance documents, but of course a house like this had a cellar. I peeled back the other planks, which was easy now I’d snapped one of them out of place. In short order I had a stack of ragged wood and a descending brick staircase. The music was louder now, and I could almost distinguish words, the feel of verse and chorus endlessly repeating. Only an idiot goes into a dark cellar in a newly-mysterious house on their own. I can’t argue with that assessment…