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Midummer Anthology 2017

Midsummer Anthology, 2017

Dan J. Batten

Xen Bettinson

Chris Dean

Michael Greenwell

John Jackson

Jane Risdon

Morat Saint-Pilgrim

Lil Surgeson

Paul White

Edited by Phil Bettinson

[Proofs by Hawkmoth Publishing Services
http://www.hawkmoth.org.uk]

[Cover image drawn by Michelle Harries
**]

Arranged by Phil Bettinson
[*
p. June, 2017

*** *]

[* p. 2017 Jara23 Publishing * *All rights reserved.

This work may not be distributed or modified without the express permission of the Jara23 Publishing, and the licence holders of the work contained herein. No part of this work is to be considered in the public domain, and all authors retain their own copyright. Works listed under pseudonyms, or anonymously still belongs to the authors, who’s names can be acquired by applying to Jara23 Publishing, with their permission.

The current maintainer of this work is Jara23 Publishing.

99 32 11 88 48 01 9 9 8 6 5 4

First edition: June 2017

Jara23 Publishing *
*Editor Phil Bettinson *
*Jara23 Publishing Electronic Ed. *
*p. cm. *
*Includes illustrations. *
*ISBN *
*1. Book design I. Title

Jara23 Publishing, *
*Johnstown, Wrexham *
*publishing @ jara23.co.uk

*
*

*** *]

[* h1. Introduction

By Phil Bettinson

Welcome to our first Midsummer Anthology.

Following the success of our Midwinter Anthologies, Jara23 Publishing decided to give our faithful readers a bit more in the summer, and what a treat we have for you.

This anthology sees a collection of writers, both new and old to our antholgies gathering together to produce some of the finest work so far. We have a collection of science fiction and fantasy. You will be taken on a journey of discovery to new worlds , to the future, and to the past. You will find here unexpected love, and uncertain futures.

Dive in, and enjoy a selection of stories that will transport you.

Enjoy,*
*Phil Bettinson, Editor.

*** *]

[* h1. New Earth

By John Jackson

Captain Christopher Armstrong stood in the huge lobby of the Erikson Space Centre with his eyes fixed on the large digital clock above the door. Huge air scrubbers in the walls denoted the chamber’s status as an entranceway, but his entire apartment would have fitted within it. Behind him, his crew waited in fidgeting silence.

The thought of his old pad – which he had sold with contents included before dividing all the money between his friends and relatives – proved harder to dismiss than the thought of those loved ones. By his orders, the entire crew had said their final farewells a month ago before going into seclusion so as to be properly mentally adjusted for this day. But it was still today that a far more primal farewell would take place – a farewell to planet Earth itself. ‘It wasn’t much, but it was home,’ he thought, unsure whether he was referring to the bedsit or the world.

The red characters blinked from 12:59 to 13:00. He looked down to the attendant standing by the doorway, who nodded and reached for the controls. Armstrong reached automatically for the respirator hanging from his neck, then hesitated. Technically the device was intended to minimise the long-term health damage that would otherwise be inflicted by walking around in Earth’s ravaged atmosphere. But after today that would never be an issue again. Smiling, he let his hand drop. There was a rustle of movement behind him as the crew followed his lead, appreciating the symbolism of the gesture. He saw understanding dawn in the masked attendant’s eyes as he flicked the switch and the doors slid open.

It took only a few paces for Armstrong to regret the decision. He hadn’t breathed unscrubbed air in many years and the full searing discomfort of the experience had faded in his memory. But it was too late to back out now, so he squinted his eyes against the scorching sun and strode toward the distant shape of the dock.

By the time the airlock of the dock entrance closed behind them – after a walk of no more than two minutes that felt like an eternity – the entirety of Christopher’s nose, throat and lungs felt like they were on fire. He wanted nothing more than to cough heavily, but the world’s press would be waiting in the next room and this would not create the best impression. Even if they had not been, he could not have appeared less stoic than the rest of his command staff in front of the crew. Lin appeared to have experienced no discomfort at all – and given the diversity of her underwater experience, it was possible that the Chief Oceanic Surveyor had simply held her breath for the entire walk. Kirov’s eyes appeared to be watering slightly, but he was otherwise showing the disdain for hostile environments that would be vital in a Chief Geographic Surveyor. Doctor Mendez seemed to be focusing inward, her face fixed in the superior expression she always used when informing someone that they were not in fact going to die. Even Chief Engineer Carlyle was putting a brave face on it, though it was also a face that asked what the Captain thought he was doing by poisoning them all before they even got on the ship? Armstrong gave him a faintly apologetic smile before stepping through the doorway into the the press pit beyond.

The empty room waited in almost perfect silence as the crew followed him in, a few at the rear giving up on holding back their coughing. Ranged before them a sea of several hundred spherical VR Cameras hovered in expectation. Through their transmissions, a sizeable proportion of the entire global population were virtually seated in the room with the journalist of their choice remotely murmuring in their ear. Directing his gaze toward the cameras associated with some of the larger networks, Armstrong permitted himself a heavy clearing of the throat before beginning his speech. “People of Planet Earth, today we stand at the beginning of a new chapter in human history. In 30 minutes time, the Argo 1 will launch from Erikson and depart the Earth. Our destination is the planet TN1492, popularly known as ‘New Earth’. Of all the planets surveyed by our world’s astronomers over the last 40 years, this one is believed to carry the greatest hope of being capable of sustaining and nurturing human life.

The star system containing TN1492 is approximately 500 light years distant from our own. Thankfully, it won’t take us that long to get there. Assuming the Azikiwe Drive operates as expected we will be able to translate between locations at approximately 10c. Due to the possibility of drift we will make five jumps and recalculate after each one, but the trip as a whole should take about 50 years to complete. Since none of us are getting any younger, we will be spending the trip in Patel tubes – so for us it’s going to be a really busy week!”

He paused to let a hoped-for chuckle settle in his invisible audience, then let a greater degree of seriousness show in his face. “It’s safe to say that we’ve made some mistakes getting ourselves to this point. If we’d spent less time working out ways to kill each other and make money faster – and more time figuring out how to be good stewards of the world we were passing through – this mission would not have been so urgent for us today. Planet Earth has pretty much served notice on us. But everyone deserves a second chance – and if Terra Nova is all we hope it will be, everyone is going to have one.”

He nodded to the assembled cameras. “We’ll be sending the first message drone on its own Azikiwe jump the moment that we know what we’ve found. Tell your grandchildren to listen out for us. Good luck to you all.” Turning, he led his people toward the corridor that ended at the airlock of the Argo.

Thirty minutes later, the Argo left Earth’s atmosphere and Armstrong took his last look back at the yellow-brown orb of the planet hanging in space behind them. An hour after that the ship was outside of conventional reality – and he was resting in sedated sleep within a Patel tube as the machine prepared him for frozen suspension.

****

Armstrong stopped at the doorway of the scanner room, his attention caught by the lights within. There was little call to use it this early in the voyage after the next jump had been calculated, but Lin was still inside. Stepping softly through the door, he saw her attention was fixed upon a planetary projection assembled from various kinds of data. The glowing hologram hung in the air above the table with a single spectral moon orbiting around it. From the speakers, a transmission crackled faintly in the background.

“That’s not Nova,” he commented, causing her to start as he took a seat. “Don’t tell me you’re homesick already?” Lin smiled, leaning back but keeping her eyes on the projection. “No, of course not. But the opportunity to look at and listen to the Earth from this far away is not something to be missed.” She shook her head. “It’s so strange. I feel like I just went to sleep yesterday, but some of the people I left behind could have died in the decade since. And here I am, looking back at the world as it was 100 years ago – before any of them were born.” Armstrong smiled in acknowledgement. “That’s intersteller travel for you. We’re boldly doing what no one has done before.” He paused to take in the blue and green view before him. “She doesn’t look that bad, compared to when we left.”

Lin nodded. “There is still a lot of recent damage in evidence. If you look back at the older data… but yes, it’s a different world. My grandmother described what things were like when she was a child so often… I had to see it.”

The murmuring transmission switched to a familiar voice than made both officers twitch in their seats. “Bloody warmonger,” Lin snarled, stabbing at the console. The broadcast tuned out and the energising guitar riff of a piece of classical music took its place as another faint signal was caught. Armstrong watched the image for a couple more minutes, the low-definition music struggling through the static providing the only sound. Then he shook himself and rose from his seat. “We jump in 30 minutes. Report to your tube in time and make sure you turn off the gear in here when you leave.” Lin nodded. “I’ll be there.”

****

The sound of raised voices caused Armstrong to quicken his stride as he approached the medical bay. The crew had been understandably muted since the funeral, even though the deaths were fully expected as the jumps progressed. The discussion between Mendez and Carlyle, however, sounded anything but subdued.

Both officers broke off as he entered the room, turning to face him with rigid formality. “Sir, I must object,” Mendez protested quietly but fiercely before Carlyle could speak. “The engineer here is attempt to interfere with vital matters of crew health.”

Carlyle shook his head firmly. “Absolutely not! The good doctor is simply choosing to let how thing look to the crew blind her to how they really are! That’s no way for a spaceship to run, Sir, as I’m sure you’ll agree.” Armstrong raised his hand. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Carlyle, what are you trying to do that’s got the Doc so riled up?”

The Chief Engineer frowned at the accusation, then sighed and composed himself. “Well Sir, as you know we lost both Fisher and Zhou to hibernation trauma during the last jump cycle. Now Zhou died when the tube tried to revive him, so he slept as long as the rest of us. But Fisher went into shock as he was going under, so the tube just froze him solid and largely shut down. That means we have a vacant Patel tube which has seen 10 years less wear and tear than all of the others. Logically, we should transfer a crewman to it.”

“Oh yes, very logical!” Mendez broke in angrily. “A patient dies while connected to a piece of medical equipment, so you specially transfer someone who is doing fine to that piece? I’m sure that would go down well so soon after seeing him off!”

“The tube didn’t fail! I’ve checked it personally. It could have happened to any of us, as well you know.” Carlyle looked to the Captain for support. Armstrong raised his hand again and the pair subsided. “We all know that this is a risk of the trip. Mendez, did your post-mortems show any sign of mechanical failure as a cause of death?” The doctor glared at Carlyle, but reluctantly shook her head.

“In that case, transferring someone would be logical.” Carlyle smiled, but Armstrong frowned. “Of course, once we decide to move someone to a different tube because it’s the best one we need to decide who gets it. Logically, they should be the most valuable member of the crew. In fact to truly maximise our chances, we should reassign everyone after you check the tubes between jumps in descending order of usefulness.”

Carlyle’s face fell. Armstrong shook his head. “Strip the thing for parts and upgrade a few tubes if you want. But no one swaps. We are all committed to the full journey just as we accepted it coming aboard. There is no going back now.”

****

Kirov was waiting for Armstrong when he reached the scanner room. With only 200 light years between them and their destination, it ought to be possible to assemble a more detailed picture of Terra Nova from new observations even without the huge space telescopes that had been used to locate it. Armstrong smiled at the image he saw waiting for him – a welcoming green-blue orb with two moons suspended above it.

“Tell me this place will be as comfortable as it looks,” he said as he took a seat at the console.*
Kirov nodded slowly. “Yes. The atmosphere, gravity, temperature, surface water… all very much within acceptable tolerances. The two moons make for an interesting tidal system, but it is stable enough not to drown us in natural disasters.”
“Good.” Armstrong looked questioningly at the man. “You don’t seem as pleased as I’d have expected?”
Kirov frowned. “It is difficult to be sure of much at this range – this is not an optical image, just a projected construct. But I would estimate that the planet has abundant vegetation on much of the dry land we are seeing here. From what we think the atmosphere consists of, it is likely that there is a fair amount of animal life living in balance with it.”
Armstrong nodded. “That was always a fair possibility. Can’t expect to find a perfect cradle of life without any life growing on it, can we?”
Kirov shook his head. “Perhaps not. But such a situation gravely increases the odds of a sentient dominant species being distributed across the planet. Some of our data even supports the possibility of technology. What are our protocols in that case?”
“We… come in peace.” Armstrong sighed. “The very last thing we are here to do is to repeat our mistakes. We find a way to communicate with the indigenous life forms and negotiate permission to settle a substantial part of the planet. Even if they exist, they may not have explored all of their own map yet – much less have overcrowding problems. Evacuating the entirety of planet Earth was never a realistic goal – but if we can found a durable colony here we can grow again as a species.”
“That is all very well,” Kirov shifted uncomfortably in his seat, “but we are talking about the survival of our species here. Supposing the natives are less than welcoming? I cannot imagine the G.A.C. did not provide you with… other options. There are systems that only you have access to, are there not?” Armstrong shook his head. “That information is on a need to know basis, Commander. You don’t need to know.”
Kirov touched the console and a string of numbers appeared. “I have calculated how many nuclear detonations the ecosystem of this planet could survive. Do you need to know that?”
Armstrong rose from his seat. “We have a jump to prepare for. Get to it.”
*

****

The Captain’s quarters were silent as Armstrong gazed at the readout before him. A slight drift in their penultimate jump had left Terra Nova eclipsed by its own star, preventing them from gathering further direct data. Technically the problem could have been overcome by waiting long enough for it to emerge, but no one was anxious to wait around when a single sleep would otherwise put them right next door.

Even if they had done more observations, some information was automatically screened and delivered only to the commanding officer. The reading before him were exactly what he had been expecting to see. The peculiar emissions from the world had increased in strength, but they had also drastically increased in intensity. Although they were almost certainly not intended for alien ears, someone on the planet was definitely making heavy use of artificial transmissions for communication. The rest of the crew would find this out when they arrived and the filter was no longer needed. He raised his head. “Computer, execute directive NA-MP-1. Authorisation Christopher Armstrong.”*
“Authorisation confirmed,” the synthetic voice replied. “All nuclear-class warheads will be ejected. Warheads will not be armed. Confirm or cancel?” “Confirm. Authorisation WF-ND-1.”
“Acknowledged. Process will be completed in 10 minutes.”
Armstrong pressed the key to activate the ship’s intercom. “All personnel – we jump to Terra Nova in 20 minutes.”
And see who’s waiting for us there, he added silently.
*

****

Armstrong had to will himself not to run as he headed towards the familiar door to the scanner room. He had firmly kept the ship running in a disciplined manner since he had awoken, sending the other officers to begin the task of taking observations while he oversaw the removal of the dead who had fallen at the last hurdle and set the surviving crew to the vital tasks of post-jump maintenance. Even so, his heart was pounding and the thought “we’re here!” buzzed through his mind to the exclusion of everything else. He half-expected the assembled officers to raise a cheer as he entered the room, but none came. At the very least, he expected to see joyful smiles. Instead, the horrified disbelief on each face stopped him in his tracks an instant before his eyes took in the projected image before them. Instead of the constructs that had previously occupied the projector, a VR optical image was being streamed of a planet just a few minutes away at the speed of light. The twin moons hanging above the recognizable continental shapes were instantly familiar – but the yellow and brown hues that could be discerned through the atmosphere were not at all what he had expected. “What… what happened?” The words came weakly out of lips. *
Kirov found his voice first. “There are substantial urbanised areas across every visible part of the planet’s dry land. Vegetation is… much less dense than formerly projected. I am reading lethal levels of radiation in several zones, consistent with an unsustainable level of bombardment.”
“Sea water is far less pure than expected,” Lin added with tears in her eyes.
“I am… revising downward the expected level of marine life.”
“The level of protection provided the atmosphere is less than anticipated,” Mendez put in. “The composition also includes traces of many toxins.
*Surviving on the surface will require some form of artificial protection even without further deterioration.” *
Carlyle stiffened and brought up a new display. “We’re detecting emissions from several different locations on the surface – radio wave patterns at about 10kHz. Looks like someone knows we’re here.”
Armstrong collected himself with an effort. “Put it through to the central computer to decode. Let’s start the dialogue as soon as possible.” He grimaced. “I’ve… got to talk to the crew.”
*

****

The airlock closed behind him, sealing Armstrong back inside the ship he had travelled in for half a century. The rest of the command staff were waiting for him. By rights, the first face to face encounter between human and extraterrestrial life ought to have invited a flurry of questions about the aliens, but the other officers simply waited for him to speak. “Well, the good news is that they’ve given us permission to settle on one of the northern continents,” he began. “It will take some effort, but I believe we can survive there for some time before… things worsen.”*
He nodded at Carlyle. “You were right about that structure near the equator and the orbital arrays we scanned. Their Global Alliance isn’t as stable as ours, but it has been doing the same kind of work. Since all this happened they’ve been searching for a habitable planet – and they’ve found one. Their exploratory ship launched six months ago.”
He smiled grimly. “They showed me some scans of the world they intend to colonise. They were careful with the data, but they underestimated me. I was able to figure out the location of their target system.”
The crew before him leaned forward in anticipation, the atmosphere charged with sudden hope. “Well, how many c does their drive pull?” Kirov asked
carefully. “Can we outrun them, or at least get there in time to establish a foothold of our own before they are settled in?”
Armstrong shook his head. “Their drive only goes at 8c, so we could pass them on the way. Unfortunately, getting there ahead of them will not do us any good.”
A ripple of disbelief ran through the people before him. “Begging your pardon sir, but why the heck not?” Carlyle spluttered.
*Armstrong took a deep breath and let it out in a ragged sigh. “Because I used to own an apartment there,” he said. *
*

*** *]

[* h1. APARTMENT 206C

By Jane Risdon

China held her breath waiting for the next crash and thud which would surely as night followed day, resound from the apartment next door. For three hours the yelling and shouting had gone on and she kicked herself once more for never having learned a foreign language. She would’ve loved to known what the other two were shouting. The daughter she could understand; she screamed abuse at her parents in English.

She’d considered taking a course in Spanish a few years back when she was trying to ‘improve’ herself, but chickened out when push came to shove. The new series of NCIS clashed with the class schedules and anyway it would have been winter and China didn’t fancy going out on cold nights.

From what the daughter was yelling it seemed that the parents were trying to prevent her from having a relationship with a Russian boy, whom they accused of being in a gang. For once China could imagine what the parents were saying. Not that she was a parent and had to put up with wayward daughters, but she had been a daughter and had fallen out with her own parents numerous times over her latest love. Nine times out of ten her parents had been spot on and the boy she was mad about turned out to be a waste of space. Not that she ever admitted it to them. However, something made China think there was more to the rows than just an unsuitable boyfriend.

The family next door had moved in about six years ago and at first had been quiet and friendly and kept themselves to themselves. But of late all that had changed. Almost daily there were rows; screaming, shouting, crashing and the tinkle of glass filled the once quiet corridors of the apartment block where middle class tenants went about their business without intrusion upon their fellow occupants.

China was on nodding acquaintance with them and apart from the odd, ‘hi, how are you?’ when passing in the lobby or sharing the elevator, she knew next to nothing about them, this being their only contact with each other. She ascertained that the mother was Spanish and that the father appeared to be Italian; their daughter spoke English. China assumed they were first generation immigrants and the daughter was integrating better than they. She certainly gave the impression of the ‘All American’ girl from the way she spoke to her parents without any trace of an accent, to the way she dressed like her peers.

Something about this recent argument convinced China that something else was going on with the family and the daughter in particular. She couldn’t put her finger on it but the intensity of emotions and the violent reaction of the person who seemed to be intent upon destroying every piece of glass, crockery, and furniture in the adjoining apartment caused China to feel really fearful. Of what she had no idea. But it was fear she felt when she listened to the escalation in passions coming through the walls into her own piece of heaven.

The shouting that followed the latest session had sent a chill down her spine as she tried to concentrate on writing her novel. She found herself holding her breath, waiting. Waiting for what she hadn’t a clue, but it seemed to her that a line had been crossed next door. She walked to the shared apartment wall and leaned against it trying to hear if anything was going on inside now that it appeared to have gone silent. Her ear began to hurt as she pressed it against her sitting room wall and she turned her head and leaned her other ear against the cool wall; nothing. Just silence.

She ran to the kitchen and grabbed a glass and used this against the wall to see if she could hear better, but all she could hear was the rapid thudding of her own heart. Putting the glass down on her coffee table she ran to her front door and looked through the spy-hole in-case there was any movement in the hall. Surely someone else had heard the racket. The area the spy-hole covered was useless, she couldn’t see far enough to the right near her neighbour’s door. Taking a deep breath she slowly and silently opened her door and stepped out into the hall, cautiously slipping along the wall until she came to their front door.

At first all seemed silent and she wondered if they had gone out without her realising. But as she pressed her ear to their door she thought she heard muffled voices on the other side of the door. She stepped back quickly, moving back along the wall out of sight. She waited. She dare not breathe, yet she wanted to giggle as well. She wondered how on earth she would explain herself if someone else came along and found her trying to melt into the deep red and gold flock wallpaper.

Sure enough someone was coming. The elevator just down the hall rattled up from the ground floor and she heard the bell as it stopped and the doors opened. Feeling a bit stupid standing up against the wall dressed only in her pyjamas – her favourite writing outfit – she frantically ran for her own front door and just managed to slip inside as the recent occupant of the elevator passed by. Curious as to their identity China looked through the spy-hole and just managed to catch a glimpse of a tall dark-haired young man standing outside her neighbour’s apartment. He glanced around furtively (so it seemed to China), before tapping gently on the door of the last apartment on her floor; Apartment 206c.

China eased herself out of her doorway and crept along the wall until she could see the door which was closed again. She tiptoed up to it and put her ear against it. She heard two loud pops, like champagne corks being released from their bottles. Just as she was thinking what a nosey person she must be spying on her neighbours and thinking all sorts of nonsense about them, she heard a groan; an agonised groan, breathy and rattling. It reminded her of the death rattles you heard on TV shows when someone expired after being shot yet still managing to deliver their last words. There was always a gasp and the sound of the last breath leaving the body. Well, that is what she thought as she listened, fear tingling through her body, her novelist’s mind alive with all sorts of nonsensical ideas as to what might be going on in the rooms behind the closed door.

Was that a sob she heard? A woman’s cry followed by shuffling noises. What was going on? China felt a sense of foreboding, she wondered what she should do, it anything.

A man’s voice, muffled and deep, filtered through as she strained to hear what was being said. It sounded like accented English but China didn’t recognise it – it must be the young man’s voice she thought. Next she heard the daughter’s voice, hushed and urgent at first, and then louder and shrill…a row perhaps? More muffled words, another cry followed by what sounded like a slap and a groan. Ominously she couldn’t hear either of the parents speaking. Were they still at home?

Every nerve in her body was racing, her skin felt as if it were crawling with ants as she began to fear for the family inside. She wondered if she should call the police, but then dismissed the idea because she hadn’t proof of anything amiss. No-one else had come out of their apartments to enquire about the racket that had gone on for such a long time and then stopped, so suddenly, following ear-splitting screams earlier. She would only make a complete fool of herself with the police and she could just imagine how her neighbours would think of her when they discovered they were being spied upon and speculated about by their writer neighbour. Everyone would put it down to her overactive imagination and without any proof of something untoward going on, how would she get the police to come out, let alone investigate.

China decided that she would have to act alone to discover what was going on in the apartment. She would inform the authorities if or when she found anything. Leaning closer to the door China tried hard to catch what was being said inside but all she could hear was a series of muffled words, thuds and scratches. She considered knocking on the door on the pretext of borrowing some sugar, but put the thought quickly aside when it occurred to her that she had never asked them for anything before, and it would arouse their suspicions and attract attention to her to ask out of the blue like that.

She was so deep in thought she didn’t realise that her foot had hit against the bottom of the door as she pressed against the wood, still debating what to do, if anything. The noise was subtle and she hadn’t heard it, but it had been heard. An eye watched her through the spy-hole.

Suddenly the door was yanked open and a tattooed arm reached out and strong thin fingers grabbed her wrist and hauled her into the apartment. China went flying on to the floor face down, landing beside what looked like blood stains and two bulky forms hidden by blankets lying just inside the door. Now she knew what had been going on in apartment 206c.

*****

She looked up at the man and girl standing over her, their faces filled with menace. ‘Who are you?’ The man grabbed her arm and pulled her to her feet roughly.*
‘She lives next door,’ the girl said before China could gather her thoughts. ‘She’s some sort of writer or whatever.’
*‘What does she want?’ he asked, twisting China’s arm behind her back and forcing her into the kitchen. ‘She’s a friend of yours?’ he hissed at the girl. China cried out in pain as he yanked her arm further up her back. ‘No, no, we’re not friends, we pass in the hall is all.’ The girl looked frightened. She avoided China’s eyes. ‘Ask her.’ The girl’s eyes were red and she looked as if she’d been crying, there was a large red welt across her right cheek. *
The tattooed young man studied the girl for a moment, as if trying to decide whether or not to believe her. He looked at China. ‘She telling the truth? You don’t know her, right?’
China’s breath caught in her throat which had gone dry with fear, she could only nod. Her mind was racing along with her heart-rate. What the hell had she stumbled into? She wasn’t sure whether to speak or to keep quiet; she needed to work out what was going on, she held her tongue. ‘What were you doing, outside?’ He yanked her arm again, she cried out and he hit her across the face. ‘Shut up bitch, you want the whole building in here, now tell me and fast, what were you doing outside the door?’
Tears streamed down China’s face and blood trickled into her mouth from her cut lip. She licked her lip, ‘I needed, I mean I wanted to ask if I could borrow some coffee,’ she stammered. Seeing the look of disbelief cross his face, she hurriedly added, ‘I haven’t been to the store for a few days because I’m writing.’ She didn’t drink coffee so if he went into her apartment to check, he’d know she was being truthful. ‘I lose track of time.’
‘She does that, borrows stuff,’ the girl spoke quickly. ‘Mom told me she’s a right pain, always forgetting to buy stuff.’ She glared pointedly at China who couldn’t believe her ears. Not that she was going to argue. Not that the girl’s mom was going to argue; she wasn’t going to argue with anyone ever again, nor was her dad. China shuddered refusing to look at what was on the floor by her feet. ‘She’s never called round when I’ve been here.’
China nodded enthusiastically. ‘Yes, she was kind to me,’ she whispered looking at the floor, unable to face the man.
‘You should’ve gone to the store. Big mistake.’ The young man shoved her on to a kitchen chair. ‘Now you’ve given me a big problem. What to do with you?’
‘We could let her go, she won’t tell, will you?’ The girl nodded at China.
‘Right?’
‘No, no, I won’t say anything, I promise.’ China brightened, she’d keep quiet if only they’d let her go. ‘My lips are sealed.’
‘Say anything about what?’ he growled.
‘Nothing, about nothing. I mean I don’t know…’
‘Don’t take me for a fool. You’re not a fool either,’ he jabbed her in the chest.
China’s heart sank. ‘But I’ll keep quiet, I promise.’
‘You on your own in there?’ he pointed in the direction of her apartment.
‘Yes, yes I live alone,’ she regretted it the moment the words left her lips. Stupid girl. ‘I have friends and family visit all the time,’ she added. ‘I don’t go out much so they visit me, all the time.’ She couldn’t risk endangering Louise, her room-mate, who was safely at work for now, but didn’t want him thinking she wouldn’t be missed either.
‘She telling the truth?’ The young man stared hard at the girl.
*‘I don’t know anything about her, Jan, I’ve only ever seen her in the lobby. I’ve never seen her with anyone, Mom never said anything about her – just she borrows stuff.’ *
The young man regarded her for a few moments. ‘Get some rope and something to shove in her mouth,’ he told the girl. ‘Rope’s in my backpack.’ He pointed to a blue backpack sitting on the kitchen counter. ‘There’s gaffer tape in there, bring that.’
China felt panic rise in her throat and she coughed bile against her sweater sleeve. ‘Please, I won’t tell anyone, please, don’t do this,’ she pleaded, dread creeping into every pore. ‘What are you going to do with me?’
‘Shut the fuck up and let me think.’ His first thought was kill her and worry about getting rid of her and the others later. He’d get the guys to sort that out, but he was worried about his girlfriend, she was too emotional and unpredictable, could he risk it? The author had heard enough to come nosing around when he’d shut the parents up. Who else might be curious?
*‘Jan, we can let her go, she won’t tell, she’s frightened, honest, she won’t tell.’ The girl handed rope and tape to her co-killer. ‘Will this do?’ She held a small piece of material in her hand which China dreaded having shoved in her mouth. China fought hard to control her rising terror, her eyes moving frantically around the room, fruitlessly seeking a saviour. *
‘Tie her up and shove that in her mouth, then tape it.’ He went into the main room, his cell phone in hand.
The girl carried out her instructions and as she bent over China she whispered, ‘I won’t tie it too tight. If you get a chance, get out, get away.’ She grimaced and added, ‘I’m sorry.’
*China ached with questions and tried to speak but she couldn’t. The young man watched them both as he spoke on the phone. He spoke in a foreign language, rapidly and loudly, all the time his eyes on the women. The girl seemed as clueless as China as to what he was saying, although she was obviously straining hard, trying to latch on to a word which she might understand, just as China was. Seeing the expression in China’s eyes the girl whispered, ‘Russian, he’s speaking Russian.’ *
Great, China thought, a Russian spy ring is all I need. Her imagination went into over-drive briefly as she imagined Matt Damon or Daniel Craig crashing through the front door to rescue her. The man’s voice shook her out of her reverie. ‘I’ve gotta go out, you keep an eye on her; don’t let her move, don’t talk to her, understand me, or you’ll join her, got it?’ He put a jacket on and moved to the door, pointing to what China was sure were the girl’s parents. ‘Don’t touch them either, understood? They’ll be moved after dark.’ He glanced at China, ‘with her,’ he added menacingly.
‘I’ve got it, I won’t. How long will you be gone?’ The girl avoided looking at the blankets on the floor, bloodied, covering the dead. She tried not to shake. Hold it together, don’t lose it now, she told herself.
*‘As long as it takes, I’ve got some stuff to take care of.’ He stood over the girl who was much shorter than he, and kissed her forehead. ‘Be a good girl, because if you’re not you know who’ll come for you don’t you?’ *
‘I’m not stupid Jan, you don’t need to keep telling me.’
*‘Right, make sure you do, otherwise I won’t be able to protect you. And keep her quiet, any trouble, use the knife.’ *
‘What? I can’t, I’ve never – you can’t expect me to…’
‘Then you better keep her quiet, for both your sakes.’ He opened the apartment door cautiously and after checking the hall was clear, he glanced once at the women and left.
*

*****

China’s neighbour waited a few seconds, then said, ‘do you have a cell phone in your PJ pockets? If you do I need it.’ She approached China and reached out to pat her down, something Jan hadn’t thought to do. ‘I never go anywhere without mine, even in my PJs.’ She fumbled in both pockets and produced China’s cell.*
‘Good, and full battery too, great.’
*Her captive watched helpless, a dozen questions flooding her mind. Curiosity began to replace raw fear, for now. She felt that as long as Jan was gone, she had a chance. The girl was a mystery. What was going on? What sort of human being would be complicit in her own parent’s murder? Perhaps she should be more terrified of the girl and what she was capable of, but somehow she wasn’t; yet. *
‘I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong. I never thought this would happen.’ The girl pointed to the covered bodies, their blood splattering the wall next to them, she gulped and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. ‘You don’t understand.’
China tried to speak but her words were muffled by the gag. She shook head, her eyes focused on the apartment door. Take this goddamn gag off and untie me, she screamed into the gag, but the girl wasn’t listening. She’d gone into the other room, making a call. China strained to hear what she was saying, but the blood raging in her ears rendered it near impossible. The girl seemed to be listening to someone for the longest time and spoke only a few words after her initial dialogue. Finally she hung up and came back into the kitchen. She took a large cook’s knife from the knife block.
*China shrank back in her chair convinced she was going to pass out, such was her terror. She never took her eyes off the knife as the girl approached her slowly. She stood in front of her captive, chewing her lip. China held her breath. *
The girl regarded China for a few moments as if making her mind up. ‘I’m gonna tell you something and then take your gag off; you keep quite when I do that or I will have to kill you, understood?’ She leaned over China, the knife pointed at her throat. China nodded, relieved the horrid material was coming out of her bloodied mouth. With one strong rip the gaffer tape came off leaving China’s lips red and sore, the gag came out next. China coughed and gasped.
‘Right, now listen up.’ The girl kept an eye on the apartment door. ‘I need to trust you, can I?’
‘Yes, yes you can.’ China squeaked, her cut lip swollen and raw from the gag. ‘Please, let me go, I won’t tell.’
‘Shut up and listen, this is important and I don’t know how long we’ve got before Jan comes back.’ She pointed the knife at her prisoner. ‘You want to stay alive you do as I say, no question, just do it, OK?’
*China nodded, glimpsing just a chink of hope in what she heard. ‘Jan is Russian Mafia, know what I’m saying? He’s a killer, a brutal killer. See what he did to my folks, he’d do that to us both if he had to. Don’t forget that.’ The girl moved behind China and began to untie her. ‘I left the knots loose in case I couldn’t help you, if you’d pulled hard it would have undone.’ She gathered the rope and put it on the table. *
‘I’m undercover FBI – know what I’m saying – working a huge, I mean huge, drug smuggling case. Jan is one of the cogs in a very big wheel and I’ve been cultivating him as my boyfriend to get near to the big guys.’ As she spoke she opened the trash can in the corner of the kitchen and removed the full plastic bag, pushing her hand down inside she extracted a gun with ammunition box. Replacing the trash she turned to China. ‘What’s your name, we never got introduced?’
‘China.’
‘Well China, I’m Agent Serra, I guess you never knew my folks, they were the best.’
‘I heard them arguing with you, I guess it was you, about your boyfriend, that’s all I know of them, and we used to say hello in the lobby sometimes.’ She glanced towards the hall. ‘I’m sorry…’
*‘They didn’t know about Jan and my case, they just hated him on sight, they didn’t know I was undercover until…,’ she sighed heavily. ‘They had great instincts.’ She was loading the gun as she spoke. ‘Unfortunately for them they got too protective and Dad followed him, unknown to me, and saw him and some of his gang delivering drugs to a supplier. He had no idea what he’d wandered into. He always thought Jan was married or a no good hood, small time stuff, but this…’ *
China stood on wobbly legs, deeply shocked. She cleared her throat, ‘If your dad knew this why didn’t he report it or tell you?’
‘He didn’t get chance. When he came home and told Mom they rowed, I heard them in the bedroom. At first I thought he was going to come out and lecture me, we’d have another row and he’d tell me to drop Jan, but he didn’t. He started to call the cops and I had to stop him. I grabbed the phone and Mom started yelling at me and we struggled – you heard it I guess. Dad pulled her off me and started shouting about my crooked boyfriend, killer of young kids, making them addicts and well, you get the picture. They hadn’t a clue what would happen – I didn’t.’ The FBI agent grabbed her jacket and moved to the door. ‘Come with me, quietly.’
‘You killed your parents?’ China couldn’t take it in. ‘Oh my god!’
‘Shut up, no I didn’t, of course not. Jan killed them. He rang me during the row and heard them both kicking off at me down the phone. He didn’t understand, they speak – spoke Spanish – never did learn English – but he could tell something bad had happened. I told him they were on at me for going out with a Russian, and wanted us to break up. Jan said he was coming over to talk to them, persuade them to back off about us being together. I tried to put him off, but he doesn’t live too far from here.’ She placed her fingers over her lips and listened at the door. ‘I couldn’t get them to leave before he came, stubborn as hell,’ she whispered.
*‘Why didn’t you tell your bosses what happened, they’d have stepped in surely?’ China followed the Agent to the door, keeping her voice low. *
*‘I didn’t get time to let my boss know, it all happened too fast.’ Biting her lip she added, ‘I just had time to tell my parents I was working a case and Jan was my target – my way into the gang, to the head guy. I tried to explain we’d gone too far to quit now, the case was almost air-tight, I just needed a little more time to nail the lot of them, they had to forget what they knew. We rowed again, they grabbed me and we struggled. I was trying to get my gun, to be able protect them before Jan turned up, but Mom kept grabbing me and shouting. They never wanted me to join the service, they worried themselves sick about it. During the row Jan arrived.’ The girl’s eyes filled with tears. ‘I told them to keep quiet, not mention what they knew, but Dad lost it when Jan knocked and raced to the door before I could stop him…’ *
China gasped and closed her eyes briefly. She opened them and slowly moved past the two bodies on the floor by the door. She shuddered. Jan killed both parents, brutally, and his ‘girlfriend’ appeared to have no qualms about helping him to cover his crime up and help remove their bodies. You couldn’t make it up.
‘Why didn’t you stop him?’
‘I didn’t get chance, I never got to my gun. Dad opened the door with Mom behind him, I don’t know what they thought they’d do, but as he walked in Jan shot them both, point blank and turned the gun to me.’ Her voice quivered. ‘The arrogant shit believes I love him more than my folks and I let him think that. I couldn’t do anything for them, so I decided to get on with the job.’ She grabbed China’s arm. ‘Time for grief and revenge later.’
Speechless, China gawked at the girl in disbelief. Cold bitch!
*‘Follow me, we’re getting out of here before Jan comes back. I’ll tell him you needed the john and over-powered me. He thinks I’m a brainless barmaid. We met in one of the Mafia-owned clubs where his gang hang out, where I was planted to pick up intelligence on them.’ She pulled the door open slowly and checked the hall was clear. ‘I’ve spoken to my chief and if I can get you out of the building, I’ll come back and wait for Jan.’ *
‘You can’t be serious! He’ll kill you if he thinks you let me escape. Why’ve you got to come back, can’t they just arrest him for your parents, for their…what happened to them?’
‘The case is ongoing, they want me to carry on as long as he believes in me.’ The FBI agent cautiously led the way along the corridor, China tight on her heels.
‘But your parents, the FBI know they’re – you know…’ China whispered in disbelief.
The agent stopped and turned to China, gun in hand. ‘I can’t help them and what would be the point of stopping now, we need to avenge them and everyone else they’ve killed, otherwise they’ve died in vain. Now shut up and follow me, we’re not safe here.’
*

*****

Avoiding the elevator Agent Serra led China down the stairs, slowly, keeping the gun in front of her, eyes constantly scanning the stairwell as they moved between floors. Suddenly she stopped, her body stiffening. She turned to China, her finger over her lips. She signalled that China remain still. China froze. The women could hear muffled male voices somewhere beneath them. Agent Serra put China’s cell – which she’d kept – to silent, and sent a text to her Chief. Who was on the stairs?*
After what seemed way too long the reply came: he didn’t know, a resident perhaps. He told them to sit tight whilst they investigated. Agent Serra replied they were in the 3rd floor stairwell and would wait unless the voices moved upwards towards them. ‘We wait for the all-clear,’ she mouthed to China whose legs were shaking.
‘What’s wrong?’ China mouthed back.
‘Boss is checking our exit,’ her companion mimed. She leaned over the stair-rail checking below and above them. Just in-case. ‘Sit down,’ she told China. China obeyed relieved to be off her wobbly legs.
China’s cell vibrated. Glancing at it, the agent whispered to China. ‘All clear, just residents. Let’s go.’
The journey to the ground floor was slow but thankfully uneventful. Cautiously Agent Serra pushed the fire door open and stuck her head around the door, quickly scanning the lobby. The concierge was not at his desk. Serra texted her boss, where was he? Her boss replied he must be in the john, keep coming; all clear. The agent didn’t reply instead she closed the fire door and leaned against it. Thinking. China nudged her, her expression quizzical.
‘Something’s not right, we’re not going out this way,’ she mouthed.
‘Why? How do you know?’
‘Gut instinct, the concierge isn’t there and he should be.’
‘Perhaps he’s in the restroom?’
‘He needs to be at his station to keep an eye out for Jan, my boss arranged it. Now isn’t a good time to relieve himself.’ Serra bit her lip, her mind racing. She looked at China’s cell then made a call. ‘Let’s go back up a floor,’ she whispered to China. ‘Quick, quietly.’
They both ran up the stairs and China waited as the young Agent whispered into the phone, her face anxious as she listened to the reply. She ended the call.
*‘What?’ *
*‘A colleague, checking stuff for me. She’ll text back. We stay put.’ Serra leaned over the stair-rails, checking above and below stairwells. So far so good. The cell vibrated and Serra moved away from China to read the message. She texted back, waited, and read the reply before putting the cell in her pocket. *
‘It’s not good, whoever I thought I was texting with earlier, it wasn’t my boss. He’s disappeared along with two other agents who were across the road, waiting for you. Someone has been using his cell to get us outside.’ She signalled for China to follow her as she moved up to the next floor. ‘I think my cover’s blown, we need to find another way out of here.’
China paused, taking it all in. ‘You mean, we can’t get out of here. We’re stuck?’ She tried to keep her voice low but panic was rising in her throat.
‘Why can’t the FBI help us?’
‘They’re on it, believe me, but they can’t just rush the building, there are other residents to consider.’ The young agent wasn’t sure at all; she wondered if anyone other than her colleague, was aware of the situation – who could be trusted?
‘You think Jan has rumbled you, he’s after us both?’ China stopped and gripped the stair-rail. ‘I feel sick.’
‘Not as sick as Jan will make you, believe me.’ Serra grabbed China’s hand and almost pulled her upstairs. ‘Any other ways out of this building?’
‘No, well, not on this floor, but there’s a fire-escape outside my bedroom window, it’s old and rusty – we’re not supposed to use it.’
*‘Let’s do it, back to your apartment – now!’ *
*

*****

They raced as quietly as possible up several flights of stairs, China trying to keep pace with the fitter Agent. Panting, she stood behind Serra as she cautiously opened the door to China’s floor, easing her head around it, scanning the length of the hall. Thankfully the building didn’t have CCTV on the residential floors and stairwells – Serra had noted earlier – once happy the hall was deserted, she beckoned China to follow her.*
‘Give me your key, stay close behind me, don’t make a sound.’
China handed it over and held her breath as she almost hugged the FBI agent’s back. Gently Serra inserted the key and turned it, gingerly opening the door, her gun ready. After a moment she eased herself inside and pulled China in after her. So far so good. Gently closing the door she indicated that China stay near it as she moved around the apartment, checking they were alone. Satisfied, she locked the door and fixed the various locks into place. ‘Got a landline?’ She moved towards the bedroom and the fire-escape.
‘No, I don’t, just my cell.’
‘What about another cell, or computer?’ she stood to one side of the bedroom window and looked down on the rusting metal eye-sore passing for a means of escape. Not good.
‘Only my laptop, I use it mainly for writing.’ China pointed to her bed. It lay where she’d left it what seemed a lifetime ago.
‘Internet?’
‘Yes, I use it for Google and stuff.’
‘Get me online, fast.’ The agent was trying to make a plan. She couldn’t involve other residents, ignorance was definitely bliss where they were concerned. She had to make contact with her office, praying that China’s computer wasn’t compromised and that Jan and his cronies hadn’t yet realised she’d go back to China’s apartment. The fire escape wasn’t an option but that also meant that Jan couldn’t use it either.
China handed her laptop to the agent who took it to the writer’s desk and began to type rapidly. ‘Keep well away from the windows,’ she said as China was drawn to the window. ‘And the door, we can’t trust it to withstand an assault.’
‘An assault? You mean they’ll break in here?’ China’s voice rose with her mounting fear.
‘Don’t know. Second thoughts, go to the door, quietly, and watch the hall through the spy-hole. Any movement, anything odd, let me know; quietly, understand?’ Her fingers still speeding across the keys. China moved to the door and placed her eye against the spy-hole. The hall was deserted. She kept turning to watch the agent, wondering what she was planning.
‘Got some help coming, so we sit tight and wait,’ Serra said eventually, leaving the computer she pushed China aside so she could look through the spy-hole. ‘Any chance some water?’
‘Yeah, right-away.’ China moved to the kitchen, pushed a glass under the water tap on her ice-box and was about to return, when she heard a loud thud and a muffled cry. She froze. She was about to ask Agent Serra is she was all right, when a voice called out to her.
*‘China, get in here now.’ It was Jan. How did he get in? She couldn’t move, her legs felt like lead and she felt faint. ‘Like now would be good,’ he hissed. ‘Don’t make me come for you.’ *
Everything went black as terror streaked through her body, suffocating her, she couldn’t hold on. The ground rose up, wobbled, and China felt herself falling, falling, falling…
*

*****

‘China, China, wake up, open your eyes.’ Somewhere, distant and muffled, China could hear a voice. ‘Wake up, you’re all right, everything is all right.’*
Gradually consciousness returned and she was able to open her eyes, bleary and unfocused. She shook her head, her thoughts muddy and confused. ‘What?’ ‘You OK?’
‘Who? What? Oh my god, Agent Serra, what happened?’ She began recalling events, her heart pounded. She sat up, her head spinning, her eyes hurt. She rubbed them and stared at her companion, trying to focus. ‘I thought Jan got in – where is he? I don’t understand.’
‘Agent who? What?’ The girl laughed. ‘Who the hell is Jan? There’s no-one here, just you and me.’
*‘They rescued us, they saved us?’ *
*‘I have no idea what you’re on about China, sit back and I’ll bring you some water.’ *
‘Yes, water, I remember, I was getting you some water and Jan got in! Are you alright? I don’t understand, tell me.’ China rubbed her head which was going to burst, confusion and fear filled her mind.
*‘Here drink this.’ *
China peered at her companion, recognition slowly dawning on her. ‘You’ve been having a nightmare, screaming like a banshee China when I was letting myself in – I could hear you all the way along the hall – I’m sure the whole building could hear you. I thought you were being murdered, you gave me such a fright I can tell you. I found you lying on the bed, thrashing round like crazy.’ Her companion sat on the bed beside her. ‘It’s alright, you’re safe. I’m here.’
‘You! But you’re…’
‘Yes it’s me, we were going for lunch, remember?’
‘What? But you were, we were, I mean Jan, he was going to kill…’
‘You’ve been dreaming, China, that’s all. I don’t know who your Jan is and what was going on in that crazy head of yours, but I am real, there’s no-one here but you and me and nobody’s out to kill you.’ She took the laptop from the bed and placed it on her lap, and traced her finger across the pad, bringing up a Word document. She stooped to read the screen and laughed. ‘You really are a case, China. You’ve been dreaming about your book. You must’ve fallen asleep writing last night. This is called Apartment 206c. You’ve written twelve chapters and you mention someone called Jan, oh, and you have me in it too, how exciting.’
‘My book? But I thought, I mean it seemed so real…’
‘You and your over-active imagination China, you’re crazy, but so cool. I see I’m the heroine – that’s good,’ she laughed. ‘I spend one night away and look at you, screaming and having nightmares fit to curdle anyone’s blood, and you’re not even ready – you’re unbelievable.’
‘Don’t read any more, that’s private until it’s finished.’ The author jumped off the bed and grabbed her laptop from her room-mate, Louise Serra. ‘I remember now, I woke up early and decided to finish the chapter before getting up.’ China said, still confused. ‘I must’ve dropped off again?’ Is that what happened she wondered.
Louise laughed, ‘get ready, we’re supposed to be having lunch with the girls remember, and if you don’t get a move on, we’ll be late as usual.’ She took the glass back into the kitchen while China headed for the bathroom.
The doorbell rang. ‘I’ll get it,’ Louise shouted as she looked through the spy-hole. She put the chain on and opened it. ‘Yes?’
‘Hi, I’m your new neighbour, I heard screaming, so I thought I’d drop in and check everything’s all right.’ A tall, dark haired young man with lightly tanned skin smiled at her.
‘Who is it?’ China appeared in her wrap, not yet ready for her shower. She gaped at the young man standing in her doorway.
‘Hi guys, I’m Jan, your new neighbour in 206c.’
*

*** *]

[* h1. Crashing Down

By Paul White

Travis was sitting on his usual stool when I entered the bar. I parked my backside next to his and, lifting the beer from the bar top, said “Cheers”. It was something we regularly did on a Friday. Two, maybe three beers, possibly a large whisky, before heading home.

Travis was an old friend from way back. One of the few I was still in regular contact with. The others, well, they sort of faded away, out of my life. Gone. Life has a way of making you into a liar, making you break promises you gave with the best intentions of keeping, at the time.

That’s the key.

Time.

Things change; time melts everything you took as solid, stable, forever, away from you.

Subtly, inexorably.

One day you wake up and everything is different. You have no idea how it happened. You are older, greying, wrinkling. You get out of breath faster when you run, if you run.

The world has new gadgets, new technology with an almost undecipherable language of its own. A language everyone around you knows, understands, uses. But to your ears it’s just an incoherent babble.

Relationships change too. They evolve from… from whatever they were, too what they are now; or in many cases, what they no longer are.

My marriage has changed. Thinking back over the last few days, weeks, months I can see it now. Perhaps the truth is it began to decline before, years ago; little by little, piece by piece.

You let it go.

Small, seemingly inconsequential moments ignored, brushed aside or under the carpet. You plod on, living each day with no true mind for the future and no eye on the past.

That is how it happens, that is how time steals your world from you, minute unnoticed amounts evaporate each day.

Until a moment when it all comes crashing down around you.

Like it has with me.*
I ask Travis when he last saw my wife.
“At your birthday party” he says.
That was nine months ago.
*I nod. I believe him. *
Which for me is a good thing, because I need to bounce something off him, something personal; the type of stuff we guys never speak about.
“I think Amanda is cheating on me” I say. That is it. It is in the open now. I cannot take it back. It cannot be unsaid.
Travis nods. Not in agreement. But in a strange, almost sagely manner. I am sure he is no wiser than I, he is just buying time, considering how to answer. “You sure?” he asks, turning slightly to face me.
It is now my turn to nod. “Yep, pretty sure”.
Travis is now shaking his head. A sign of disbelief? Or because he thinks that is the reaction I want? He breaths out, a long slow sigh.
It is not easy for us men to open up, to talk outright.
I wave the bar man over; order two more beers and two large whiskies. It is far too soon for the whisky, but today was no longer a normal Friday. I pull out a pack of smokes and light-up. Biding my time. Uncertain of what to say next. But Travis beats me to it.
“How do you know?” His question is hesitant, quizzical of me. Wanting proof. Wanting me to be certain of my convictions.
“She stayed out all night again” I said. Not proof I know, but it was a starting point for me, a way to ease myself into telling.
“That don’t prove nothing” Travis replied, shrugging.
I took a drink of the whisky, swilling it over my gums, letting it burn. It was no proof alone, but there was more.
“Said she was staying over, sleeping the night at Jane’s” I said.
Travis spread his hands, “Well? Have you spoken to Jane, have you asked her?”
This was the moment, the crux of the matter. This was the point where I had to admit to myself my life and my marriage was over, it was down the pan. Hit rock bottom and way beyond. Whatever I did from now, whatever way I turned the outcome would not be a good one.
Not good at all.
“No” I said, shaking my head.
“Then, that’s what you should do. That’s what I would do”. Travis slapped me on the back in a reassuringly manly fashion and smiled inanely in my face.
“There’s more” I said. “Get the drinks and I’ll tell you”.
The grin dropped from Travis’s face replaced by raised eyebrows of curiosity. He obediently ordered more drinks.
“I don’t have to ask Jane if Amanda stayed with her, because I know she didn’t” I told him.
“How?” a monosyllabic question.
“Because I was with Jane all night long” I answered honestly.
Travis froze. Whisky tumbler halfway to his lips. He cocked his head looking at me sideways. I knew he was wondering if I was winding him up, if I was pulling his leg.
*I ignored his stare, sat back and lit another cigarette. *
Waiting.
“You were…with Jane…?” Travis’s voice trailed off.
“That’s my problem” I said.
I watched Travis, noting the expressions crossing his face, as his brain slowly comprehended my situation.
My marriage has changed. Thinking back over the last few days, weeks, months I can see it now. Perhaps the truth is it began long before, years ago. Little, seemingly inconsequential moments ignored, brushed aside or under the carpet. You plod on, living each day with no true mind for the future and no eye on the past. That is how it happens, that is how time steals your world from you, minute unnoticed amounts evaporate each day.
Until a moment when it all comes crashing down around you.
*

*** *]

[* h1. Orpheus: An I Love the Corps story

By Chris Dean

[_ There is a fall, a wall of dust, a backwards scream and a gun that eats bullets._*
*_ It makes little more sense in the right order. A scream- no, a defiant roar. A wildly firing machine gun, pointlessly raking a cloud of dust. No; the maddened rattle is creating the cloud of dust and debris. And then, she soars upwards. Backwards. The fall made more sense. Time to go back. Right to the start. _]

“Well, anything?” The tone, as always, implying like I don’t do a proper job.*
*“Data is intact. Going to take a plunge. See what happened to Miss Athena, here.” *
“Fine. We’ll go ahead. 4, watch 5’s back will you? He’s going into one of his comas.”
“It’s not a coma-”
*”-you can see what goes on around you with a millisecond of thought. Yeah, yeah I know. Just get it done. Rest of you; pick a tunnel. Let’s see if we find a sign of this Athena, or anybody else. Constant updates. Sync cameras. You know the drill. Let’s move.” *
*

[_ “Everyone clear of the dropship. Move, move, move!”_*
_The dropship is invisible, but the roar of the plasma engines is a sound every marine knows. Her head ducks down from the inevitable blast of dust, hand raised as an ineffective shield. Sediment clouds the visor like a fungus clinging to tree bark. The gauntlet slowly scoops up the scum, as the Sarge continues Sarging in the background. _
_With her vision clear, Athena’s already crouched on her knee, machine gun locked and loaded, sweeping left and right, before the Sarge gives the order. He glances over, casting a nod to her. A familiar bond. The two who know what they’re doing. The other three look pretty green. Two in contact armour, only with pistols magnetised to their thighs. They’ve each got metallic cases magged around the waist; must be scientists. Well, Exploratory squad; no big surprise there. The other marine has a rifle in their hand, but they look more likely to shoot themselves than a hostile. _
“This is callsign Odysseus, Orpheus Squad.” The Sarge drones on with date, time and planetary location, whilst Athena does some sweeps in every direction. The other three are huddled together a few feet behind callsign Odysseus, their Sergeant. Athena turns back. The Sarge kneels down, tapping on his wrist-pad. Light flicks out from his helmet into the cave entrance. “We’ve found the entrance pointed out to us by the initial recon team. I can confirm that the tunnel is large enough for access, one abreast. About to proceed.” The Sarge points his assault rifle down, attention focussed.“I’ll head in first. Hermes, I want you behind me. Planet might be uninhabited, but let’s all pretend like it’s not. You know, standard procedure. Hephaestus, Aphrodite; close behind Hermes. Like a… what did they call them?”
_“Barnacle”, says Aphrodite, sounding a little bored. _
“You sure?… I’m sure… I’m sure it started with a…” he clicks his fingers. “An L? Yeah. Sure it started with an L.”
“Oh. Limpet, Sarge. You mean limpet. You want us to stick to Hermes like a limpet. Though barnacle would have been apt.”
“That’s it!” Odysseus snaps his fingers again. “Limpet. That’s why I keep you around!”
“Yes. Of course. For trivial Old Earth biological facts. That’s why you keep me around. The xenobiologist.”
_“You never know. The dead planet stuff might be bull, A!” Hermes sounds so young and impressionable, it’s almost painful to listen to. _
_I don’t think I can watch this any more. Moving on. _
*]

_ The squad move their way down the tunnel. Progress is slow. Details are to hard to flag. Athena keeps turning round every few seconds. Looking back up the tunnel. I guess there’s not much to see below. The corridor is tight, ceiling low. The marines are packed together like… oh Aphrodite, I bet you could tell me. _

“Hey, Sarge, they were down here for hours before whatever it is happened to Athena at the end of the recording. Conducting geological surveys, by the looks of it. They also had a xeno. Doesn’t like they were expecting to find life, but Command had them prepped for it.”*
“We know who the hell we’re looking for, Hyena 5. Your job is to find where the fuck they went, not give me their ‘dear diary’ entries.”
“Yes Sarge. On it. Just… a lot of boring shit in here, by the looks of it.”
“Well deal with it. That’s your job. You get to sit pretty whilst we do the hard work and sweep this place. Sorry if you find it boring.”
*“Yes Sarge.” Damn her. *
*_ _

[_ They’re in an open cavern. Odysseus is taking a pew on a rock in the centre. Still alert, making sweeps, but taking a moment to rest. Athena seems incapable of that. Back against a wall, watching everybody. Sensible girl. Aphrodite is crouched by the Sarge, scraping. Looking for biological matter? Soil microbes? Not your area, just keeping looking. The techs can analyse the specifics later. _*
_There’s a scream. _
_Athena swings to the right. There’s an empty hole. The scream echoes down it. “Hephaestus!” Her feet thump along the rock like pile-drivers. Light shines down the hole. Nothing. Well, rock and darkness. Nothing else. _
_Okay, back to the cavern. Sarge in the centre, Aphrodite within five feet of them. Hermes at the edge, to the right. Should have been on Hephaestus… fucking idiot isn’t even looking at him. Damn. Winding back to confirm. Yup. Hephaestus heads off to the right, and crouches down. Examining the tunnel. It’s a big god damned black tunnel, Hermes, why aren’t you also checking the… wait. Is that where Sarge is looking? Yes. Sarge is off-cam. But was definitely looking that way. _
*]

[_ “Okay Sarge. There’s definitely something down here.”_*
“I need something a bit more concrete than ‘something’, 5.”
“Just wanted you to know that we have at least one Hostile, Sarge.”
_The Sarge is already alert, but I can see from her cam-feed… well, reminds me of Athena. Swinging back and forth. _
_“What kind of Hostile?” _
“Well, that… you’ll have to wait and see.”
_“At this rate, I’ll fucking find it before you do.” _
*]

[_ “Hephaestus!” Athena charges forward. A shot fires in the direction of the tunnel from the left. Must have been the Sarge. Nobody else looking that way had a gun trained._*
“Sarge! What the hell?” Athena is panting. The hole is empty… well except for the aforementioned rock and darkness. “What the fuck happened?”
_Hermes is panicking, screaming for Hephaestus over the comms. There’s no response. _
_“Didn’t see. Was like he just fell in.” Odysseus almost seems to collapse in on himself. _
“Then why’d you fire?”
“Look at that hole. No way he fell down there and kept sliding.”
_Pause. He’s right. The gradient isn’t steep enough for this Hephaestus guy to just keep rolling or sliding. And if he was, he’d keep screaming. Probably still be doing it. _
“So… we got a hostile?”
“We got a hostile… Hermes, anything?”
“No! No sir. Sarge. No Sarge. Comms have gone dead. Feed’s gone dead.”
_EMP. No. Something dragged him. Maybe the drag smashed up the helmet? Sounds more likely. With EMP there’d been a flash, a response, some gun-fire. Not a disappeared geologist. _
Pausing. No sign of helmet fragments. There’s blood spray around the tunnel entrance though. Splashes. Maybe impact… head shot? Instant kill? Shit. But then there’d be helmets fragments, right? Okay, okay, you’re not hypothesising. Keep looking.
“H could just have been knocked out. We need to recover him.”
“With all respect Sarge, we lost contact with a marine. We’re up against an unknown hostile. We’re not Infantry. Protocol says we should bug out and call for back-up.”
“We don’t know what we’re dealing with yet, or what happened to Hephaestus. Until I know, I’m not bugging out.”
“But Sarge…”
“We’re staying. That’s an order.” Idiot.
_“Sarge.” _
_“You stay here, watch Aphrodite… Hermes, you’re with me. We’re going to check down that hole. See if we can find Hephaestus.” _
“But Sarge, I’m just a comm op…”
_“You’re also a marine! With me!” Fucking idiot. Idiots, even. Just a comms operative. It’s people like you that give people like me a bad fucking name, Hermes. _
_At least Athena has some sense. She keeps in direct contact with Odysseus. Plugging in Odysseus’s cam-feeds to her heads up display. Lots of dark tunnel, just below head height. The same brown rock. Seems to be a blood trail. Something dragged him down. I can see Odysseus’s assault rifle… quivering slightly. You know this is wrong. Why don’t you head back, you idiot? _
“Seeing anything Sarge?”
“You’ve got me patched in. You can see what I see.”
“Just keeping you engaged, Sarge.”
_“Well, maybe I want to fucking concentrate, Corporal. Then I’ll be engaged.” _
“Yes Sarge. Just… need to talk for myself, you know. A’s not being much conversation right now.”
“Have you ever considered this hostile might be listening in, and it might be a good idea to use comm silence?”
“You didn’t order comm silence… you want comm silence, give the order. Till then, this girl’s going to warble on.”
_The Sarge lets out a laugh. The hard-ass facade fades away. The camera goes crazy. The Sarge screams. He smashes into the ground. Can’t see a thing. _
Shit. Shit. Winding back.
The Sarge lets out a laugh. He… lifts upward? Then slams into the ground. Lifts upward… like Athena. No, not like Athena. Well not exactly. The lift is so slight this, time, it’s barely noticeable.
_Blood floods the visor. _
*]

“Sarge, whatever it is, it uses the ceilings. I repeat: The ceilings. They’re pretty low in some places so… it must flatten itself tight to the rock.”*
“What? Like some some kind of lizard.”
“Guess so. Or spider… I don’t know Sarge, I haven’t seen it!”
“Then how do you know it uses the ceilings!?” Without a further word, I cut the footage and send it to the Sarge. I loop the fucker, just for her viewing pleasure. Three times should do it. You can share my pain… I get the easy job, my ass…
“Well shit. Check further back, when he’s further up the tunnel. See if you can isolate something on the ceiling. Something he didn’t see. Something you didn’t see.”
“Good idea, Sarge.”
“Course it’s a good idea. I’m the freakin’ Sarge! All right Hyenas, eyes out. We have an unknown hostile. We knows there’s one. Could be more. We can confirm it uses the ceiling. Waiting on further intel. Hold positions, and watch for things on the walls and the ceilings. Sarge, out.”
` I check the hole where I found the datasim. A hole among many holes, in the floor, walls and ceiling in this chamber. Then I look up. “Fuck. Sarge.”
“What you found now?”
“There’s a hole right above me.”
“And? There’s bullet holes all over your location.”
“No, like a hole-hole. Leading into a tunnel above. So, I reckon maybe something came out of the tunnel.”
“You think, this, this hostile lifted her up and…”
“There’s blood around the hole, Sarge. Must have detached the datasim from the side of the helmet when she was pulled through. Blind luck we found it.”
“Not for her. Move back to Hyena 4.”
“Got it, Sarge.”
*“Hyena 4, watch 5. Hyena 4?” *
“I was already watching him, Sarge! Like you said!”
*I turn back around anyway. There she is. Hyena 4. Dawson. Blocking the entrance down here. Light illuminating her. I’d like to say like an angel… I’d have to add ‘of death’ to that, for accuracy. *
“Then watch the god-damned ceiling too! I don’t want anyone going the way of Orpheus Squad. Everyone else, move back to the entrance. Now. We’re a bunch of bad-asses, true, but let’s not stretch ourselves out any more.”
The other three chorus a “Yes Sarge!” down the comms. Back to it. Over to me. Who’s sitting on their ass now, Hyena 1?
*

_ Two seconds before Odysseus goes down, there’s something on the ceiling definitely. But you wouldn’t see it unless you knew what you were looking for. But I can’t go to Hyena 1 with ‘something.’ It’s the colour of the rock. Maybe the lizard theory is true. I can make out limbs. Flattened. The Sarge’s helmet must brush under it. Best I got. _

“Everybody, keep away from the rock. It blends in with the rock. Flattens itself out. Looks like it’s got four limbs… that’s all I can…”*
“Keep away from the rock, 5? Are you serious? I’ve got rock on all sides!”
“Well, you’re the Sensitive, 3, if any giant chameleon’s going to get the drop on any of us, it’s not going to be you, is it?”
“Well, the only echoes I’m getting right now are cutting off really suddenly.”
“Which means you at least get to die, quick, eh?”
“No jokes, Mister ‘Sitting Pretty by the Entrance’!”
“Sitting pretty? You’re joking right.”
“Shit!” the Sarge yells out.
“Sorry Sarge!” 3 and I cry out in unison. My eyes dart to her feed. She’s reaching the top of the tunnel. “5, you seeing this?”
“I’m seeing.”
*They’re in battle armour, battered and scraped, but intact, assault rifle in hand. Pointed down at Hyena 1. There’s the stain of a lot of blood, murky, as if wiped, across the visor. On their shoulder, it says SRG TANNER. ODYSSEUS. *
*“Oh, thank god. I thought you were… that thing”, Odysseus says. He lowers his assault rifle. *
“We thought it’d killed you. We found one of your squad’s datasims. Athena’s.”
“She… is she okay? We lost contact.”
“We haven’t found any bodies yet. Since, you’re alive, that’s a good sign.”
“Means we just need to find Athena. Everyone else is accounted for.” Odysseus taps the comm unit on the side of his helmet. “We just got separated. And pretty lost. Re-established contact. Barely. Signals screwy down here.”
“My squad’re regrouping near the exit. Follow me.”
*

[_ Hermes came scrambling out of the tunnel. Screaming. Athena wasn’t patched into his cam, so there’s nothing to pull. But there were no shots from Odysseus. He screamed for a few seconds, and then the screaming stopped, whilst Hermes ran. I guess the Sarge blacked out from pain. Idiot Hermes didn’t even stop to check. _*
_“What happened to the Sarge!?” Athena pushes past Hermes as he gets to his feet. She drops to one knee, light and machine gun barrel pointing down the hole. _
“Something got him. It was right on the damned ceiling! Tore its… I dunno, like its fingers. Right into his head.”
“He’s got a helmet on!”
“I know!”
“His fingers?”
“Yeah. Claws maybe. I dunno!”
“Then what?”
“The Sarge was down. I ran, damn it!”
_“Why didn’t you shoot!?” _
*_“It killed the bloody Sarge!” Well, so he thought. _]

Hyena 1 has Odysseus in front. Telling him where to turn. “This is 3. I think I can sense the others. A group.”*
“I thought you said their echos cut out?” This all private comms. My comm system; no-one’s cracking that.
“They did, yeah. But I’m picking up echoes again.”
“The same ones?”
“Well, uh… what do you mean?”
“Hyena 3: are they the same telepathic echoes you picked up before?” The Sarge pitches in.
“Hard to tell, boss. The others I picked up. Fragments. They were running terrified. I think I am picking up where they went… but must have calmed. Yeah, it’s them.”
*

[_ “Did it kill the Sarge? Did you even bloody check?”_*
“They went through his HEAD!”
Athena turns back, eyes locking onto Aphrodite. “Well, Miss Xenobiologist, this looks like your area, finally. Armour piercing fingers? Or claws even? Impossible, right?”
“Yes. Yes impossible.” She stares through her visor… towards Athena, but not at her. Eyes on the tunnel. Athena swings back around.
“So what are we talking here?”
“I don’t know.”
“This is what you wanted, wasn’t it? Give me theories, damn it!”
“I… I would need to see it. But it’s dangerous.”
“Procedure says we pull out! You said it yourself!”
Hermes clasps onto Athena’s shoulders. Begging.
The cameras shakes. No. Athena nods. She stares at her gun. To the tunnel. The silent tunnel. What even happened to Hephaestus, let alone the Sarge? There wasn’t even a body.
_“We’re two down. We pull out.” _
*]

Someone with sense. “Yeah. Three of them should be together. Wait. Need to check something.”

[_ She screams in defiance as the machine gun rattles, blasting holes into the chamber, as she spins in every direction. I see no target. Just a cloud of dust and debris. Rewind. She’s running. Alone. What happened to the others? Rewind._*
*]

“Athena was definitely alone at the end, Sarge.”*
“Odysseus’s story matches then. Survived whatever it was Hermes thought killed him. Not like Hermes stopped to look. And they never found Hephaestus. Maybe Athena’s alive too. Not like anybody can contact her on comms. And we haven’t found a single dead body.”
“So what? We’ve got a hostile that likes to maim, separate and fuck with its targets?”
*“Maybe. Maybe it likes to mess with you before it kills you.” *
*“Hyenas. I have eyes on Odysseus of Orpheus squad. At least four of the squad are alive. But we’re not out of the black hole yet. There’s still something aggressive in here with us, and we don’t know its intent.” Whilst the Sarge is doing her thing, I scrutinise her cam-feed. There are several holes in the back of the Sarge’s helmet. More like slits. Maybe claws. Too many lacerations for a vibro-blade. Whatever did it, ol’ Odysseus must have one tough skull.

[_ “All right; Hermes, you take point. Aphrodite; do the… what was it? The linket thing.”_*
“Limpet.”
“Yeah, that.”
“Hang on, you can’t make me take point…”
_“You want your back to the thing behind us that sticks to walls, looks like rock and has armour piercing needle fingers? Be my guest!” Athena stands to the side, gesturing a gauntlet down below her. _
“Okay. Take point. Got it, Corporal.”
“Oh no; you complained. Now you get to take the rear. And I get to find the way out of here. Lesson; learn to control your tongue. It gets you into trouble every time.”
*]

I tap into Hyena 3’s vid-feed. He’s still alone. “Found the others yet?” That’s the Sarge.*
“Homing in now… pretty sure they’re waiting.”
*

[_ Athena marches ahead… well, the tight tunnel equivalent of that. Checking back as usual. And above. And down. And the walls. No wonder she gets jumped. She sounds confident. But she’s all over the place. I guess I would be, stuck with bumbling Hermes and the shell-shocked Aphrodite. I speed 22 minutes ahead. Athena spins round. Aphrodite is running towards her. “Hermes! Sit-rep!” Hermes’ comm response is some kind of gurgling splutter. “Down!” Athena yells. Aphrodite throws herself to the ground. Nothing there. Hermes was too far behind. “Stay.” Athena steps over the xenobiologist. She strides down the corridor. She doesn’t run. She pauses and looks down. Aphrodite has a hold of her leg. _*
_“Don’t. If it’s chameleonic, it knows these caves. It knows where to hide. It’s splitting us up and picking us off one by one. We need to stay together.” Athena nods and pulls Aphrodite to her feet. _
_“Okay. We know it’s behind us. We just need to pace ahead. Exit should be this way.” I’m not sure it is. I’ve been watching, pausing and rewinding, and I don’t recognise these tunnels. _
*]

“Found them.” That’s 3. And he has. Aphrodite. And Hermes and Hephaestus. Well, I didn’t see anybody die. And the others still have comms. So is Athena still alive too, in here with us? Or is she the first to really go down?

[_ I wind the footage ahead until Athena pauses for a significant time and turns back around. I play from there._*
“-I repeat, this is Hephaestus. Where the hell is everyone?”
Athena patches through to Hephaestus’s feed. The heart monitor is understandably erratic. Cam-feed is out, and comms are crackling. Everything else checks out. “Hephaestus. We’ve lost the Sarge and Hermes. But then we thought we’d lost you. What the hell happened?”
_“I don’t know. I blacked out. Not sure where I am… definitely not where I was before.” _
“Okay. Can you see any of the marks we left on the way down?”
_Lights show on Athena’s HUD. Hephaestus rounds the corner. They’re looking right at each other. “Oh thank god!” He runs forward. Athena is jolted to the side. Aphrodite runs at Hephaestus. They embrace each other tightly. _
_Athena hangs back. “Wait, didn’t you see H-” _
_Aphrodite screams. Hephaestus’s hands push into her back. Through the contact armour, like hands sinking into putty, moulding the armour and flesh as one, as the hands sink deep and she writhes and screams. _
*]

I slap the footage to- no, screw the Sarge. 3 is right with them. Whatever they are.

[_ Machine gun fire pounds into Hephaestus and Aphrodite both- she's dead anyway. _]

3 yells “Holy sh-” and whips out his pistols. Bullets thump against the three marine’s armour. They’re thrown to the ground, caught by surprise, but the bullets don’t punch through. Aphrodite turns to him with the looks of a feral dog. He slams his pistols to his hips and runs. “Sarge, whatever they are, they’re not human!” I send the footage to the Sarge, whilst Athena’s recording plays across my retinas.

[_ The two of them jolt and vibrate like some sick and twisted version of sexual union. The force pulls the two of them apart, as most of Aphrodite’s back is parted and pieces of her spine sc_]- I pop my visor and vomit over the floor.

"3! Who fired those sho- oh god", the Sarge blurts over the comms, as she sees what I'm seeing. She'll never criticise my job again... maybe cos she'll probably see me thrown into Penal for insubordination. But it's worth it. If I live.

[_ Hephaestus snarls like a feral beast. Like Aphrodite. Or that thing wearing her skin. Hephaestus tries to step forward, but Athena roars, emptying an entire clip. Hephaestus keels backwards. “The FUCK!” Athena screams. She stalks over to Hephaestus, like the way a hunter approaches the prey, to check their dead. Hephaestus shudders. The bullets are popping out of him like that Old Earth vid-snack. The camera zooms in. She watches as the bullet holes suck back together and the flesh seals. She fires. Again and again. His head explodes. She stalks off. _]

Odysseus stops. The gunfire is echoing through the tunnels. Slowly, he turns, as Hyena 1’s minigun barrel whirs. “Please, tell me you are actually who you say you are?”*
“Would it truly pain you to kill one of your own?”
“You told me all I need to know.” The minigun fires. The bullets bounce and spark, but Odysseus is driven back, even as his very armour seems to fight back. Rippling and flowing. 1 doesn’t move from the spot. She pours the bullets into him. The armour (or whatever it is) starts to crack and tear apart. Odysseus screams. The scream distorts, and becomes a high pitched screech. He collapses as the barrels grind to a halt.
“Go for the head, Sarge!” Me.
“Just a second.” Her large left hand grabs a heavy pistol, blowing apart the forehead with a single slug. “All right people-”
*The Sarge is cut off by Hyena 3’s profuse swearing hammering across the comm. He’s bouncing from wall to wall, clipping his head, trying to run in tunnels where it’s possible. Of course he is; he’s got three of them on him. He falls forward. *
*I cut to 2’s cam. Safe, moving quietly; running won’t help her now. But there’s still one out there, but stealth will be more effective. As always, 2 makes the smart move.

Time to head back to the real world. I blink my eyes, and the only vid-feeds are my squad’s in the top of my visor’s HUD. I dismiss the data detached from Athena’s helmet, downloaded into my partially cybernetic brain and pop it back into a folder clearing my eyeballs from distraction. “Sarge, whilst 4 has the exit, you want me to charge it?” *
“Yes. Fucking please. 3, get on your feet and move!”
3 lifts himself up. And then collides with the wall to the left. And the right. And left. Screaming with each crunch. He sails through the air. Hephaestus stands over him. The other two run past. The face isn’t quite right. Reminds me of that old Earth artist; he used to make faces out of squares. Oh god. “Sarge. Run. Head shots are not a confirmed kill! I repeat-”
“What?”
*“Of course, this is not an order, and might be me once again saying something based on vague supposition and lack of facts again, but this is a REALLY STRONGLY WORDED SUGGESTION! The head’ll grow back. Move!” My beloved Sergeant complies whilst 3 lies on the floor, waiting for his end. *
*

All right digital world, looks like we’re not done yet. The digital overlay plays across my retinas. Hephaestus’s face. In pieces. I just need to check. As I look at Hephaestus’s face… kind of. Athena is satisfied. She runs and doesn’t look back. To see the face rebuilding itself, just like the flesh of his chest, where the bullet holes pulled themselves back together. And the armour-skin too. Its distorted, but repaired. *
*“Enjoying this, aren’t you?” says 3. *
Hephaestus shrugs. “We have waited a long time to have our revenge.”
“Revenge? For what!? No… shit… you’re…”
“Your eyes.” Hephaestus bends down. “You walk minds. You know my past. And your future.”
His face gets close.
“3. Do something. Quick. His hands. Well. They’re kind of like…”
*“Knives”, says 3. As he jams them right through the metallic fabric of Hephaestus’s contact armour, at each side of the throat. He presses a button on each hilt, as the blades vibrate. The neck fragments in grisly chunks spattering over 3’s visor and the head detaches. “I’m pretty sure that’ll grow back!” Hephaestus falls back with a wet thump. *
“Slow him down though, right?” 3 gets to his feet and runs forward. He rounds the corner.
*Into an outstretched hand. *
*The feed cuts off. *
*

“Fuck!” The continuous beep of 3’s disconnected heart monitor is cut short by a raise of an eyebrow. “1,2; we lost 3. That means there’s another one at least on the loose. Other than yours Sarge. When it grows back its head… and when the one 3 killed grows its head back that’s another..”*
“5!” 1 and 2 barked down the comm.
“Sorry. Morale. Not my thing.”
*“Setting charges. Right now, that’s your thing.” Oh yeah. Got distracted. I push the digital information away, for good this time. I move behind Hyena 4, taking the discs from my back and arranging them into a semi-circle around the exit point to the tunnel leading up and out. The plasma charges won’t release a massive blast, but should neatly close the entrance behind us without collapsing the tunnel ahead. I can hear pounding footsteps and 4’s fingers drumming on the barrel of their automatic shotgun. *
*“Identify yourself!” 4 bellows, as the footsteps become audible to human ears. “Hyena 2!” She hurtles into view, small in size, able to move through the chamber with some speed. She moves past 4, hunkering a few feet up, just behind me, as she takes out her plasma-cell augmented sniper rifle and points it ahead. “Come on, Sarge”, I mouth. Not out loud. Wouldn’t want her to know I give a shit.

“Identify yourself!” The response is a howling shriek. One of the four… whatever they are. The one who got a head start past 3. 4’s automatic shotgun pounds away. Part of the ceiling cracks. Dust everywhere. A rain of rubble. Just like Athena. She’d weakened the ceiling. Made holes in the floors and walls. Oh god. “4! Cease fire!” 4 is thrown on her ass, still firing as the ceiling continues to collapse. Is she… is she laughing?

Something leaps through the dust. Mostly limbs. Fingers far too long, head distorted. 4 fires and it flies away, and then the dust consumes the angel of death. The debris flows at me like a wave. I’m paralysed as I see tons a rock riding towards the plasma charges. Hands grab my shoulders and haul me up the tunnel. “Blow them!” orders Hyena 2. “Or we all die!” I sink the machine parts of my mind into the charges. They trigger. The charges disintegrate the rock. They’re arranged in a tight circle, creating a controlled plughole. But dust and rubble is already flying through. Rubble impacts rubble and 2 can only drag me so far. There’s massive impact. The tunnel shakes. And falls.

The rock groans around me. A hand grabs my shoulders again. Tugging. 2. Reliving my last moments. Surrounded by rock. Worse ways to die. It’s a terrible way to die, but better than fingers sinking into your armour and flesh like it was fused clay. Flinging your torso plating, ribcage and internal organs about like wedding confetti. Better than that.

The sunlight stings, even through closed eyelids. I open them and filter the light to an acceptable volume. She stands above me. My lifesaver. Her armour is battered into a bizarre shape, warped so much it may be impossible to remove without her being cut out of it. Her visor is shattered and her lank hair hangs through it. She’s different to what I imagined, her face less hardened than the impression her voice and attitude gave me. A machine gun lies on the ground behind her. Along with Hyena 2, not moving. She smiles, despite herself. “You guys, were the reinforcements, huh?” But all I can really focus on is the helmet. Where the datasim has been detached from the side. Where she was pulled through the ceiling. I remember fingertips sinking into skin. I remember confetti. *
*I never want to die that way. *
*I tear my pistol from my hip and fire. *
*

*** *]

[* h1. The Watchman

by Michael Greenwell

zonecrophobia (n); zo – a living creature; necro – dead; phobia – fear.

In 1910, one year after the first confirmed outbreak of the Draugr Plague – so called because, in spite of all medical facts that dictate the impossibility, it’s victims rise within days, sometimes only hours, after their death, with an insatiable appetite for living flesh: the first case had occurred in Norway, and the physicians who discovered the full horror of the disease had named the risen dead after undead monsters of ancient Norse legend – the Reaper’s Watch was established by the Ministry of Intelligence and operated as a branch of the British military. Watchmen were initially selected only from the armed forces, but in recent months recruitment had reached out to a wider variety of recruits.

Most people didn’t believe that the plague even existed, let alone entertained the thought that the dead could and did rise up as undead, unthinking cannibals: but those who did know learned very quickly that the Reaper’s Watch were the best – sometimes only line of defence. Inspector Graham Havers was unfortunate enough to be one such person, and on orders from his superiors had enlisted the aid of the Watch in a recent kidnapping.*
*_“You must understand,”_ the Inspector said in a hushed tone, as though the case was a matter of national security.

Daniel Hawkhurst, the Watchman who had agreed to meet with him but had yet to confirm any interest in taking on the case, managed to keep his distaste for the man from showing. Like many people, the Inspector looked upon the Reaper’s Watch with a mixture of fear, reverence, and disgust; they were stone-cold killers; they could save many more lives than an ordinary soldier orPolice officer; and yet there was always something not quite right about them in the eyes of the “normal” folk; perhaps it was their regular proximity to the victims of the Plague, or the cold detachment they displayed at all times: whatver the Inspector’s reasons, Hawkhurst could not have cared less. He had long since eschewed the need for social acceptance: even after the trauma of losing his entire squad during his military career prior to joining the Watch, Hawkhurst felt more at home, more welcome, with these outcasts than he ever could trying to live in “civilised society” once again.

You really have no idea who you’re dealing with, do you?Hawkhurst thought. And you have no interest in finding out. Probably for the best.

“Normally I would handle the matter myself,” the Inspector went on; “but the Ravenheads, the men we believe we are dealing with, have something of a reputation in the city.”*
“What kind of reputation?” Hawkhurst asked.
The Inspector cleared his throat.
“They use a variety of intimidation tactics,” he said, clearly unsettled by the very thought of this gang’s activities; “not in the least of which is… is the dismemberment of their victims, and the feeding of the severed body parts to draggers.”
Draugr,” Hawkhurst corrected him, though he either did not notice or chose to ignore the correction.

  • "Sometimes," the Inspector continued; "the victims' wounds are sutured, as though by a highly- trained physician, and they survive the ordeal. Other times, all we find are..." *


“Leftovers,” Hawkhurst finished when the Inspector could not.
“Indeed,” the Inspector said quietly, taking a sip of water. The Inspector’s office was cold, but still Hawkhurst saw beads of sweat forming on the man’s forehead. “You mentioned a highly trained physician?” Hawkhurst asked. “What makes you say that?”
“The evenness of the stiching, for one,” the Inspector replied. “Unlike the haphazard work we often see with the poorly trained medics most often employed by gangs, the work of theRavenheads always had an exceptional quality. Too much to be a normal gang doctor who has developed his skill. These were always precise, even, and clean. In later examinations of the bodies,limbs have been severed with surgical skills and equipment rather than clumsily hacked away with a blade or a wood saw.”
“I see,” Hawkhurst said.
For the first time since he entered the office, Hawkhurst now looked at the file the Inspector had laid on the desk in front of him. Just as the Inspector had explained, the daughter of Geoffrey Isembard Isaacs, a wealthy factory owner, had gone missing four days ago; three days ago, her father had received a ransom demand in the form of a wire recording – his daughter’s voice, terrified and weeping, pleading for him to pay the ransom by the end of the week; and in the background was the unmistakable moaning of a draugr, hungry for human flesh. The Inspector had left the office when Hawkhurst began listening to the recording, prompting him to wonder, not for the first time, how so squeamish a man had risen to such a rank. Twenty minutes after he had arrived, Hawkhurst left, saying to the Inspector as he passed the man in the corridor, “you’ll hear from me before the ransom is due.”
“So you’ll take the job?” the Inspector called after him.
Hawkhurst did not answer.
*

***

The Ravenheads had no fear of being caught; they proudly emblazoned their regular haunts with their symbol – a raven’s skull – and made sure every criminal in the East End knew where their territory was.

As much as it irked him, Hawkhurst had to go to their regular hideout – an inn with a gambling den at the back, a pit-fighting arena in the cellar, and a bordello on the top floor – without his armour or most of his weapons. Given the regular clientèle, going in completely unarmed was not only ill-advised, but would also have been a sure and certain way of getting himself noticed; half an hour of listening to the right conversations in the right alehouses had told him that no-one went into the Raven’s Perch unarmed. Three knives would have to be enough.

The soft wax he had used to alter the shape of his nose and cheekbones made him sweat and itch, but he forced himself not to give any sign of discomfort; it also covered the scar on his right cheek, which was a distinguishing feature, given that the arrival of a lone Watchman would surely have been heard of even this deep in London’s criminal districts. He had considered affecting a limp and hunching his shoulders, but he had seen more than one undercover investigator be discovered by overplaying their roles. The change of his face and the grubby cap to cover his military-style haircut would be sufficient.

He found the Ravenheads easily enough; their symbol tattooed and clearly visible on all of them as they stalked and swaggered about the building. But the gang was only his third priority. Even rescuing the girl only came second.

No; his main objective was the surgeon. Only a trained physician would have the skill to amputate the limbs of his victims and still keep them alive, but Hawkhurst had recognised something more in the photographs of the Ravenheads’ victims; something from previous cases; the work of a doctor who tortured and terrorised whole families by causing one of them – usually a parent – to become a draugr and then over the course of several weeks, cutting the rest of the family to pieces and feeding them to their undead parent. All except the youngest child; he forced them to watch the whole process, keeping them physically unharmed but every day asking them a series of questions designed to assess their mental condition. Wherever these grotesque experiments were leading, for some reason Doctor Thorley (or so Scotland Yard had dubbed him, naming him after the city where his first known activity had taken place) had taken a break and was now involved with kidnapping and extortion.

Doctor Thorley was here, and Hawkhurst meant to catch him; ideally before he went to work on Miss Isaacs. He was not the first Watchmen to have found Thorley’s victims, nor did he expect to be the last; and every single Watchmen who had picked up Thorley’s trail at one time or another had sworn that if they had the chance, they would catch him or kill him. Either option was acceptable.

By the end of the first night, Hawkhurst knew the layout of the building; by the end of the second, he had established that there was a secure room behind the arena, and that it was there that Miss Isaacs was being held. Only two more nights remained before the ransom was due.

But tonight was too busy; too many potential enemies. Tomorrow. As much as it fuelled his anger, he knew that tomorrow would be a much quieter night… but whether it would be quiet enough remained to be seen.

****

Thursday nights in the Raven’s Perch were quiet; Wednesdays were the mid-week fights to keep the regulars entertained, but the big-money bouts took place on Fridays. Thursday was the best night for what Hawkhurst intended (as if any night could be considered “good” for going into the hideout of a gang of murderers, thieves and kidnappers who kept an unspecified number of draugr somewhere on the premises).

This particular Thursday was the quietest the Raven’s Perch had been in several weeks, according to locals; they had mentioned seeing a pair of well-dressed men arrive earlier that day, and then Ralph Massey – owner of the establishment and alleged leader of the Ravenheads – turned everyone out and locked the doors. The doors had stayed locked until only a few minutes before Hawkhurst’s arrival, when three other Ravenheads had entered.

Whatever had passed between Massey and the two gentlemen – whom Hawkhurst had every cause to believe to have been Thorley and his ‘protection’ – it had been of grave concern to Massey to the point where his fellow Ravenheads had been expecting some sort of trouble even before Hawkhurst had snapped the neck of one and stabbed a second in the throat.

The last of the three managed to call out to Massey before Hawkhurst dispatched him, but Massey had been too slow in his reactions. He had clearly intended to either kill Miss Isaacs or use her as a human shield to aid his escape, but Hawkhurst had pursued him through the building and had rendered him unconscious before he even reached the locked back room in the cellar.

Unfortunately, the key that Massey had held in his hand as he fell clattered across the floor andslipped down into a drain. Hawkhurst heard a distant splash as the key landed in the sewers. If he had not been carrying a set of lock-picks, he would have been annoyed.

Inside the back room he found Diane Isaacs, catatonic with fear tied to a chair in one corner of the room, surrounded by three draugr, all of which were held just out of reach by chains connecting them to the floor.

He was easily able to make his way around them and to carry Miss Isaacs out to the street by a side door. From there, he alerted the Police, advising them that the Ravenheads were responsible and should be apprehended as soon as possible. He made no mention of their leader being held captive at the Raven’s Perch, nor of where he himself was headed after returning Miss Isaacs home to her family.

Returning to the Raven’s Perch, he hoped to find that Massey would be able to answer some questions.

****

Ralph Massey awoke from his unexpected slumber to find himself tied hand and foot, suspended from the ceiling over the pit-fighting arena. In the arena were the three draugr he had been keeping chained up in the room with the Isaacs girl; all three were tethered to the wall by two chains – one attached to the steel collars around their necks, the other around their waists.

The sound of a rifle being loaded turned his attention to the stalls surrounding the arena; a man of average height and slight build stood at the handrail that separated the stalls from the sharp drop down to the arena. It took a moment for him to focus, but quickly he recognised the uniform of the Reaper’s Watch.

“Good evening, Mister Massey,” the Watchman said. “My name is Hawkhurst. I have a few questions I’d like to ask, if it’s not inconvenient.”*
In his surprise and confusion, Massey could not answer.
“I must apologise,” Hawkhurst said, leaning over the handrail and taking aim in the direction of the draugr. “You see, I’m just not very good at torture or interrogation, or anything of that sort. I amhowever very good with this…”
Massey shuddered with fright when a single link in one of the chains that held the nearest draugr back shattered, accompanied by the loud report of a rifle.
“… and I know how much of a mess those things down there will make of you,” Hawkhurst continued, loading the next round. “Your only hope is to answer my questions, fully and honestly, and you have my word as an officer and a gentleman that when I am satisfied that you have told me the truth, I will release you. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
“Go to Hell!” Massey growled.
Hawkhurst sighed quietly, raised his rifle again, and another chain was rendered useless, allowing a second draugr slightly more freedom in the arena.
“That was a bad start, Ralph,” Hawkhurst said. “May I call you ‘Ralph’? Splendid. Now, Ralph, by now young Miss Diane will be safely back home, and your entire gang will be in custody by Monday morning,” Hawkhurst said, leaning on the handrail and lining up his third shot at the chains. “I don’t much care where you plan to go since you are of no interest to me, though I am greatly interested in the whereabouts of the surgeon with whom you have lately been associating.”
“Not tellin’ you nothin’,” Massey spat.
“Please,” Hawkhurst replied; “don’t use double-negatives. They denote a level of ignorance I find somewhat irritating.”
The third shot rang out; Massey shuddered; a third chain was broken; the third draugr had a few more inches of freedom.
“Where is he, Ralph?” Hawkhurst asked; he did not look at Massey, nor did he move from his vantage point. He simply shifted his aim so that his next shot would allow the first draugr complete freedom to move about the arena.
“You won’t kill me,” Massey said quietly. “You lot only deal with the dead. I ain’t dead!”
You are mistaken, Hawkhurst thought; on all three counts.
A fourth shot; another shudder from Massey; the first draugr wandered freely but aimlessly.“I ain’t gonna talk!” Massey yelled. “I ain’t! He’ll kill me if I talk!”
A fifth shot; a shudder accompanied by a yelp; two draugr wandered the arena.
“Tell me where he is,” Hawkhurst said, loading the sixth shot; “and I’ll kill him before he knows he has been betrayed.”
“You can’t touch him,” Massey said; “he’s got protection.”
“Who is protecting him?”
A sixth shot; shudder; yelp; three wandering draugr.
“I don’t know!” Massey was on the verge of tears. “All I know is he weren’t in this for the money! He did it for fun! Sick bastard enjoys it!”
Hawkhurst set his rifle down and approached the rope that held Massey suspended over the arena.
“Did you ever meet his protectors?” Hawkhurst asked, drawing his knife.
“Once,” Massey said; “when the Doctor first showed up. Looked like a soldier, but he were in a suit. A proper gentleman’s suit, like.”
“I see.” Hawkhurst dragged the edge of the blade across the rope; one of the four coils frayed and snapped, sending a jolt through Massey’s body and inciting yet another terrified yelp.
“How long has the Doctor worked with you?”
“Three months,” Massey said quickly. “He’s the reason we use them Draggers.”
“They’re called draugr, but I understand what you’re saying.”
“Eh?”
“Where does the Doctor go when he isn’t working?”
“Oh no,” Massey said; the fear in his voice took on a whole new depth; “no way in Hell! I ain’t tellin’ you that!”
“Why ever not?”
The knife once again stroked the rope and the second coil gave way.
“For God’s sake!” Massey screamed.
“Hurry up, Ralph,” Hawhurst said; “my patience is wearing as thin as this rope.”
“Highgate!” Massey shouted. “Swinburne Surgery!”
Highgate. A wealthy neighbourhood, indicating that Doctor Thorley was connected to the upper classes, if not a part of them.
“Are you certain?”
“Yes!” Massey cried. “He works at a practice! Fenton’s the doctor in charge!”
“And this particular doctor’s name would be…?”
“He told us everyone called him ‘Thorley’! That’s all I know, I swear!”
“I believe you, Ralph. Thank you for your honesty.”
Hawkhurst cut the rope, and Massey fell into the arena, the impact breaking both of his legs.
“You bastard!” Massey called. “You said you’d let me go!”
“And so I have,” Hawkhurst said, sheathing his knife; “I didn’t say which direction you’d be going.”
*

When the draugr had torn him apart and eaten all there was of him to eat, Hawkhurst raised his rifle again and put a bullet through each of their brains. He burned all four bodies beyond recognition, and considered doing the same to the entire building; however since he did not have the time to ensure that there was no-one else inside, and news of the Raven’s Perch having been burned to the ground would surely alert Doctor Thorley, he decided against such a course of action.

****

Less than an hour after Ralph Massey had died, Hawkhurst had learned the names of the three resident doctors at the Swinburne Surgery, and had also learned that Doctor Thorley was practising here under the name of ‘Bridger.’ He had seen photographs of the resident doctors, but since taking up his vantage point across the road from the surgery he had seen nothing of Bridger.

For close to two hours he watched and waited; first to leave was Glover, the junior doctor; then Fenton; and close to nightfall, Gainsborough, the oldest of the three, along with the practice nurse, Mrs Wood. But unless one of the doctors had left his office with the lights on, the building was notyet empty.

An hour after sunset, Hawkhurst’s patience was rewarded and he finally saw with his own eyes the infamous Doctor Thorley; but it was not a sight that he welcomed, for he recognised both men in the street.

Doctor Thorley was in fact a noted surgeon, famed for his work in military field hospitals; Hawkhurst himself had once been a patient of this man during his evaluation after the deaths of his squad-mates. His real name was Dr James Argyll, and he was the personal physician to Field Marshall Edmund Sterling; the head of the Reaper’s Watch.

His protector was none other than Major Francis Carter, reckoned to be one of the best Watchmen of his time.

Keeping as discrete a distance as he could, Hawkhurst followed them from the surgery; sure enough, they went toward the Raven’s Perch, but at the end of the street, they saw that all was not well, and turned smartly around. They did not leave London immediately, however; Argyll was due to give a lecture at the Royal College of Surgeons on Monday morning.

But Hawkhurst had other plans for him.

****

One month after the Ravenheads had been arrested and the kidnapping of Miss Diane Isaacs had been resolved, Major Francis Carter looked down at the body of the late James Argyll, alias Doctor Thorley. Not ten seconds after he had stood at the podium in the lecture hall at the Royal College of Surgeons, a single shot had rung out. In that same instant, Dr Argyll had died; a bullet had pierced his forehead, torn through his brain, and burst out through the back of his skull, burying itself in the solid brick wall behind him.

Carter had checked the entire building himself that morning to ensure that no such attacks could have taken place. He had posted a guard, selected from the local Watchmen, to keep watch over the very room from which the fatal bullet had been shot.

That Watchman was nowhere to be found, nor would he be found.

All that was left in the room by the time Carter had arrived was a slowly-dissolving mass of wax and rubber – no doubt the disguise of the missing Watchman; and a single spent casing from a rifle round, still smoking, left standing on it’s end and engraved with a single word; ‘Thorley’.

He had often heard his fellow Watchmen muttering about the infamous Doctor Thorley, and had wondered from time to time if any of them would ever make good on their vows to see him captured or killed.

Apparently, one of them was more determined – or simply more fortunate – than the others.*
*

Carter would not mourn the death of James Argyll, nor would he omit anything from the report that his superiors would no doubt demand from him before the end of the day. What did concern him was that someone had recognised Argyll and linked him to the works of Doctor Thorley; something only the Reaper’s Watch could have done. This meant that there was a good chance they had also recognised him. If that was the case, how long did he have?

****

A week later as James Argyll was laid to rest in a full military funeral, Hawkhurst stared down the sights of his rifle directly at Francis Carter, knowing that he could easily take care of the man here and now. But then who could he ask about Thorley’s activities? Another trap was in order, but interrogating another Watchman would be totally different to extracting answers from a terrified criminal.

No; Carter would have to wait. Hawkhurst needed more time to plan for this one.

And at least he could rest a little easier knowing that there was one less monster in the world, even if he could never share that fact with another Watchman. Carter would be on his guard for some time now, as would anyone and eveyone else involved in Thorley’s work; but the most defining characteristic of the men and women of the Reaper’s Watch, above everything else, was that they were very…

… very…

… patient.

*** *]

[* h1. Sleep-Working

Morat Saint-Pilgrim

A racking buzz echoes through my skull. I cautiously crack one eye open, looking for my phone; it’s bright screen forces me to blink and squint until my eyes adjust to the sudden light.

One New E-mail

The notification only shows the first few words.

Your lottery ticket is a WINNER! To Claim…

I drag my eyes a little further up the screen.

3.24am

No wonder I feel like crap, I’ve barely had three hours sleep. My free hand fumbles around on the bedside cabinet until it can find the lamp switch. ‘Time to go to work.’ I mutter to myself as the bulb casts a shaded light across the apartment. The room is sparse, containing a large bed with twin side cabinets, a wardrobe with drawers in the base, and a desk space with a laptop on it and a large monitor hanging on the wall above it.

I swing my legs around, so that I’m sat up on the side of the bed; the sheets had gathered and crumpled, hanging somewhat off of the bottom edge. What little sleep I managed to get was restless. I open the drawer in the cabinet to my side, rustling around inside it for a small slip of caffeine pills, I pop two out and crunch on them, unphased by the bitter taste; this was a ritual I engaged in most mornings. A T-shirt and jeans are found on the floor where I left them mere hours ago.

I stand up, my clenched fists gradually rising higher above my head, my toes ball into the plush carpet, vainly trying to will myself fully awake. In my sleep-deprived haze, my legs guide me towards the desk and it’s accompanying chair. I fumble in a drawer again, this time retrieving a SIM card that I place into the laptop’s open tray. At the push of a button, it starts to whir into life, more dazzling light floods my vision as the interface finishes loading. I go through the usual safeguards, loading the ghost browser in a virtual box, finding a new proxy server then linking to a different VPN, before logging into one of a myriad of burner e-mail clients. On the burner account there sits one new e-mail with a link, I check the spam-like lottery e-mail on my phone for the corresponding log on details for the new site. Now that I’m in, I have access to a private chat client, one other person is already in the chat-room.

Mr Blue: We need a delivery made before end of business hours today.*
Mr Red: That can be covered by our Platinum Plus service. What is the package’s Insurance Value?
Mr Blue: 200,000 USD
*

I read the figure over again, that’s more than I usually get paid for a same day job. I must be going up in the underworld. Freelance contracts for eliminating the government’s higher profile targets don’t usually pay quite this well, this was either an important job or an inexperienced handler.

Mr Red: Understood. Please arrange pick-up and delivery destinations with the relevant departments. Your order reference is…*
I type details to one my off-shore accounts for payment.

  • Mr Blue: The 30% deposit will be transferred post-haste. *


*

I leave the chat room, shut-down the laptop, then remove and destroy the SIM card. Within minutes my phone gives off a brief buzz again, another e-mail notification.

Have you had a road traffic accident? Our records show that you may be entitled to upwards of $60,000!

This e-mail has an attachment, unless it was actually spam, this should be the contract details. After safely downloading them, a quick skim proved right my assumptions. I glanced back at the clock.

3.42am

‘Screw this.’ I mutter at nothing in particular, I set an alarm to go off in a few hours time and go back to bed.

***

That dratted buzz woke me again, this time accompanied by a siren-esque wailing. My aimless swipes just end up knocking the phone onto the floor. With a deep dejected grumble, I start to lean over the side of the bed to reach the phone. It’s just out of reach. I sigh and let my head hang a little. I make getting out of bed seem like Atlas has it easy, once that arduous trial is passed I manage to get to the still blaring phone. The noise stopped, though for a few seconds the sound clung to the inside of my head. Twenty-five minutes, a shower, a cheap suit with all tags removed, and one large briefcase later, I’m ready to leave the apartment. The dry and bitter taste of caffeine pills coat my tongue again as I crunch a few more on my way down in the lift.

This affords me a little time to think, my mind juddering into functionality under the flickering lights. This work stopped being about the money a long time ago. Having degrees in engineering didn’t help me find work that paid enough to clear student debts or even live to a standard approaching comfortable in this fast paced world that had moved to revolve around programming or automation. The economy was still trying to catch up to the changes, leaving poverty and destitution in it’s ill prepared wake. Like Hell was I going to let that happen to me. So yeah, it started for the money, then slowly over time, the more it was about the money, the less it was about the money. The job was about being good at what I did, the status that my pay cheques afforded me. The world looks at you different if you have money to burn. The contracts tend to be for lobbyists or officials who refuse to tow the party line, for the first few months I would scour the news channels for any sight of the impact of what I’d done, then it was only the occasional mark I would look up, until I eventually stopped. It became a job that I thought I ‘left at the door’; real relationships with people became a thing of the past, my life became my work and surface encounters. The lift pinged to signal that I’m at the lobby, the rare moment of introspection fades as fast as the sound.

***

This was the most time consuming and frustrating part of the job, getting to the target. I end up taking two cabs, a bus, a two different subways, and a few long walks between changeovers to get to a station on the other side of town. The target should be getting this train on his commute to work. Most business types keep their pace for the whole journey, quick strides and precision timing for the tube, as economic with time as possible. Most. I was so swept up in scanning the faces of every fast passing male that I nearly miss him. My target is standing in the centre of the causeway, staring up at the Arrivals/Departures board. Now came the most awkward part of the job, it could go one of two ways dependant on how much the mark thought about his phone’s security. If any of his wireless connections had been left on, this stage was easy; if they were more fastidious, I’ll have to try to plant a GPS marker on him the old-fashioned way. I look for open connections.

_ 5 Points Available For Forced Connection_

The first to be crossed off the list is the stations free Wi-Fi router. One drops out of range as another came in, I can ignore that one then. Two down, three more to sort through. I quickly look around the open area, trying to get a glimpse of anybody using one of the listed devices, why can’t more people personalize the tags on their technology. Bingo, the mark was reaching into his jacket, only one device on the list matches the model he reveals. As soon as he places it back into his pocket I trigger the connection; I still haven’t managed to figure out how to stop the icon showing up on the linked device, but now that it’s done the connection will stick around unless I sever it on my end. I make a show of looking at my watch before going into the café over the road. Today needs bacon, eggs and maybe some hash-browns.

***

Over the morning I keep monitoring the mark. Mr Smith, seemed to be as boring as his job appeared, he was working in an office building as a floor supervisor for data entry staff. He has one perk that is very useful for me, his own office with a floor to ceiling window all along one side. The building he works in is on the Intersection of a T-junction, facing down the busy road, luckily for me, so too was his office. I found a building two klicks down the long road that has an easy to access fire escape. I set up on the roof and check the time.

12.32pm

Damn, lunch time. If he leaves his office for his last meal, I’ll be sat out here for too long. I’ll have to find a new spot, or get him at home. I open up the case and pull out a rifle scope, using it as a telescope to check if the mark’s office is empty. The fuzzy image slowly sharpens up as I adjust the dial. He’s still sat at his desk, I decide to watch a little longer, pulling my coat tight against the chilling wind. I know it’s only minutes that pass, yet every second drags out, the wind creeping under the folds of my coat, making my knuckles ache. Finally he looks at his watch then opens a drawer. Today must be my lucky day, out of the drawer he pulls a lunch box as he uses the other hand to click to a video website. Oh my lucky stars, thank-you for letting this one hate his underlings enough not to break bread with them.

I unpack the rest of the case. Barely a minute of assembly later and a weapon of my own design sits before me. A rail that functions as an electro-magnetic sling-shot points towards the office at a sixty degree elevation. Hooked up to this by a few wires is a small screen, a long-range electronic view-finder and a joystick. I open a box the size of a cigar case, inside was the pièce de résistance. The ammunition for this sling is somewhere between a bullet and a missile. It’s around the length of my hand, out of it protrudes three fins, that can adjust the projectile’s trajectory to track the location of the target, practically in real-time. I make sure that the mark is still at his desk. Yes, lazily lifting a fork to his mouth, currently distracted by a video, maybe a trailer for an upcoming movie or highlights from the last instalment; it was difficult to tell from the small portion of the screen I can make out from here. I use the joystick to make minor adjustments to the aim of the launch arm, leaving a large enough margin of error for tracking. I pull the trigger and wait.

The projectile takes just under nine seconds to close the distance between the launch-rail and the building, the fins adjusting to sway its movement back on track as the wind tries in vein to push my masterpiece off course. I hold my breath anxiously as I watch the screen, a timer counting down painfully slowly as it calculates how much time there is until impact. I stare intently at the counter every tenth of a second ticking by slowly. Then there was a flicker over the window and the timer froze.

00.6S

I hit the monitor on the side hoping it’s just the feed that’s frozen. The number disappears from the corner as the safeguard triggers. Inside the bullet, along with some chips and servos, is magnesium coiling and a dusting of thermite, set to be ignited when the projectile reached a velocity of zero. This isn’t out of any malicious intent to the recipient, merely to destroy enough of the bullet that it couldn’t be traced by its constituent parts. The screen shows the one thing I hadn’t expected to see, an empty room with a mobile on the floor where there should have been a man slumped face-first in his wife’s lasagne. I adjust the view-finder. Through the smashed window, hanging in a block of high density ballistics gel with a small path carved towards it sits a charred mess. I allow myself to breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that there wouldn’t be enough physical evidence on the bullet to trace anything. It’s cut short by the horrible realization that this whole job was a set up. A realisation that should have kicked in the moment the timer froze.

“Shit, shit, SHIT!” I shout at myself, packing up the briefcase as quickly as I can. Is that sirens I can hear in the distance? Everything about this job had been too good to be true: the pay which was probably being investigated by a forensic accountant since the early hours of this morning, the mark stood waiting at the station, having lunch at his desk. It had all lined up perfectly, too perfectly apparently. I rush down the first two flights of the fire escape, practically sliding down the second as I loose my footing towards the bottom of it. That’s definitely sirens I can hear getting closer by the second. I stop briefly, testing my ankle after the slip, thankfully there doesn’t appear to be any damage. I freeze in place despite myself.

“No, no, no, no…” I can hear a distinctive ‘whomp-whomp’ sound of helicopter blades approaching. I rush for this floor’s window, and against all hope it’s unlocked, it leads into a corridor in a block of flats. I slam the window shut before scrambling for the trash-chute. I pull my phone out, my hands shake so much from the nerves that I nearly drop it. One button screams out for me to press it.

BUG-OUT

I hesitate, there’s the screech of tires coming to a halt below. I push the button and throw the phone and case into the chute, my coat quickly follows. Three things happen whilst my stuff rattles towards the waiting bins: a small electrical fire starts in my apartment destroying my laptop, and hopefully any other trace of me, accelerant in the briefcase ignites wrecking my equipment, and finally, a switch in my phone activates and causes the device to overload it’s circuits. If I have any luck, the case will still be on fire when my jacket lands on it. I step into the lift and hope that they never got a shot of my face.

*** *]

[* h1. The General.

by John Jackson

Kranik shifted his weight slowly, easing the burden of his armour without appearing to fidget in front of his troops. Behind his back the incomprehensible chanting continued to drone faintly through the heavy oak doors. He fancied that it had increased in pace slightly, but the wait was playing tricks with his sense of time. The sound of running footsteps echoed through the empty halls, rapidly increasing in volume as their source bore down upon the defended position. There was a burst of movement as his guard levelled their crossbows toward the archway at the far end of his chosen killing ground. Hearing only one set of feet, he raised his hand to belay any over-eager shots.

The lone runner proved to be a young man in the livery of a palace servant, most likely one who had performed some minor role for years without ever making an impression upon Kranik’s memory. He skidded to a halt with bulging eyes at the sight of the quarrels aimed in his direction, but recovered his composure with admirable speed. Ministering to the Empress was not a task for the truly timid. “My Lord, there is an intrusion in the South-Eastern tower. There is fighting there now… we, um, don’t know how they got in…” He tailed off helplessly.

The General nodded calmly. He had long since given up questioning the abilities of the Empress’ enemies to pull off these kinds of miracles. “Understood. Go and hide yourself until this is over.” The man bowed in relief and fled – to his credit, at a slightly slower pace than he had arrived. It was a shame that Crom had chosen to make his attack there, he thought. Captain Tarla had served loyally for many years and had deserved better than to die on the last day of the conflict. Mentally bidding her farewell, he turned to address his soldiers. “I have every confidence that Captain Tarla’s brigade will be sufficient to dispose of the rebel intruders. However, our own duty is absolute. If even one of them is able to penetrate this far, every last one of us must lay down our lives to hold this ground. This is the last day of the rebellion. This is the last day before peace reigns forever!” His troops stiffened with resolve and returned their gaze to the archway. Kranik waited with grim resignation for the enemy’s assault. And pondered, as he did every day, how easily the whole uprising could have been prevented in the first place.

****

He had always considered himself fortunate to have been born into one of the mostly glorious periods of expansion in the history of the Empire. Indeed, under previous rulers it had barely been deserving of the title at all. The great sorcery of the Empress had changed that, unleashing power that the world had not seen in an age. Nation after nation and army after army had fallen before her mystical might, as helpless before her as they would have been before the elements themselves. Some of the Empire’s military leaders had been unable to adapt to this state of affairs and the effective erasure of their sphere of influence. As the social or physical rebellions of these men and women had cleared the decks, he had risen to fill the void. He was now commander of all her forces because he understood that he was not the conqueror, but merely the administrator who ensured that her new subjects remained pacified.

He had known how much trouble it would be to enforce the Sorcery Edict the moment she had declared it. He had expressed these concerned in full as duty required him to do. She had not been receptive. His predecessors might have been provoked by the suggestion that if he could not do his job, another could be found. He had simply accepted the reminder of his own responsibilities and had set about the task of ensuring all females born with the Gift were taken and presented to the Empress. It had required a very firm hand, but in truth the most difficult task was finding a place for the huge numbers she declared ‘useless’. After five years he had resigned himself to simply sending most of them back home, keeping only those who showed exceptional military promise. That this drew attention to the disappearance of those who were not surplus to requirements was a problem he had considered manageable.

****

The intruders took care to tread softly, but they had no hope of surprise in the silent corridors. Kranik lifted his hand once more and his guard raised their crossbows to shooting positions. The footfalls came to a halt just before the arch and the only sound was the muted chanting. A hissing sound rose up and a wall of thick fog rolled into view. Filling the archway, it moved like a living thing to obscure the area between Kranik’s forces and their unseen opponents. He smiled grimly. It was a good idea, but the fog would provide no actual protection against a bolt. Hidden or not, they would have to brave a storm of shots to charge home. He gestured with his fingers, silently dividing his troops into multiple groups. At the drop of his hand, the first wave loosed into the fog and began to hurriedly reload.

The second wave had just shot and the third were preparing when an arrow spat out of the cloud and struck one of his soldiers in the throat. The whole formation stood frozen in shock as she sunk to the ground with barely a gurgle, passing into fatal shock almost immediately. Kranik cursed silently. Of course such an absurd stroke of fortune would fall now. He raised his arm and pointed sharply forward. Lesser troops might have wavered, but his guard recovered their wits. He felt a stir of pride as the third wave of quarrels cut into the cloud.

****

When the report had reached him that an enforcer squad had been all but slaughtered whilst attempting to take a young sorceress, Kranik had almost neglected to inform the Empress at all. Such scuffles were a part of the process and his soldiers had been bound to lose one eventually. But she had been so insistent upon being informed of every facet of the operation that his sense of obedience had compelled him to disclose it. Her rage had surpassed all reasonable expectation, as if the entire operation had been conceived to obtain this one girl. At the end of her tirade, Kranik had found himself riding at the head of a large force with order to personally capture the sorceress and her saviour and to burn the whole village to the ground. Not a day went by that Kranik did not regret failing to simply carry out the operation in the most efficient way possible. But the fiery wrath of the Empress’ command had lingered in his heart as it sometimes did. After the couple were seized, he had resolved to make them watch as the village was put the torch. As his followers did their work a terrible rage had come over the giant of a man he would later learn was called Crom. By the time Kranik had registered the impossible fact that he had torn his iron bonds asunder, two soldiers were down and the brute was coming at him with a stolen blade. If Kranik had known the stakes he was truly fighting for, he would have used his superior skills and mortally wounded the man right there and then. But it was rapidly clear that nothing except an all-out defence would prevent the enraged berserker from claiming his life in exchange for any blow he suffered. Kranik had retreated and called for aid. It was futile – by the time his troops had rejoined him, the girl had used some kind of rural hex to turn every horse in her favour. They had galloped away as his force struggled to reign in their own rebelling steeds.

****

The fall of a second soldier to another unerring arrow shocked Kranik out of his assessment that the first had been a fluke. It cost another life before his stunned mind could unravel the true situation – the elven creature that Crom had somehow found in the Great Forest was targeting his troops by sound alone. “Shields up!” he bellowed. His shaken followers eagerly cast aside their crossbows and scrambled to lift their sturdy shields, creating a wall of iron-clad wood between themselves and the unseen foe. Kranik stayed stock still, every muscle tensed and heart racing as he prepared for his next move.

Another arrow came whipping out of the mist, targeted perfectly at the mouth that had revealed itself. The General burst into life, his hand darting up and grasping the missile in mid-flight. He held the shaft where he had caught it for a showman-like moment, then snapped it in half with a crack that echoed through the taut silence. He felt the shift as the nerve of his warriors steadied and permitted himself a grim smile.

****

Kranik had been disinclined to immediately head back to the palace and report failure, so he had led his surviving troops on a dogged pursuit of the two fugitives. Wilderness tracking was not truly his area of expertise, but he remembered enough from his days in the lower ranks to get by in the field. His targets made it all the way to the neighbouring administrative district before they were next engaged, but he never suffered the outright loss of their scent. The district in question had been of little importance for years, a fact that the General had immediately rued when he sought help from the local governor. The man had never defaulted upon his tribute to the capital, so the additional levies that he had used to line his pockets had never been a cause for concern. Yet despite the wealth he had extracted the local forces were in a sorry state. Brutes with little training and shoddy gear, they had proven laughably poor at organising an effective hunt but exceptional at worsening relations with the locals that had clearly been at breaking point for years. He still did not know how Crom had managed to turn this local tension into a miniature revolt so soon after arriving, but the assault was too sudden and coordinated to have happened spontaneously. Watching the huge man throw the governor to his death had not been an especially displeasing sight, but it had firmly escalated the manhunt to something more serious. Kranik had been forced to let his targets escape in order to rally the remaining guards and put down the rebels, before sending a messenger bird directly to the Empress with an update on the sorry situation.

****

The mist hung silently in the archway. No more arrows flew. After a few moments it began to disperse as if embarrassed, providing a clear sight of the enemy strike force for the first time. Kranik was gratified to see the dwarf lying stricken upon the tiled floor with a quarrel lodged deep in her side. Since Crom has scraped the woman off whatever tavern floor he had found her on, the number of good Imperial soldiers that had been retired with crippling leg injuries had more than quadrupled. The elf was gazing at him with arrogant annoyance, a casually nocked arrow discouraging any renewed attempts at shooting as the rest of the party finally emerged from cover.

The water nymph presumably responsible for the cloud had a fresh jagged scar across her face. Captain Tarla had never been one to suffer women prettier than herself, Kranik mused. The farm boy with some minor claim of royal blood had somehow survived and was holding an obviously magical sword in a sorry excuse for an aggressive stance. Crom was untouched, effortlessly commanding the eyes of all as he strode to the front of the misfit band that he had stabbed into the heart of an Empire. He tilted his head to listen, then fixed his gaze upon the doors behind the General. Kranik drew his black steel sword and shifted to a swordsman’s stance. “Charge!” he roared.

****

With difficulty, Kranik had peeled away the layers of enraged hyperbole and plausible death threats that had represented the bulk of the Empress’ reply. What remained was a mandate to use her own authority without limit in the cause of capturing the rogue sorceress, along with a solemn commandment that absolutely no other consideration was to be permitted to impede that cause. It should have been easy. The fugitives had no resources and little experience. Yet at every turn fate conspired with them to worsen their effect upon the increasingly unstable Empire. Grudges that had been nursed for years or even decades suddenly decided that their hour was come. Creatures dismissed as myth or pacified and driven to the margins appeared to aid his foes. Chasing the pair was like following a fire in a city, that broke out in a single house only to turn each new street into an identical inferno. From his War Room in the capital he could have outmanoeuvred the rebellion. But with his boots on the ground and the threat of the Empress’ displeasure keeping him from the palace, all he could do was watch it burn. Eventually he had surrendered to the spirit of the madness. The elaborate ambush had cost him a province, but the girl had finally been secured. He had raced with her to the palace before Crom could follow or manufacture any miracle to overtake him.

The Empress had heaped him with praise, wildly triumphant as if they had achieved some kind of major victory. His sense of duty had compelled him to deflect her overdue good graces and state clearly the dire effect upon security that the whole business had produced. It was only then that she had truly shared her intentions with him. The sorceress girl was a singular figure of prophecy, the secret reason that the Sorcery Edict had been pronounced in the first place. By ritually sacrificing her, the Empress would become a being vastly beyond even her current matchless powers – one capable of exerting her will over the entire Empire directly and beyond all mortal challenge. In that moment, Krenik’s heart finally understood what he had outwardly known all along. The old ways of war and the use of soldiers were of the past. There was only the Empress – all else was meaningless and always had been. During his days in the infantry, Krenik had learned that troops were never more vulnerable than when they were in sight of the home they were returning to. It was natural to lower one’s guard when victory seemed imminent. He vowed not to fail in this way and to leave nothing to chance until the last second of the ritual was done. Even as he chained the girl to the altar, she was defiant and unafraid. When she said that Crom would come, he did not doubt her.

****

The boy’s sword claimed another victim, slicing effortlessly through blade, shield and bone. There was little hope of surviving against such a fearsome weapon but the wielder was frequently leaving himself vulnerable. Only the well-timed blasts of the mystical nymph at his back had kept him alive thus far. Krenik had some hope that his troops might kill at least one of them before the engagement was over. The elf had not yet drawn blood, but nor had he been touched. He danced with casual grace as swords swept harmlessly around him, seemingly content to defend himself. But the bow had already vanished from his hands in favour of a pair of wicked-looking daggers. Soon they would start to bite and his soldiers would start to die. Crom had demolished the troops sent against him in a handful of seconds. Dispatching the first few with mighty blows to the head or arms, he had concluded his rampage by driving his longsword straight through the armoured torso of a foe with so much force that it had also slain the man behind her. Having kicked the pair off his weapon, he coldly cast his eyes across the brawls as he pondered which one to join first.

Krenik still stood at his post before the great doors. Behind them, the chanting had reached fever pitch.[_ I need only hold you for a few more minutes_], he thought. I am the herald of the new age. You are but the last gasp of the old. “I remember that your village burned very well,” he called out with carefully measured cruelty. “I do hope you didn’t lose anyone too important in the blaze?”

Crom’s gaze snapped to his own. The wild rage that he had first seen the day they met flooded the man’s features, unchanged by all of the greater battles he had fought in since. With a deafening roar the brute thundered toward the General. With an answering war cry that sounded thin and weak to his own ears, Krenik charged toward his death.

*** *]

[* h1. The Wizards Time Piece

By Lil Surgeson

There was a time when an overexcited wizard bursting through the doors of the Aberddu Adventurers’ Guild would have caused a stir. Those days were gone. Now it barely even drew a glance – it happened on average once a fortnight. The last time that the Guild’s itinerant wizard had run into the Guild-hall in a flap he was bare-foot, dressed in his nightshirt, cap and shawl, red in the face and shrieking about a ‘giant devil rat’.

It turned out that one of the younger scholars in the Mages’ Guild had put a wild raccoon in Gerard’s bed chamber because he ‘thought it was funny’. As Redsnatz, an orc adventurer with frighteningly few teeth, pointed out afterwards, the scholar was right. It was hilarious. The orc had been sitting outside the Adventurers’ gate when Gerard had appeared from the Mages’ Guild in his nightwear and run flailing across the Guild Square. As he put it so eloquently, ‘It was the funniest fing I seen in ages, I laugh so much I nearly dropped my ale’. *
This time Gerard had appeared in a slightly more dignified manner. For a start, he was fully dressed, wizard-style, in robe, day-cap and slippers. He was also vibrating with excitement, so that the parchment he was clutching rustled.
*“I’ve found it!” he cried as he burst in through the hall door, “I’ve found it!” *
His entrance didn’t have the dramatic impact he had hoped. Only Derek, the harassed-looking Guildmaster, looked up from his papers and said calmly, “If it’s that bloody raccoon again Gerard, then I’m afraid it will have to wait. I’ve got clients to see.” He waved a hand towards the people seated to his left, who were eyeing Gerard with nervous suspicion.
“Oh,” said Gerard, brought to a halt abruptly and somewhat crestfallen.
*“Okay. I’ll join the queue.” Slightly crestfallen, he sat down beside a small man in a green doublet, who had sweat beading on his wrinkled brow. Gerard smiled at him warmly and received a courteous nod in response, before the man took a consuming interest in his left bootlace. *
*By the time Derek had finished with the clients, Gerard had been waiting at least an hour. The Law Temple bell pompously chimed the afternoon three hour some while ago. The Guildmaster looked exhausted, he’d negotiated three new contracts – always tricky due to the nature of the adventuring business, particularly how much it actually cost compared to how much people were prepared to pay for it. He’d also spent some time being polite to a shrieking woman with a dirty blonde bouffant, who didn’t want an explanation about the late arrival of her contracted party so much as an excuse to shout at somebody. In the end, Derek had been forced to say, “Madam, if you wish to terminate our contract that is fine. I will give you a full refund and we will be happy to keep your daughter. Otherwise, please feel free to leave.” Gerard had almost given him a round of applause. *
*“Right,” said Derek with a pitiful look. “Let’s get this raccoon.” He closed his ledger with a thud and sighed. *
*“Actually,” began Gerard, feeling slightly guilty, “It’s not a raccoon. I’ve enchanted my room so that the students can’t open the door.” *
*“Okay,” said Derek slowly, “Good.” Then, when Gerard didn’t immediately speak, “So if it’s not the raccoon, what is it then?” *
*“Oh, right, yeah, well actually, I wanted to hire some adventurers.” Derek heaved the ledger open again and said, “Ah, well that could be more problematic. We’ve very tight at the moment, and I assume you want them immediately?” Gerard nodded.

As Gerard left the building ten minutes and five florins down-payment later, he was trying to convince himself that he had not made a terrible mistake. The only available adventurers were a gang of greenskins: two orcs, a troll and a goblin to be precise. In theory, Gerard had no problem with this, in fact he had developed mutual respect and understanding with a whole team of greenskins a few years earlier, at the Fall of the Freetown Bridge. However, those greenskins were either dead or otherwise engaged establishing a homeland for their people. These were four completely unknown and the prospect was making him nervous, although he couldn’t pinpoint why. After all, he was a tolerant man, and after years as an adventurer, well used to ribald humour and playful ribbing. And of course, there was also the most important consideration: he was paying. Even goblins weren’t likely to cheek the hand that feeds them. Gerard had almost persuaded himself that everything would be fine by the time he had reached his bed chamber in the Mage’s Guild. He opened the door and flopped face first on to the bed. Two orcs, a troll, a goblin and a piece of pre-cataclysmic technology. Of course it was a recipe for disaster, who did he think he was kidding?

After the best part of a bottle of Alendrian turquoise gin, he finally calmed him down – or more accurately, he passed out. He remembered staring out of his window at the taunting moon as the Law Temple bells chimed the midnight peel and then nothing else. He had slept the ignominious, drooling sleep of intoxication until an unceremonious knock shook his chamber door. He grunted and groaned, and had just about managed to sit up when a baby-faced orderly poked his head around the door. “‘xcuse me sir,” *
*“Yes?” slurred Gerard holding his head still with both hands so that he had half a chance of focusing his eyes. *
*“Well,” continued the lad timorously, “I’m sorry to wake you sir, but… um.” Gerard felt like his eyes were trying to swap sockets to see if the view was better on the other side. *
*“What?” he snapped, slightly louder than intended and immediately regretted it; raising his voice like that was indecorous, unnecessary and hurt like the blazes. *
*“Well, um,” came the response, “There are a group of…um, er … people, hanging around the atrium, asking for you.” *
“Right?” said Gerard slowly, still not quite comprehending the situation.
*“Well,” stammered the orderly, who was beginning to regret the keenness that had led to him except this particular duty. “They’re causing a disturbance. One of them, who gave his name as Melvin Fernando Goodbody Junior said, and I quote,” at this point he cleared his throat to indicate that these weren’t his words, “We’ve been waitin’ nearly two hours. If that long streak of mumbo-jumbo don’t get his backside down here pronto, we’ll charge him an extra day for wastin’ our time. Then his associate belched.” At this, the orderly wrinkled his nose, remembering the smell. *
*“Oh,” quavered Gerard, suddenly up to speed. “What time is it then?” *
*“Somewhere between the ten and eleven hour sir,” said the orderly, relieved to be able to answer a question. *
*“Right,” said Gerard again, “Okay.” Then after a pause where his face did an eclectic dance entitled ‘too many decisions for one hangover’, he said, “Tell them to go back to the Adventurers’ Guild and wait. I will pay them an extra florin a piece for their trouble and we’ll be leaving shortly. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find a privy so that I can throw up.” *
*The orderly didn’t say anything, he just stepped out of the way so that Gerard could hurry passed, leaving his room door wide open. As he returned from his unpleasant trip to the privy, Gerard cursed the backward time keeping of the modern age. Hourly bells were no way to run a civilised society. Well he thought to himself with smug overconfidence, if all goes to plan things may definitely change around here.

***

A day and a half later, Gerard was sitting under a tree on a crossroads in Albion, as he watched the greenskins argue over the direction of Port Selliar on the Sea of Stars. In between debates about which road was quickest, they were still managing to mock him for his long-past hangover. He would have been more offended but he couldn’t get a word in edgeways. Melvin, the goblin, talked more than any other living creature Gerard had ever encountered and said almost nothing important. Right now, all four of them were talking at once, and Melvin had turned a rather putrid shade of puce, presumably out of frustration. *
*Then, all of a sudden, the arguing stopped. Apparently, they had reached a decision. Dimmel the troll – a ten-foot heap of sinew and stupidity – leaned over to Gerard and said slowly, “We’re ready Mr Gerard sir,” and held out an arm to help Gerard to his feet. It was like leaning on a tree trunk. “Are you sure you don’t want me to carry you?” he asked in earnest, as Gerard brushed down his robes. The wizard looked into the gentle, serious, face and said, for the ninth time, “Thank you, but no.” *
*Gerard had found, with trolls, that if you treated them like a giant, rage-filled toddler that could be placated with beer, then everyone’s life was easier. As they moved off, Redsnatz and Argo, both orcs, were chortling between themselves again. Gerard had no idea what they had found so funny: Dimmel’s dead-pan mockery, his own patience, or something stuck to the back of his robes. If he was going to survive this trip, he would have to not care about things like that.

***

The Sea of Stars has its own distinct smell, a florid combination of sea salt from the oceanic estuary and sulphurous sweetness that bubbles up from the glowing reefs that radiated out from the harbour throwing speckles of light up through the water and giving the sea its name. Gerard breathed deeply and let it fill his lungs as they made their way down the road into the town. They had made good time on the Albion roads, the ship wasn’t due to sail until the following day. They would be sailing at ‘daybreak’, so inevitably Gerard would be up half the night panicking that he would oversleep or somehow misinterpret the timing. He sighed wearily and then sidestepped rapidly in case Dimmel took that as an invitation to try to pick him up again. He needn’t have worried, when he looked around he found Dimmel carefully inspecting a tumbledown wall on the edge of the road, helping himself to every snail he could lay his hands on. He was delicately plucking them from the damp stones and placing them on his vast leather tunic. There were already about a dozen or so molluscs making their way slowly around his chest. “Snacks,” he said, beaming. “For later.” Gerard grimaced and tried not to think about it. When they managed to find an inn, he would just ask if Dimmel could sleep in the undercroft or possibly the stables.

***

As predicted, Gerard spent a restless night on a lumpy mattress in a cheap dockside tavern. He had long ago ceased to pack his night attire when adventuring, so he was lying on the bed fully dressed apart from his boots, gazing out of the window at the crystal clear sky. He had just decided to give up on the whole thing when he heard a strangulated screeching noise coming from the courtyard. This was followed by a series of low, muffled grunts that suggested that the greenskins were probably up to something. He had offered to pay for beds for them, but they had refused, and were supposed to be sleeping in the hayloft. This had cost Gerard the price of four beds, but he didn’t blame the innkeeper for his caution, clearly the man was used to greenskins.

Irritably, he flung open the shutters and stuck his head out of the window. There was another protracted howl, but he couldn’t see anything. Cursing silently and simultaneously apologising to his long dead governess, Gerard pulled on his boots and stomped down the stairs. Melvin was sitting on the edge of the horse trough outside the back door, dangling his legs.

“What in hell are you doing?” hissed Gerard. *
*“Sitting on the water trough,” replied Melvin with total impunity. Ask a stupid question thought Gerard. *
“Okay, what is making that gods-awful noise?” he carried on as they were met with another shriek and a truncated yelp that sounded more orc than animal. “Oh,” said Melvin, “They’re just packing the cat.”
*“Right,” said Gerard. There were questions to ask about that, but they could wait until Gerard had had some sleep and probably some gin. *
*It transpired that there was a genuine reason why Argo and Redsnatz had spent nearly an hour herding a stray cat into a sack. Once Gerard had dragged them all down to the docks to wait by the ship until ‘daybreak’, Melvin explained as Dimmel patiently held the hissing, flailing sack at arms-length. Greenskin superstition dictates that if you absolutely have to cross water on a boat (which was something that most orcs avoid due to the possibility of falling in, although many a goblin has found a niche as a rather comic pirate,) then the best way to avoid angering the spirits of the water is to take a cat with you. Gerard looked from Melvin to the hissing sack and back again and wondered just exactly how soon after dawn he could demand that gin without seeming like a drunkard.

They boarded Royal Albion Merchant Galleon ‘Generous Maud’ well after what Gerard would have considered day break, and almost past the time he would have termed ‘early morning’. The captain gave the two orcs a sceptical look and checked the knot on the sack very carefully.

***

One of the advantages of hiring greenskins, Gerard reflected on their second day at sea – once he’d had enough sleep that he had stopped hallucinating snails – was that they actually enjoyed travelling steerage. At one point, Melvin had gleefully offered his services in the bilge. Half an hour or so later, he had reappeared above deck soaked to the skin with a massive crooked grin and a small crab hanging from his ear. Whilst no-one had directly complained to Gerard about what he’d done, all further offers of help were hastily declined.

At present, Gerard was sitting on the poop deck admiring the sunlight on the water, perusing his maps and enjoying a snifter of the Captain’s own brandy. Not so long ago, merchant mariners would have been forced to wait out the calm, but nowadays the Sea of Stars was such an important trade route between Albion and the Orient that several solutions had been found. The deep-hulled cargo ships from Nedlund and Hasselt generally preferred to carry an elemental magician with them in case of emergencies, but The Royal Albion fleet favoured body-power with a little magical intervention. When the wind died down earlier in the day, a klaxon had sounded and pretty much everyone apart from Gerard, The Captain and the chap in the Crow’s Nest had assembled below deck. Judging by the noises rising up through the gaps in the floorboards, at least the greenskins were enjoying themselves. Gerard couldn’t help but admire their constant enthusiasm but he also felt that if he was going to make it back to the Mages Guild with his pre-cataclysmic treasure and all his nerves intact then he needed to make this trip as quick as possible. He drained his goblet and put down his map. When they reached the dock, they would head straight for the transport circle.

Gerard’s announcement that the next part of the trip would be via portal was met with mixed reactions from his companions. Melvin, who still had the crab hanging from his ear, thought it was hysterically funny and Dimmel just grunted, not being big on opinions. The orcs, on the other hand were not pleased. On investigation, it turned out that this was because Argo suffered with appalling portal sickness and Redsnatz nearly always ended up wearing the result.

After a certain amount of tedious complaining and avoidance tactics, Gerard promised Argo that he had a sure-fire magic cure for portal sickness. This kept the orc mercifully quiet until they arrived at the circle and were ushered into the demarcated area.

“Well?” he demanded, fixing Gerard with an expectant glare.*
*“Close your eyes,” said Gerard kindly. Argo obeyed. Gerard leaned forwarded, murmured something under his breath, and Argo slumped into a heap. Redsnatz rounded on Gerard, teeth bared, to forcefully express his displeasure and concern when Argo let out a ground trembling snore. *
*“Sh!” hissed Gerard with a wicked grin. The sleeping orc let out a grunt and moan and put one mangled and dirt-covered thumb in his mouth. It was too much for Melvin, he nearly exploded with amusement. *
*

The Nedlund dockside transport circles are an ancillary edition to the main network, and as such the transportation itself is sluggish and unsteady. Normally magical transportation is swift, smooth and instantaneous – and it’s this sudden change of location that causes the disorientation and vomiting that is known as portal sickness.

The transport from Nedlund Dockside 4 to Alendrian-Alraeth Border Zone 1 was nothing like that. It was, Melvin reflected later, somewhat like being poured down a massive downspout with a vat of tepid and rancid custard. In fact, it was a little like being vomited by the world. In some ways, Melvin was sorry he was unlikely to get to do it again.

***

They had made it to the Oriental side of the Continent, to the borderlands between the Cloud Elf Kingdom of Alendrian with its haughty citadels and complex social hierarchy and the secretive nation of Alraeth with its vast collection of knowledge and its outright hatred of outlanders. Gerard was slightly at a loss. He had focused all his attention on getting here, but now they had arrived all he could think was how much the forest they were in reminded him of Paravel.

The greenskins remained unphased, they just picked themselves up and started walking with no apparent discussion of anything like a direction. Dumbstruck, Gerard watched them slouch off down the road without a second glance. Then, when they hadn’t paused after a hundred yards or so to see if he was following, he was forced to hitch up his robes and scurry after them in a most undignified manner.

“Where are we going?” demanded Gerard breathlessly as he caught them up.*
*Dimmel looked pityingly at the puffing wizard by his elbow, lifted a gigantic arm and pointed down the road. *
*“Dis Way,” he said. *
*Patronised by a troll. Gerard would have been amused but for the heavy tide of weariness that flooded over him in that moment. He no longer wanted to be out on the road, he just wanted to retired quietly into the back corner of the Fellowship reading rooms with a small brandy and his leather-bound volume of ‘Wilthroyd’s Codex of The Pattern’ – a book so bad that correcting it was considered a source of entertainment among wizards. Right now, he would just have to hope that they weren’t going too far out of their way whilst he tried to work out what to do next.

After a mile or so they reached a waymarker; Gerard was stunned to discover that they were in fact heading in the right direction. He didn’t ask the greenskins how they had known which way to go for fear that they might try to explain, he just accepted it. They were just over thirty miles from Keldixfroik, which Gerard had pinpointed as the location of the Vroig Horometric Mechanism; an item that, if he was in anyway correct, was going to change life on the Occidental subcontinent irrevocably. In a few short days, they would be able to properly measure the passing of time and then everything would be better. No more instructions like ‘set sail at daybreak’ or ‘meet just after the nine-hour bell’. Proper timekeeping, like the ancients had managed.

If they could keep pace then they would be there sometime around mid-day tomorrow.

***

Alraeth was nothing like Gerard had imagined. He had been a devotee of the Forbidden Scrolls of Orenkgoboi, the only published collection of documents to have been successfully brought out of Alraeth, since he years as a Guild Scholar. He had his own copy – which had cost him a pretty penny. He had read it maybe a hundred times, annotated it, committed large chunks to memory, and then read it backwards in case of hidden codes (there weren’t any, as far as he could tell). He had spent many happy hours daydreaming about being allowed to roam freely through the legendary underground libraries.

By now, he was probably one of the foremost experts on Alraethan wisdom on the Occidental subcontinent. However, he had never actually been there. He hadn’t even studied the geography of the region. Instead, he had built a picture of this mystical land in his mind. A picture of dramatic landscape, with razor edged mountains and thundering waterfalls that cast rainbows into the sky. He imagined opalescent towers peaking up through the canopies of vast evergreen forests, well-made roads, beautiful sleek horses drawing polished wooden carriages. There was always soft warm sunshine, and bird song on the breeze. People were well-disciplined, polite but not over-friendly and above all educated. It was Gerard’s idea of paradise.

As they crossed the border a little after midday, and set foot on Alraethan soil, Gerard was bitterly disappointed. The horizon in front of him was dull and darkening, as heavy cloud gathered in. For miles around, all they could see were fields of crops, a few specks that must have been farmhouses and a handful of farmers tending the land. A sluggish brown river meandered along the side of the pot-holed turnpike. If it hadn’t been for the greenskins, Gerard would probably have just sat down on the verge and cried. As it happened, he kept on walking because he was still concerned that Dimmel might pick him up.

At least the walk was easy, even though the roads were poor. A lack of perilous mountain passes or lethally steep hills was one advantage of such a bland landscape Gerard supposed as they trudged onwards. The weather eased a little, so that they were left sodden and chilly in the breeze under frowning overcast skies. The sky reflected the general mood in a way that a poet would have made much of, and Gerard was very glad at that moment that he had chosen to bring greenskins and not bards with him.

The monotonous scenery made it difficult to keep track of how far they had walked, so when they came upon a fork in the road, Gerard was most impressed to find not just a way-marker but a signpost. It pointed down the smaller road, and read ‘Wendoran Ufach 6’ In spite of himself, Gerard smiled. Looking down at the way-marker he found it too had words on it. Someone had chiselled arrows into it, the one pointing back was labelled ‘Alendria 4’ and the one point in the direction they were going read ‘K-froik 28’. Apparently, having a literate populate meant that there was a point to public signage. Perhaps, even though the initial sight of this country had been hideously underwhelming, there was something special about it after all.

After all his years as an adventurer, Gerard had learnt to take pleasure in small things. It was the only way to survive on the road with your sanity intact. As exciting as it sounded, adventuring could be breathtakingly tedious. Bards never write about that bit. There are no folks songs about walking a hundred miles with four people you don’t find funny, nor is there a ballad entitled ‘my damp robes are a-chafing’. It was probably just as well mused Gerard, as he rearranged the fabric of his breaches.

He put aside the uncomfortable dampness and started humming a little tune under his breath to buoy up his mood. It was a sweet little song his governess had taught him when he was a little boy. She had made him sing it and skip about. He hadn’t appreciated it at the time, but right now the comfort of a familiar melody lifted his spirits just enough to quicken his step. His green companions picked up their pace to match. Gerard started to sing ‘la-la-la’ instead of humming, and the feeble sun poked its head through a cloud, like someone just awake from a fever.

For a moment, it was almost blissful, and then the greenskins started singing. Apparently, a good tune is universal and somewhere along the line an innocent Paravelian skipping song had become a bawdy drinking song about three men and a basket of root vegetables. As they made their way up a gentle undulation that Gerard hesitated to call a hill, he tried not to think about the logistics of what the orcs were singing, he just concentrated on what was coming next. If his map-reading skills were up to scratch, then then ‘Froik Insfan’, a small settlement between here and their destination, should be visible from the crest of this incline.

Until they paused on that crest, the adventurers’ experience of Alraeth had been limited to a single pot-holed turnpike enclosed by unkempt hedgerows and surrounded by mostly deserted arable farms with low sprawling buildings made from rustic stone. The signpost and way-marker were the only indication that anybody else may ever travel this way..

Below them, nestled in the basin of the valley – and it really was a valley, the slope down was gentle but long – was a sizeable market town. From their viewpoint, they could see exactly where everyone had gone. The market was bustling with life, and judging by the wagons and foot traffic still pouring in along the other roads into the town, it was only just getting started. The buildings were of the same low, rustic stone construction as the farm buildings – nothing opalescent or grand in sight. The only towers in evidence were half a dozen square watch-towers with tiled roofs, one situated in line with each of the incoming roads.

As he looked from one tower to the next, he realised what was so peculiar about the town below him. It didn’t have any gates, because it didn’t have a wall. He stood for a moment and pondered what that truly meant and then, just as he was about to say something his thoughts were broken by Argo, belching. With a satisfied grin, the orc declared that the last one to the tavern was a ‘perfumed Paravelian jessy’.

As Gerard watched the four of them scramble off down the road, he sighed with indulgent exasperation. Here he was enjoying a cultural experience, and all his companions wanted was a beer. Typical. He was reasonably sure that whoever got to the tavern first, and whoever else was declared a perfumed Paravelian Jessy (As a Paravelian-born Wizard living in Aberddu City, Gerard was often legitimately described as such), it would still be him who was expected to pay the innkeeper at the end of the night. He snorted with amusement as Melvin tripped over his own feet and went somersaulting passed both orcs. He was almost sure he heard the goblin let out a celebratory whoop as he leapt to his feet, now in the lead.

Chuckling, Gerard pushed aside his pomposity for a moment – if he had truly learnt nothing else in his time in the Adventurers Guild, he had at least learnt how and when to joke around. After a brief but complex hand gesture and a murmured word or two, Gerard shimmered and disappeared.

The better part of an hour later Melvin came scuttling down the road, trailing shouts of indignation and a stray duck. He was panting and grinning at the same time, his green brow dripping sweat. He slowed to an urgent waddle as he looked around for the first inn on the turnpike – a grubby establishment with a well outside called ‘The Fayre Fortune’. He knew full well that neither orc had managed to overtake him since the second time he’d tripped and rolled, and Dimmel was way behind them all – his long stride was not enough to make up for his inability to move downhill with any real speed. Melvin was about to skip smugly into the bar and try his luck with the innkeeper, when his attention was drawn to one of the benches by the door. “Tell the landlord I want a refill, the red please,” said Gerard waving a pewter goblet at the bemused goblin, “and put this behind the bar.” He held out a large gold coin. Goblins may act stupid but, in the face of free booze, they can be remarkably sharp. Melvin let out a hoarse chortle and took both. Perhaps, just perhaps, some wizards weren’t so bad after all. Gerard became even more popular with the greenskins when he announced that they would be spending the night at the tavern. On production of a second gold coin, Gerard had had no trouble in negotiating dinner, drinks, breakfast and sleeping space for all five of them. He had managed to find himself a large, empty chair by the inglenook fireplace, and was intending to take root there for the rest of the evening. In retrospect, he should have probably explained this to the greenskins. They had other ideas.

In Aberddu – a city free state that takes a great deal of pride in its independence – greenskins, like all other citizens are held accountable for their own behaviour under the law. In Aberddu, when two drunken orcs cause a public disturbance by playing ‘catch’ in the middle of the thoroughfare using an equally inebriated goblin as the ball, then it is the orcs, and normally also the goblin, that are arrested and charged. Militia officers gleefully march them down to the nearest cell block and leave them there until they are sober enough to ask to leave, politely. They are then scolded by the sergeant and forced to hand over the contents of the pockets as some form of fine. In Alraeth, things were different. For one thing, as Argo quickly discovered, the civil order patrols take offense at being winked at. They also have some seriously heavy-duty ankle manacles – the weight of which was enough to sober Redsnatz up almost immediately. The three of them were frogmarched to the town hall, the patrol officer barking at them every time they looked around. Greenskins don’t appreciate authority, and they rarely go quietly, but for Gerard’s sake the three of them bit back their bile. The gaol was under the town hall, down three flights of slimy stone steps. It was clear from the attitude of the gaoler that greenskins were not common in these parts. He spoke about them, rather than to them, as he led them down to the dungeon area and glowered at them as he chained them up facing the wall. They heard the heavy oak door slam and the key turn in the lock. The darkness deepness and the last light from the gaoler’s lantern faded as he walked away. In a silence thick with damp and the smell of putrefaction, two orcs and a goblin were not scared, they were angry. Dimmel, who had been sitting on the floor by the well playing with half a dozen stray kittens, had witnessed the whole thing. His fleshy brow folded with deep frown lines as his brain carefully processed what had happened. It wasn’t good, he was fairly sure. Still holding one purring ginger kitten, he got to his feet and stamped into the tavern.

“Er, Mr Gerard Sir,” he boomed across the babble, “Um, I fink we might have a problem.” *
*Gerard knew enough about greenskins to translate that understatement. He sprang to his feet and with four leaping strides met the troll in the doorway. “De others, they been ‘rested,” continued Dimmel, absent-mindedly tickling the kitten with his massive forefinger as it gnawed gleefully on his knuckle. *
*“What for?” groaned Gerard, before he realised that it was an irrelevant question. “Actually, I don’t care. Which way did they go?” Dimmel pointed down a wide avenue with the hand that still contained the kitten. *
*“Right,” said Gerard, “Just wait here and don’t get in to any trouble.” *
*“Okay,” said Dimmel trying to sound helpful, “Dat’s no problem, I do that as soon as we find de others.” It wasn’t flippancy, Dimmel couldn’t manage that. Gerard just shook his head and exhaled. Hopefully the presence of a troll wouldn’t make things worse. He went back in to the inn to fetch his bag and have a word with the landlord.

In Alraeth, unattended greenskins are considered to be little more than insubordinate lost property. They’re rounded up like feral dogs, and if they aren’t claimed within a week are shot. Technically speaking, Gerard was legally responsible for their crimes and would be expected to pay a fine. The civil order officer was icily polite to Gerard as he dealt with the request to return two orcs and a goblin. As he filled out the docket neatly and took the three silver coins, he kept darting disparaging glances at Gerard and his companion.

“The troll’l have to wait outside,” he said haughtily as he handed the docket to the grimly smirking gaoler. Unlike the officer, the gaoler took a great deal of pleasure in strangers and today had provided well. *
*“Are you from some kind of travelling bard show?” he asked with the kind of loaded innocence that is used to thinly veil an insult. *
*“No,” replied Gerard testily as he followed the gaoler down the stairs with his robe hitched up around his knees. “I’m a scholar, and a wizard.” *
*“Oh,” said the gaoler, “I see.” His tone changed from playful disdain to outright distaste. *
*“You’re with the others I assume?” The gaoler squeezed the question through pursed lips. *
*“Er,” said Gerard, suddenly wrong-footed. “What others?” The gaoler stopped in his tracks and lifted his lantern to illuminate Gerard, throwing himself into shadow. Clearly, he thought the wizard was feigning innocence. “They came through yesterday,” was the terse reply. “Four or five of them. They didn’t stay for long.” The way he said that made it clear that this hadn’t been by choice. “They went out on the Keldixfroik road, just after dawn. You may want to catch them up.” The suggestion wasn’t a kind one. The gaoler jogged down the last flight of steps leaving Gerard in the dark, his mind racing. Fighting past superficial thoughts such as just after dawn is no kind of time measure and so that’s how you pronounce Keldixfroik, the x must be silent he fixed on the main revelation.

Of course there were other wizards in the area. Why hadn’t he thought of this before? If he could extrapolate the location of the Vroig Horometric Mechanism from the Orenkgobi Scrolls, then so could any fool with half a brain and the right equipment. And these wizards were a whole day ahead of him.

All other thoughts left Gerard’s head. He was vaguely cognisant of doors banging, chains clanging and the low growl of angry orcs, but none of it was important any more. He turned on the spot and trotted back upstairs, muttering under his breath. The icy officer looked up but didn’t say anything, he just tutted and refilled his inkwell. When three stroppy greenskins stamped past a minute or so later arguing between themselves about whose fault it was causing his desk to wobble he didn’t even look up, he just grunted and dabbed at the spilt ink.

Dimmel had made himself comfortable under a tree outside. He’d worked his buttocks into the soft grass, stretched his aching legs out in front of him and closed his eyes. The kitten was scampering about on his tunic batting at the uneaten snails. He let out a long contented sigh and drifted off to sleep. The kitten yawned and curled up in the crook of one enormous elbow.

Consumed by paranoid urgency, Gerard strode back towards the Inn with such determination that he barely felt the stiffness in his limbs. His thoughts spiralling away from him, the more he considered it, the more obvious it was that there would be a race for this prize. After all, who wouldn’t want the Vroig Horometer? Pre-cataclysmic artefacts were extremely rare, and even those that had no obvious use were valuable beyond measure. The horometer had a very special function, one that Gerard greatly prized. Through a series of cogs, pendulums and spinning whatnots, it could accurately mark out the passage of time on a premade scale something like the sundials they used in the Orient, except this would still work in the rain. It wasn’t like the long tapers in the Law Temple that simply measured the time as it elapsed, or the sand-glasses the alchemists used – it was actually a sophisticated measuring device that didn’t rely on you knowing when the device had been set going. Gerard let out a strangulated yowl and broke into a jog. After a hundred yards or so, his body overruled his fragile butterfly mind and caused him to stop dead, bent double from a sharp pain in his guts. He staggered to the stone well outside The Fayre Fortune, and perched on the lip as he waited for the familiar pain of anxiety and overexertion to pass. As he rubbed his belly and grimaced, he realised that in his frenetic haste he had just run back the way he had come, and was therefore on the wrong side of the town. He whimpered, stood up and immediately regretted it.

The pain subsided quickly once Gerard stopped flustering himself, and he got to his feet a little cowed by his own idiocy. Composed once more, he started back towards the signpost he had passed a few moments before reaching the tavern. As he paused beneath the signpost that clearly indicated Keldixfroik to be 26 miles South West, Gerard had a dreadful niggling feeling that he had completely forgotten something of great importance. He took two or three deep breaths to see if that helped and when the feeling didn’t go away, he started patting his pockets absently. That was when a raucous voice bellowed down the street after him. “Oi, boss, what the bloody-‘ell do you fink your playin’ at?”*
*Gerard suddenly realised he had forgotten completely the greenskins.

***

On top of their penchant for low-budget accommodation and their irrepressible enthusiasm for the most bizarre things, Gerard had to admit that greenskins had many other useful qualities. They were almost endlessly pragmatic; when Gerard had announced that they may need to travel all night all four simply shrugged and grunted. If that was what the boss wanted then that was what they were going to be paid for, and money meant beer. Not waiting for the morning just meant that the money, and therefore the beer, would appear sooner.

As well as that, they tended to be almost frighteningly calm and patient when it came to wizards being wizards. Gerard had had this explained to him before – the first time he’d worked with orcs. It was a long-held belief amongst greenskins that vast magical power induced a volatile temperament. This was not a good thing in people who had the power to strike you dead from a distance just by waving their hand and sneezing. Conventional greenskin wisdom was, therefore, to handle all wizards with care, speak slowly, stand well back and do what they told you. Just in case.

It was due to this way of thinking that less than an hour after being arrested, the greenskins were already hot-foot on the road to Keldixfroik. From his position, Gerard had to consider that on balance, all things were going well. The fact that he was currently slung across Dimmel’s broad shoulders like an eccentric boa was something he would try desperately to forget when he got home.

It wasn’t a comfortable or dignified way to travel, but once the kitten had stopped trying curl up on his face and nestled itself in one of Dimmel’s gigantic pockets, it was at least bearable and relatively quick. Gerard had been slightly narked to discover that the greenskins had been keeping pace with him not the other way around, and given the urgency of the situation he was prepared to sacrifice his dignity to gain a little speed. They were now moving a brisk trot and the rhythmic bouncing of Dimmel’s shoulders was almost soothing. As the wave of adrenaline subsided, Gerard suddenly realised he was exhausted and, against all probability, actually fell asleep.

***

It was just after daybreak when Argo sighted Keldixfroik and held out an arm to halt the others. Dimmel stopped dead with so much momentum that he almost overbalanced. This sent a gently-snoring Gerard ignominiously tumbling onto a patch of moss. “Huh, what?” mumbled the wizard fighting to sit up, “Porridge would be…oh.”*
*“That’s it Boss,” announced Redsnatz proudly waving a hand towards the settlement on the horizon. *
*It was apparent from here that the legendary city of Keldixfroik was a very different kettle of fish from the market town of Froik Insfan. Even from this distance they could make out the giant iron rings on the towering city gates. The walls were dark and foreboding, and from where they stood, nothing else of the city was visible. “Bit grim ain’t it,” commented Argo stretching. *
*“Yeah,” was all Gerard could manage. He had imagined that the Alraethan were joyous in their wisdom, but apparently they were more accurately described as militant. A low mist was rolling across the moorland between here and there, hiding the road and making the whole place seem so very distant. *
*“How’re we gonna get in there?” asked Melvin with genuine curiosity. *
“Er,” stammered Gerard, who had no idea. He’d honestly felt more welcome in the Headquarters of the Frisian Inquisition – and they’d been hoping to torture him to death. “Well, um, I could always turn myself into a bird, I suppose.”
*“Nah,” said Argo with a smirk, “I’ve got a better idea.” *
*

A short while later, Gerard was holding one side of a large balsawood frame as he watched with fascination. Redsnatz and Argo were lashing and hitching and otherwise constructing a giant kite out of bits they had carefully packed on the troll before they left. Apparently ‘aerial reco-nonsense’ was the new thing in the Greenland Army. As far as Gerard could tell, aerial reco-nonsense – or possibly reconnaissance he wasn’t sure – was basically an excuse for Goblins to attach themselves to very large kites. Melvin was strapping himself securely to the spine of the contraption with his usual manic grin. It was evident from his obvious excitement that he was an enthusiastic proponent of this new art form and he had been dying for an excuse to ‘go up’ since they had left Aberddu. Gerard supposed he should be grateful that they hadn’t tried it on the ship.

The bemused wizard was charged with the simple task of hanging on to the kite’s frame as the other three prepared to launch the cackling goblin. Once they were ready, Argo took over. There was a considerable amount of running back and forth, a handful of false starts and a near-miss crash after which Gerard considered calling it quits when, at last, a gust of wind took pity on them and sent the kite soaring upwards.

Now I really have seen everything thought Gerard as he sat down on the moss to watch two delighted orcs flying a goblin on a kite.   Once Melvin had returned to solid ground and stopped chortling with delight, Gerard gave him a pen and some parchment. With tongue-poking concentration, he drew a diagram of what he had seen beyond the walls. There was very little of Keldixfroik or its population to see above ground it seemed. A handful of low-slung building near the gates and two rings of identical ten-foot high chimney stacks each with a tiled roof. Realisation dawned in Gerard as Melvin described the structures.

The Towers of Alraeth – all the explorers talked about them. Gerard had imagined palatial turrets that afforded a view across the inspirational landscape. Like everything else about Alraeth, they were far less poetic than he had imagined. The towers were nothing more than air vents. He suddenly felt very stupid. Just exactly how else would all those people be able to breath in the vast underground libraries? *
*The greenskins were, as always, more practical about things. *
*“Well,” said Argo with a grin, “chimneys go both ways, right?” *
*“Yeah,” said Gerard slowly, not sure where this was going. *
“Excellent,” continued Redsnatz, “that’s our way in and out then.” Gerard frowned at him, so he added, “If you can change yourself into a bird, then you can just fly down one of them chimney things. Job done.”
*“I see,” said Gerard, feeling slightly bad that he would have to point out the flaw in this plan. “That’s great. But just exactly how do you expect a sparrow to carry all the pieces of a mechanism slightly larger than a beer barrel?” There was a stumped silence for a moment, and then Dimmel, who hadn’t said anything for a long time, suddenly said, “Er, Wizards.” *
*

Both orcs and Gerard rounded on the troll to abuse his stupidity and found that actually Dimmel wasn’t suggesting an escape plan at all. He was pointing towards the horizon, where a gathering of people had paused to taken in the lay of the land. *
*“Quick,” shrieked Gerard, flinging his arms up over his head, “hide!” *
*“Why?” retorted Redsnatz, grabbing the wizard by the scruff of his robe before he could throw himself face first into the gorse. *
*“Er,” was all Gerard could think of. *
*“Leave ‘em to us,” grinned Argo winking at Gerard in a way that made the wizard uncomfortable. “If they really are wizards, then they’ll think we’re too stupid to be a threat, and that is the best weapon in the world, believe me.” *
*“Getting back to this stealing thing,” interrupted Melvin, who was also supremely unbothered by the wizards on the horizon. “Can you turn us into birds too?” *
*“I can’t do all of us,” said Gerard intrigued, “Why?” *
*“Well, I have this sack and a rope,” said Melvin, “and a plan.” He tapped the side of his head and grinned. *
*The goblin explained, and once again Gerard marvelled at greenskin ingenuity. He had only two misgivings about the whole idea, one was that he had never been much cop at climbing ropes and the other was that Melvin wouldn’t tell him exactly how he planned to get them all out alive. This made Gerard think, quite rightly, that the goblin didn’t actually know. But still, it was more of a plan than anyone else had come up with, and the ancient texts had plenty to say about desperate times.

Gerard had never been able to fathom why, whenever he changed orcs or trolls into birds, they always turned out as mangy-looking weasel hawks. Everyone else came out as sparrows. It didn’t really matter as weasel hawks were pretty ubiquitous. Just as long as nobody looked up and wondered why there were two of them carrying a piece of rope then it would be fine. The sack had been folded and tucked into Gerard’s undergarments. The simple theory was that if his combinations reappeared when he changed back from bird form then so should anything inside them. Without hesitation, Gerard changed the orcs, then himself and they took off.

As the three bird climbed on the thermals, heading for the wall, Melvin grinned at Dimmel. This was going to be fun. He was having trouble containing his amused disdain for the rival wizards. They were on horseback and had still managed to arrive several hours after a bunch of greenskins on foot. Working on the assumption that groups of mounted wizards were too self-important to speak to goblins and pompous enough to trot straight up to the gates and knock, he made himself comfortable behind a gorse bush. He was not disappointed. No sooner had the birds vanished from view, than the front-end wizard clip-clopped passed him without a second glance. Judging by his heavily embroidered robes and vibrant silk turban he was one of the famously arrogant Arabian Mages. Melvin was prepared to bet good money that the man on that horse would soon dig out his own eyeballs than admit he could see a goblin’s point. More fool him, thought Melvin, keeping his eyes on the gate.

In and out via the chimney is hardly an original ploy it has to be said. However, most of these plots don’t normally involve birds, or orcs perching precariously on the top lip of the flue. Gerard didn’t pause to watch the orcs transform, he glided downwards and was relieved, although slightly disappointed, to discover a lack of security grille at the bottom of the shaft. Unimpeded, he emerged into a long, well-lit tunnel and swooped along near the ceiling.

Signposts made it very easy to navigate the otherwise labyrinthine caverns and with little effort he located the room that housed ‘pre-cataclysmic artefacts, scrolls and imprints’. Sitting on a shelf, completely unguarded and marked with nothing more elaborate than a small dangling label, was the Vroig Horometric Mechanism. No-one was around to challenge him, so Gerard transformed and was pleased on several levels to remove the hessian sack from his underwear. He packed the cogs and pendulums and whatnots into the sack as quickly as he dared, then walked calmly out of the room and back to the vent. All he had to do was tie a decent knot in the end of the rope, and the orcs would do the rest.

Outside the gate, Melvin and Dimmel were thoroughly enjoying themselves. The wizards had arranged themselves in a formal line and the leader had imperiously trotted forwards to hammer on the gate. It wouldn’t have surprised Melvin if most of them hadn’t even seen the troll they had ridden passed, let alone the goblin tucked behind a bush, waiting. There was a mechanical clunk and, with an eerie whistle, the gate started to swing ever so slowly open. The boss wizard produced a scroll from inside his robes, and unrolled it with a flourish. Evidently, there had been a lot of planning put into this visit. What they hadn’t anticipated was what happened immediately next. The gate was open no more than a foot or so, when a troll appeared out of nowhere, stomped up to two of mages on the end of the line and said mournfully, “‘scuse me, have you seen my goat?” *
*Melvin wished he had had the opportunity to witness such a simple question cause utter chaos, but it was more important that he slip through the gate. He could still hear the fracas though. Apparently, asking about an errant goat was exactly the wrong thing to say at that moment, and every single Mage on the line was determined to have a say as to why. Dimmel stood patiently until the shouting subsided and then said calmly, “So, you haven’t seen it then?” *
*

Melvin reappeared a short time later followed by two orcs, one carrying a sack and the other carrying a traumatised wizard, to find that one of the Mage’s had actually dismounted and was giving Dimmel a thorough lecture about the irrelevance of the proletariat when it came to great historical discoveries that might advance civilisation. Dimmel looked as puzzled as the ginger kitten on his shoulder and said, “I don’t fink that’s anything to do with my goat.” *
*At this point, the wizard completely ‘lost his rag’, to use a greenskin phrase, and taking affront at this, Dimmel said, *
*“All you had to say was no.” Then he loped off across country, grumbling under his breath. The troll, the goblin, the orcs and their burdens were all out of sight when the gates fully opened and the Arabian Mages Alliance made their formal request for access to the Keldixfroik library, and were rejected once again.

Melvin couldn’t quite believe that his plan had worked. As they headed cross-country to the nearest border, he ran over the whole thing in his head several times and found that his only regret was not being able to steal one of the horses. As Argo pointed out, it was just as well because there would probably have been a fight about who got to ride the damned thing anyway. At some point just after sundown, they crossed into Alendria. Gerard could feel a subtle difference in the air; traces of magic that had been missing before. The landscape had changed too. The fields had given way to bleak moorlands with surprising boggy patches, which in turn had led them into a dense pine forest. They emerged from this on to the edge of a wide ravine just as the sun set behind the vast mountain range beyond, soft orange light glimmering on the domed glass and marble turrets that peaked above the treeline. A faint scent of incense and oil wafted up on the air. The exhausted adventurers slumped down on the conveniently placed boulders, and let out the noises of those whose feet and backs are protesting the sudden stop. Gerard cradled his sack of mechanical parts in the lap of his robes and reflected. Alraeth may not have been the paradise he imagined, but at least he had what he came for and if he was clever about it, he might be able to treat them all to a nice quick portal home. First of all, he would need a good night’s sleep and more immediately a convenient tree. “Hey Boss,” yawned the goblin, “Can I see have a turn with that sack?” Gerard smiled with weary indulgence, not really taking in Melvin’s words. Goblins were natural curious creatures, it wasn’t hard to imagine that Melvin would be desperate for a look at their prize. *
*“Here,” said Gerard, as he stood up and stretched, “hold it for a moment. I’m going to the wizard’s private study.” The goblin took the sack gleefully, and stuck his head in it before Gerard had even made it into the tree line. The moment Gerard had relieved himself and re-tied his breeches he realised his mistake. His blistered feet couldn’t get him back to the ledge fast enough. Argo and Redsnatz were playing catch with one of the larger cogs. It sailed past the end of Gerard’s nose as he arrived on the edge clearing, mouth wide open, trying to stifle a shriek. *
*“This stuff is brilliant!” declared Melvin, chortling to himself as he tried to hang a second pendulum from his ear, “I can see why you wanted it Boss!” Gerard let out a pathetic groan and dropped to his knees beside the bits that the greenskins had left in the grass. Perhaps, just perhaps, he thought, I might be able to manage a single portal right now.

***

In the event, Gerard relented. After all he was at least partly to blame – he should never have handed a bag of brass mechanisms to a group of unsupervised greenskins. Sitting at his desk in his study, a month later, Gerard had almost recovered enough to smile as he remembered it. After several sleepless nights, he had managed to construct the Horometric Mechanicsm, on one of the benches in his study. He admired the elegance of the motion in the light of the candle lanterns, he enjoyed the gentle authoritative tock of the pins on the cogs, he recorded the ‘times’ of sunrise and sunset, he tracked the accuracy of the Law Temple bell and took pleasure in scorning when it was out. He made sure that everyone in the Fellows library knew exactly what he had got his hands on. It had been a thing of wondrous beauty and delight for nearly a fortnight. Then, when the novelty had worn off and the other Fellows started to roll their eyes at the mere mention of it, Gerard was forced to admit to himself that actually it wasn’t as useful as he had hoped. It’s all very well scheduling a meeting for a quarter past three in the afternoon, but when you’re the only person who can tell the time with that degree of accuracy you still end up having to wait. He had hoped that he’d start a trend, but nobody else seemed to be interested in having to rush back to their room to find out how much time had passed since the last Law Temple bell. So, dutifully, he deconstructed it. Then he made painstaking drawings of each piece from different angles, and packed them back into the sack. He knew that as a scholar and a gentleman he should simply return to whence it came, but he couldn’t bring himself to send it back to a life underground. Besides, he could think of a few people who would get far greater pleasure from it than some stuffy Alraethan librarians.

“Dear Melvin,” he wrote on the short note, “Now it’s your turn.”

*** *]

[* h1. Not Hanging Around

by Dan J Batten

I shouldn’t like this feeling, but I do. It might force me to make a change. Being dismissed from your job should scare any rational personal to death. Not me, I’m ninety nine percent delighted that I might be liberated from this situation. I’ve been here far too long. The job’s stupefying and I’m surrounded by idiots. My brain’s processing figures. I’m sick of figures, because they’re what’s got me here.

Numbers. Or a lack of them.

More to the point a conflict between a set of numbers that another entity (my current employer) obsesses over, and another one (me) being absolutely sick of. What rational entity builds themselves to a state of coital ecstasy over insurance policies? Not me.

This is why I’m sat here in front of Andy, my manager, surrounded by paperwork spewed out from the bowels of two faceless departments residing at our equally faceless head office and our insurance partner’s head stalag. We’ll call them company ABC and Techplan123 respectively. Company ABC and Techplan123 are currently not having a good time, and are eager to ‘cascade’ the misery down to all by sacking anyone not working at 250 percent of their capacity and/or doubling their working week by doing two days a week unpaid overtime.

Andy. A contradictory package. I have a lot of time for Andy, but he’s not up to the job and he only had two different modes. Mode A saw him bouncing about like Tigger on speed, full of the joys, bright, chatty and good to be around. Mode B was the (Bi-)polar opposite. Sullen, miserable Andy, a John Major grey mask now replacing the radiant glow of day one, along with a refusal to enter into the most rudimentary of discourse, making it an absolute pleasure to leave at the end of a shift.

There were mitigating circumstances. Andy had mental health issues, and having a partner who would rip him to pieces on the phone at least twice a day didn’t help. He’d end their calls looking like he’d had a monumental kicking from a UFC fighter at best, a terminal diagnosis at worst. She’d think nothing of calling the police to get Andy removed from the house because he hadn’t washed up ‘properly’. What constituted ‘properly’ was never defined, meaning Andy had zero chances of meeting Cruella’s exacting standards. We’d had the pleasure of her in store of a few times, where she’d exhibited warmth on a par with that shown in a ISIS execution videos.

They had a 7 year old boy, Tommy. Tommy was beginning to understand that his home life wasn’t the same as the one his peers enjoyed. My wife and I looked after him one day when Andy and the black angel were on courses for work. After we gave him his tea, which disappeared like an F1 car through a tunnel, he looked scared. “Are you going to throw the plates now?” are not words I wanted to hear from a junior school student outside of a Greek wedding.

On top of his domestic nightmare, Andy was now having to put me through disciplinary proceedings for not selling enough Techplan123 ‘products’. He hated it. He wasn’t up to confrontation, simple as that. Especially confronting someone he knew didn’t care and couldn’t be made to care. Andy ushered me in to our stock room cum back office cum dining room. He would never be an example of the perfect physical specimen, but he looked even worse than usual over the last few days. He reeked of dope and wore a filthy shirt half untucked into stained, ill fitting uniform trousers, uncombed hair and at least three days stubble on a face that was as white as the proverbial sheet. I had no idea how I was going to give Andy the attention he deserved. The review meeting was utterly laughable. But Andy deserved my respect. He didn’t command any elsewhere.

Andy was shuffling sheets in front of him, fervently trying to find his starting point as I made myself comfortable. He couldn't get off of the grid, not because of his usual haphazard nature but because he was missing page 1 of the pompously titled 'Techplan 123: Capability and Conduct Criteria- sales adviser disciplinary measure, version 2.1.2.3'. AKA Corporate Bollocking for Low Paid Drones 101. *
‘Sorry mate, I just need Emily to print this missing page and we can get started. OK?’
No problem, go and see Laughing Gravy then.
*

Emily, the miserable admin droid from hell. Five feet tall. And wide. She resided in her office up four flights of stairs, with no lift. What an office too, looking for all the world like some horrid gonzo porno set. As usual with our company, every expense was spared. A hard tiled floor was the resting place for a solitary desk, laptop (Emily’s own, told you we worked for Scrooge Inc.), Emily’s chair (the toughest job in this office) and a few files. The paint was a dirty grey colour, which periodically crumbled to reveal a revolting shade of 1970’s orange beneath. This was the office that only comes with a made up job, where you get dumped in any available broom cupboard because you don’t have a function that necessitates a real office. Emily was the ‘area administrator’, which meant she sent off everyone’s timecards on a Monday morning and kissed the area manager’s arse for the rest of the week. She thought she was ‘special’. She wasn’t.

There was also a radiator. It always made me think of the first Saw film, where the guy has to saw through his own ankle in order to escape the grim room which was a double for this one laughing girl occupied. This in turn made me think what a good idea it would be to make a real life recreation of the film series up there, using customers as our stars. We served some real dreck in this place. On one of his papal visits the Area Manager asked what would improve the store. My suggestion of one free kill per shift per team member and an industrial shredder to dispose of the evidence with was never followed up. Perhaps Laughing Gravy, who was minuting the meeting and kissing managerial arse as usual, never noted it down correctly.

Today she was in an even worse mood than usual. She’d just returned from the dentist. It was news to me that she had teeth, she never smiled. But she definitely had molars, canines and incisors. She’d left her bank statement in full view on her desk one day and I couldn’t resist a peek. I wasn’t disappointed. In a two page printout containing 43 transactions, 21 were for the KFC in town. That’s not 2, that’s not 1, those two digits had become 1. 21 to be exact. Not what the Spice Girls had in mind.

Laughing Gravy (LG from now on) had been told by her doctor to lay off the pies or end up with knee replacements in five years and a wheelchair in ten, just like her hideously grotesque mother, a poster girl for 21st century gluttony and the sedentary lifestyle. The worst part of LG was her demeanour. She was a miserable wretch whose glass wasn’t even HALF empty, who always ended phone calls to her boyfriend (obviously a masochist) and Bull Hurley with the most horribly insincere and insipid refrain of ‘Love you’. The only thing that got those gnashers on display was food, particularly chocolate. Here’s a case in point.

Yesterday my mate Rob came to see me at work. He booked his malfunctioning Blackberry in for repair for the second time since I reluctantly sold it to him three months age, having told him that, mark my words, this failure, the infamous ‘white screen of death’ would happen. LG had booked it in for him last time in my absence and he was none too impressed. ‘Who’s that miserable fat bird in your place?” he enquired over a pint later that day. I didn’t need to ask who he was referring to.

I’d asked him to grab me some lunch, which he just delivered, along with some light relief. The shop had been heaving with a bigger than usual influx of dross, which left no time to buy lunch. LG was lurking twenty five feet away in the background in a mood so foul you could smell it. She wouldn’t help me out, despite seeing the queue and knowing my job backwards, having done it herself for five years before her move upstairs elevated her to greatness. ‘I don’t do shop floor anymore’ she said in her trademark sneer.

‘There you go mate. They’d sold out of salami so plain sausage and mustard it is then.’ The filling was irrelevant, I would have eaten tree bark. “I got you a little treat too” added my lifesaving pal as I devoured my second choice lunch. For Rob, ‘little treats’ could mean anything from a stick of chewing gun to the leather coat that I wore to work today. The fiver I pushed towards him for my lunch was scoffed at and literally thrown back in my face. Rob didn’t work. He didn’t have to, as his family were minted, having a successful string of clothes shops, from which Rob had somehow liberated, completely unnoticed, the stupidly luxurious £700 coat that now kept the cold out of me, and was at complete odds with the tacky uniform I was decked out in, as well as the rest of my wardrobe. He was well out of place here. The gleaming new BMW parked outside the shop alongside a showroom’s worth of Motability Vauxhall Corsas acquired through fake bad back claims illustrated that fact.

Today’s treat was at the modest end of the scale. A giant tub full of Munchies chocolates from Makro. ‘Bec’s favourites. She’ll love them, cheers mate’ I said laughing as Rob cascaded his chocolate harvest across a free part of the desk, exhibiting them in the manner of a 1980s ballgown clad gameshow hostess, illustrative hand gestures and all. As the harvest landed, I noticed a sudden, inexplicable lightening of the room’s ambiance, which had been rather subdued to say the least. This was followed up by a rumble across the floor behind me akin to a chieftain tank in full flow which abated as quickly as it had started. The source of the rumbling was surprising, as I couldn’t equate it with the sudden burst of speed it had emitted. Nor was the look of glee which greeted the Munchies, akin to a lucky Vegas punter finding three bells on the winning line having entrusted lady luck with his last fifty bucks in a one armed bandit.

LG had sensed confectionery. The death mask had been replaced with a look of joy not seen since Snow White whistled and worked with her animal cleanup squad. The death metal growl that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Cannibal Corpse album that had denied my earlier pleas for help was now on a par with the light and airy tones that came from the Disney princesses’ larynx. ‘Ooh, chocolates. I like chocolates!” exclaimed Rommel’s tank, now in full flow.

“I can tell that love” said Rob, with all the subtlety of an artillery shell wiping out its target. “I’ll drop these off for you at home” he added, nodding at me as he snatched the prize away from Emily’s grasp. The third reel had really been showing a horseshoe, not a bell.

At last count the female workforce in our local branches totalled four, including LG and a clone of her working alternate days to me here called Grace. What an inappropriate name. Their nickname,The Sisters of Scowl, was perfect.

Grace was a shifty cow who’d definitely had her hand in the till a few times, but no one could prove it. Well, I could, but not in any terms that I could explain to the donuts here, as it would require a basic grasp of mathematics and correlating certain rules of said science to irrefutable facts, such as tills were down when Grace was in but fine on her off days. None of them had the intelligence to work out that she was a thief, even when she walked in one day with a box containing a pair of £120 pristine Nike Airs, having borrowed £3 off of Andy two days prior to buy a sandwich having pled poverty until payday in twelve days time. Add cheap blond hair extensions and a Kardashian-esque arse shoe-horned into the cheap grey combat trousers we were obliged to wear as part of the company’s attempt to make us look ‘down with the kids’, and she looked, as Rob would say, ‘a bugger’.

The next one was Awful Andrea. Five foot nothing and nudging thirty, she bore a worrying likeness to Harry Potter and still lived with her parents, coming to work with her short cropped hair sprayed all colours of the rainbow in a style that made her look like a My Little Pony toy. She had a frightening passion for anything related to Tinker bell and delighted in the fact that she could still get into children's clothes. 'I don't have to pay VAT' was the annoying tagline, accompanied by one of those retarded rapid 'seal claps' beloved of Southern California brats on bad American TV shows, that went with the unveiling of a new purchase to fawning acolyte Emily, who most certainly did pay VAT on her attire. That wasn't the only 'So-Cal' affliction she'd ingested into her already mutated DNA, as she'd also adopted the ultimate moron accessory- speaking in that hideous rising inflection, where everything turns into a question? YOU'RE FROM BIRKENHEAD, YOU FOOL! She was as cold as a Nordic winter and would speak to you only when she wanted you to do something for her. Most women detested her, due to the fact that she would attempt to use her 'charms' on any bloke that moved regardless of their relationship status. This once earned her a temporary makeover into a panda when word got back to an irate girlfriend about her attempts to cast her Potter-esque spell on her other half, leading to a fist/eye interface on a Friday night in a local bar, which, judging by the video posted on the aggrieved party's Facebook page, was of some ferocity.

Her approach had yielded fruit though, as she was now manager of another branch, having gained said engagement via a none too well disguised liaison with the area manager at the time in a Holiday Inn in North Wales. Classy she wasn’t. She wouldn’t have gained it any other way though, being totally devoid of any of the requisite skills needed to run a business. Her management style consisting of delegating everything while sitting in the back office perusing holiday brochures with her alcoholic boyfriend who managed to climb out from a mountain of Stella cans every morning and manage another shop, or looking at Facebook or asos.com. The latter would always morph in ‘an important set of figures’ as the creak of her door warned her of the arrival of a minion into her realm. A true waste of space. Just like most management.

The one remaining female member of staff was Josie. There’s not much to say about Josie except she was everything the previously mentioned witches weren’t. She had the attention of the company’s entire local male contingent, who all had zero chance having being well and truly beaten to the punch by Josie’s boyfriend of five years, Chris, who was equally as attractive and appealing as Josie. Their photos on Facebook made you sick in the nicest way possible.

Besides admiring her appearance, always smiling face and figure that made LG visibly seethe with envy, everyone except the witches had a damn good laugh with Josie. Shifts went quicker with her. She could have pulled any single bloke she wanted to, but never had an attitude.The other women here hated her.

Footsteps and the creak of a squeaky door that maintenance never bothered oiling snapped me awake and back into the arena of the mundane. Andy had managed to tear the Colonel’s best friend away from her latest feast for long enough to give him the missing page.*
“Sorry mate, they never put these packs together right, they always miss something out. Shall we start?”
“Sure,” I said, trying to instil a mixture of seriousness and dedication to the task ahead, while actually wondering how to clear my living room so that the guy could lay my new floor next week. Those quarry tiles under the carpet were going to be a bugger to level.
Andy’s phone rang. The ringtone, the march from The Empire Strikes Back, indicates it’s Cruella, doubtless intent on another ear bashing. Andy sent her to voicemail, seeing as Guantanamo Bay wasn’t a viable option at the moment.
“Right then. As you know, we all have these silly expectations for Techplan123 and although we’ve had several chats you aren’t meeting them. I know it’s like trying to sell bacon sarnies in a synagogue out there, but it seems like you have trouble putting yourself behind what Techplan123 offers. What’s going to change this? You’re on your second meeting and now Company ABC are working on a three strikes and you’re out policy. This is your last swing of the bat.”
*

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Andy was using sporting metaphors. He didn’t even know who David Beckham was. Andy, leave that naffness to the managers who didn’t get the fact that David Brent was a joke. Like Steve. A replica of Brent that would make Ricky Gervais gag. He liked swinging his bat (and balls) at female staff,(Josie, in a memorably uncharacteristic display of bitchdom, absolutely destroyed him when he made a characteristically sleazy attempt to hit on her) even though he was recently married to a very attractive and intelligent woman. Steve swallowed every new management dictum issued by head office whole and enforced it to the letter. His staff got away with murder, such was Steve’s stupidity.

Andy started chuntering on about stuff that neither of us gave two figs about. Techplan123 penetration, add on strike rate, customer satisfaction matrix scores, potential vs performance, blah blah blah. All nonsense. He went on about those expectations agains. Not targets, expectations. Some clown at head office had decreed that ‘targets’ wasn’t fluffy or cuddly enough of a word. The same clown in an office who played with buzzwords and made it appear as if they had reinvented the wheel. For example, what was once the ‘sacred six sales staples’ (“the six s’s)had now been shrunk by fifty percent and rebranded as ‘Triple S’, with a bastardised Superman logo sat behind these three new revolutionary tools. Now all I had to be was “Smart, Switched on and Supersonic” and the sales would flow like wine. Genius.

Andy continued, his gaze flicking between his paperwork, my attempt at a remotely concerned face and the twelve inch thick, five foot long section of drainage pipe that jutted out above our office door since maintenance came to do God knows what with it six months ago and promptly left there exposed for all to see. I interjected with the same soundbites and nods of the head that I had in previous meetings. We filled in the same forms we’d done twice before, Andy delivered the same pep talk he’d given twice before, offering heaps of support, tips and ‘a way to succeed’, whilst sweating profusely and taking large gulps of air and liquid from one of the ever present cans of energy drink Andy favoured. As we finished my third admonishment session I promised to be a good boy (you guessed it, as I’d done twice before) and volunteered to go and get us both a sandwich while Andy goes to the beast’s lair again to fax the record of our meeting to HR. I always loved that, we were a tech company that sold cutting edge stuff and we fax paperwork to HR. When the fax machine didn’t chew the pages that is.

Andy climbed, a slight pant obvious as he took a rest after six steps. Lucasfilms played its theme for the third time in the last hour. Cruella got the silent treatment again. I headed to the door and switched the sign round, moved the hands on its clock face and absolved myself of any interaction with Joe Public for the next sixty minutes. I’d eat mine first, then head back with Andy’s as per our alternating pattern.

Subway. A haven.

After ordering my sandwich I sat in my usual spot and sunk my teeth into the mammoth steak and cheese filled beast, salad dripping everywhere. As my chewing accelerated, so did a thought in my head. My wife Bec had noticed a change in me recently. I wasn’t me. Work was just invading our home life too much and becoming an issue. That’s not on. Not for what they pay me. We’d paid our mortgage just before our fortieth birthdays, something Andy would kill for, as near enough his whole wage went on his. The whining customers, from the young who are just brain dead to the old who feign hopelessness when they’re perfectly capable of doing things and enjoy conforming to that hopeless ‘coffin dodger’ mindset. I just didn’t want or need them anymore. Remember I said Andy wasn’t really cut out for this job? Well, he wasn’t. His idea of management was to leave half way through a shift without telling anyone, then, from a safe distance (the train home) send a text saying something along the lines of “Sorry something’s come up, sure you can manage though.” We do manage. At least 4 times a week. Andy recently had a month off with depression, which I don’t doubt was genuine at all, but did anyone senior volunteer anyone to help out in his absence? Did they hell. “We know it’s tough, but you’re experienced enough to fill in for a bit aren’t you?” said the Shrekalike buffoon who passed as an area manager round here. I’d rather fill you in, chromedome.

Things had gone downhill badly since I joined this company. When I started, I worked hard and was rewarded. You’d get extras that made you feel you mattered as an individual, even though your pay was crap. Your contribution made a difference and you were acknowledged and praised. Then things changed. The extras went and I’d not had a pay rise in aeons. This despite the chief exec gleefully announcing on our intranet site the other day that we had made a record profit for the last year, all thanks to “the Herculean efforts of you wonderfully dedicated people” What he hesitated to mention in his rallying cry was that 25 of the top brass were going to be carving up £30 million of this between themselves, while us shop floor drones were dividing £0 between thousands of us.

Then there were the ridiculous disciplinaries. You could be dragged into one of these trips to “kangaroo court” for the most ludicrous reasons. Pulled up for the one microscopic, insignificant thing you didn’t do, as opposed to the one hundred and one things you did just fine yet didn’t receive a crumb of recognition for. Some defied logic and were proof that common sense wasn’t a requisite quality for management here.

There was a brilliant one with a guy who’d had a stroke as a kid and had never locked a shop up in nine years with the company because he couldn’t physically turn a key and fasten bolts. Everybody was well aware of this, but he was still pulled in because he hadn’t realised his colleague hadn’t locked up properly.

The reason he hadn’t noticed was that his shift had finished an hour before his colleague had left and locked up The meeting lasted exactly forty five seconds and consisted of him calling the investigator a ‘no good shit for brains muppet with the IQ of roadkill’, before whipping out a copy of the Equality Act 2010 with two pertinent sections screaming from the page after intense attention from a fluorescent orange marker pen, along with a threat to take the company to the cleaners with it. He also offered the entire company lessons on telling the time and questioned who had the brain damage, or any grey cells at all, in these parts. “Meeting closed, no further action to be taken” were the only words written by Officer Dibble’s protege in a somewhat shaky hand on the official meeting notes.

I suddenly snapped back into the real world, not realising that I’d even left it. My brain started to assimilate everything I’d thrown at it, slowly piecing together a picture in a fashion I hadn’t seen since watching Tony Hart and Morph as a kid. I was watching Tony and his plasticine accomplice again now as they put on a special one off show, just for me. Just as he did in his pomp on Take Hart, Tony described as he went along what he was doing and why. In a twist, Morph had left his box and was taking part in the creative process alongside Mr H, with the cameraman giving us hints of what Tony and his plasticine pal were creating whilst being careful not to reveal the full picture. When they was done, Tony and his accomplice put their tools down, backed away and revealed their completed work in an aerial shot from above. Two highly stylised, colourful words, fashioned from items including brushes, pipe cleaners, discarded pieces of linen and, of course, the ubiquitous paint soaked sponge. Their message couldn’t be clearer.

LEAVE DAN!”*
*

Validation. From a 1980s kids TV presenter and a bloke made of plasticine.*
That’ll do for me.
*

I dialled Bec, who for once answered first time, and then listened as I somehow translated my scrambled internal monologue of the last thirty minutes into a more coherent form, ending with Morph’s message. A beep in my ear meant another call was trying to get through.

A look at the screen. Emily. Accompanied by a picture of Jabba the Hut. I’d call her back, she would only be requesting her daily bag of cookies which I’d already bought. A small price to pay for her to shut her trap for a bit. I was too involved in my monumental call to my wife, who commanded me to follow Morph’s orders as soon as I got back to work.

Validation part two. From a real living, breathing wife.

Even better.

Yes, I’m leaving, I don’t know what I’m going to do, but the important thing is I won’t be doing it within the confines of company ABC. I could feel something physically leave me, almost as if someone had opened me up and drained me of a mass of poison. Except I hadn’t felt a thing, there was no visible manifestation of any change and the only knives in here cut bread. Damn, nearly forgot Andy’s sandwich. I’ll be late by twenty minutes. Sod it, I’m leaving anyway.

Andy.

How was I going to tell him?

As the sandwich artist filled Andy’s favourite cheese bread full of the beef, chillies, sauce and salad he relished cramming down his throat, I was working out my speech. I had as long as it would take the tray of beef in the microwave to heat up. I needed words. Quickly

BING! Beef’s ready. And no hint of a genius speech.

I’ll wing it.

I wasn’t one for rehearsing anything, off the cuff had served me pretty well so far, so why change now? It might not be a bad idea to pull up a few stock phrases for good measure, if I can hear myself think over that bloody police car siren.

Ring Ring. Emily.

Reject call

Oh be patient, I’ll be there in two minutes, the cookies are still warm. I need to think. OK, right, I need a new challenge, I’ve enjoyed my time here, blah blah, whatever you want to hear, it’s all lies………… , the siren’s getting louder. No point thinking, I’ll be back in work when I turn the corner, wing it.

Ring Ring. Emily.

Reject call. Damn it, cookie monster, I’m turning the corner to the shop any second now. I won’t miss this harassment every day. Try ten minutes walk for a bit of exercise and……..God, those sirens are deafening.

Sirens. Plural, not singular. Of differing cadences too.

And they’re right in front of my shop. As are the ambulance and police car one would expect to accompany such a cacophony. Two uniformed officers are busy adorning the front of the shop with yellow backed tape with black lettering claiming the foreground.

CRIME SCENE, DO NOT CROSS’.

Crime scene?

What’s happened? Must be why Emily was so keen to get hold of me. Has someone nicked her lunch? No, probably some crackhead trying to rip a telly off the wall. We’ve had three dodgy looking specimens that resemble the crows from Dumbo lurking round for a bit and they’ve probably tried making their move with just Andy on the shop floor. They know I’m on to them and always scarper the second I make eye contact.

Hang on

I locked the door behind me. The keys have been digging into my leg as I ate lunch. No one’s got in then, they couldn’t. And LG’s ringing me, why not Andy? She never calls me. I hadn’t even volunteered my number to her, she must have got it from Andy. I know hers, purely as self defence against any requests to cover in others shops on my days off. Simple, if LG rings, it gets rejected.

I approached the tape and tried to duck under it with the grace of Ali going through the ropes before one of his epic battles, but almost fell flat on my face like Sonny Liston did in very dubious circumstances (phantom punch my arse, a 100 percent paid for Nation of Islam/mafia sponsored dive that was) in their rematch instead. Despite waving my pass which had my mugshot on it to plod he was insistent on my remaining outside. “Can’t go in there sir. A serious incident is being attended to by police and medical staff” was all I got in a mechanical monotone that conjured the Spitting Image pigs momentarily.

Medical staff?

Oh Andy, you’ve not chinned a chav have you? That metal prop’s there to open the door for deliveries, not heads. I know the free kill per day per staff member is tempting, with the basement hatch on the shop floor on a flick switch for easy opening and swift dispatch of corpses, but sadly it’s not kosher. You’ll go down for that you silly sod.

I pondered plod’s words. Serious incident? Can’t go in?

Stuff that!

“Oh, but I’ve left my asthma inhaler in there and I can feel an attack coming on” I reasoned with plod. “He’ll verify that, he’s helped me out when I’ve had an attack” I said, pointing at absolutely no one over the officer’s right shoulder, to which he turned to look. Too easy. In I go!

I wish I hadn’t.

I’m not me anymore. My plans have gone. The rules have changed. Everything has changed.

All in the blink of an eye.

I can’t block out the sheer mayhem. I wish I was one of the hard drives we sold. I’d be formatted. Twice. Three times even. Or maybe I’d just go the whole hog and smash myself into a billion microscopic pieces. To my left is Emily. Eyes crimson, face streaked with tears. Screaming maniacally. Shaking uncontrollably in the arms of a police officer. No words, just the most hideous cries emanating deep from a primal recess only tapped when confronted with something unspeakably horrible. She’d seen all of this without the warning I’d got from the police presence that all was not well. Not that the heads up would help much. Where was Andy? Managers are meant to support their staff. Well, I need a bit of help now Andy and where are you? Half way home on the train I bet. You owe me for this sandwich too. Five or six metres in front of me were two paramedics frantically attempting to revive a concealed figure sprawled across the floor at the rear of the counter. Oh Andy, murder a crow and leg it, nice one. Wait, murder, crows. That’s a collective noun innit? HAHAHAHA. Oh wait, no time for levity. Oxygen masks, cylinders, monitors, the works. “1,2,3,4, 1,2,3,4, 1,2,3,4” went round in circles with the fury of a Slayer drumbeat. God bless Slayer, they’re brilliant, Reign In Blood is a classic, 28 minutes, 10 tracks and……..

CONCENTRATE DAN, THIS ISN’T THE TIME TO MARVEL AT THE DRUM SOUND RICK RUBIN GOT FOR LOMBARDO PLAYING AT THAT SPEED!”

“1,2,3,4, 1,2,3,4, 1,2,3,4”. The pounding was incessant, rhythmic, furious. Most of all, it was desperate. The bod on the floor was in deep trouble.

“1,2,3,4, 1,2,3,4, 1,2,3,4”.The mantra continued. Never altering once in pace, never deviating. The jackets pounded on for what seemed to be eternity. I couldn’t move my legs or shift from the spot I occupied.

Then I heard a sound from above me.

Creak. Followed by what sounded like running sand or dust

Creak. More sandy dusty stuff.

Creak. Dust running again.

The third creak forced my neck involuntarily around through 45 degrees. As my neck assumed its new position my eyelids closed tightly, erecting a barrier between me and what the involuntary movement had propelled me to observe. The motion moved to my eyelids, enforcing its’ will upon them and unceremoniously matching my newly exposed retinas with the source of the groaning, creaking sound torturing my auditory canal.

I knew what was coming, but it didn’t prevent my stomach from ejecting its’ barely digested contents across the floor. After all, its’ not every day you see a freshly used noose constructed from an identical pair of trousers to the ones currently hugging your legs swinging from the pole over the door left by maintenance.

The same pole I now realised Andy was sizing up as his potential escape route as he was talking to me, resting in the same hole which had widened and cracked, leaving a small pile of brick and cement dust on the floor below it due to the duress experienced by holding a man in place during his final minutes on the planet. I could feel the pair I was wearing become warmer as I lost bowel and bladder control. A natural response to the hideous spectacle in my eye line.

“1,2,3,4, 1,2,3,4. 1,2,3,4, 1,2……”

“……… Ok, that’s enough, we’re getting nowhere, he’s gone. Agreed? Ok, time of death 2.13pm.”

The pole fell from the hole and crashed onto our office floor, landing adjacent to the site of Andy and I’s meeting.

The medics hadn’t been working on a chav.

I turned to look at the space previously occupied by the paramedics and their paraphernalia. For the second time in as many minutes I was observing something that no rational person would want to look at. Even though I’d been semi prepared by the sound ringing in my ears, the sight of Andy’s prone corpse still shattered me, the ligature marks circling his neck like an African tribeswoman’s necklaces. The corporate shirt had been ripped open as the paramedics had done their best and the legacy of their efforts to revive Andy manifested themselves as bruising swelled on Andy’s static chest. A literal UFC style beating to match the ones dished out over the phone by her. At odds with the injured chest was his expression. His face looked the calmest I’d ever seen it, with none of the twitchiness or stress it generally bore. He was at peace, but all I could focus on was one fact. His legs were bare.

I frantically tugged at Rob’s coat and covered Andy’s lower half. I don’t know why covering him was so important, but it was. Was it guilt? Could I have stopped this if I’d got back on time and forgone the sandwich sitting a few feet away, uneaten in its’ carrier bag? Perhaps it was dignity. Andy had been afforded none in life. He was sneered at, laughed at and generally disregarded. He was crap at his job but as a human being Andy was good. There should be more of him. Preferably not dead.

As I arranged the coat to afford Andy some modesty, I stumbled across his mobile which looked like it had just fallen from his hand and landed a couple of feet away under a counter. I unlocked the keypad (4577, Andy’s birthday, he used it for everything) and looked at his call log, particularly the last one. Following on from a stream of missed calls from Olive, voicemail was the most recent number dialled

I was compelled to listen. Instinct told me it was relevant. I beckoned plod over to listen as I put Andy’s former handset on speakerphone.

Dialling 901. Voicemail.

‘You have one old message’. This wasn’t going to be pretty if it was from who the call log was pointing to. Cruella.

It was. She was on particularly virulent form.

Beep.

ANSWER YOUR PHONE, YOU USELESS BASTARD! I’M SICK OF ALL OFF YOUR SHIT, YOU USELESS STONED WANKER, I WISH IT WAS CRACK YOU SMOKED, YOU MIGHT GET HOOKED AND DIE. HAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHA, IF ONLY I WERE THAT LUCKY! HOW DID I GET INVOLVED WITH YOU, I’LL NEVER KNOW. I MUST HAVE FELT SORRY FOR YOU, YOU PATHETIC LOSER. EVERYTHING YOU DO ANNOYS ME, YOU HAVENT GOT ONE REDEEMING FEATURE. YOU SAY YOU’RE A CHEF? I’D RATHER EAT OUT OF THE BINS AT THE BACK OF TESCO THAN EAT THE SLOP YOU SERVE UP DAY IN DAY OUT. AND SEX? WHAT AM I MEANT TO DO WITH THAT THING? IT’S LIKE A BUTTON MUSHROOM. YOU MIGHT AS WELL PUT IT IN ONE OF YOUR STROGANOFFS FOR ALL THE USE IT IS TO ME. AT LEAST IT DIDN’T HAVE ANY PART IN CREATING TOMMY! HA YES, HE ISN’T YOURS, HA HA! CHECK YOUR EMAIL, I’VE SENT YOU A COPY OF THE PATERNITY TEST I HAD DONE. IT’S AMAZING THAT YOU CAN EXTRACT DNA FROM A SPLIFF BUTT, ISN’T IT?!!! ESPECIALLY WHEN IT PROVES YOU’RE NOT THE DADDY! I KNEW ALL ALONG, AND I’VE BEEN SEEING HIS DAD ALL THE TIME I’VE BEEN STUCK WITH YOUR USELESS BACKSIDE. THAT’S RIGHT, SEVEN YEARS WORTH BEHIND YOUR STUPID BACK! AND YOU KNOW WHAT? TOMMY’S DAD HAS ASKED ME TO LIVE WITH HIM IN GREECE, AND I’VE SAID YES. WE’RE LEAVING IN THREE HOURS. CAN YOU HEAR THAT? IT’S A FLIGHT ANNOUNCEMENT! ME, TOMMY AND………………………………….

Beep

Absolute silence. Well, what other response is there when you’ve just heard words that have inspired a suicide?

She wasn’t lying about the email either. A press of the home key to reveal Andy’s opened apps pulled up the document that had severed one cord and tightened another. The biological father’s name was there, the final pull on the noose. I don’t know the bloke, but I know I hate him for his part in what I’m stuck right in the middle of here.

‘I’d better take that from you’ said plod, motioning to the mobile I held, his voice wobbling as much as my hand. ‘Evidence. Do you have the deceased’s address? More importantly, his partner’s name. I think we need to try and halt her journey if we can.’

‘Bloody right we do’ I said, as I spilled everything I knew about the murderess. That’s what she was to me. Plod got on the phone to the relevant air authorities, his voice the only clear one amidst lots of general stunned mumbling. At least Emily’s awful sobbing had ceased. Maybe she was human after all.

Amidst all of this, Shrek the area wonder fool had turned up, looking even more out of his depth than usual, talking to the coppers and clearly saying nothing of any value, judging by the look of utter contempt for the follically challenged fool on plod’s only marginally less idiotic fizzog. Now the buffoon was walking towards me, probably looking for me to bail him out of a situation that Dreamworks Studio hadn’t equipped him to deal with. I was right.

“My God, what an awful situation”, said greenhead. Such insight only comes with high office.

“Yes” I grunted. What else was a minion meant to conjure? It wouldn’t have made a shred of difference to the management, his next sentence was already halfway up his trachea before I’d even finished the last letter of my utterance. I’d already guessed the rough of its contents too “Terrible, and it leaves us in a real situation here too. We obviously have to let the police boys do their bit, so we’ll be closed here for a few days, which means you’ll lose pay. Unless you fancy stepping into Andy’s shoes, that is? God bless him. “

See, compassion. Can’t beat it. I had nothing to lose. This is for you Andy. My fists balled.

I had just managed the expectation that someone, someday, would lay this idiot spark out.

I never fancied the idea of a resignation speech anyway. The sound of my fist flattening his nose and him landing in a heap with his head using the pipe Andy had hung himself with as a cushion was far more satisfying. There was one other sound. One that I’d heard, nay, created about forty five minutes ago myself, before all of this mayhem kicked in. It was the sound of rustling paper, married to furious mastication. I swiftly located its source. Sat at the white desk which doubled as a dining area, six feet away from where a freshly dead cadaver had swung minutes earlier, was Emily, who had recovered her senses rather rapidly.

In fact, she looked as perky as when she’d spied Rob’s munchies the other day. Perky enough to have liberated the dead man’s sandwich from its’ wrapper in fact. Perky enough to now be shovelling it down her throat at the rate of knots, alternating mouthfuls of sandwich with swigs from the half consumed energy drink Andy was swigging from earlier.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, nor the offhand justification for why Emily was eating a dead man’s sandwich and drinking a drink she professed to hating.

“Teeth ok then?” I enquired. My throat was as tight as a snare drum.

“Yes. They’re a really good surgery here. Good sandwich, a shame to waste it. Ooh, are they my cookies in your pocket? They might still be warm.”

I was definitely leaving.

*** *]

[* h1. Song in the Darkness

Xen Bettinson

Mouse pulled her way slowly along the narrow tunnel. The light from her personal light filling the metal square around her. There was no room to move her arms, so she pulled herself along by her feet and her palms. Anyone bigger than her would not have been able to get into the tunnel, let alone move along it inch by slow inch. This darkness was her home. She had no idea where this tunnel went, and she didn’t think about how long it would take her if she had to head back. She loved the quiet. Far away from the roaring noise of the wind on the surface. Far away from the gloom of the outland. Here there was no signal, and as a splicer she was much in demand. Her father had been an electrician before the meteor, and he had taught her everything that he knew in the darkness that followed. The meteor changed everything. It hit without warning. The impact killed hundreds, but the after affect killed millions. Earthquakes, volcanoes, tidal waves. It filled the atmosphere with dust that hid the sun, and each disaster that followed it darkened the sky. Governments crumbled as the light vanished. Food became scarce, animals died. The more prosperous cities built domes, and hung lights on the inside. It was the lights that had forced Mouse out of the city. The lights flickered in a way that gave her blinding headaches. Not everyone was destined to live in the light. She was too young, too naive to know what cost it had for her parents. Without the light, they slowly lost their minds, disappearing into sadness. She had remained sane, as a small growing number of outlanders had. Though she would not consider all of them sane, but perhaps, a better word was functional. The outland was lawless, and it took a certain kind of madness to live in it. Mouse would not have thought herself sane, she heard voices. Voice, to be more precise. From nearly as soon as they had moved to the outland, she had heard singing. Distant and melancholy, the songs had haunted her days and comforted her at night. She had found that if she pressed her ear to the ground she could better hear the singing.

On one of his last lucid days, her father had taken her to what used to be a park. Small scrub plants had taken hold, living on the reddish light that filtered down through the dust. He knelt down and looked at the plants. “See these mouse?” He had always called her mouse, his nickname for her.*
“These plants have everything they need. They don’t need money. They just live on one simple thing. Do you know what that is Mouse?”.
*She looked at him sadly from her place on the swing. They had had this conversation a thousand times. She knew the answer, but she also knew that if she answered, he’d get angry. He was unpredictable when he was angry. “I don’t, Dad” she said, dutifully. *
*“Love.” He said, smiling at her. She could see in his eyes the fight against the madness that lay behind them. This was his way of connecting with her out of the storm in his own mind. “Is that how we’re gonna live dad?” *
*“That is precisely how we’re going to live mouse.” He smiled at her. She met his smile. For a moment, the last moment, he really smiled at her. He saw her for the adult that she was. Then the confident smile was gone, and it was replaced with the scared, lost smile of that shell that was her father. She didn’t like to think about the day she took them to an asylum city. She hoped that they were places that helped them. They claimed to be, once, but the signs outside were faded. Yet the orderly that met them was kind, and clean. He reassured her that they would be fine.

She had taken over her father’s work. The outland was a place where things were repaired and reused. Electrics had been such a large part of life before the Meteor that even here, some 20 years later, much of it was still being used, and reused. The grid was still active, and as long as it was, Mouse had a job, and a rare one at that. It gave her food, and guaranteed her shelter. Yet up there was not a place she felt at home. It was here, in these dark tunnels of the world that existed before. Squeezing her way through ducts, tunnels, and cracks in the world left over from meteor. It was down here that she found the things that gave her joy. Useless things that didn’t keep her alive, the predominant concern of the outlands. Down here there were curtain, and carpets. Rooms of houses frozen in the moment the Meteors hit. Skeletons, sat in beautiful tableaux of family life, frozen and hidden until she found them. As a younger girl, she had played with them, re-creating the family life that she remembered before the meteor. Her exploration had become as the singing that had been so much a part of her life since she became an outlander began to get quieter. She had to get deeper, and further away from her home to hear it. She had spent her precious spare time as a girl hunting the tunnel to get to it. As she got older, and the song faded almost to imperceptibility, she began to wonder if it had ever had been there at all. Then there were times when it would return to her, in a dream, or a snippet of the song would drift to her over the wind. On the one hand, in the dark lonely night she wondered if the song was her form of madness, in the other, it gave her an odd type of hope. It was that hope that drove her on the quiet times into these tiny tunnels, crawling inch by inch. The metal tunnel, a vent or a duct she guess, had now become so small that she couldn’t lift her head. She had learned a long time ago that the natural response to such a tiny space was to panic, and believe that you can’t breathe. She now focused only on two things, the memory of the song, and her breathing, as her fingers and her toes inched her along. Breathe, sing, and inch. Breathe, sing and inch. Breathe. Sing. Inch. She lost herself in this routine until her fingers edged over a void. She inched herself closer, letting the light on her PSD shine. She had come out a few inches above a warped floor, wood by the feel. As the light fell into the room, it picked out a large four-poster bed, the rich drapes tied back. Sat, motionless at the foot of the bed was a humanoid figure. As she pulled more of herself into the space between the bedside cabinet and the wall, she could make out more details of the figure. Mouse was looking at a female, the green light of her PSD shining through a mesh-like top, and highlighting pert breasts. Long hair cascaded down over her shoulders and her back. She had two hands resting on the bed behind her for support, and her long legs crossed at the ankles and pulled towards the bottom of the bed. Mouse sat in stillness for a moment, surprised at the figure before her. She had long since gotten over the surprise of a skeleton, but she had never found someone who still had flesh. *
*“Hello?” Mouse said into the darkness. *
*The loudness of her voice startled her, but the figure did not move. Slowly Mouse got herself to her feet, and made her way around to the base of the bed. The woman had her eyes closed, but her head was still held up. Mouse waited to see if the woman would breathe. It was only when Mouses’ lungs demanded that she breathe did Mouse realize she had been holding her breath in sympathy, yet the woman did not breath. Mouse let her own breath out slowly, unwilling to disturbed even the dust that lay around the woman. Carefully, Mouse reached out and stroked her cheek. The chill and the sensation of it threw her. It was soft and textured like skin, but stone cold. For a moment Mouse considered that what she had found was someone preserved somehow, by freak conditions following the Meteor. Curiosity and morbid fascination led Mouse to reach out again, stroking the skin. An Intimate, slow stroke, one she had not shared with another for a long time. She stared at the woman in front of her. She was beautiful. Whatever had frozen her in death, and kept her skin still with the blush of life. Mouse moved a lock of her dark hair from the woman’s face. As her fingers touched the hair, there was an odd quality to it. Soft, but with an odd, plastic feeling. She took ahold of a bigger lock of hair, and let it fall through her fingers. The curls fell back into the same place. Mouse lifted the hair again, and tried to uncurl it, wrapping it around her fingers the wrong way. She let it drop, and it took it’s original shape. She reached out again for the cheek, this time, she pressed the skin, and watched it reform. Before her was not a woman, but something new. Perhaps this was a robot. A machine that looked like a person. Mouse had always thought they were part of the mad imaginings of her father. If he was right, then on her neck there should be some ports. She tenderly reached around her neck, under her hair, and found there four round holes. The metal edges colder than the fake skin around it. Perhaps all she needed was a charge. Mouse turned her attention to the room. There was a dresser, with an ornate oval mirror above it, a wardrobe on the back wall. The room had wood panelling in the lower half, and the upper half was painted a dark colour, difficult to tell in the green light. Near the door there was a small round switch. She flicked the switch, and the bulb above the bed filled the room with a yellow light. Mouse blinked heavily, but the light was weak, leaving parts of the room in shadow. It was almost a room that had been designed to to have shadow. In the light she could see that the overall colour scheme was red and gold. The carpet was a plush red. The walls was a deep wine-red, the bed covering were red and gold. The room had a plush look, though tarnished by dust and time. Standing out from the oak and velveteen motif was a white wire, sticking out from a drawer by the bed. She pulled it out, and searched around on the skirting board for a plug. It took a long time of hunting to find it. It was behind a fake part of the wood panelling. It popped open to reveal plug sockets, and simple red brick behind it. The plug sockets were cracked and broken, and as she nudged it it sparked. She looked down at the plug in her hand, there were brown marks around pins. Mouse sat herself, cross-legged, in the dust, and pulled out her tools from the pockets dotted around her faded blue jumpsuit. She had come down here to escape this work, but rarely was she able to put her skills to use for her own amusement. Dealing with the socket when it was live is what made splicers a rare, and important commodity. Rarely was anyone able to turn off the power safely, so her work was slow but methodical. There was no such thing as a quick splicer. Quick splicers were dead splicers.

It is difficult to tell time in the outlands. With the light of the cities, and the electric light used to light the living quarters people slept when they were tired, eat when they were hungry. In the beginning, people had tried to mark time, to keep a semblance of order, but now Mouse knew of no-one who held to the concept of time outside of the cities. This meant judging the passage of time as an outlander was almost a foreign concept, so the length of time she had sat lost in her work was measured only by the stiffness in her legs as she stood, the newly repaired cable in her hand. She ran it to the robot, and carefully lined up the pins, standing ready to pull the cable out at the first sign of trouble. She pushed, feeling the pins click into place.

Nothing happened.

She glanced back to the plug, afraid that perhaps it had fused, or was still sparking, but her work was good. Mouse sat herself on the floor in front of the robot and opened her ration packs, and her water. She eat in silence, studying the robot. Admiring the craftsmanship that had gone into designing such a figure. Each curve drew the eye. Even the seemingly casual way it laid on the bed had a beauty and grace to it. Just as she had finished eating, she heard a new sound. The sound of a motor trying to move. An almost imperceptible buzz, nearly a high-pitched whine. It would try twice then fall silent. Then another would try, in a different place. As Mouse listened, she heard the motors that powered the robot try to move, but each one failed. After so long sat still, the joints had seized. She stood again before the woman, and gently felt the face, her fingers no longer stopping at the skin, but pressing harder for the metal and cogs beneath. She explored the face, feeling the metal skull. The eyelids appeared to have simple movements, so she gently tried to lift them up with her finger. She could feel the cog move a fraction, and then jam. She needed to get more access to it, to try to clear whatever it was that was jamming it. Unafraid now, she climbed onto the bed behind the woman and lifted her hair. There was a seam in the skin that tore apart, making a strange ripping sucking noise, and splitting the skin along the skull along the parting. As she pulled the skin apart, the whirring of the servos stopped. She gently pulled the skin down over the face to reveal the eyelids, and the cogs for the mouth. The eyes were clogged with grease and dust. Mouse did notice that the cogs for the jaw were less dirty than the others, but set about to her work cleaning them. It was difficult work, she didn’t have the fine tools she needed for a thorough job, but she could clean out the worst of it. As she got the cogs turning relatively freely, she pulled the skin back on, and pressed it down into place. The seam re-formed, and would have been invisible if she had not know it was there. A moment later the whine of the servos began, working it’s way around the body until the eyes flickered open, and Mouse found herself looking down into brilliant blue eyes. They looked at her unfocused. Then her jaw moved, open and closed. The robot was obviously testing what worked. A Moment later the servos stopped their whine, and the eyes focused on here. The mouth then opened, as it clumsily tried to form words, but nothing came out. “Hi” said Mouse, awkwardly. “I’m Mouse”. *
The jaw moved for a moment. “I don’t know if you know, but I can’t hear you. I also don’t know if you can hear me. … umm… Blink once for yes, twice for no. Can you hear me?”
*Mouse laughed as she realised how stupid her question was. The robot blinked. “Yes?” said Mouse. *
*One blink. Yes. *
*Mouse smiled a broad, broad smile. “You seem to have some dust stuck in your servos. I’m not a robot engineer, so I don’t know much about how to fix you.” The robot looked at Mouse, then looked towards the dresser, then looked back at Mouse, then to the dresser again. *
“Is there something you want in the dresser?”
*One blink. *
Mouse moved to the dresser. It was covered in make-up pots and dried lipstick. Nothing she could see that would help the robot move. “Is it in a drawer?”
*One blink. *
*Mouse began searching through the first drawer. Her hands encountered soft lacy things, small items of clothing. Women’s underwear, far too impractical for the outlands. She felt vaguely embarrassed for going through this drawer until her hands touched some paper. She pulled out a pamphlet that advertised the “Pleastron 5700”. Mouse flicked it open. The first two pages spoke about the manufacturers, Mouse skipped those, and found the instructions on how to put the robot together when it came from the factory. Amongst showing how to take each part off, and re-attach, it also mentioned the oil reservoir. This manual recommended that the user only refill the reservoir with oil from the manufacturer. *
*“Do you have any of this oil?” Mouse asked. *
*Two blinks. *
“Ahh, that’s not very helpful. It’s going to take some time to find something that’s going to work for this. Something thin, and delicate. And get some tools to clean out that junk you’ve got in your system.” Mouse looked at the tunnel that she came through. “It might take some time. It’s a long, long way down here. You might want to turn yourself off, or whatever it is that you do. I will be back.”
*The robot blinked twice. *
“No? No what?” Mouse paused, almost expecting the robot to answer. “No you don’t think I will be back?”
*One Blink. *
“Don’t worry, I much rather be here than up there. It might be days, but I will be back. “
Two Blinks
“I will. Trust me”
*The robot eyes flickered, then stayed closed. Mouse shrugged, assuming the robot had shut down. Mouse steeled herself, and began her slow and treacherous journey back to the surface.

Mouse lived in a small settlement in the outlands called New Prosperity. A small selection of houses, some repaired, some built. She lived in the top floor of what had one been a 3 story house. The rest of the building had been buried under dirt and ash thrown up when the Meteor hit. Her Mother had built a small garden, surrounded by a tall metal fence. Her father had electrified the fence. New Prosperity were a group of people who worked together as best they could, but not everyone was from New Prosperity. Experience had taught them to treat the outsider with suspicion. Law was handed down in a very direct, often violent way. It did pay, then, to protect the house, but Mouse had always considered the electric face to be overkill. She flicked up the keypad on the gate, and typed in her access code. There was an audible buzz, and the gate slid open. She stepped through, and it slid closed behind her.

Her small house was comfortable but full. It was full of things that most people in the outland would have thought of as Junk, and quickly repurposed the metal or the screws for something else. She kept them because they made the endless red-brown of the outlands burst with a bit of colour. She filled a rucksack with as many of her tools as the thought might be useful, and a few of the more unusual tools her father had gathered. She pulled out a few different bottles of oil, and stuffed them into her pack. She threw a few more things into her bag, and then headed for the door. She paused for a moment outside her gate to check her messages. Handwritten notes of people asking for help. She flicked through them. Mrs. Popper, unlikely to be her real name, needed help with her heating. She was old, and the long dark was coming. Without decent heating she might not make it through. She flicked the messages against her fingers, and then turned towards Mrs. Popper’s house.

Mrs. Popper lived in a sprawling shed. The heart of which she claims was the same shed that she had sheltered in when the Meteor hit. She opened the door a crack in response to Mouse’s knock. Her white hair had escaped from the bun that she had on top of her head, and her single yellow tooth grinned at her from the gloom inside her house. *
“Hello there Mouse.” Mouse suspected that Mrs. Popper affected the accent, but this was the outlands. You didn’t last long here without being a little non-standard.
“It’s all gone now. No light, nothing. Only darkness. The darkness, it ain’t so bad. Not when it’s dark. It’s not the dark. It’s the alone. You know? When it’s dark, you know your alone.” Mouse blinked at the woman. “I.. “
Mrs. Popper shuffled into the darkness, not really waiting for a reply from Mouse. Mouse shrugged and followed her into the sparse room. She had been here many times before, and she was quite used to the odd layout of the place. It really was a collection of sheds pulled around this larger, central wooden shed. In the centre of it was the power console. Cables snaked out from it to the lights, to the heating, to the cooker. Mrs. Popper gummed her single yellow tooth. “You know, the red light of the sun, as it passed through the dust to get down to us here on the earth. It makes you think, why does it bother?”
*Mouse put her tools down next to the power console, and began her work. It was a long time before she noticed that there was silence. She looked up into the milky-blue eyes of Mrs Popper who was now standing over her shoulder, looking at her expectantly. Mouse looked at her, “hmm?” said Mouse, wondering if she had missed something. *
*“Why does the sun bother to still shine? Way up there. Above the clouds. It doesn’t know that we’re down here. We can only just see it, I don’t think it can even see us”. *
“I think the sun still shines because it doesn’t know what else to do.” Mrs. Popper considered this, making an odd sucking noise. “Hmm… I guess that’s why we keep doing what we’re doing.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean living of course. I got nothing to live for. Even my cat’s dead.” Mrs Popper shuffled over to the stuffed cat and punched it. Mouse removed a piece of wood that had been rammed into one of the sockets and tripped the circuits. The lights switched on with a variety of clicks and whirrs.
“There, all done.”
Mrs. Popper looked at the lights, and blinked repeatedly. “Huh… lights. So now I can see what it is I’m not doing.” She shrugged at Mouse. “So, what is you want this time?”
Mouse smiled at her. “You got enough time to make me some of that stew?”
*Mrs. Popper stared at her thoughtfully for a long moment. “Hmm.. maybe I can see my way to finding time to do that. What you think puss?” She punched the stuffed cat again. “Huh, look at you. Still dead” She rolled her eyes at the cat. Mouse made her way to the door, the strong lights causing her to blink repeatedly.

She stepped out into the swirling red dust. The darkened light easing her headache. She shouldered her bag, and made her way back down into the bowels of the earth. She made her way through the upper caves, along old roads and down broken stairs. It wasn’t long before the way got harder, and she found herself squeezing through small spaces, pulling her bags with her. The route this time was easier. She had moved much of the earth, and she didn’t take as many dead ends. She reached the air vent, and pulled herself into it. This time there was a creaking that hadn’t been there before, and the tumble noise of dirt falling on the top. She moved cautiously, and there was no noise, it was when she pulled her bag along that the creaking became ominous. She moved slower, keeping her breathing slow and steady. With almost every move, there was the clatter of shifting rock and dirt from above her.

It felt like hours later when Mouse finally pulled herself out into the time capsule of a room. The robot was still sat in the same position, though her eyes, now open, had moved as far as they could to see her. Mouse smiled as reassuringly as she could, and placed her bag beside the robot. “I’m just going to open you up to put this oil in. I’ve got some small brushes here, we shall get you working in no time.”

Mouse set about her work. It was strangely intimate to work on an inanimate object that could watch you. She lifted the black lacy baby-doll up in order to reach the access panel at the back, and found herself apologising for revealing more of her skin. She found the way in which she needed to run her fingers over the robot’s bio-skin strangely intimate. She pulled the skin apart to reveal the internal metal workings. A small screen flashed a list of problems with the robot. Maintenance overdue, oil level empty, battery at 12%, Main Joints unresponsive, speech centre in need of cleaning.. The list just scrolled and scrolled. She took a moment to orientate herself. The diagrams from the manual, coupled with the symbols on the bottle allowed her to find the empty oil bottle. A pipe that ran into it occasionally made a sucking noise as a pump hidden in somewhere deep in the torso attempted to apply more oil to parts in need of it. She filled the bottle, careful not to let the precious liquid spill out. She found the oil overflow valve, and opened it, putting an empty bottle under it. She presumed as the oil began to filter around the system, the air already in it would need an escape, as would any sludge and dust that had accumulated. She watched the dark yellow liquid make it’s way up the intake pipe, and waited. It was a slow process, seeing the plastic tubes fill with liquid as the pump forced the air out, as well as the dust.

Mouse had half-expected movement to suddenly return the moment the oil reached the overflow valve, but it didn't. She topped up the bottle, worried that it wouldn't be enough to fill her-- the robot's-- entire body. Then Mouse set to work. She has a small hand-held air pump and a soft brush. Gently, she peeled back the skin from the Robot's joints, and cleared out as much dirt and dust as she could. She began at the feet, slowly peeling the heavy gel-filled bio-skin off the polycarbonate metal. She worked methodically, trying to put out of her mind the human-like way in which the robot moved and twitched. Did she feel pain? She banished thoughts like the idea that she was peeling off the robots skin to the far recesses of her mind. What robot manufacturer would make a removable skin full of pain receptors?

The robot’s face was the hardest. Pulling off the soft delicate features to reveal the metal jaw and neck beneath. The jaw was jammed with dust caked in dried oil. She guessed this was the last part to stop functioning. Carefully, she eased it back into being able to move freely, and the robot clacked it’s jaw open and closed a few times, testing it’s new mobility. Finally Mouse flicked off the box that controlled the voice. The contacts were full of dust, and a few moments with the brush cleared out the area. She clicked the box back into place, and a series of lights on the box lit up. These slowly went out, she presumed as the robot did some self checks.

Slowly, she replaced the skin on the metal frame. She took her time, gently easing the skin back into place. Her fingers pressed the skin back into place with a click. Mouse stared at the robot for a long while as she stared forward with unseeing eyes. They flickered side to side like rem sleep. They slowed, and focused on the person in front of her. The robot’s head tilted, and she leaned back on her arms. “Hello there, beautiful” she said, her accent drawling “And what can I do for you?”. Mouse wasn’t old enough to have had a wide experience of the old accents, if she had, she would have identified the southern twang. “Erm…” Mouse said. Suddenly uncertain. The robot was looking at her in a way she had never seen before. Her eyes were slowly running up and down her body, as though each pass slowly removed a layer. “This your first time sugar?” said the robot. *
“I.. uhh… what?”
“Your first time, you know, payin’ to spend time with a woman.”
*Mouse stared at her wide-eyed. *
*“Perhaps this is just your first time with a woman? Well, that’s okay sugar…” She sat up and her fingers reached for the top of the grey jumpsuit. Mouse flinched at her touch, but the woman only paused before slowly undoing Mouses’ buttons. Mouse stood there, surprised and confused as the woman slowly revealed the first of her jumpers. Suddenly, Mouse got over her surprise, and took a violent step backwards, pulling her jumpsuit closed as though it revealed too much. *
*“Oh sugar, don’t you worry. I’ve seen it all before”. *
*“I… That’s not why I’m here?”. She said it as a question, unsure who she was asking, the robot or herself. *
“Your not?”
“Do you know what year it is?”
“Why sugar, it’s the… it’s the… well, it does seem that my internal chronometer has been reset.” The robot sat up, and crossed her arms. “What’s going on here?”
“A long time ago, the world ended. A meteor hit us, and the sky turned red.” The robot blinked, slowly. “What happened to the people?”
*“Thousands died when the meteor hit. A few thousand more when the tidal waves made the land, but it was the sky filling with dust that got the rest. Those that didn’t die of starvation went mad when they couldn’t see the sun. Some people managed to live in big cities of light. These are places of solace for those people who can stand it, and are rich enough, or have a useful skill. Not everyone can stand the light…” Mouse faltered. *
*“You couldn’t stand the light huh sugar?” *
“No, I couldn’t. It gave me headaches. So, I live in the outlands”
“The outlands?”
“It’s what we call the place that isn’t the cities.”
*“So this is the outlands?” the robot looked around her, as though seeing it for the first time. “It looks just like my old bedroom. I’ve been waiting….” The robot frowned, confused. “But I don’t know for how long.” The Robot frowned, and looked down. Mouse watched her, knowing that the robot was just simulating emotions, but the robot’s soft pout looked so real. “It’s okay, robot” Mouse said, reaching out and gently patting the shoulder. It came as unnatural movement to Mouse, made stranger by the way the robot rested her cheek against her hand. To her surprise, the robot’s cheek felt warm to the touch. *
*“I had a name, once” said the robot, softly. *
Mouse watched the robot for a moment. “What was it?” she asked, softly.
*“Sofia” *
*“Sofia, it’s a pretty name.” *
*Sofia didn’t answer. She leant forward and rested her head on Mouse’ chest. Mouse froze, looking at the robot leaning on her. The robot’s shoulders were shaking gently, as though she was crying. Mouse reached out her hand and gently stroked her hair, wrapping her unsure arm around her shoulders.

Mouse awoke some hours later, Sofia curled up on her. Neither had said anything, but both had let the tears flow. Mouse lay there in the electric gloom, idly stroking Sofia’s hair. She couldn’t be sure if it had been genuine emotion that Sofia had shared, but had followed some program that was designed to generation affection from her. Mouse slowly slid out from under the sleeping woman… robot. Robot, she reminded herself forcibly. She picked up her bag, and though she had provisions for many days yet, she slid into the tunnel that had got her here. She moved along it as fast as she dared, hearing the shifting of the earth land on the metal tube.

Her intention had been to make her way back to the surface. The woman had confused her. It had been too long since she felt that safe, that comfortable. Yet she wasn’t real. She was a construct. A fake human, living a fake life. Mouse dropped herself onto a varnished wooden floor. This had once been a bar, one of the few that had sunk in the earth quakes. Skeletons sat at tables, posed mid game. A casual observer might have thought that they had died instantly playing their last game of cards, but Mouse knew better. This was an old play space of hers. The skeletons were held in place with twisted wire. Each table was a game her younger self had played, paused at whatever point she had gotten bored, or been summoned home. She let herself behind the bar, without thinking asking permission of the skeletal bar-woman she had propped near the till. She took a bottle from the top shelf, and poured herself a glass, and walked casually over to one of the tables and sat down with a sigh. In her mind’s eye, she could hear the skeletons around her ask after her in a concerned tone. She leant back in her chair and sipped the warm amber liquid, and studied the skeletons. They had names. Some of them had come from information she had found in their pockets, others were lives that she had invented for them. Her imagination had been so vivid that as she became more self-aware she had worried that these skeletal friends were her madness. She idly looked at the board between her old friends, and rolled a dice, moving the pieces along the colourful route. She couldn’t remember who’s move it was, but that wasn’t the point. The game itself was comforting. As she moved the pieces, she heard the haunting song, the song that brought her to this place all those years ago. A song that had fallen silent so long ago that she had begun to imagine that it too had been a product of her imagination. She didn’t understand the language, but she knew the sounds. She sang along as she played her game. The voice was deep, and female, with a hint of an accent. It was a voice that had always sounded sad as though it was yearning for something long since lost. Now, as she listened to it, the voice seemed to have an even keener sense of sadness to it. She picked up her bag, and made her way back to the vent. The song was definitely louder here.

She had been searching for the source of that song for as long as she could remember. She pulled herself up into the vent, and heard the pipe creak ominously. There was much more movement now when she put her weight on it. There was no guarantee that this was going to hold her if she went back in. Down that tunnel was the source of the music. A wave of relief washed over her. She was not mad, there had been music in the outlands. Stone skittered on top of the metal pipe. Slowly she let herself down again, and sat with her back to the crumbling wall. She closed her eyes and listened to the music as it drifted through the vent. She closed her eyes and let the memory of emotions she had long through turned to dust wash over her. Memories of her childhood in strong arms, memories of being cared for and loved. For a long time, she sat in the dark, hugging herself, letting the tears roll unchecked down her face.

She awoke in silence.

She thought about calling out, but even her quiet movements seems defining. Perhaps she had heard the song for the last time. She looked at the vent, then looked back across the ruined bar, towards the flickering neon light. She shouldered her pack, and headed back out. The gloom of the outland seemed different now. More alien. The red soil beneath her feet crunched with a noise that jarred. The constant sound of the wind blowing the dust around her, once a comfort, now an irritant. She reached her house and looked at it, tumble-down and full of junk. Junk that she had collected to fill a void. She had thought that coming home would have made her forget about the robot deep beneath her feet. The song that had driven her search coming from something unfeeling, unalive. “Excuse me miss?” *
*The deep voice startled her. She turned, and saw a man dressed in a long leather duster, a wide-brim hat pulled down over his eyes against the dust, and only a beard turned red by wind. “Yes?” she said. Unafraid of this stranger, whatever need he might have of her. *
“Is this New Prosperity?”
“Yes it is.”
*“Good. I might stay awhile”. The man nodded his thanks to her, and headed down towards the cluster of houses, no doubt heading for the saloon. “Mister” mouse called after the man. He turned, his coat billowing around him. “You can stay here, I won’t be needing it.” She tossed him the key-card for her house. He paused for a moment, as though he was about to protest, but he said “Thank you kindly. May you find whatever it is you’re going to go looking for”. He nodded his head again and turned back towards the saloon.

Mrs. Popper opened her door and grinned her toothless grin at Mouse. “I bet you could smell the stew”. Mrs. Popper stepped away from the door, leaving it open, and shuffled her way over to the stove, where she began ladling the thick stew into two large containers. “I reckons that’s about enough for two weeks, three if you go sparingly.” Mouse smiled at her. “Thanks. Mrs. Popper?”*
“Yes?”
“Why do you keep the cat?”
*Mrs. Popper looked at Mouse for a long time, before chewing her lips. “Because when my George died, it was Mr. Popper here that looked after me. Fetched me mice to eat. Even found a bird once. Now he’s dead, he still keeps me company. Even if he can’t answer back. Even if he’s just a collection of old wires and circuit boards. He still loved me in his own way.” Mouse wandered over to the cat, and stroked it’s balding fur. Mrs. Popper went back to ladling the stew. Mouse lifted the cat, and for the first time saw underneath an access hatch. Her deft fingers prized it open, and gazed at the circuitry beneath. A few of them had come loose from the main board, where the solder had worn away. Lost in her work, she didn’t see Mrs. Popper fill her back with three boxes of stew, and sit in her warm chair, watching her work. It wasn’t long before Mouse found herself lost in the intricacies of her work. Tools dug out from her many pockets, hunting for the life inside the cat. She attached the last connection, and then flicked the switch on the board. Nothing happened for long moments, until the eyes twitched. Mouse closed the hatch, and placed the cat on the floor. It stood stiffly, it’s eyes moving wildly from side to side. Then, suddenly, it yawned and stretched, then lazily leaped into the waiting lap of the old woman. Mrs. Popper positively beamed as she stroked the cat. *
*“Did you know you sing while you work?” Mrs. Popper asked. *
*“I.. I do?” said Mouse, blinking as she pulled herself out of her working fugue. *
*“You sing words that I don’t understand, but the way you sing it… it reminds me of how I feel about my George. It reminds me of what it’s like to be in love.”

It was all Mouse could do to climb carefully down into the darkness. Her only pause had been to spend all her favours and credits in water and lubricant. As she pulled herself up into the vent, it creaked, and she could hear the protest of nails who’s decade long abuse had become too much. She pulled herself into the vent, and moved as fast as she dared. Each movement caused the vent to sway wildly. Each movement bringing down a cascade of earth and stones onto the top of the vent. The added weight, in turn, causing the vent to further loosen. There was no time for her to be subtle. She began moving as quickly as she could, as she felt the vent beneath her give way. With a metal-grinding crack, the vent behind her began to fall. She tried to climb as quickly as she could, but it was not fast enough. She felt herself falling into the darkness. Out of the darkness came two strong arms. The grasped hers, and held her as the vent fell away around her, and pulled her up through the hail of stones and earth into the small room beyond. Mouse lay panting in Sofia’s arms, as Sofia held her close. “You came back” whispered Sofia. *
*“I’m never going to leave you again.” Mouse said, her voice tinged with sadness. There was no way back for more supplies. “I couldn’t go back even if I wanted too”. *
*Sofia brushed the hair away from Mouses’ face. “When one door closes, the Maker opens another”. Mouse smiled, and curled herself into Sofia’s strong embrace. She had found her song, and here she would stay.

*** *]


Midummer Anthology 2017

Following the success of our Midwinter Anthologies, Jara23 Publishing decided to give our faithful readers a bit more in the summer, and what a treat we have for you. This anthology sees a collection of writers, both new and old to our anthologies gathering together to produce some of the finest work so far. We have a collection of science fiction and fantasy. You will be taken on a journey of discovery to new worlds , to the future, and to the past. You will find here unexpected love, and uncertain futures. Dive in, and enjoy a selection of stories that will transport you.

  • Author: Jara23 Publishing
  • Published: 2017-08-22 22:17:17
  • Words: 49320
Midummer Anthology 2017 Midummer Anthology 2017