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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Paranormal

Self-Assembled Girl

 

Self-Assembled Girl

 

Jon Jacks

 

 

Other New Adult and Children’s books by Jon Jacks

 

The Caught – The Rules – Chapter One – The Changes – Sleeping Ugly

The Barking Detective Agency – The Healing – The Lost Fairy Tale

A Horse for a Kingdom – Charity – The Most Beautiful Things (Now includes The Last Train)

The Dream Swallowers – Nyx; Granddaughter of the Night – Jonah and the Alligator

Glastonbury Sirens – Dr Jekyll’s Maid – The 500-Year Circus – The Desire: Class of 666

P – The Endless Game – DoriaN A – Wyrd Girl – The Wicker Slippers – Gorgesque

Heartache High (Vol I) – Heartache High: The Primer (Vol II) – Heartache High: The Wakening (Vol III)

Miss Terry Charm, Merry Kris Mouse & The Silver Egg – The Last Angel – Eve of the Serpent

Seecrets – The Cull Dragonsapien – The Boy in White Linen – Porcelain Princess – Freaking Freak

Died Blondes – Queen of all the Knowing World The Truth About Fairies – Lowlife

Elm of False Dreams God of the 4^th^ Sun A Guide for Young Wytches – Lady of the Wasteland

The Wendygo House – Americarnie Trash – An Incomparable Pearl – We Three Queens – Cygnet Czarinas

Memesis – April Queen, May Fool – Sick Teen – Thrice Born

 

Text copyright^©^ 2016 Jon Jacks

All rights reserved

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. It remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be reproduced, copied and distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes.

Thank you for your support.

 

 

 

 

Important Note: Your Iona comes with a fully extensive warranty, but this may be VOIDED if the seven stages of assemblage are not correctly followed

 

 

Chapter 1

 

‘What the–’

I slapped the boy kneeling before me hard across his shocked face.

Trying to cover my naked body as best I could with my hands and arms, I dashed behind the nearest cover I could see; a traveling cupboard, full of hanging lingerie.

I thought of reaching over to take one of the garments to slip on, but they hardly gave me more cover than my hands provided.

‘My clothes – where are my clothes?’ I shrieked furiously at the startled boy.

I was confused, furious, wondering how I’d ended up here naked, fearing what this boy had already seen or done as I’d just stupidly stood before him.

Had I been drugged?

Had I been given a spiked drink?

I couldn’t remember – couldn’t even think – how I could have ended up in this dreadful situation.

Strangely, the boy seemed even more startled and embarrassed than I was. He rubbed his deeply reddened cheek as if he couldn’t believe I’d struck him.

Still, he stared directly at me as if he didn’t see why I should feel ashamed for presenting myself naked before him.

‘You…slapped me!’ he said with an affronted tone, a disbelieving, wide-eyed expression.

‘Of course I did!’ I protested. ‘What do you expect me to do, when I wake up with you fondling m–’

‘I wasn’t fondling you!’ he insisted innocently. ‘I was just–’

‘Well that’s what it seemed like to me! Why am I naked? Did you drug me?’

‘No, no: of course not! Why would I need to drug–’

‘Where are my clothes?’ I repeated anxiously, realising I was still naked, still vulnerable.

‘There: they’re all there!’ he said vehemently, pointing to the wardrobe of skimpy underwear I was hiding behind.

I frowned, more puzzled and furious than ever.

What did he mean – all these ridiculously useless things were mine?

Was he some pervert who’d abducted me, bringing me here to dress me up like some more realistic Barbie doll?

I glanced over at him; he certainly didn’t look like a pervert.

Then again, what’s a pervert supposed to look like?

He still seemed startled, however, like he was some little school kid who’d been falsely accused of running in the playground.

But he wasn’t a little school kid, was he?

He was around my age; which meant he must have known perfectly well what he was doing when I caught him kneeling close up to my naked body!

I now glanced down at the floor by him, expecting to see my clothes there, or at least somewhere close by.

Nothing; just bare floorboards, bar a few workman’s tools.

(What the heck had he been intending to do with those?)

What had I been wearing?

I couldn’t remember at all!

I must have been drugged!

‘I mean, where are my clothes; the ones I came in!’ I shrieked at the boy.

‘You didn’t come in any clothes, of course!’

‘Of course I came in some clothes! They’ve been taken from me; I’ve been stripped at some point!’

Second by second, my situation seemed to be evermore horrific.

If he really was telling the truth – if he really had come across me standing here without any clothes! – then that could only mean someone else had taken them off me!

‘That’s all you came with; it’s all there, I swear!’ he said, like I’d been accusing him of pinching some of this underwear he was nervously pointing at.

‘What? All this tat is mine?’

What the heck would I need a traveling wardrobe full of lingerie for?

‘It’s not tat!’ he adamantly declared. ‘It’s the best–’

‘It’s not mine!’ I growled. ‘Even if I were some sort of travelling lingerie saleswoman, why would I be standing here naked?’

‘That’s the way you came!’ he insisted once more, but this time drawing my attention to a tall wooden crate leaning against the wall just behind me.

On its front, there was a life-size picture of me; me wearing the very skimpiest of lingerie.

‘I’m Iona,’ printed words said above my head, adding, ‘Please Please Me!’

 

 

*

 

 

I felt sick.

This couldn’t be happening to me!

Is this boy really saying I came in a box?

I looked down at myself, my body.

No way I came in a box!

I’m a girl! A living, breathing girl!

Not some sort of machine!

Everything’s there; all where it’s supposed to be!

Still, I run my hands quickly over everything, just checking, just reassuring myself I’m not going crazy!

My skin’s warm, pliable; supple.

It all moves the way it should, too!

‘This is…ridiculous!’ I spit back at the boy, wondering if I’m the victim of some cruel prank, some stupid TV programme.

‘The police: I want to call the police!’ I demand, looking quickly about the room in the hope that I can spot a telephone.

‘The police?’ The boy chuckles, like all this is some huge joke.

At last rising up from his knees, he strides over towards the wardrobe, apparently with the intention of stepping behind it to join me.

‘Look, I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘Let me take another look at you; I must have put you together wrong–’

‘You stay away from me!’ I snarl back at him. ‘Get me some decent clothes to wear now: or I call the police!’

‘The police!’ He laughs again.

‘What’s so funny? Are you telling me the police won’t want to know that I woke up standing naked before you, you pawing me like–’

‘I wasn’t pawing you! I was turning you on–’

‘You weren’t turning me on at all! I was disgusted!’

‘I meant switching you on – I mean, I was setting you in motion: you know, making you aware of who you are–’

‘You’re talking like I’m some sort of machine!’ I snap at him. ‘But I’m real, I’m human…memories!’

My mind had been racing as I’d desperately searched for some proof that I had to be human, that I couldn’t be a machine.

‘I have memories of when I was child! Of my mother!’ I cry triumphantly.

He grins.

‘They’re false memories; built in to make you, you know, sort of more interesting when you’re having to make conversation.’

He reaches towards me over the top of the small wardrobe, handing me a thick booklet I realise he’s been holding all this time.

Just as on the crate, I’m featured on the cover, only this time wearing other pieces of lingerie, and in a different, more seductive pose. There are other, smaller photographs of me too; different positions, different pieces of underwear.

‘I came with instructions?’ I wail.

I swiftly skim through the booklet, groaning or gasping in increasing dismay as I come across detailed diagrams featuring my every ‘facility’.

‘I can’t be a machine!’ I wail once more.

‘Well, no; I wouldn’t say a machine,’ the boy declares, briefly raising my hopes before adding nonchalantly, even maybe with a touch of eagerness, ‘You’re more of a…a…well, a sex toy, I suppose.’

Sex toy? I’m no sex toy!’ I growl determinedly.

‘I mean, well,’ the boy says apologetically, backing away a little as he sees the fury in my eyes, ‘that’s what you were built for; only, I must have put something together wrong, as you’re not supposed to be acting like this!’

 

 

*

Chapter 2

 

Joel, the boy who’d put me together, was fired.

I wasn’t letting anyone near me to ‘put right’ whatever it was he’d put together wrong.

Naturally, they could have held me down, forced me to undergo the changes they wanted to make.

But no one was quite sure what changes to make.

This had never happened before.

Tampering with me once more might simply result in my complete shutting down, meaning I would be of absolutely no use to anyone.

Besides, when I say Joel had been ‘fired’, I mean he’d simply been moved on to another job within Nevaeh, the Floating Whale.

He was the Womb Master’s son, after all.

Thankfully, he’d also had the good grace to insist I wasn’t tampered with.

That, too, I should be given one of the more regular jobs, rather than being sent to the Rooms of Pleasure, which I quite obviously no longer had the correct aptitude to work within.

I was undoubtedly the most expensive ticket girl the Circus of The Soul had ever purchased.

I was a top-of-range model; absolutely perfect in every way.

Apart, of course, from the imperfections in what I prefer to call my mind, but the more technical minded insist on referring to as semi-biological circuits.

My extensive warranty had been declared void; this being Joel’s first full assemblage, unaided and with no supervision, there was no case to answer.

Joel had insisted he would more than capable of getting everything right.

Thankfully for me, he’d been wrong.

 

 

*

 

 

The Floating Whale’s arrival in any town always resulted in joyous celebration.

Nevaeh – that’s ‘heaven’ reversed, of course – is a travelling Garden of Delights, containing everything from the most elaborate fairground rides to shows or displays guaranteed to bring about a welcome metamorphosis in even the most staid person.

Our arrival was announced with a vast, airborne parade, one that no one could either miss or ignore. Shoals of fish drones swam on far ahead of us, creating vast, flowing patterns amongst the clouds as they swooped, split, and intertwined, their innumerable scales glittering with rainbow shades in the sunlight.

Next came the birds, again single, self-thinking droids programmed to interact together, to form multi-toned displays high above the town.

Music and birdsong emanated from a large enough number amongst them to give the false impression that every bird, every fish, was gaily heralding the arrival of the Circus of Souls.

Larger drones came next, unmanned apart from the human acts who had volunteered for the dangerous task of performing on the upper decks; trapeze artists, lion tamers, elaborate gymnastics. These particular platforms would fly low along the roads and streets, offering clearer views of the performances to the crowds gathering below.

Despite the excitement generated by this elaborate, exotic display, it was always the appearance of dear old Nevaeh herself that would draw the largest gasp of awe from the crowds assembling below.

Even though they couldn’t fail to see her drawing ever closer in the distance, and the attendant droids and drones swooping everywhere about her granted the watchers some idea of her vast size, it wasn’t until she was almost upon them that the gawping people could at last grasp her true immensity and begin to vaguely accept what now seemed so surely impossible: how could something so vast float so languidly in the air above them?

Her moves were indeed languid: the slightest swaying of her elongated body, the flip of a fin, the rise and fall of her tail.

With a languorous opening of her cavernous maw, she released yet another plethora of colourful flying platforms; while also apparently unconsciously swallowing any of the original drones that had lingered too close.

Of course, this was all a part of the show, a means of allowing the riders and performers who had set out earlier a chance to rest until they were ready to re-join the parade.

There were extra special squeals of delight and surprise as those almost directly below were doused with a light, cooling spray, the towering fountain of water erupting from Nevaeh’s blow hole scattering in the wind once it had reached its high point.

The spray fell about us too, our flying platform having drawn too close alongside Nevaeh’s flanks to avoid it. Like the crowds, however, we laughed as the fine mist fell everywhere about us, the whole effect refreshing rather than drenching.

Naturally, to call my ride a ‘platform’ was rather unjust, even if that was the technical term used by Nevaeh’s many mechanics.

Personally, it’s a term I’d use for something quite ugly, quite flat: but the winged dragon we were riding in was spectrally graceful, rushing and weaving through the air as swiftly as any kite, its serpentine yellow coils flickering like a flame whenever it ran alongside the looming, dark sides of Nevaeh.

The dragon was self-thinking, to a limited degree, and so required no human involvement in its controls. But there were four seats, used for either humans or droids to occupy and wave at the people massing below, or even drop down towards them sweets, colourful streamers, or small toys on parachutes.

Joel had invited me on-board the dragon, assuring me it was quite a thrill flying alongside Nevaeh; though he was the one who looked queasy whenever the dragon flipped over, or looped the loop. Thankfully, we were all tightly strapped in, otherwise the sudden and unexpected tilts the dragon performed every now and again could have resulted in all four of us being thrown out.

I’d forgiven Joel for what I’d erroneously taken as his callous indifference to my nakedness on our first ‘meeting’.

It hadn’t even crossed his mind that it would cross my mind that I’d be shocked at finding myself standing naked before him.

Apparently, all the other girls he’d helped put together hadn’t batted so much as an eyelid; let alone bat poor Joel aside, as I’d done.

When it had at last dawned on him that I was serious, that I didn’t want to be seen naked by anyone, he’d apologised and rushed off to find me some decent clothes to wear.

Not fashionable, but yeah, decent.

He’d made up for that, too, by later buying me a range of clothes he thought I’d find more ‘suitable’.

They weren’t bad actually; but they weren’t great either.

But it’s the thought that counts, so I’d be one heck of an ungrateful girl to carp about that.

So, it turns out Joel wasn’t the dreadful little pervert I’d first taken him to be.

Fact is, I realised, once I’d calmed down, and started looking at him in a better light, he was quite handsome.

Naturally, as soon I realised this, I’d told him that I found him attractive.

He’d laughed, blushing richly.

‘Ah, well,’ he’d almost stammered, he was talking so hesitantly, ‘maybe that’s because that part of your programming is still working as it should be…’

‘Programming?’

I was immediately incensed once more.

I’d attempted to flatter him and he’d rewarded me with what was virtually an insult, in effect telling me I didn’t have a mind of my own.

‘Much as I’d like to believe you find me attractive,’ he’d added quickly, blushing once more, ‘I’ve got to be honest with you and let you know that your particular model – because, of course, of the sort of job you were built to, er, fulfil – well, naturally, you’re supposed to find any of your companions attractive: and flatter them too, of course.’

I frowned.

Yeah, that did make sense, didn’t it?

But it raised the question; when I flatter myself that I’m coming up with spontaneous thoughts, just how much of that is what I’ve been programmed to think?

 

 

*

Chapter 3

 

Joel had apologised for messing up my ‘installation’.

‘What’s to apologise for?’ I asked. ‘If you’d done it all right, I’d be working now in the Rooms of Pleasure.’

I’d shuddered at the thought.

(So, obviously, there are times when I can override my programming!)

‘Bedsides,’ I’d added, ‘maybe I was the one who came off the line late on the Friday; so faults and wackiness are all inbuilt.’

Maybe the guy responsible for programming me knew he was about to be ‘laid off, superfluous to our needs’; maybe I’m his revenge on the company, turning out a girl who’d refuse to follow instructions.

Maybe the company’s forte is producing models that all have individual characters, coming up with unique thoughts and attitudes; maybe they just pushed that facility a little too far this time.

Maybe the quality checker on the production line had been suffering from a hangover the day he’d passed me as being satisfactory.

‘But the jobs they give you,’ Joel had said, an apologetic, pitying look on his face, ‘they’re all a bit, well, menial for someone of your class.’

I’d shrugged; it wasn’t as if Joel’s own role was that wonderful after his mistake. He now worked in the lower mechanical divisions, keeping the machinery, the older droids, working. It was a filthy, oily job, the surroundings dank and equally dirty.

Not at all like putting together and maintaining the more humanoid droids.

‘You’re like Cinderella; only in reverse,’ he’d chuckled. ‘From princess to skivvying!’

‘They’ve got to get their money’s worth out of me,’ I’d pointed out resignedly. ‘I’m one heck of an expensive skivvy!’

This trip on the flying dragon was his idea of playing my Fairy Godmother, he’d claimed.

Not quite a ball, but yeah, undoubtedly lots of fun.

Like the human girl who’d also got an invite to ride on the dragon, one from her boyfriend who had boarded with her, I giggled excitedly as the fountain’s spray rushed all over us.

The boyfriend of the girl laughed, using it all as an opportunity to tenderly brush the water droplets from his girlfriend’s face, to draw closer and kiss her longingly.

I noticed Joel fleetingly glancing at them enviously, his lips pursing nervously, his eyes drifting my way.

I could see the longing in his own eyes.

Like the boy, he wanted to reach out, to tenderly caress my face; to wipe away, to kiss away, the water droplets.

Like the girl, I wanted him to do this too.

I wanted to feel his lips on mine.

I felt a shiver, a thrill of happiness, ripple through my body.

But maybe that’s all just my programming coming into play again.

 

 

*

 

 

I should have referred to my instruction booklet, of course.

What’s that they say about any product purchased: read the instructions carefully?

Me, I didn’t want to know what the instructions would tell me about me.

A bit, I suppose, like when you’re avoiding going to the doctors, because you’re frightened there might be something seriously wrong with you.

Crazy, huh?

But me, I’ve got craziness built in, right?

It’s a bit, too, I suppose, like when you get someone to read your Tarot cards (now do you begin to get some idea of the false memories I’ve got whirling away in this mind of mine?), only to instantly regret it because you’re worried knowing your future will affect the way you behave, which will affect your future.

So you don’t get to meet that handsome guy after all; or get that amazing job, or even get a fabulous new dress.

Besides, this way I don’t know which is the real me – thinking for myself, coming up with tantalisingly new judgements – and which is the programmed me.

Can they ever really be seen as being wholly separate anyway?

You know, one entwining with the other; forever inseparable?

I’d considered visiting the Rooms of Pleasure, intending to meet the other girls there.

But I haven’t got around to it yet.

Would I be some kind of snob, looking down on their lifestyle?

Would they look down on me?

Maybe, when it all comes down to it, I’m just like them; only a more prudish version.

 

 

*

Chapter 4

 

Nevaeh never, ever, lands and settles completely upon the ground.

Naturally, we have to put on a show, to be easily accessible to the crowds; so we come down as low as we can, but hover just above the ground, hanging over the treetops.

Nevaeh’s far too big to ever rest her weary body upon the earth.

As it is, she’s not allowed to stay too long in just one place.

She blocks out too much of the sun, everything lying beneath her plunged into darkest shadows as long as she’s hovering there.

After a while the grass begins to brown, the flowers and crops wilt.

A while longer and the grass and blooms die, with even the bushes and trees now beginning to seriously brown.

As for the farm animals; well, let’s just say Nevaeh’s presence really affects the milk and egg production – unless we’ve made sure we’ve warned the farmers beforehand and slipped them a huge amount of compensation.

As she gracefully, silent comes in to hover above the chosen section of open countryside, Nevaeh’s jaw drops open every bit as wide as the awestruck people in the crowd.

And there, like a vast red tongue, are the carpeted steps leading up into the pleasure dome of amazement, indulgence, desires – and transformation.

 

 

*

 

 

Once you walk up Nevaeh’s protruding tongue, and step inside her vast, crimson maw, there’s no turning back: the press of the people behind, eager to indulge in Nevaeh’s legendary delights, will only force you on.

Besides, once they’ve had a glimpse of this new heaven, few people can resist Nevaeh’s urge to wholly swallow them up.

For many, this is their first ever glimpse of the pleasures awaiting them.

A city of enchantments lies before them, the buildings glittering as if carved directly from huge gemstones, or constructed from glass, lace, or even little more than rainbows. A great many walls appear insubstantial, even drifting in the breeze as if they are nothing but veils; and yet, above them, they are apparently supporting vast edifices.

The structures aren’t limited to any normal forms, taking on the shapes of stars, spheres, arching bridges, or any other oddity that has taken the fancy of some maddened creator. They are connected, too, by an unfathomable maze of suspended walkways, barely supported tracks, or snaking canals.

The elaborately decorated boats plying the canals will, generally speaking, transport you through the middle levels of the city, though even these waterways will rise or fall, or split into multiple tracks, or open up into extensive lakes or raging rivers.

The lower levels are more easily accessed via automated cars slowly rolling along the roadways, your choice of car determining just how far you wish to descend into the darkest of pleasures, the selection ranging from the earliest forms of car to chariots drawn by skeletal men.

Higher levels are best reached by the tracked carriages, some that could be miniature trains, others that are rat-like in the speed they weave in and out of the already confusing array of structures. But for the even more adventurous there are also simple seats and harnesses that will whisk you up on cables as if you are flying over everything, depositing you winded but thrilled on breathtakingly high platforms.

All this, naturally, lies beyond the line of ticket booths waiting to sell each visitor the most expensive ticket they can afford.

 

 

*

 

‘The most popular family ticket allows visits throughout the whole of the five days that we will be staying here, not including entry into the experiences or shows. But most people who buy these tickets wish afterwards that they had bought those granting access to your choice of five experiences or shows.’

I smile; my most gracious, most winning smile.

But the parents of the family are unimpressed.

They know I’m not real; not a real human, anyway.

My beauty is too perfect to be real.

All of the girls in the booths are droids. It’s boring, thankless work.

Quite rightly, every customer feels you’re attempting to press the most expensive tickets on them: and, sure enough, that’s exactly what we’re charged with doing.

Okay, so it all seems pretty shameless; especially when little miss born-again prude goes along with it all so unashamedly.

But it’s my job, isn’t it?

And I’ve got to eat, haven’t I?

That’s right – I have to eat.

That’s how I get my fuel, the basic materials to repair and replace any malfunction in or damage to my body.

The chief constituent of a body in my class is biological, my skin being perfectly real, my hair also being perfectly real; but to ensure suppleness, along with the correct levels of textural malleability, I have relatively few mechanical or even digital elements.

Naturally, I could have been built to ingest chemical cocktails; but how would that go down with the punters in the Rooms of Pleasure?

The others girls here, the ones on the other ticket booths, they’re of a lower class (sorry; but that’s the correct terminology here!), the bodies hidden beneath their clothes being of the most superficial design; doll like, in fact. Chemical injections work fine for them.

Once their jobs are complete, they run on low power, just ticking over, as it were.

Me, I need sleep to recharge my energy; again, simply because the girls in my class have to be as perfectly human as it’s possible to be.

It seems it had all been determined long ago that the more human we are, the more the customers we’re built to entertain will accept us as a legitimate replacement for a real woman. Psychologically, they feel better about themselves, as they can fool themselves into believing they’re not resorting to being serviced by a machine.

Hence why we’re so phenomenally expensive to make, run and care for; but under normal circumstances (i.e. not like my circumstances at all) we also quite easily bring in the most money.

Today, despite my smile, I’m a long way from paying off my running costs.

And you know what the real shame is?

They should be buying the more expensive tickets.

When they see what Nevaeh has to offer them, they’ll spend far more than they ever intended to.

 

 

*

Chapter 5

 

‘Do you know what love is?’

Oh dear; you know, I’d been wondering if Joel would ever get around to asking me this cheesy question.

It’s the one the space captain always asks the beautiful android in the science fiction movies, yeah?

Or he beats a universally dominant computer by getting it to blow a fuse as it tries to work out the answer.

Why doesn’t the computer just say, ‘What’s it to me?’

It’s not like he’s going to go happily tripping across a meadow holding hands with another computer, is he?

‘Do you mean as according to the theories of Nietzsche?’ I answer with the most studious expression I can manage. ‘Or would you prefer St Aquinas’s pronouncements on the power of Agape?’

His face falls. He even looks a little sick, poor kid.

‘Sorry, sorry,’ I say urgently, giving him my winning smile. (It always works on Joel!) ‘I was only joking: I mean, like an answer like that, it’s shows you’ve got no real idea about real romance, right?’

He nods, grins a little sickly once more.

But, I can tell; he’s forgiven me.

‘I reckon it’s more to do with what David Gates sings about,’ I answer more truthfully this time. ‘Or, you know, Carole King.’

‘Who?’ he says, even more mystified by this answer than my previous one. ‘I’ve never heard of them.’

‘Oh, they’re sort of musicians – human ones – from way, way back,’ I reply, wondering even as I say it why my programmer believed this information would be of any use to me.

Perhaps all the girls in what would otherwise have been my chosen line of business are expected to play their songs all of the time?

‘I worry,’ I admit to Joel, ‘that I might not be programmed to fall in love.’

Joel’s so startled he almost buries his face in the stick of candyfloss he’s eating. I try to quickly calm him down again.

‘Well, I mean; think about it for a moment. Wouldn’t that be a major failing for a girl in what’s supposed to be my line of business? Falling in love with someone?’

As he nods again, he picks the sticky pink threads of candyfloss away from his face, finally sucking them clear of his fingers.

‘So,’ I say, hoping I can turn our conversation around to something a little lighter, ‘can you tell me what the profound answer to your Zen-like question is, oh most imperious and most knowledgeable master?’

He grins, laughs a little ashamedly.

‘I don’t know!’ he admits. ‘That’s why I asked you!’

 

 

*

 

 

So it was a real, heartfelt question?

What is love?

Wow, how many philosophers have pondered that one over the years?

And how many of them came up with a reliable answer that made us all go,’ Oh, yeah! That’s it! It’s all so obvious, now you mention it!’

Love, it seems, exists on a plane where direct answers don’t apply.

I reach out with a finger, touch Joel gently on his chest, exactly where his heart lies.

‘Surely, you being human,’ I press him, ‘you have at least some idea what love feels like?’

Reaching up with his own hand, he takes my hand in his.

‘You won’t feel anything there,’ he says, gently easing down on the back of my hand until my entire palm is lying flat against his chest.

He’s right; I can’t sense any beat there.

Now I’m the one who’s mystified.

‘But surely, without a heart, you’d be dea–’

Even as I talk, he moves my hand slightly towards the centre of his chest.

Now I can feel what could be a gentle whirring, the easy rush of streams of water.

‘A false heart?’ I gasp.

He nods.

‘A heart of stone; literally. It’s silicone.’

‘Joel’ I didn’t know…’

‘Why should you?’ he chuckles. ‘But that’s why dad’s not too bothered that I’m not making much of my life; I’ve already let him down, haven’t I, in that I’m not as perfect as he’d like to think he is?’

‘But…having a false heart can’t affect you falling in love!’ I point out, perhaps a little too forcefully, like I’m suddenly the world expert on the subject. ‘I mean, love’s in the mind, isn’t it? The heart; all that’s just poetic nonsense, yeah, that love comes from there?’

‘Is it?’

He says it like he’s the space captain confounding the computer’s smart-ass comments.

‘The way a heart beats; doesn’t it rise, fall, when you’re near someone you love? And the way it pumps all that blood around your body, just beneath your skin: doesn’t your heart leap at someone’s touch? And what of the moon, which the poets also say is connected with love: if it can make oceans rise and fall, what can it do to the blood flowing through us?’

I tap him playfully on his chest, smile up at him, chuckle.

‘Joel: are you sure you haven’t been listening to David Gates?’

 

 

*

Chapter 6

 

Why would I know what David Gates sings about?

Was it my particular programmer who had a thing about him?

Who knows.

What’s it to me?

Well, actually, strangely; there was another part of me that was going to put poor Joel’s poetic meanderings to bed with a blunt, ‘Well, it doesn’t seem likely, does it?’

Like that was my programmed thoughts wanting to clock in for work – but another part of me overrode it.

Maybe, you know, there is hope for me after all?

 

 

*

 

 

Even though it was now dark outside, being two in the morning, the crowds still flocking through Nevaeh’s belly would have no idea of the passing of time unless they bothered to check their watches.

In here, everything still glows brightly, as if it were the middle of the day (unless, of course, you wished to venture into her deeper, lower belly, where it remains deliberately dark even when the sun has risen to her fullest outside).

Nevaeh never sleeps in times like these, though various elements of her ancient body are periodically allowed an hour’s rest, allowing quick routines of maintenance and checks to be carried out.

No one, Joel assures me, can remember when Nevaeh was created.

No one even knows why she was built.

She has always just been here, her supposed history fading into what seems more legend than fact, with no one agreeing on which tale contains a germ of truth.

The Love Canal has been briefly brought to a halt while the switch-points controlling the forking of the channels is tested, the robust mechanism no doubt being generally sound, but the more delicate ‘Command Sensors’ often requiring a thorough cleaning.

It’s the Command Sensors that detect physical clues like the heartbeat, the pulse, or even the heat of the people sitting in the swan boats floating along the waterways. From these and other accumulated facts – how a couple’s sitting together, the way they’re holding hands, all that kind of thing – the sensors will bring into play the commands switching the points, directing you on to one of a vast array of different channels, taking you into the areas and experiences most suited to your level of closeness.

Joel takes me by the hand, leading me over towards the row of empty swan boats, our passes allowing us entry through the barriers. As we happily skip through areas that would normally be packed with long queues, a group of girls who had passed close by us only a moment earlier glance over towards us enviously.

Noticing this, Joel grins knowingly.

‘Joel! That’s not very nice; mocking them for wishing they could get on a ride so easily!’ I chided him.

‘What? No; sorry!’ He seems surprised by my admonishment. ‘I wasn’t laughing at them: I was more sort of, well – amused that you–’

Amused by me? Laughing at me, you mean? This just gets better and better, Joel! Why are you laughing at me?’

‘Not laughing – I said amused! I just find it so weird that, well, when I caught you glancing their way – I just knew you’d think they were just jealous that we’re getting a free ride.’

‘Well, aren’t they entitled to be just a little bit envious?’

Perfectly entitled; but what they’re really seething over, of course, is that they’ve spent most of the morning hoping to achieve a fraction of your natural beauty.’

‘Hmn, hardly natural, Joel; besides, are your really saying they could be jealous of someone who’s not even human?’

There’s absolutely no way that these young girls could have mistaken me for being human. They’ve seen enough magazine articles, enough adverting videos, to realise that a perfect beauty is the prerogative of only the most expensive droids

It must be hard for them, being held up for scrutiny against an otherwise unachievable beauty.

Some of these girls will have come across some of the cheaper droids in their daily lives; the sales assistants, waitresses, that kind of role (though no droids, as far as I’m aware, are allowed by the unions and what have you to be models or actors). Of course, even those rare droids graced with gorgeous looks will never be a love rival as far as these girls are concerned: it’s not just that their bodies are too hard, too basic – bizarrely, it’s also because they don’t emit those unconscious signals associated with natural bodily scents, which play a far greater role in attraction (and yes, even envy and anger) than most people realise.

Me, I have those natural scents.

Which means Joel could be right; those girls might be envious of me.

‘Well I’m jealous of them,’ I state flatly. ‘I’d sacrifice my beauty to be human, believe me.’

Joel looks at me with a questioning gaze, like he’s trying to work out if I really mean that.

I think of you as being human,’ he says, his voice a touch hesitant, the tones of someone who’s worried they might have divulged their innermost thoughts only to be rebuffed.

I slip my arm through his, warmly pull him a little closer.

‘You know what Joel?’ I say as light-heartedly as I can manage, ‘I reckon that what with your false heart and me being who I am, we’re going to give this ride its most intense test it’s ever had!’

 

 

*

Chapter 7

 

The swan boats are surprisingly comfortable, with thickly padded seats that, because they curl up into the wings, just about force any couple to sit closely together.

Joel has worked on this ride before, he assures me, so he knows how to decouple the boat from the line up and let the underwater chains and wheels drag it out into the main waterway.

All work has finished on it, and it’s all fine to go, he assures me yet again as he starts the whole ride up with a turn of a key, a press of a button, and jumps into the boat alongside me as everything whirrs into motion.

The first area is a bit of a disappointment, nothing more than animatronic models and filmic holograms recreating (well, okay, I suppose this is a little apt) Cinderella’s rags to riches tale. It’s all perfectly recreated of course, with magical transformations, glorious illumination and even realistic scents, breezes and rainfall, while the canal itself elegantly weaves through it, even rising and falling now and again to give you an extra thrill of sudden speed, or douse you in light spray: yet even I know it’s not exactly tuned into what any romantically inclined couple would be hoping to experience.

We pass a number of branches that could lead off into the more exciting areas, ‘the more tempestuous, more heated ones’ as Joel describes them, but each time the points fail to trip, so we continue to sail through further fairyland adventures of Rapunzel, of Red Riding Hood.

‘Looks like we’re destined for the kiddies’ version I’m afraid,’ Joel sighs miserably.

‘Damn this stone heart of mine!’ he adds, though I’m not sure how serious he’s being.

 

 

*

 

 

At last we reach a branch lane that, with a surprisingly gut wrenching move, we’re sent off down rather then being allowed to continue on our way through yet more fairy tales.

The turn is so unexpectedly sharp, the swan boat has to swing around with an almost shocking violence. We’re sent colliding together upon our seat, such that our heads almost painfully crash.

The boat swoops down a slight incline, no longer requiring the underwater tracks and drains to drag it along. We dip beneath an arch of overhanging and thickly entwined trees, one drooping so low we have to quickly duck our heads to ensure we’re not caught up in the tangled branches.

Then, abruptly, we’re careering even faster along an underground waterway lit by only the most basic of lighting systems.

Even in this dim light, however, I can see – or perhaps sense that – Joel is uneasy about the way we’ve been sent off hurtling down this waterway of swirling rapids.

‘What’s wrong?’ I ask.

‘Well, er…I can’t understand it but, er…this isn’t part of the course.’

‘You don’t say?’ I reply, noting that it is especially dank and filthy down here. ‘So what sort of canal is it then?’

‘Er, well, there’s a kind of feeder system of canals; you know, to keep the water at the right level?’

‘But if this were a feeder canal, wouldn’t we be sort of flowing towards the regular course ways?’ I point out anxiously.

‘Yeah, I’m afraid you’ve got it in one, Einstein,’ Joel replies, sounding even more apprehensive than I did. ‘Which means this is for excess water…’

Waste, you mean? We’re heading down a waste duct – right?’

 

 

*

Chapter 8

 

Just a few moments ago, we’d been drifting along so slowly, in channels that were quite narrow, that we could have simply stepped ashore if we’d chosen to.

Now we were caught up in what was an increasingly violent surge of water, in what could be more accurately described as a pipe rather than a canal.

Wow, some tunnel of love this journey has turned out to be, right?

Joel takes my hands in his.

Oh yeah, Joel; that’s so reassuring!

This way, we can drown together holding hands, rather than uselessly flailing around in the water trying to save ourselves.

Wonderful; just wonderful.

Moments like this, I wish I’d just stayed in my box.

All around us now, the waves are crashing endlessly against each other, all fighting for prominence, all insisting I’m the one going in the right direction, you’re going the wrong way!

All churning away, making the water broil.

Striking one of these recoiling waves, the boat suddenly leaps up, the swan’s elegant neck shattering as the head collides with the pipe’s sides. We’re showered with a smattering of wood splinters, of gaily painted plaster.

The wingtips are next to be sheared off, the cracked wooden pieces vanishing into what is now a maelstrom. The boat twirls uncontrollably, as if caught up in a vicious whirlpool, as there’s nothing to keep it heading straight ahead.

We have to hold tightly to each other now, if only to stop ourselves from being thrown out of the boat. We keep our heads low, too, tucking them in towards each others shoulder, worried that if we don’t we’re going to end up losing them just like the swan did.

‘Where’s it all end?’ I scream out to Joel, hoping he can hear above the thunderous noise of the waters so angrily swirling around us in such a confined space. ‘Where’s it going to throw us out?’

‘It won’t throw us out anywhere!’ Joel yells back, momentarily raising my hopes a little until he adds worriedly, ‘All the water’s cleaned before being pumped back into the cisterns!’

Cleaned?’ I repeat ominously, imagining all sorts of violent ways water might be mechanically cleaned, not one of which allows anything larger than a fly to survive.

‘Don’t worry,’ he shouts back, ‘it has fail-safes!’

‘Oh that’s all right then!’ I shriek back sarcastically. ‘Just like the ride had fail-safes, yeah?’

 

 

*

 

 

Despite Joel’s efforts to reassure me that everything would be okay, he’s the one anxiously peering into the gloom lying ahead of us.

‘Joel: what is it you’re looking for?’ I warily cry out to him over the thunderous noise of the waves crashing about us.

‘Well…there should be a sort of fork in the pipe ahead…’ he screams back, his eyes wide with what seems like fear to me.

‘A fork?’ Now I’m more suspicious than ever that Joel isn’t quite being honest when he says we should be safe. ‘And – let me guess – we’re safe as long as we take the right branch?’

‘The left branch, actually…’ he shrieks back.

He grabs my hand, begins pulling me closer towards him, like he’s being all protective once more.

‘We need to weight it to the left!’ he yells, pulling me harder than ever as the boat tips so precariously we’re virtually struggling to climb uphill. ‘Help guide it through the pipe we want…’

‘Joel, there isn’t any left on a boat that’s spinning around!’

Sure enough, even as I say this, the boat twirls completely around a number of times – and when the worst of the spinning at last briefly comes to a halt, we’re lying in what is now the right-hand side of the boat.

The way the boat is being chaotically tossed around, however, is now worse than ever.

Just ahead of us now, I can make out the division in the pipe, where the waves clashing against each other as they fight for prominence are a maelstrom in miniature, the creamy white foam of the wave tops rising up everywhere about us. The boat rocks and whirls uncontrollably, crashing again and again into the sides of the pipe, sending us bowling across the floor.

For just the very briefest of seconds, the misty spray enveloping us appears to me to take shape, to seem wraithlike in the way the milky foam congeals towards the right-hand side of our boat.

It looks like a woman: no, a girl.

Even crazier, this girl created from the churning of the waves seems to me to push at the boat’s side, to thrust us away from the pipe’s right-hand fork

Whatever it was I actually saw within that tempest of complete chaos, thankfully, we find ourselves rushing off down the left fork of the pipe.

 

 

*

Chapter 9

 

Naturally, we’re still uncontrollably hurtling along the dimly lit pipe, still being violently tossed by the screamingly angry waves.

But Joel is acting now like it’s the must fun filled ride on Nevaeh, laughing richly as the spray lashes his face, his drenched hair flying about him as the boat rocks and lurches.

There’s an abrupt dip in the pipe, the boat sickeningly dropping as if, at last, it’s about to be swallowed by the waves; then we’re suddenly rushing beneath not the overhead curvature of pipe but arches of thickly entwined bushes and trees.

As we clear even the arching web of branches, we’re thrown out into what is now a curving canal, our still swiftly moving boat causing a powerful wave to rush on ahead of us, sloshing everywhere over the waterway’s banks. We’re now in a vast room, one that’s mostly dark, but abruptly lit up every now and again with a surge of vast fountains of roaring fire.

Within those momentary flares of illumination, I see the suddenly illuminated sails or dragonheads of languidly floating Viking ships.

It’s another ride, the Fires of Helhiem, where the goddess Hel attempts to deter the adventurers foolish enough to enter her realm.

I recognise it immediately, because it was one of my favourite rides when my parents treated me to a few days in Nevaeh, one I insisted going on a number of times.

Not far ahead of the line of exploring Viking ships, a colossal cliff of glittering ice towers over everything.

‘Watch out!’ I cry out to Joel, reaching across for him and dragging him lower down behind the sides of our boat.

I’m only just in time.

The dragon swoops down out of the darkness, the searing flames of its fiery breath passing so close I feel their intense heat against my skin. Like the night sky it drops down from, the dragon is of the purest black, meaning it would be invisible but for its immense presence, the downdraft from its massively extended wings as icy cold as its breath was hot.

Its grasping claws miss Joel, miss me too, thankfully; but they clunk hard against the rear of our boat, the violence of the blow propelling us into a fresh burst of speed. There’s another crash, yet more splintering wood, as our boat barges through the thin barrier separating the very top of the feeder canal from the coursing channels of the main waterway.

Our battered, headless swan boat whirls out into the path of a looming Viking ship, its handful of white-faced passengers obviously more terrified of our unexpected arrival than they have been of anything else they’ve experienced so far on their journey into Helhiem

(Their journey will get more frightening, believe me!)

It’s only a miniature Viking ship, of course, yet it’s still far larger than our own sorely injured swan: and it continues to bear down upon our gradually slowing boat. I grit my teeth and narrow my eyes as I wait for the crunch as it rams and sinks us.

Then, abruptly, the ship jerks to a halt.

So, too, does the ship lying ahead of us, such that we’re the ones who – in a slow yet unstoppable whirling of our boat – softly bump into its rear.

Relatively bright inspection lights click into life everywhere around us, the magic of the ride unforgivably exposed as nothing but the trickery of ingenious machinery.

The stirring music and sound affects emanating from the innumerable speakers dies, replaced with a female voice politely requesting everyone to remain calm.

‘Please stay seated; we will be restarting your ride as soon as appropriately possible. Please stay…’

Joel grins, glad that we’re safe.

Reaching out towards me, he hugs me gratefully.

‘Thanks,’ he says, ‘for saving me: I don’t know how you managed to see that thing coming out of the darkness!’

‘It’s the ice cliff,’ I explain. ‘I remembered from riding on this as a little girl that, just before you sail into the ice tunnel, a dragon swoops down and takes all the wind out of your sails; it just misses the ships, obviously, but I realised we would be in its path.’

‘So, you’re saying, you rode on the Viking ships as a child?’

For a brief moment I can’t understand why his amused grin is wider than ever.

Then it dawns on me.

I was never a child, was I?

All I’m really recalling is my programmed false memories.

 

 

*

Chapter 10

 

‘A ride coming to a complete standstill for almost twenty minutes; a smashed swan boat; barriers broken: and a severely damaged Viking ship–’

‘Hardly “severely damaged,” Dad!’ Joel protests at last, having up till now remained shamefaced, like me, as we stood before the Womb Master. ‘We hardly hit it when–’

‘So that’s all right, is it?’ The eyes of Joel’s father widen in shock that he has been cut off in his listing of the damage we’ve caused. ‘“We hardly hit it.’”

‘Well, yeah, okay, Dad; all the other things we – I – I take responsibility for–’

‘Really? So you’re prepared to pay for all the damage you’ve caused, are you?’

‘I’ll work as hard and for as long as it takes to–’

‘The wages you earn, the jobs you’re capable of doing? It’ll be a long time before you even come close to paying off your debt!’

I remain silent.

I had tried to speak, to apologise, when we had first been ushered into the Womb Master’s office, only to be met with a blast of invective informing me that he wasn’t as crazed as his son and so didn’t either speak or listen to machinery.

He wasn’t tall, yet he was incredibly broad, the build of the many men who have grown up bending reluctant mechanical systems to their will, using any amount of force they deemed appropriate, whether it be wrench, sledgehammer or hacksaw.

It seems he can be every bit as hard in his dealings with humans, from what Joel has told me of him.

Joel’s mother had been one of the shows dancers, whom the younger yet still relatively ancient Womb Master had taken a liking to. It was one of many dalliances he rewarded himself with for his hard work and commitment to running Nevaeh, but in this case it had unfortunately resulted in a child, Joel.

As it wouldn’t have been possible for the girl to both continue to dance and adequately oversee Joel’s upbringing, the Womb Master had decided that the boy would be brought up by a series of ever-changing nursemaids, thereby ensuring his child didn’t forge any unnecessary and hindering attachments. To further ensure this, the dancer was also asked to leave Nevaeh.

And now, after all the Womb Masters’ best efforts to bring his boy up as totally independent, his loyalty reserved only for Nevaeh, here was Joel standing before him, being tasked with explaining to his father the role I served in his life.

‘The way I see it,’ the Master growls, cutting off any further protests from Joel with the irate raising of an arm, ‘I’ve ended up producing one heck of a mixed up kid; one who ends up falling in love with a girl who’s really nothing more than a machine!’

 

 

*

 

 

I fleetingly glance Joel’s way, hoping the Womb Master won’t notice my move, my shock.

Joel catches me glancing his way, however.

He blushes richly, thoroughly embarrassed by his father’s revelation.

Naturally, I’d noticed and been flattered by Joel’s obvious interest in me.

Yet I had enough sense – at least, that’s the way I’d thought of it up until now – not to flatter myself so much that I believed Joel could ever see me as a real girl, let alone fall in love with me.

After all, I was well aware what particular function I’d been specifically built for.

And Joel, of course, was also well aware of what was supposed to be my primary purpose too.

So, I’d told myself; Joel just sees me, I bet, as a ‘girl’ who’ll offer him all the pleasures he craves but without any of the usual, attendant complications.

An experiment. An experience.

An easy lay, if you like.

But not, never, ever, the girl he would have any true feelings for.

Someone to be used. Then cast aside.

As his father had used his mother.

Once he’d had his experience, I thought, he’d move on to another girl.

Another girl he’d saved his love for.

A real girl.

 

 

*

 

 

When I come out of my momentary daze, the Womb Master is lumbering heavily towards me, his clenched first held out before him.

‘Take one, girl!’ he snarls, threateningly waving his fist before my face.

The ends of two pencils are protruding up from between the gap formed by his tightly clenched palm.

‘So you’re deaf as well?’ the Master storms. ‘Just how many faults do you come with? Selfish behaviour not enough for you?’

I glance back towards Joel, hoping he can give me some kind of hint of whatever it is I’m expected to do.

He nods.

‘Don’t worry,’ he says, ‘no matter which you draw, I’ll be–’

‘Draw your straw girl!’ his father viciously interrupts, thrusting the pencils up into my face. ‘Take it!’

At some point during my daze, the Master has obviously insisted we draw straws, though for what reason I’m not sure.

I pick a pencil, draw it out from the Master’s clenched hand.

It’s a full-length pencil. Whatever it is we were drawing lots for, Joel has lost.

‘Look, whatever Joel’s said, I’m the one respos–’

The Master’s laugh curtly cuts me off.

‘Oh don’t go flattering yourself, girl, that you have a human morality!’ he snorts. ‘Don’t even go flattering yourself you are a girl! Yes, I know – you’re beginning to think you might actually be a real girl, aren’t you, because my idiot son has fallen for you?’

I’m not quite sure if I’m capable of blushing or not, but my skin certainly feels hot enough to be reddening. Besides which, the Master’s smirk almost cracks his face he’s so pleased by my ashamed reaction.

‘You don’t know, do you,’ he jeers, ‘just how many stupid men fall in love with my girls? If they all thought like you that that suddenly made them human, why, I wouldn’t have a single girl working for me anymore, would I now?’

He leers at me.

‘Besides,’ he announces triumphantly, ‘all your supposed morality is meaningless.’

He opens up his hand. The pencil he had still held onto there is revealed to be just slightly longer than the one I held.

To prove it, to allay any doubts, the Master snatches the pencil form me, holding it alongside the other to compare their lengths.

I’d lost; not Joel.

Joel’s startled.

‘No, wait, dad!’ He moves forward towards his father. ‘I’ve already said I’ll take respo–’

Enough!’

The Master’s commanding yell is so loud, so venomous, that Joel brings his advance to an immediate halt.

‘I knew you’d both waste my time with all this “No, I’m the one!”, “No, it’s me!” That’s why I let fate take you by the hand: and you should be grateful I’ve decided to punish only one of you! And why have I done this? To cause resentment: to break you apart!’

‘It won’t work, Dad!’ Joel insists, glancing my way for any sign of confirmation I might give him.

‘Have you got a stone for a brain as well as a heart, boy?’ the Master grumbles dangerously, pushing his face hard up against Joel’s.

Worried that the Master is going to assault Joel, I prepare myself to be ready to leap between them.

Not that I’m sure what I could do against man as broad as a furious bear.

Surprisingly, it’s the Master who’s first to draw back from the confrontation.

His expression is wide eyed, one of a sudden dawning of understanding.

‘Wait a minute…’

He glances my way, then turns back to Joel, his eyes now narrowed in suspicion.

‘Did you do something to her on purpose, because you…?’

He doesn’t wait for – doesn’t need – an answer from Joel.

He takes Joel’s confused, shameful face as an admission of guilt.

‘You did, didn’t you?’ he hisses softly.

‘No, I–’

The Master drowns out Joel’s useless protestations as he erupts into a growling, disbelieving laugh.

‘All that money you’ve cost me!’ He turns from Joel, whirls on me, his glare accusatory and hateful. ‘And you! That’s why you think you’re better than all those other girls – those sisters – of yours, isn’t it?’

‘Well, no, I–’

‘Yes you do! Have you ever met them? No? They’re all wonderful girls!’

His tone now is mocking, teasing.

‘I’m sure that–’

‘It’s not the sordid profession you seem to think it is,’ he persists, now surprisingly calm and reasoned. ‘But…what’s wrong with me? Why am I trying to explain all this to someone who’s supposed to be free of any scruples about all this anyway?’

He backs away a little from me, moving back towards his desk without bothering to look where he’s heading, like he’s been a part of this office for so long he instinctively knows where everything lies.

Reaching out behind him, he presses a button on his desk.

The door to his office opens.

Two incredibly beautiful girls enter, their smiles bright, incredibly welcoming.

‘I assure you,’ the Master says to me with a polite nod of his head, a knowing smirk, ‘you’ll just love working with them.’

‘No!’

Joel lurches forward, as if about to grasp and attack his father.

The Master has deftly reached back towards his desk once more.

Now he holds a gun in his hand, unwaveringly directing the barrel at his son’s stomach.

Yes, Joel,’ he states firmly, his eyes locked hard on his son’s as a warning not to test him. ‘Yes; that’s were she belongsthat’s where she’ll go!’

 

 

*

Chapter 11

 

My thoroughly gorgeous guards are surprisingly strong.

Their grip on my arms feels particularly unbreakable.

Perhaps I have the potential to be just as strong too, but I’ve never thought of putting it into practice.

Despite their insistence that I accompany them towards the elevators, they’re also conflictingly eager to appear friendly, chatting to me as if this is the most exciting day of my life, as if I’m joining the sort of typing pool full of excitable women you see in the old movies.

(Wow, great: another one of those false memories clicking in!)

‘Oh, it will be all such amazing fun!’ trills the sublimely elegant girl keeping a vice-like hold on my right arm.

‘Just you wait and see, Iona!’ says the sweet little thing clamping my left arm in a grip that would squeeze juice out of a rock.

‘You were meant to join us here!’

‘Oh yes, yes! I can just simply sense it too!’ agrees her friend.

 

 

*

 

 

The ‘sweet young thing’, it turns out, is the leader of a large group of the girls, responsible for their wellbeing and regular maintenance.

Figures, when you think about it.

Why would any girl programmed to be a team leader in such a place have to be old?

Then again, in a seemingly complete contradiction to that observation, the woman in overall charge of the establishment is a slightly older woman; one who appears to have retained the most distinctive elements of her amazing beauty of course.

It’s a nod to the movie portrayals of these kinds of establishments; it’s from scenes such as these that the customers have being brought up to expect that the Rooms of Pleasure will be fronted by a kindly madam, who keeps everything firmly in order, completely dominating all the proceedings in every way.

There are customers, apparently, who prefer their women to be older.

Some of the girls here are also terribly, frightfully young…

My stomach churns, like the maelstrom we survived deep down in Nevaeh’s waterways.

 

 

*

Chapter 12

 

What seems totally bizarre to me is that all the girls accept what’s happening to them as if it’s all perfectly natural, as if there’s no other way of living their lives.

But then, they have been specifically programmed to think that way, to expect nothing more but this of their lives, haven’t they?

In a way, though, that makes it seem all the more terrible to me.

Yes, okay; so I know these aren’t real girls. But they look like real girls; they – in many ways – act like real girls; they talk and laugh like real girls.

They even help and have compassion for other girls.

So what, exactly, is it they lack that means they aren’t real girls?

 

 

*

 

 

Thankfully, no one here is expecting me to immediately embrace this new life I’m fated to lead.

Eventually, of course, I’ll have no alternative; I’ll have to entertain the many ‘customers’ who flock here, through every hour of the day.

Not that anyone down here knows precisely which hour of the day it is.

There are no clocks, no way of telling the time.

There’s no obvious passing of the sun, or the moon.

Even our ‘customers’ have little idea of whether it is day or night outside.

Very few have the courage to immediately descend this low into Nevaeh’s belly. Even those who have taken advantage of the services of her Room’s of Pleasure on her previous visits to their towns rarely head straight down here, as if they retain some element of shame deep within their own rotten bellies.

I can’t see any customer who isn’t drunk, or drugged up.

They know all this wrong; oh yes, they surely do!

The girls’ sleep patterns, although regulated to be far more human that those of other droids (who automatically drift off into sleep mode once a task is completed to save energy), seem to be determined by the customers’ needs. Even so, there are still a number of girls who are neither working or sleeping, enough to eagerly gather around me asking me questions about what I think might be wrong with me.

They all think it’s terrible that I’ve been assembled so badly.

They try and recall any instances they know of other droids been so badly put together, in the hope of offering a solution to my problem; but no one can think of any other girl who has been so atrociously handled,

Their chatter, their laughter, is all perfectly natural, the equivalent of the conversations I’ve heard amongst humans; apart, of course, from this weird acceptance that this is a perfectly legitimate way to live.

The conversations I’d tried to strike up amongst the ticket girls I’d worked with were always limited to their programmed capabilities, which amounted to little more than cheerful greetings, helpful knowledge about the range of experiences offered by Nevaeh, and a mind that could work out otherwise complicated prices and terms within a split second.

Here, the girls all pity me, treating me as if I’m so unfortunate, a girl full of irredeemable faults.

The sweet young thing who’d brought me down here appears, politely making her way through the girls excitedly crowding about me.

She smiles, as brightly as she can manage; but I can recognise enough clues in her expression to determine that it’s a false smile, an anxious one (yes, that’s how well made these girls are: they have every human expression you can imagine, even the most subtle).

She wrings her hands worriedly as she begins to speak, her smile now carrying hints of shame and apology.

‘I’m ever so sorry, Iona; I know we promised you that…but, look – an important visitor, one we can’t refuse – has insisted that you go to his room!’

 

 

*

Chapter 13

 

Once again, I’m walking along garishly decorated corridors, accompanied by this sweet young thing.

Rhina, she’s called, she tells me.

She isn’t gripping my arm, she isn’t pulling me along.

The only thing pulling me along is this sense that I’m a victim of cruel fate, something I can’t avoid. A sense of hopelessness.

My head hangs low.

Rhina, her head hangs shamefully too.

So, she is capable of feeling shame.

Just not the kind of shame I’m suffering right now.

And yet; how could she be so ashamed, unless she understands my own sense of shame?

Wow; just how complicated is all that?

Who is this man who’s so important they can’t refuse him?

Why is it only me who’ll he’ll accept?

How did he even know that I was down here?

Oh no, oh no!

The Master!

It can only be the Master himself!

 

 

*

 

 

Of course!

What an idiot I’ve been!

All that nonsense about drawing straws!

The two girls were already waiting outside to bring me down here!

The Master knew full well the way the drawing of lots would pan out.

How hard would it be for him to manipulate the result with those pencils? Pencils that were just about the same size anyway.

If I’d chosen the longer one, he only had to mix them up as he’d compared their lengths.

I was fated to lose, no matter what I did.

But then, Joel is his son, isn’t he?

Whereas me; I’m just an unimaginably expensive ticket girl. Who’s been specifically built to provide more profitable services.

Rhina stops outside a door to a room, knocks.

‘Come in!’ a gruff voice from inside commands.

 

 

*

Chapter 14

 

It’s not the Master waiting for me inside the room.

It’s the Master’s son.

Joel.

My heart (or at least, what passes for a heart) leaps.

Then; I’m hit with a sudden surge of doubt, of distrust.

The way Joel’s looking at me – surely, he’s not really here for that, is he?

No, please tell me no!

Certainly, Rhina seems to take it that that’s the only reason why he’s here.

She’s actually glaring at him almost hatefully, although she’s attempting to hide that loathing behind her most gracious smile.

She must recognise the kind of look Joel’s giving me, right?

She must have experienced it more than enough times.

And yet; I bet this is the very first time she’s felt hate for the person looking at the girl in this way.

‘Iona, is there anything…?’

She glances my way, her eyes almost tearful, apologetic.

There’s more to these girls than anyone realises, I reckon.

I shake my head, resigned to what’s going to happen

I suppose, if I have to…well, I suppose it could be far worse.

Someone far worse than Joel.

It’s just that…I’d hoped…

Nah: I’ve been foolish, haven’t I?

 

 

*

Chapter 15

 

Rhina smiles sickly as she backs towards the door.

She glances my way again, like she’s expecting me to rush towards her, beg her to save me.

I wonder how she’d react to that?

You know, I think she really would try and protect me. Even though it would result in her being shut down, or reprogrammed.

I even think she might be hoping I do ask for her help, even though it can only result in severe punishment for her, for me.

It’s not fair on her if I ask for her help.

I nod, letting her know it’s okay to leave me.

She gives me another sickly smile, one that says she doesn’t believe I’m okay about this, that I’m being brave, stoic.

She shuts the door behind her as she leaves.

Joel smiles.

I’m still not sure what he’s excepting of me; I hold back.

He rushes towards me, wraps his arms around me – embraces me, like he’s so glad to find that I’m okay.

‘Iona!’ he breaths, hints of relief and perhaps maybe even weeping in his voice.

He pulls back a little, stares intently into my eyes.

‘We have to get you out of here!’

 

 

*

 

 

Once more, I’m walking through the corridors.

I’m grateful, this time, that the Rooms of Pleasure have gone for the subdued lighting most men would be familiar with in the movies featuring similar establishments.

It’s all shaded lamps, all light forced downwards, not up.

Even so, I’m tempted to increase my pace, to rush along these corridors as quickly as I can.

But Joel had told me to resist this urge.

That would be a sure way of drawing attention to myself.

To pass off as a man, he’d told me, you have to walk like you own the world.

Confidently.

Unhurriedly.

And yes, that also meant with my head held high; not letting it droop low, trying to hide my face.

If I walked like that, he’d warned me, it would only cause people to stare.

As it is, I walk past people without a second glance. My face isn’t completely hidden, but I’ve pulled the leather jacket’s high collar up around my head as far as it will go.

My hair’s completely cropped, my long locks completely shorn. He’ll use the long strands later, Joel had said, to drape across the sheets and pillow, to make it look like I’m still lying in bed with him whenever the food or drinks he orders are brought into the room.

Joel had brought along a carefully prepared mix of vegetable dyes that made my freshly cut hair a passable imitation of his. He’d also brought along spare clothes, ones closely matching the ones he’d arrived in.

He’d paid for an expensive room, of course, to help keep up the pretence that he was here only for one reason; but he’d chosen a room as close to the exit that he could get away with without drawing suspicion. He’d also paid in advance for my ‘services’, to make sure I wouldn’t be stopped as I followed the diagram he’d drawn on the back of my hand.

He said he regretted cutting off all my beautiful hair, but piling it all up beneath a cap would risk drawing the attention I have to avoid at all costs.

He’d given me a kiss as I’d left him, telling me I still looked beautiful.

 

 

*

Chapter 16

 

We’d arranged to meet outside the main stadium in Nihilism.

It’s not my preferred rendezvous.

I would have rather gone for the Music of The Spheres, where you ascend into the heavens on solidifying chords of music; or the Sands of Time, where vibrating waves make sand ripple like streams you float on, or take solid forms you can hold or walk through. There are similarly entrancing zones of snow or ice, of sun or moonlight, of crystal or controlled flames, of scents or touch or even kisses, of immense origami shapes or minute lacy metal, of kites you can soar on, or bubbles you can use to descend into watery depths.

It’s easier to get lost, however, or remain hidden, in Nihilism.

It’s a level of utter chaos, where what little of the law enforcement adhered to within Nevaeh reaches a whole new nadir.

Here the customers seem to me to be in almost as much danger as the participants hacking each other to pieces in the stadiums. A few humans are even crazy enough to present themselves as droids to take part in the contests, hoping to pit their skills against ageing, malfunctioning machines who have no further purpose in life unless they can achieve a whole new area of greatness in the gladiatorial contests.

Huge, hired four by fours roar around on the elevated roads as if the drivers are almost hoping they’ll crash through the minuscule barriers and plummet head first into the milling crowds below. The crowds themselves appear resigned to the fact that accidents are bound to happen amongst such chaos, the almost complete absence of light, bar that reflected back from the stadiums’ footlights, or the headlamps of motorbikes roaring past – the whole effect is one of an endlessly permanent night –only adding to the sense of ever impending death.

It’s the fatalistic madness of the End of The World, the Twilight of The Gods.

And yet, surprisingly, there have never been any deaths amongst the customers that I’m aware of.

Each customer, even though they don’t realise it, is accompanied by a hovering droid that floats just above their heads, electronically veiled in the darkness until such times as it’s deemed necessary to drop protective force shields into place around their charge.

Those humans taking part in the individual and massed combat displays are similarly protected (much to the chagrin of any droid, who knows they’re facing a death sentence when pitted against a human), even though they also remain unaware of this.

It’s a place of constant threats, of thrills gained through overcoming your fear, of exerting your power over others.

It’s not the place I want to wait too long in as I wait for Joel.

Just above Nihilism, there lies Epiphaneia: a land of brightness, of sparkling light, of glittering excitement.

This is where I’ll wait until it’s nearer our agreed rendezvous time.

 

*

 

 

Epiphaneia is the perfect place to hide out.

As in Nihilism, as soon you step inside the zone a hovering droid takes up its place flying just above your head; here, though, everyone is aware of the droid’s presence – indeed, it’s the very reason why most people visit here.

Here, it’s your own presence that is veiled, hidden behind a new identity you wish to take on in its place.

You could meet your own mother here, and she wouldn’t recognise you.

In fact, you could meet your mother here and it almost certainly wouldn’t be her.

Most people chose to be a famous person, a historical character, or a movie or storybook personality.

Everywhere I look, there are Marilyn Monroes, Audrey Hepburns, Cary Grants, Clint Eastwoods, Napoleans, Nefertitis, Queen Elizabeths, and King Davids, all mixed in with a smattering of pirates, explorers and princesses.

How many of them will later venture, I wonder, into Revelatia, the area where the droids’ sensors chose your character for you from your innermost thoughts? Only the most confident of people tend to risk it, and then only when they’re on their own.

In that area, apparently, there are devils, demons, bears, wolves, lambs, angels and goddesses: but the latter are in very limited numbers indeed.

I chose to be Joel, or at least the imaginary version of him that the droid picks up in my thoughts and transforms into a realistic veil.

I catch glimpse after glimpse of myself in one of the many mirrors or silvery surfaces scattered around this zone.

It’s not an entirely accurate portrayal of Joel, to be honest.

But it’s a passable version of him.

It’s odd, being Joel.

Odd not being secretly stared at, and lusted after by just about every passing man.

 

 

*

Chapter 17

 

You might think it odd that I’ve chosen such a relatively mundane veiling as Joel, rather than, say, someone famous, someone admired by a vast number of people.

But you’d be surprised how many people here choose a regular person as opposed to a more well known one. (How many people, too, chose animals or hybrids: horses, Beauty’s Beast, that kind of thing.)

Some couples swap personalities.

Some change gender simply to get an idea of what it likes on the other side of the divide.

Many girls chose the looks of the girl they envy at school, wishing to experience the attention they receive.

Many boys wish to be simply stronger, more impressive.

There are even those who wish to appear uglier than they usually are, granting them some idea of how much worse their life could be.

Here, if you find your character is causing you more problems than you assumed it would, you can always change your personality on a whim, after all.

The environment you find yourself walking around is likewise ever changeable.

What you take to believe is a mirror can suddenly be a flowing waterfall, while a drizzle of rain, or a rising of steam, can immediately transform into a frozen sheet, a veiling of lace.

And it’s not just a trick of your imagination, a visual transformation; physically, it changes too. So what a moment ago was something you could safely pass through is now solid, immovable.

It’s a constantly changing, incredibly frustrating labyrinth, especially as everything is made to be either transparent of reflect light back, such that you’re never quite sure where a path lies, and where it’s blocked off.

Some mirrors can be actually passed through; but your droid will ensure that from now on, until you pass back through a similar mirror, most of the actions you wish to make will be strangely reversed, as if you’ve entered a looking glass world.

And these changes can all happen so quickly that if a couple become separated, even momentarily, they’ll find it’s impossible to get back together until they inform their droid they wish to leave Epiphaneia.

Why would any couple part under such circumstances?

Because they could easily leave here far richer than they ever imagined they could be.

All they have to do is retrieve one of the many sparkling jewels placed around the park.

Of course, they’re reflected endlessly, such that you could be chasing a mirage. While the real one can be suddenly made inaccessible as a diffusing heat haze becomes polished steel.

Besides, there are equally brightly coloured butterflies, hummingbirds and insects soaring everywhere around the maze.

It’s a stunningly beautiful sight, a world of intense colours splintered into vibrant, intertwining and ever-moving rainbows.

It took my breath away the first time I experienced it.

My parents thought they would never, ever persuade me to come home.

 

 

*

 

 

Parents?

Hah!

There they are again; those ridiculous false memories!

They’re all just so irritating!

How are you supposed to get on with your life when you’re mind’s being constantly flooded with absolutely useless information?

I don’t have a past.

Least ways, not like everyone else.

My life, my world, began the second Joel switched me on.

Before that, everything is quite literally a blank.

I didn’t exist.

There are no real memories to recall.

No memories for me to try and remember in the hope that I can begin to figure out what sort of person I really am.

I’m nothing but an empty shell.

I’m just me; what you see is me – and that’s it.

I have no sub-consciously submerged characteristics to search out, to rediscover.

There’s no point in wasting any time attempting to discover ‘the real me’.

I came with an instruction booklet, after all. Apparently, it comes with a full listing of all the ‘Automatic Commands’ controlling my operation.

If I really want to know who I really am, all I have to do is sit down and read that.

 

 

*

Chapter 18

 

Is it any wonder that the sensors on the ride failed to prompt the commands that would have sent us down a more romantically inclined track?

Any wonder that, like those computers confused by the clever starship captain, they simply blew a fuse when they were set the task of detecting love between us?

There’s Joel, with his heart of stone.

Then there’s me, like an egg with no real filling, no real substance.

Maybe I should step through into the area where my hovering droid is expected to reveal the real me?

Maybe not; if that explodes above me, it might just take my head off.

I might not be a real girl: but losing my head like that would kill me just as effectively as if I were.

But I don’t have to use the droid, do I?

See, it turns out my false memories have come in use after all.

Because I ‘remember’ that the park has extra special mirrors.

Mirrors called ‘Regretful Reflections’.

 

 

*

 

 

Yeah, I remember now.

The ‘Regretful Reflections’, just like the droids in Revelatia, reveal the real person lying beneath your shell of flesh, of muscle.

They detect your real thoughts, I believe. The state of your emotional wellbeing.

Your desires.

Your arrogance.

Your innermost regrets.

Whatever it is the mirrors do, I ‘remember’ that people tend to only glance in one; and then studiously avoid seeing themselves in any others.

That’s the advantage, the difference, these mirrors have over Revelatia.

If you don’t like what you see there, you don’t have to try and accept it, try and adapt to this revelation of whom you really are, as you have to do within Revelatia.

Plus, only you see the mirror’s version of your personality.

No one else, no matter how close by, can see what you see there.

I break into a swifter trot, seeking out the signs directing me towards one of the mirrors.

When you’re in a rush to get somewhere in particular, the mystical, brightly coloured, ever-changing maze almost instantly becomes frustrating rather then entrancing; having your route suddenly blocked by the abrupt appearance of a glass wall is especially annoying, as you quite often crash directly into it.

The swooping birds, the whirling insects, despite their iridescent, jewel-like tones, are an irritating distraction.

As for the stumbling wanderings of the equally bewildered Joan of Arcs, the befuddled Alexander the Greats; well, they just seem entirely hopeless to me!

It all just adds to the confusion of a mind already set in a whirl by the fear of what you might see within the mirror.

You’re already considering who the real you might be long before you step in front of the mirror.

You feel, too, increasingly torn: is this such a wise thing to do, seeking out a mirror that might reveal something about you you’d prefer not to recognise?

But all this chaotic swirling of thoughts – even, no doubt, the infuriating obstacles being suddenly placed in your way – is all part of how the mirrors manage to strip away the many levels you’ve gradually managed to veil the real you behind: the facades you present to the world, even to yourself, to appear as the kind of person society expects you to be; happy, generous, stable, as opposed to miserable, envious, insecure.

By the time you stand in front of that mirror, all pretence has vanished.

Eventually, my persistence is rewarded; before me stands a mirror of ‘Regretful Reflections’, with no more icesheets, no more steel mirrors, to block my way towards it.

The only thing that can hold me back now is my own fears of what I might see there.

Or, in my case, what I might not see there.

For what I dread most is seeing nothing but myself reflected back at me.

 

 

*

Chapter 19

 

I pause, take a deep breath, before I step directly in front of the mirror.

Ready to face and accept what I might see within its refection, I stride towards it; and come to a shocked, abrupt halt.

There’s a ghostly girl in the mirroring of sliver, as insubstantial as the lacy maze I’ve been fighting my way through.

As insubstantial, too, as the wraithlike girl I’d seen within the swirling foam of Nevaeh’s underground waterways.

For a brief moment, I wonder if – perhaps even hope that – this is the real me being revealed to me. She’s young, much younger than I am.

But then, out of the corner of my eye, I detect movement.

The reflection I’ve seen within the mirror isn’t me, but that of a mistily white girl standing only a short distance from me.

She smiles at me; sadly.

Then she turns – and sweeps effortlessly through the mirror of polished iron standing behind her as it transforms into a foggy lace.

 

 

*

 

 

‘Stop! Wait – who are you?’ I cry after her.

She doesn’t stop; she curls around a corner of glass, she trips lightly through a waterfall.

And everywhere about us, there’s a fluttering chaos of rainbow-tinted birds, butterflies and insects.

Crazier still, there’s absolutely no one else around, as if they’ve all vanished as effectively as any of the mazes’ transient walls.

The wispy girl, however, is everywhere now.

She’s reflected around the maze innumerable times, such that I no longer have any idea which is the real one.

Then she stops, she turns towards me; she smiles, gives me a beckoning wave – and spins around and begins to run away from me once more.

 

 

*

 

 

I could never hope to catch up with the girl in this maze.

Not only did she move with surprising swiftness, as if she were floating rather than actually running, but she appeared to instinctively know her way around a maze that changes from second to second, that never, ever repeats a pattern.

To know your way around such a maze, of course, should be impossible.

It’s also supposed to be impossible for two separated people to link up within the maze, no matter how hard they’re both trying to get back together.

So what’s the chance of trying to close on someone who’s actively attempting to avoid you?

And yet, strangely, every time she gets so far ahead of me that I’m tempted to bring an end to my efforts to follow her, the girl stops, turns back to face me; and waves, encouraging me to continue perusing her.

‘What’s keeping you?’ her sad smile seems to be demanding of me.

Well, quite a few things, I feel like shouting back; including vast sheets of frosted crystal that suddenly appear out of nowhere before me, or hawthorn hedges full of white blossom.

I’m rushing through a heavy snow fall when it finally dawns on me that, at last, I’ve completely lost sight of the girl.

This time, too, she hasn’t halted, hasn’t waited for me.

She’s nowhere to be seen.

But the stumbling crowds are back; the staggering Warrior Queens, the dazed Einsteins.

Why?

Why did she keep on urging me on, only to abruptly abandon me?

I look about me, wondering if she was simply making sure I ended up within this particular spot within the maze for some reason.

I’m standing next to a beautiful gem, a ruby sparkling like the ripest, most perfect of fruits.

Is that what all this was all about?

She was merely leading to one of the maze’s jewels?

Admittedly, these precious stones are nowhere near as easy to find amongst the maze as people might suppose; but I’m in no need of riches.

Am I?

A girl who’s just fled the Rooms of Pleasure.

A girl who’s made an enemy of the Womb Master.

I reach out for the gem; but it squirms, moves slightly.

I pull my hand back sharply.

It’s not a ruby after all, but a crimson coloured worm.

And then, bizarrely, the strangest of questions flows though what passes for my mind:

What does the presence of the crimson worm mean in Jonah?

 

 

*

Chapter 20

 

Maybe, of course, I thought of Jonah simply because of Nevaeh: it’s hardly a great leap of the imagination, is it, to connect this immense whale with the story of Jonah being swallowed by the great sea monster?

There’s even an experience celebrating the event, where you can actually board a whale-shaped submarine that carries you through storms and beneath the waves.

But a crimson worm?

What could that have to do with Jonah?

And yet, no matter how hard I try to completely put it out of my mind, it’s a question that I keep asking myself:

What does the presence of the crimson worm mean in Jonah?

‘It doesn’t make any sense at all!’ Joel laughs when we eventually meet up. ‘Unless it’s just that, you know, seeing the worm just triggered this whole idea of being plagued by a brainworm; some weird thought that’s lodged itself in your brain, and now you can’t get rid of it no matter how irritating it is.’

Naturally, when we’d first met up, meeting by the main stadium in Nihilism as we’d arranged, this wasn’t the first thing I’d brought up.

We’d held each other tightly in relief that everything had gone to plan so far, that I’d escaped the Rooms of Pleasure, and Joel had also managed to walk away long before my absence had been noted.

But that weird question constantly worming its way through my mind just wouldn’t go away. And so, finally, to explain the distraction that Joel had noted I was suffering as we made our way through Nihilism, I’d decided I’d have to ask him if he knew the story of Jonah, if he knew of any crimson worm appearing within the tale.

Of course, he’d laughed, looking at me as if he couldn’t be sure that I was being serious.

‘No, there’s no worm,’ he’d assured me. ‘Unless you think of the whale as a sea serpent; but then again, that’s hardly a worm, is it? Let alone a crimson one!’

I don’t mention the girl I thought I’d seen; he thinks I’m crazy enough, asking questions about a non-existent worm.

From every stadium we pass, there are shrieks of tearing metal, screams of dying droids, the cheers, jeers, and excitable whooping of the crowds.

This is a dreadful place.

‘Let’s get out here,’ I say to Joel, placing my arm though his and hurriedly dragging him along with me.

‘We need to head down towards the exit,’ he tells me, his face almost crumpling in sadness as he adds. ‘We have to leave Nevaeh.’

 

 

*

Chapter 21

 

My life has been short, much shorter than Joel’s; yet, just like him, the only thing I’ve ever known is life aboard Nevaeh.

‘We could hide out…’ I say hesitantly, knowing such an action would be crazy, irresponsible.

We could blend into the thronging crowds while they were still flocking to experience Nevaeh’s many delights, but it had always been planned to be a short stay in this small town; and once the hordes of people have left, we would be eventually hunted down by droids with sensors despite Nevaeh’s vast size.

Yet leaving by the exit would mean we would picked up by the surveillance cameras.

‘We have to leave,’ Joel insists, adding as if reading my mind, ‘But we’ll have to wait a couple of hours until Nevaeh’s rides begin to shut down and everyone starts to leave all at once.’

‘We also need to get you a disguise,’ I point out. ‘And I might as well change my appearance again too.’

 

 

*

 

 

The crowd is so densely packed we’re almost tripping over the heels of the people just ahead of us, the pace slow and shuffling.

It takes quite a while for such a large throng of people to pass safely through the line of ticket booths, despite all the gates and barriers now being left open.

You have to be patient; even if you’re worried the cameras might spot you at any moment, and a hovering droid could swoop down to stop you exiting.

We hope, of course, that we’ve made ourselves unrecognisable.

Joel had had the foresight to bring as much money with him as he could manage. We’d bought new clothes, the choices I made not only surprising Joel but even myself; I was choosing clothes that were too small even for me, picking up petite sizes that drew raised eyebrows of disbelief from Joel.

Joel had almost completely cropped his hair, such that applying the dye he’d bought hardly seemed necessary. In my case, I’d also gone for a colour that wouldn’t risk drawing any attention to us – an almost mousey brown, which I felt strangely comfortable with. Of course, it would be a while before my hair grew completely back, but I didn’t feel totally at odds with the crop Joel had given me, especially once I’d realised that the longer hair he’d originally made me comb back could be flopped forward and cut into a low hanging, angular fringe.

I was a girl once again; well, a sort of girl, anyway.

And I felt like a girl as, to make sure we weren’t parted in the bustling crowd, we were tightly holding hands.

Joel would squeeze mine every now and again, like he thought that would reassure me that everything was going to be okay.

He also glanced my way every now and again, his eyes sparkling as he smiled.

I smiled back.

I didn’t need reassuring that we were going to be okay.

We were virtually other people, the way we’d managed to change our appearances.

 

 

*

 

 

‘Iona!’

It was nothing more than a whispering, as if it might even be nothing more than a change in a breeze’s direction: and yet I could still clearly hear it above the noisy chatter of the crowd.

I could even tell where the call was coming from.

I looked to my right, looked away from Joel, who was still patiently standing by my side as we waited to pass through the barriers.

It was the girl; the ghostly girl.

She smiled.

She waved to me.

That wave that said I must follow her.

 

 

*

Chapter 22

 

I clench Joel’s hand tightly, adding a slight pull to draw his attention my way.

‘Can you see that girl over there?’ I ask him, drawing his attention to her with little more than a nod of my head.

He could hardly miss her.

She seems to be standing on top of something hidden amongst the crowd; another stretch of iron barrier, maybe.

She’s also glowing a wonderful, ethereal white, the way brightly lit snow shines and sparkles.

Joel looks the way I’m looking, but screws up his eyes in bafflement.

‘Which one, Iona? There are so many of them amongst the crowd.’

No, he can’t see her.

Which means only I can see her. Or she’s nothing more than a product of my overactive imagination.

Either way, that would explain why no one in the crowd is reacting in any way to her as she stands amongst them.

She smiles sadly.

‘What are you waiting for?’ her smile once again admonishes me.

 

 

*

 

 

I can’t follow her this time, even if I wanted to.

The crowds are too solid for me to work my way through.

Besides, I don’t want to leave Joel.

And we have to leave Nevaeh.

All she’ll do, anyway, is lead me on another exhausting goose chase.

Leading me to some brightly glowing wasp or some other weird insect that will create some other bizarre question in my mind.

Maybe I’m suffering from more faults that I initially thought I was.

Just ahead of me, the crowd erupts in gasps of surprise and nervous laughter as one of the men amongst them begins to weirdly rise up in the air from amongst them.

No one tries to stop him, despite the crazed, fearful yelping of the man, who quite clearly doesn’t understand how this could be happening.

Everyone else, they just assume its yet one more surprise, one more last and bizarre experience afforded them by Nevaeh.

Just all part of the show; another clownish act, featuring a flying droid disguised as one of the crowd.

Once clear of the heads of the people, the man, his arms flailing uselessly, zooms up into the darkness looming over all of us.

Joel’s hand tightly grips mine.

‘Oh no!’ he wails anxiously. ‘I’d forgotten all about this!’

Before I know what’s happening, he’s just about thrown himself upon me, wrapping his arms about me in a clench I’d say was just about unbreakable.

‘Hold on to me, Iona!’ he cries almost tearfully. ‘Hold on for your life!’

 

 

*

Chapter 23

 

For a brief moment, I’m totally confused; I can’t think what he might be frightened of.

Then it dawns on me.

The droids conscripted into fighting within the stadiums obviously resent being used in such an inhumane way.

There are rumours of droids who have managed to escape Nevaeh: many of the more human-like ones disguising themselves as just another member of the crowd.

But there are equally strong rumours that no one had ever really successfully escaped, least of all the latter group attempting to pass themselves off as human.

In the shadows of Nevaeh’s huge maw, rising high above the exiting crowd, a droid hovers, passing back and forth, circling; whatever moves it takes, in fact, to draw up the escaping droids from amongst the thronging people.

A huge electromagnet, powerful enough to pull even the heaviest droid up into the gloom of Nevaeh’s soaring mouth.

Such rumours had to be nonsense, of course.

Any magnet that powerful would cause every metal object amongst the crowd to be pulled upwards.

Phones, watches and computers would be bad enough; but what about any one wearing a jacket with too many zips? What about anyone who’s had a bone replaced in an operation with a metallic version?

No, no way could there be an electromagnet hovering away up there.

Besides, I’m not like any regular droid, am I?

‘But I hardly have any metal–’

My attempt to reassure a frightened Joel is cut short as I begin to rise up off the ground, despite the way he clings tightly to me, increasing my weight.

‘It draws on energy fields, not magnetic ones…’ he moans, recognising that I’m still rising, taking him with me.

He can’t stop me being taken up, I realise.

If he doesn’t let go soon, we’ll be too high for him to risk letting go.

‘Joel: you have to let me go,’ I tell him firmly, sadly.

As I speak, I’m prising away his grip on my waist.

He tries to resist, but trying to support his own weight as he holds on to me is rapidly weakening his arms.

His arms slip free.

He falls; dropping away from me.

Thankfully, it isn’t too far from him to fall.

He lands safely, back amongst the crowd.

But without his extra weight to hold me back, I suddenly lurch upwards, soaring up into the darkness as the hovering droid continues tearing me farther and farther away from him.

‘Sorry,’ I tearfully yell out back to him, stupidly reaching out, as if hoping we could hold hands one last time, ‘I’m sorry!’

 

 

*

 

 

In an instant, I’m uncontrollably whirling through the darkness lying below Nevaeh’s gaping mouth.

Far beneath me, however, I can still see the crowd languidly making its way through the barriers.

Joel’s down there somewhere amongst them, maybe still fruitlessly trying to fight his way through them all, which was the last view I’d had of him: but I can no longer make him out.

I’d thought, maybe, that I’d heard him make out a last cry towards me too; but even by then it was all so far away it could have been nothing more than a whisper caught on the breeze.

My soaring ascent comes to a brutally abrupt, incredibly agonising halt as I’m slammed hard against the hovering droid’s flat bottom.

There are other droids already pinioned here, some having struck the surface so violently they’ve suffered smashed or dislocated limbs, even in one case an almost complete severing of the head.

Another droid flies up towards us, arms flailing uselessly. He strikes the base with a heavy clunk and a chorus of painful groans as he collides directly into droids already trapped here.

Once a droid’s caught here, it seems, they’re more or less completely immobilised, a powerful electromagnetic at last coming into play to hold everything fast.

The droid appears to have finished its hovering over the crowd, having collected from amongst the still unsuspecting people the droids who had hoped for a new life outside Nevaeh’s confines.

It begins to rise higher into the darkness, ascending into a gloomily lit, angled and ever narrowing chimney, as if it were a reverse of the descent into the circles of hell. Abruptly, even the tiny guiding lights wink out, plunging us into darkness as the droid lurches into what feels like a perfectly perpendicular ascent.

In the almost complete darkness below, I can make out something else, something white and foaming, rising so incredibly quickly behind us that it’s threatening to catch us up.

Water: a massive, powerful surge of water.

Just as I’m sure the water’s about to completely swap us all, we burst out into the sunlight.

The water continues to hurtle up directly after us: but eventually, unlike us, it reaches a point where it can no longer continue its soaring ascension.

It curls back upon itself. It splays out in all directions.

It falls, sparkling iridescently in the sun.

It’s a huge fountain of gloriously foaming water. Even though they’re now so far away, I can even hear the people below laugh joyfully as the cooling spray blows out across the leaving crowd.

It’s all quite beautiful in its way.

But isn’t that typical of Nevaeh?

Even when she’s rejecting unwanted waste, she manages to make it all look so incredibly wonderful.

 

 

*

Chapter 24

 

No one in the crowd could see us leave.

We’re too high up now; nothing more than the smallest black speck in the sky. Moving swiftly, with no care of how hard the wind tears at and batters exposed skin, hair and eyes.

Many pieces of clothing are simply shredded, whipped away by the shameless gusts.

‘Where’s it taking us?’

Someone speaks at last, their curiosity finally overcoming their mute sense of hopelessness.

‘The sea,’ comes the miserable answer.

‘Once a droid choses to leave,’ another explains, her voice equally dejected, ‘it’s regarded as useless – even dangerous.’

‘Surely there’s something we can do?’

‘Sure; just sit back and enjoy the view. The world’s all so remarkably gorgeous from up here, don’t you think?’

Damn.

Any moment now, this guys gonna insist we all break out into singing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.’

 

 

*

 

 

From the slow way everyone talks, I think it would be fair to assume that they’re all doing so with some difficulty, the magnetic field being so strong if affects even the most limited of actions.

Being constructed more of bio substances rather than metal, the effect on me is substantially less, yet even I struggle to move even slightly.

It’s a complete shock, then, when I suddenly feel someone tightly grasp my ankle.

Even to lift my head slightly from the surface so I can see what’s happening takes an amazing accumulation of will power, a submerging of surges of pain.

The man grins as he catches me glancing down towards him.

‘You’re the latest model, aren’t you?’ he drawls.

He’s almost ridiculously muscular: muscles that have given him the strength to rise up a little from the surface.

‘Me,’ he continues bitterly, ‘I’m an older version; built for other persuasions, naturally.’

He chuckles harshly.

He drags himself a little higher up my body, griping my legs as if I’m nothing more than a ladder.

Each time he uses my legs in this way, it feels as if they’re close to being torn away from my hip.

I scream in agony. In horror.

What is he planning on doing?

I can’t be sure, I tell myself.

Don’t be a fool, I scream at myself.

You know perfectly well what he’s intending to do!

No one around me is interested in what’s happening to me.

Why should they be bothered?

What can they do about it anyway?

Many, perhaps thankfully for them, can’t see what’s happening anyway, their heads pinioned against the surface, such that they can only endlessly stare the other way.

Suddenly, all I can hope for is that we reach the sea as soon as possible.

 

 

*

Chapter 25

 

The man has reached up, clamped a hand around my lower arm, gripping so hard he feels like he has to be puncturing my skin, shattering my equivalent of bones.

His weight against me is suffocating. Not because he’s extremely heavy, of course, but because the magnetic field is pulling so hard upon him, pressing him so claustrophobically close against me.

Using his grip on my arm, his grip with his other hand on my thigh, he begins to clamber ever closer to the position he desires.

He’s grinning.

He’s making out this is want I want too.

If only I could bring a knee up hard…

As if the pure thought of that alone has done the trick, the man jerks violently, his face contorted in agony as he shrieks like a baby.

But I’m also wracked with intense pain, stinging shards imbedding themselves everywhere about my body.

Everyone’s affected, shrieking as they suffer the most torturous punishment I could have imagined, their limbs knotted, faces distorted unnaturally.

There’s a crackling of energy, a stench of singed flesh; then in the last blink of an eye, everyone’s still, perfectly quiet, frozen in the throes of death.

 

 

*

 

 

‘Iona!’

It was nothing more than a whispering, as if it might even be nothing more than a change in a breeze’s direction.

 

 

*

Chapter 26

 

‘Iona!’

I could clearly hear it now.

‘You have to wake up!’ the whispering urges me.

I force my eyes open.

It’s the girl.

The ghostly girl.

She’s lying alongside me, her face close to mine.

She’s smiling, of course.

‘We’re almost there,’ she says.

At least, I presume she’s the one saying this.

Her mouth doesn’t move. Her smile remains.

‘Where?’ I ask hoarsely.

I’m exhausted.

Perhaps, yes, half dead.

I remember now; the sudden surge of energy.

It blew all the energy sources of all the droids, mine included.

Has this girl brought me back to life?

No…no, I don’t think so.

I’m more human than any previous class of droid. More so, even, than my sisters down in the Rooms of Pleasure.

It’s the biological elements of my body that I’m living off now; they’re my sole source of energy.

I might as well be dead.

I will be soon.

The droid part of me – its energy source at least – is dead, and I’m not really sure that my biological components will provide enough energy to fully support me.

‘Why can’t I just stay asleep?’ I demand drowsily.

‘Because you’re about to be dropped into the sea a little earlier than usual,’ she smiles in reply.

 

 

*

 

 

The hovering droid cuts off the power to its magnetic fields.

I and all the other droids, released at last, fall away from its base.

The other droids fall limply, giving the weird impression they’ve accepted their fate.

Me, I’m flailing out with my arms, my legs. Instinctively wanting to cling onto what little life I have left.

All uselessly, of course.

It’s hardly going to help me fly off to safety, is it?

The sea we’re plummeting towards is storm tossed, the wind shrieking hatefully, the waves surging aggressively high.

I hit the water hard.

The heavier droids hit it harder still, limbs that were already broken or smashed finally being torn away from their bodies.

The force of hitting the water, together with the extra pummelling hit of its ridiculously cold temperature, forces me to fully wake up from my previous stupor. After such a long fall, however, I can’t help but plunge deep beneath the soaring waves, the thick green curtains of the waters rapidly closing over me.

The dead droids, lacking the high percentage of more buoyant biological elements that I possess, sink swiftly around me. Were they still alive, ironically this wouldn’t present much of a problem for them; they wouldn’t need to breath, and so they could simply begin walking back to shore along the seabed.

I do need air, however; it’s all part of my organic energy sourcing and circulation.

In this situation, my more human qualities are a disadvantage.

I’m deeply submerged before I begin to sense that the momentum of my fall is at last ebbing away. Looking up towards the darkly pitching surface, I strike out for it with a swing of my arms; only to be surprised that I’m still being dragged under, still going down despite my efforts to rise up through the rolling waters.

Something’s tangled around my leg, I realise; something incredibly heavy.

I glance down through the waters, my vision naturally badly blurred by the salty sea.

It’s the muscular man, the one who’d been attempting to clamber over me as he’d died.

He’d lost his grip on my arm.

But his grip on my leg is firmer than ever, his grasping fingers now firmly locked into position.

He still has the agonised grin he’d died with; like he’s have one last laugh at my expense as he continues to drag me ever deeper beneath the stormy waves.

 

 

*

Chapter 27

 

It’s not until we shrike the seabed that the over-muscled droid finally let’s go of me, the jolt forceful enough to cause him to slightly release his grip, to topple away from me.

I look up hopefully towards a surface so far away I can no longer see it.

My hope instantly dies: I’m too short of air, too exhausted, to swim such a ridiculous distance.

The ghostly girl is standing just off to one side of me.

She’s smiling, of course.

It’s a smile saying, ‘Why are you still standing there?’

 

 

*

 

 

Turning slightly, the girl points off to a looming shape, a huge, angular rock covered in a lustrous garden of sea plants.

With a kick of her legs, she rapidly flows over towards the rock; then vanishes into it.

With a kick of my own legs, a pulling back of outstretched arms, I follow after her, seeing that I really have no other option. As I draw closer to the rock, I see amongst the brightly coloured growths a darker area, what seems to be an opening into what must actually be a cave.

Despite its covering of fauna, however, the gap strikes me as being strangely regular in shape, almost square.

With an extra, desperate kick – my lungs, I think, are larger than a human’s, but I’m already suffering from ripples of pain pressing hard against my chest – I slip through the cave’s opening. It’s darker than ever in here, impossible to see where I am, let alone where I’m heading.

But the girl is waiting for me, directing me once again, this time indicating that I should head off towards her right. There’s enough of a glow emanating from her to light my way as, with another languid rising up from her feet, she swims ahead of me, leading the way.

The cave is incredibly narrow here; I can see the sides reflecting her glow.

Once again, I’m struck by the strange regularity of this cave. If it wasn’t for the various plants that have affixed themselves everywhere in here, the walls could almost be said to be flat.

We’re heading upwards a little, the ceiling of the tunnel quite bizarre in the way it could have been carved into a series of uniformly shallow horizontal and perpendicular planes.

Cutting off my rise at a sharp angle, the celling once more becomes a virtually flat surface. Then we’re rising at an angle again, beneath another stepped ceiling, but this time one that’s much wider, stretching out beyond even the girl’s remarkably ethereal glow.

My lungs are straining, close to bursting.

I’m beginning to panic, wondering if the girl is leading me deeper into trouble.

But then, just how much more trouble could I be in?

My vision – already blurred, my eyes stinging with effort of trying to see through murky water – fades all the more, everything around me seemingly growing darker, less clear.

Then, with a gasp of surprise, of relief – of gloriously wonderful, lung-filling air – I break the surface of the water.

 

 

*

Chapter 28

 

The air in here must be sour, but to me it’s the most beautiful air I’ve ever breathed; the breath of life.

I can’t get enough of it, breathing in as much as I can after the claustrophobic experience of swimming underwater through darkened tunnels that could have been leading me to my death.

I’m coughing. Spluttering

Giggling with relief.

At last, I regain enough sense to look about me, to take in the dark waters spreading out and away from me on all sides. Angular islands rise up here and there, each one of differing sizes and heights.

Where am I?

My ghostly companion is still with me, casually sitting on one of the islands, innocently letting her feet dangle in the water as if she were on some seaside holiday. It’s the light she’s emanating that allows me to take in my surroundings: which don’t seem to stretch very far, going by the way the dimmer edges of her sphere of illumination seem to be striking what seems to be wooden walls.

The island she’s sitting on is also made of wood, in this instance large, upended crates lying together in a jumbled, chaotic pile.

I swim towards the island the girl’s seated on, clambering up alongside her.

She smiles, naturally.

‘Thank you,’ I say to her, recognising that I’d be dead if it weren’t for her.

I glance about me once more, trying to make sense of this weird, enclosed lagoon of tumbled crates.

The crates shouldn’t be here I realise, not like this, least ways.

They were originally neatly stacked on what now passes for our ceiling but was once the floor.

I’m in a sunken, upturned ship; alive only because some of the air remained trapped beneath its hull.

 

 

*

 

 

Inspiracion.

That was the name of this unfortunate ship, I discover when – after falling sleep for awhile, a result of the mingling of exhaustion and relief that I’m still alive – I begin to explore my new world.

The ship’s name is printed on an enamelled and engraved metallic plaque affixed (upside down to me, of course) to one of the hold’s walls, a sign in French informing the sailors that everything has to be stacked neatly, securely, and uniformly balanced.

I can only hope that the crew survived whatever calamity struck the ship. I wouldn’t, for sure, want to come across the remains of one of them floating around my new domain.

The stacks of crates seem firmly embedded enough to form a solid base for me to feel secure on, though a few partially smashed and virtually entirely emptied cases drift around like miniature icebergs.

Many of the crates have been broken as they tumbled around the hold, or have partially rotted away. It allows me to delve around inside them and withdraw anything I might think useful, including cans of what looks like food (the labels have dissolved away to almost nothing) and a few iron tools I can hopefully use to prise them open when I’m hungry.

Water will have to come from the moisture that gathers on the metallic surfaces, where the salt is left behind as a brightly sparkling crystal formation.

My smiling friend, unfortunately, doesn’t seem capable of talking after all, despite the few times I’ve sensed her alerting me to something important; a crate containing fresh food, clothes even, or sometimes ensuring I avoid a stack that’s close to dangerously tumbling. She’s not always with me, either, drifting away whenever I’m feeling sleepy, so that her light doesn’t keep me awake.

It feels odd when she’s no longer close; once she’s departed, it hits me that I’m all alone in the world, a prevailing fear that strangely doesn’t trouble me whenever she’s with me.

I’ve asked her for help solving the question she seems to have set me: just what does this crimson worm in Jonah mean?

When I ask the question, I’m hoping that she’ll smile, that somehow I’ll hear her whispering the answer to me.

Instead, she just stares intently into my eyes, like she’s urging me on to find out the answer for myself.

‘Okay, so is there a Bible around here?’ I ask, realising that she might, at least, be able to help me in that matter.

She smiles, shakes her head sadly.

In a way, I’m glad; it’s not like a need another instruction booklet, is it?

Besides, even if I simply tried to find the relevant passage; it’s not like Bibles come with indexes, is it?

Okay, okay; so I know I shouldn’t be speaking so derisively about a book that so many people believe is the word of God.

I apologise.

Yeah, I feel like a worm.

It’s just that; why does my ghostly friend think this is such an important question for me to seek an answer to?

Surely, yeah, there are far more important things in the Bible to reflect over?

Why has she raised this question in my mind, only to more or less abandon me when I’m trying, at last, to resolve it?

Like she’s somehow sensed what I’m thinking, the girl’s eyes widen, she pulls her face a little closer to mine; that expression, that sign, when someone’s sort of saying, ‘Yes, yes – come on, just think a bit harder about that!’

About what?

About the question?

About being abandoned?

Her eyes briefly widen again.

Abandoned?

The worm’s something to do with being abandoned?

 

 

*

Chapter 29

 

Wow: now I’m just more confused than ever.

This thing about the worm, about being abandoned, swims through my mind almost constantly now.

Nagging me.

There’s only one other mention of the crimson worm in the Bible.

It’s in Psalms. One were David refers to himself as being a worm.

Wait a minute!

Where did that come form?

I look towards the girl.

She smiles, of course.

 

 

*

 

 

David feels that he’s been abandoned by God.

‘Why have you forsaken me?’ the Psalm begins.

And Jesus repeats that very same line when he’s suffering upon the cross.

And in Judaic practise, to quote the first line of a Psalm is to accept the whole meaning of the Psalm.

Which means Jesus is also referring to himself as being a worm.

What is this?

Again, I’m surprised by what I seem to instinctively know.

Is all this part of my original programming?

It would hardly make for scintillating conversation with my clients, would it?

Worse still, it’s not as if realising all this seems to help me work out the importance of this ridiculous question.

Jesus was a worm?

Now if you go around saying things like that, you’re going to upset an awful lot of people.

The girl smiles: like she’s happy I’m working things out; like she always does.

She doesn’t have to say anything to reassure me that everything will somehow work out okay for me.

Her presence alone is enough to help me fool myself into believing that all I have to do is make sure I’m making the best of my situation – using whatever materials I happen to come across in my new environment – and that will be enough to keep me safe until…well, when exactly?

I’m not at all sure, naturally.

Obviously, I can’t stay here forever.

At some point, the food I have will run out. Plus, it’s hardly a fabulous life, is it, sitting around on wooden crates in a freezing cold, almost spectacularly black lake?

Besides, I need to work out some way of getting back to Nevaeh; if only because I want to make sure that Joel is safe.

 

 

*

Chapter 30

 

Maybe all I have to do is swim back down the tunnels, then head for the surface?

Whereas I was too exhausted, too short of breath, to attempt that when I’d first ended up down here, I’m sure I would now be able to accomplish it.

Perhaps, too, I could take a corner of one of the shattered crates with me, upended so it captures a portion of oxygen for me to breath?

It’s as I’m seriously contemplating striking out for the surface once more that the sea takes matters into its own hands, as it were, a storm so violent that it even begins to stir the currents way down here on the seabed.

I can feel, hear, the wreck rocking ominously, the timbers, the steel and iron creaking and then shrieking as they fruitlessly try and resist the urging of the sea to capitulate to its urgent commands to move along with it, rather than remaining here as a substantial barrier to its surging flows.

The underwater waves batter the outside of the hull, the effect being a thunderous booming that on its own is enough to set my body uncontrollably trembling; but violent tremors are sent rippling through everything around me, such that the wood and iron seem to have been given a whole new form of horrendous life.

The islands of piled crates begin to topple, the uppermost rolling down like so many great boulders, an avalanche of splintering wood and chaotically spilt goods that plummet into the surrounding waters with a sickeningly dull splash, a gurgling as they sink, expelling trapped air.

Suffering a gradual weakening of its long held foothold on the sea’s base, the wreck begins first to jolt frighteningly, then rock, then roll. The pounding of the irresistible currents, however, is relentless and unforgiving; sensing the wreck’s wilting resistance, the sea only gains in confidence and strength in its determination to completely dislodge us from our already precarious position.

To avoid the worst of the falling crates, I’ve already made my way towards the metallic steps I’d entered the hold by. Of course, they extend far out of the water, stretching towards a base connecting with what was once the floor. They had appeared to stretch endlessly away from me on either side when I’d swam beneath them in the dark waters, but in reality they are quite narrow, with iron rails that had originally been invisible to me.

Crouching between these rails now affords me a modicum of safety, the nearest equivalent within the hold to something approaching a safety cage. I’ve strapped myself in with ropes and belts I’d salvaged earlier from amongst the crates; even though it means I won’t be able to avoid any crate falling directly towards me, it stops me from being too savagely battered from side to side, and helps me maintain my hold within the relative safety of my makeshift cage.

‘Iona.’

The girl; she’s with me, her light enabling me to steady my nerves, to see which crates are falling and which still appear to be remarkably stable.

I can sense her wishing to warn me to prepare myself for an experience far worse that anything I’ve undergone so far.

‘Be ready,’ she says with her sad little smile, her wide, knowing eyes.

 

 

*

 

 

If I didn’t know better, I’d say that some gigantic sea god is now furiously pounding us with his great fists.

It’s a merciless pummelling, the ship now shuddering violently with every vicious blow, roaring in anguish that such relentlessly unforgiving torture is being inflicted upon it.

There’s the deafening crack of something vast, something previously thought impervious, unbreakable, now effortlessly fracturing. There’s an agonised wailing, the sighs of the once powerful and formidable now vanquished.

It could be the greatest of trees, tumbling and shredding now as easily as if it were nothing but the most fragile of flowers.

The section I’m in jerks wildly, the ropes holding me in place put under such strain a number of them shred, snap. I have to use my arms and hands to cling on firmly to the rails to stop me from being thrown from side to side, but even then I’m badly hurt, badly (yes, it is real skin after all) bruised.

There are yet more torturous sounds of tearing, of weakening resistance, the discordant cacophony it seems of a final protestation just before everything collapses in around me.

As we’re finally ripped from the grip of the seabed’s sands, there’s a stomach churning lurch as we briefly rise up, a rush of fear as we momentarily topple forward; then we’re caught completely within the powerful surges of the swiftly flowing current – and sent whirling round and round like a child’s ferociously whipped top.

 

 

*

Chapter 31

 

As in a wildly spinning centrifuge, everything in the hold is now sent hurtling towards the outer edges.

With an ominous rumbling, the crate islands topple, crumple.

Even the dark waters are sent spinning off towards the walls, the centre dipping away as if being sucked into a rushing whirlpool.

All our imprisoning current has to do is send the wrecked section itself tumbling and this little oasis of air will vanish in an instant, bubbling up to the surface.

As it is, the air trapped within the upturned hull is apparently enough to grant it the buoyancy to keep us upright.

Is it enough, however, to gradually free us from this underwater maelstrom and carry us up towards the sea’s broiling surface?

 

 

*

 

When the nauseating whirling finally comes to an end, its all so thunderously violent, all so brutally abrupt, that I’m at last wrenched clear of my makeshift safety cage.

The ropes, even the restraining belts, snap under the force of the sudden halting of our hurtling progress. I’m plunged into the rolling waters that, despite retaining a great deal of their previous swirling motion, now rush in one direction in a gathering wave. On striking the wall, they fall back upon themselves, upon a spluttering me.

The whole section threatens to completely topple forward: as it is, waves rush in from behind me, adding to my sense of being hopelessly swamped. But then the hull settles back into its upended position, the waves outside once again left to resorting to battering at its solid exterior.

A new sound has been added to the pounding of the waves, the quivering scream of the grinding of rough surfaces. The hull, although no longer whirling, no longer rushing forward, now sways from side to side, back and forth, with no apparent purpose, like it’s quite simply being toyed with.

Within just a few moments, there are newer, more frightening sounds; the crack and splintering of wood, the twisting of iron.

A whole section of the hull wall looming above me gives way, caving in as it disintegrates – everything collapsing about me now as it at last completely yields to the ruthless pounding.

 

 

*

 

 

The hull draws back, swirls a little, rushes forwards once more.

More of the wood cracks, shatters, showering me in splinters even though I’m deeper inside the hull’s interior.

Beyond the opening I can now see the chiaroscuro shades of foam splattered rock.

We’re being persistently thrown against the rocks by the waves. If I don’t manage to get out to safety soon, everything’s going to collapse about me.

The freshly formed hole has created an exit, but it’s hardly the safest way to make my way out of here. If I’m not crushed by the rolling crates as I try to clamber up towards the gaping hole, I’ll doubtlessly be smashed between the horrendously pitching hull and the rocks as I attempt to leap clear and land on what are probably drenched, seaweed-strewn boulders.

The girl is seated on the steps I’ve fallen from.

She smiles; the smile that says ‘Trust me; follow me.’

Then she silently slips into the water.

 

 

*

Chapter 32

 

It’s harder swimming out of the upturned hull that it was swimming into it.

It’s moving violently now, of course.

The girl, even though she doesn’t need to, acts as if she’s holding on to the step’s rail.

It’s just her way of showing me what to do, her way of drawing my attention to what would otherwise be an invisible rail.

Every time the rocking hull shudders, I cling on all the tighter to the rail to ensure I’m not thrown from side to side within the narrow confines.

When we drop below the lower levels of the hull section, it’s the girl who once again draws me safely towards a gap lying between the gradually shattering wood and the rocks it’s caught upon. Once through here, she continues heading lower into the water, ensuring I fight the urge to make a break for the surface, where I could still be caught up in the pummelling of the hull by the waves.

She remains underwater to a point where my lungs seem to be agonisingly fit to burst, as they had on that day when she’d first led me up into what had briefly become my underwater home. She’s leading me around the rocks, keeping her distance from them so that I’m not dashed upon them by the still raging waves.

She doesn’t surface until we’ve safely cleared anything that could endanger me – by which time, when I also break through the surface, I’m once again gulping down the air as if it’s the very breath of life itself.

 

 

*

 

 

I can’t remember struggling towards the shore, lying down thankfully on the sands of the beach.

But I must have done, because that’s where I wake up.

I’ve no idea how long I’ve been unconscious.

The sand is dry, warm – soft and reassuring.

The storm has completely abated, such that the calmly rolling sea seems far too innocent and kind to be responsible for the horrors inflicted on the wreck that had briefly sheltered me.

Glancing a little farther along the beach, towards where the beach becomes first boulders then towering rocks, there’s no sign of the ancient ship that had carried me here.

It’s either been dragged back out to sea, to sink once more, or it’s been totally riven apart upon the teeth of the rocks.

The sun’s warming, bright. It makes the sand around me sparkle like so much gold dust. Even amongst the sun’s glorious rays, however, there’s one more wondrously yellow than all the rest.

It ripples, snake like. Growing in size as it rushes down towards me.

It has wings, this ray.

Vast wings – the wings of a dragon.

 

 

*

Chapter 33

 

The dragon lands close by me with a sigh, an inviting sparkle of blinking eyes.

She’s not programmed to talk; just to be welcoming in her friendly expressions, her demure sighs and rhythmically relaxing breathing.

There’s no one aboard, the four seats lying empty.

When I’d seen her approaching, I’d naturally hoped that Joel would be aboard.

That this was his highly apt way of bringing me back to Nevaeh, seeing as how we’d had so much fun riding the dragon as we’d arrived in town.

Maybe he couldn’t get away. Maybe he’s already taking a risk sending the dragon for me.

Because, surely, the dragon has to have been sent by Joel, hasn’t she?

If only I could ask her.

How would Joel know I was here?

Trackers.

Of course; any droid would be fitted with some means of keeping track of their location.

Which means I never had any hope of escaping Nevaeh.

No doubt there are too many droids to keep them all permanently under surveillance.

But as soon as it was discovered that I was no longer down in the Rooms of Pleasure, they would have been able to locate my position.

No wonder I was so easily captured, so easily disposed of.

As long as my locator showed that I was on the bottom of the sea, where I was supposed to be – or maybe I was too far down, completely out of range – then everyone would assume I was dead, disconnected.

But as soon as I broken the sea’s surface; the tracker would have come on line again, revealing where I was, that I was still living.

So is the dragon from Joel?

Or did the Master send her, intending to retrieve his previously discarded, malfunctioning goods?

 

*

 

Even if I refuse to board the dragon, the Master will be able to quite easily hunt me down.

Whereas if the dragon has been sent by Joel; I’ll be turning down an opportunity to be reunited with him.

I climb aboard, the dragon sighing once again in appreciation.

She rises up on her sturdy legs, flaps her gigantic wings – and we effortlessly soar up into the air.

 

 

*

Chapter 34

 

Nevaeh is also airborne once again, the show she’s put on for the town having come to an end.

Even from a great distance, I can see her, a dark shape flying just below the white spume of billowing clouds.

She moves unhurriedly, using the odd, languorous flip of her immense tail, a slight weaving of her supple body, to send her skimming through the hazy sunlight.

She grows in size as we approach, until I can see nothing but her immense sides.

The yellow flicker of my dragon runs alongside her; then slips into a relatively minute doorway opening up in Nevaeh’s great flanks.

Please, please let it be Joel waiting for me inside.

 

 

*

 

 

The dragon smoothly glides into her docking space.

All the other docking areas are full of gaily garbed people and droids boarding the patiently waiting dragons and floats, obviously taking up their places in readiness for a parade. It’s the atmosphere of a carnival, all excitement and bright colours.

Alongside my dock, just one person is waiting for me.

It’s not Joel, as I’d hoped.

It’s the Master, as I’d feared.

He’s grinning maliciously. Triumphantly.

Why does he want me back, when he knows I’d tried to escape?

Because I’m still valuable, still usable, of course. Unlike the other ancient droids who’d attempted to escape with me.

As I’ve managed to survive Nevaeh’s automatic waste disposal operation, he still hopes he can salvage something from his fault-ridden device.

He offers me his hand, to help me disembark gracefully from the dragon.

I take it; why not?

I don’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing me accidentally stumble. Not that there should be too much chance of that, of course: but I can’t be sure what damage I’ve suffered during all the recent events I’ve gone through, while I am sure that my mechanical energy source remains irretrievably burnt out.

I’m as weak and delicate as a human until that’s repaired.

The master smiles at last.

‘Welcome back!’ he says, utilising all the tones of someone inviting a favoured guest to the most fabulous party. ‘No one really ever likes to leave Nevaeh!’

There’s no one else here to ‘welcome’ me. No girls from the Rooms of Pleasure to escort me deep down into the darkness of Nevaeh’s belly. No other droids to ensure I make no further attempts to escape.

Perhaps the Master believes such things would look unseemly and taint the gaiety of the performers preparing to announce Nevaeh’s arrival in a new town.

Then again, the Master knows there’s no point in me trying to run.

He’s almost polite and gracious as he directs me towards an elevator whose doors already lie open for us.

‘I’ll willingly return to the Rooms of Pleasure,’ I say determinedly, ‘but only if we can make a deal…’

 

 

*

Chapter 35

 

What choice do I have?

I’ve decided that I might as well gain some advantage from the inevitable.

The master regards with me interest, perhaps even a flickering of admiration.

‘Yes?’ is all he says as the doors to the elevator close behind us.

‘Joel was innocently caught up in all this – all these unfortunate events brought about by my malfunctioning.’

‘You want me to forgive him?’

I nod.

‘And I’d like to see him, just one last time…’ I add hopefully, recognising that the Master would never agree to my relationship with his son continuing.

The Master frowns doubtfully.

Then he smiles; or, rather he attempts to smile.

Because, really, it’s just that triumphant grin once more.

‘I agree to all your demands,’ he says all too readily.

 

 

*

 

 

Although swift, our ascent in the elevator takes longer than I’d expected.

I’d presumed the Master would insist on us visiting his office, where the girls from the Rooms of Pleasure must surely be waiting for me, as they were the last time I was called to his rooms.

When the doors open, we exit on to a level I’ve never seen before.

Naturally, Nevaeh is so vast, it’s almost impossible for anyone to be familiar with every level. But this level is particularly unusual, having an air of abandonment and neglect.

Have I been tricked by the Master after all?

A ripple of fright courses through me.

My expression of fear merely amuses the Master. He chuckles, revelling in my obvious anxiety.

I keep to the finest detail of my deals,’ he assures me gruffly, indicating that I should step towards two large and highly elaborate gates that, despite their age and lack of maintenance, are already automatically opening up before us.

The wrought iron of the gates forms flowers and trees of all sizes, all varieties, the once bright enamel that had given them all a realistic edge now fading and flaking away. A similar piece of elaborately wrought iron arches over the double gates, the metal twisted into words proudly proclaiming that we are now entering The Garden of Content.

Yet the garden lying beyond the gates is a profound disappointment, suffering all the sense of abandonment and neglect that had despoiled the entrance.

Trees are dead or dying. Lawns are parched and brown. Weeds grow in abundance where flowers must have once flourished, these providing the only bursts of colour within this truly sad garden.

And yet this neglected garden spreads out from the gates in every direction, as if Nevaeh has gathered together every piece of unwanted wasteland and deposited it all here.

 

 

*

 

 

There is no sense of being confined within a room.

As elsewhere on Nevaeh, the ceilings are hidden behind a play of defused lights creating the effect of sunlight. A further veiling of the reality is achieved through the unrushed scudding of voluminous clouds, which means a steam and breeze generator is still in operation somewhere.

‘You requested a brief meeting with Joel?’

With a wave of a hand, the Master indicates that I need to keep on walking into the garden.

Joel’s here?

‘But how did you arrange it all so quick–’

‘Now I must leave you,’ the Master interrupts my question, turning to head back towards the elevator, ‘I have a parade to oversee!’

 

 

*

Chapter 36

 

In its prime, this was no regular garden.

Even in its deserted state, it’s still possible to make out touches of originality, of enchantment.

In some areas, the dead hedges still retain the forms they had been carefully cropped into, including horses, mermaids, galleons. Even where they are more geometrically cut, they form centrepieces of what must have once looked like the carefully orchestrated gardens of seventeenth century palaces.

There are gardens once graced with sparkling fountains, too, as well a series of hanging gardens, each one rising away in looming steps.

There’s also a small tree, one adorned with a droid serpent who remains still, unmoving – mute.

Nearby, another serpent lies in a stream, frozen in the act of carrying away a prickly water plant. Adjacent to this, there’s a serpent wrapped around a tree that has shed its leaves yet is still graced with a sparkling, golden fleece, and glittering golden apples. Then there’s what must have once looked like a bush-like, hundred-headed daffodil, with yet another huge, dark serpent hiding amongst its blooms. A neighbouring tree, quite immense, has an eagle amongst its uppermost branches; and yet, once again, the tree’s massive roots are revealed to be just one more writhing serpent.

Garden and trees of legend, of religious tales. An area called La Noi’ Tome; the Black Volume, the darker side of the tales we know.

There’s another bush here too, one that unlike the others doesn’t have any connection to a serpent that I can see. Stranger still, it has its own plaque, stating that this is Jonah’s Kykeon; no doubt because it’s a less familiar tree than the others, as well as having a connection to Nevaeh through Jonah’s story.

Like the other trees, it’s withered, its leaves hanging loosely, perhaps even dead. And yet it has a single, bright crimson fruit growing amongst those dead branches.

No: not a fruit.

It looks like a fruit – but it also looks like the ruby the girl had led me to when I was pursuing her in the maze of veils and mirrors.

Which means, I think, that this supposed fruit is really the crimson worm.

‘Iona!’

This isn’t a whispered call; this is a full-hearted yell.

I whirl around.

Joel is running towards me.

‘Joel!’ I cry back happily.

 

 

*

Chapter 37

 

It’s odd walking hand in hand around a derelict garden more akin to a dried up wasteland rather than some bright, enchanting parkland.

Even so, I’m content; no matter how brief this period of contentment is going to be.

Naturally, we’d hugged each other tightly, needfully, when we’d first met up again.

We’d laughed in a mix of joy and relief, even cried a little.

Joel had kissed away the tears on my check; moved gently towards my lips.

Oh, why can’t I have been born human, like so many other girls?

How much simpler, how much more wonderful, would my life have been then?

Then again, would I have been so beautiful?

Would I have attracted Joel?

Would I have even known Joel?

The answer to all three questions is, ‘Probably not.’

The saddest looking plant of all is one that seems to lie towards the centre of this massive garden complex, judging by the way all the roads and pathways appear to steadily gather together around here.

It would be, I guess, have been a golden flower at some point, going by the shed petals lying about its extensive roots. These are no longer of gold, of course, now being more of a mix of yellow and saffron tints as opposed to possessing metallic glints, yet the overall effect is of a golden carpet.

The bloom itself is withered, the heart of the flower unveiled but for the last dried remnants of previously glorious petals that are still clinging to it.

Joel insisted that I give him a swift account of everything that had happened to me since our parting; which I did without once mentioning the help of the mysterious girl, naturally.

Similarly, he had to tell me how he’d hidden away aboard Nevaeh as he set out searching for me, unaware that I’d been taken out to sea by the hovering droid. Eventually, he’d been discovered, his father delighting in telling him that I was dead, that our relationship was over.

‘It didn’t have the effect he’d wanted,’ Joel says. ‘I hated him more than ever, rather than agreeing to train to be the next Master, which is what he really wants me to be. So when you turned up once again on Nevaeh’s tracking system – sorry, I should have known you’d have a tracker – he’d told me in the hope of regaining my love and trust.’

‘And did he?’ I ask. ‘Did he regain your love and trust?’

‘He brought you back to me; I have to thank him for that,’ he answers, turning to me, slipping his hands, his arms around my waist, my back. ‘But as for my love and trust: I’ve already given all that to you.’

 

 

*

 

 

‘Why did you say you should have known I’d have a tracker? I presume now that we – that droids tend to come with them.’

I no longer like referring to myself as a droid when I’m with Joel.

‘Oh, the more definitely mechanical droids always come with some device like that; it enables us to ensure we can control what they’re doing, see where they are. But the self-thinking classes, particularly the ones destined for the Rooms…the Roo…’

His hesitant manner suggests to me that he’s also nervous about thinking of me as being a droid.

‘Well, it’s supposed to be illegal; I mean, the potential for blackmailing powerful customers…’

He leaves the rest unsaid. Just smiles sickly at me, regretting bringing all this up.

Does he know that I have to leave him soon? That I’ve promised his father I’ll return to the Rooms of Pleasure?

Probably not.

‘Did your father use the Rooms in that way?’

He nods in reply to my question.

‘He’s hardly the type, is he, to pass up on an opportunity like that?’ he says, his voice tinged with bitterness and irritation. ‘He used this garden the same way…which is why it now lies like this.’

Indicating the endless, distressed land surrounding us with a wave of an arm, he spun around on his heels; and halted in surprise as he saw for the first time the path along which we’d just walked.

Unlike the wasteland stretching off in every other direction, the garden here had regained its incredibly beauty, the flowers in glorious bloom, the bushes and trees burgeoning with leaves, berries and fruit.

He spun back to me, his eyes wide with shock, with utmost joy.

He wrapped his arms about me, pulling me incredibly, tightly close.

Now he was the one sobbing with relief and happiness.

‘Oh my God, my God; you do love me!’

 

 

*

Chapter 38

 

‘Now how can you possibly know that?’ I ask Joel, even as I giggle with excitement at the thought.

I feel so happy when I’m with him, so wonderfully content when he holds me – but is that love?

I don’t, really, even know what love is, do I?

‘The garden,’ he says, briefly bringing my attention back to the gloriously flowering blooms, ‘the garden says you love me! And it never lies!’

How can a garden know I love him when even I’m not sure?

Even a garden on Nevaeh couldn’t possibly do that, could it?

About us, because we’ve lingered a while in a single place, the bushes and flowers are growing swiftly, gorgeously.

‘But…could it be sensing that you love me?’ I ask hesitantly, nervous that I might be pressing him to reveal things he’d prefer to remain hidden, that I might not get the answer I want.

Besides, aren’t I also hinting that it might not be my love the garden’s reading? And isn’t that all a little unfair on him?

He swings around on his heels, taking me with him in an elated whirl as he considers this, his face contorted a little in bewilderment.

‘But my heart…no! Of course you’re right; we both have to feel this to create all this spectacular beauty!’

He turns back to me, looks intently into my eyes, whispers with surprise and joy:

‘I love you!’

 

 

*

 

 

The garden grows on the emotions it feels within us.

It’s not just a garden of contentment, as I had first thought; it’s one of content, the emotions that really make us who we are.

What sort of empty life would we live if it were devoid of emotion?

Without the emotional, life would seem endless, pointless.

Yes, and to have those high points of emotion – love, joy – we also need those low points of hate, sadness, even of envy; all of which are simply other sides of the favourable emotions.

To know the good, we must also know the bad.

‘But what did you mean by using the garden to blackmail people?’ I ask Joel as he elatedly explains the workings behind this most fabulous of gardens.

‘Well, not blackmail as such; but as near as much the same!’ he chuckles, unsuccessfully hiding a tinge of bitterness, of anger. ‘Dad turned it all into a garden of delights for important people who’d be expected to return the favour; they could bring their partners here and the garden would flourish, supposedly proving their love for each other.’

Supposedly? Are you saying the garden can be manipulated?’

‘The girls or boys from the Rooms of Pleasure the senators had really fallen in love with would be here; naked and hiding amongst the bushes, tantalisingly revealing themselves now and again, but only to the senator. Of course, the garden wasn’t completely fooled, the flowering being relatively mundane; but the partners weren’t to know that, so they went away happy.’

‘Joel! That’s awful! What a dreadful way to use such a beautiful garden!’

‘That’s my dad for you; he can’t touch anything without tainting it.’ With a nod of his head, he draws my attention back to the area of serpents, of Trees of Life, of Knowledge of Good and Evil. ‘Take Jonah’s Kykeon, for instance–’

‘Joel! You told me you knew nothing of the crimson worm!’

‘Worm?’ He frowns in bemusement. ‘I don’t know anything about any worm,’ he assures me innocently, before adding, as if the thought had just struck him, ‘Ah, unless you saw it, and mistook the crimson berry for your worm!’

So that’s it; like me, Joel had mistaken the worm for a fruit.

‘The berries are important, actually,’ Joel continues, ‘because you can make a mind expanding but dangerous hallucinogenic from the plant’s beans – castor oil beans – but you need to be brought safely back down to earth, to steady your heart, with a drug from the berries.’

‘So this Kykeon; that appears in the story of Jonah?’

He nods.

‘Apparently, after God decided to save the people of Nineweh, Jonah was weirdly a bit upset that they’d achieved divine forgiveness so easily; so God allowed the Kykeon to grow about him, shading him from the beating sun and calming him.’

‘And no worm’s mentioned?’ I persist.

‘You and this worm!’ Joel chuckles in exasperation. ‘I suppose that, after you’ve taken this crazy trip, you feel like a bit of a worm when you’re recovering; it might be in the story, but I haven’t really read it. Oh, and apparently the tiger-like stripes of the beans made the bush look a bit like angry wasps – not worms – buzzing around the golden honey of the uppermost branches; you know, sort of glowing in the sunlight?’

‘Okay, okay; so let’s forget the worm,’ I laugh, raising my arms in mock submission. ‘Let’s get back to the garden; why’s it so desolate, so abandoned?’

Joel purses his lips in puzzlement.

‘I’m not too sure; maybe the garden was revealing too many failed romances? Maybe couples didn’t want to visit the garden, in case it revealed their true feelings?’

I happily slip my arm through his as we walk through this wonderfully bourgeoning garden.

‘But…it’s all just so incredibly beautiful!’ I exclaim.

‘For us; not for everyone,’ Joel points out with a pleased chuckle. ‘For us, it’s a new Eden; like we’re the new Adam and Eve!’

‘Oh, don’t say that Joel!’

It’s an Eden that, like Adam and Eve, we’re going to have to leave.

‘What’s wrong with that?’ Joel asks light-heartedly. ‘It’s not like there’s any evil serpent here to make things go wrong, is it?’

No, he’s not actually here; but his presence is all around us. I made a promise to Joel’s father, the Master, that my time with Joel would only be brief – and then I would take up my originally appointed role in the Rooms of Pleasure.

Joel senses my anguish.

‘What’s wrong?’ he asks, bringing us to a halt on the path, slipping his hands reassuringly about my waist.

I don’t want to tell him; but I have to.

It’s only fair he knows the truth.

I can’t just leave him without letting him know what I have to do.

I feel like I’m about to fall completely apart.

‘We…I have to leave…’ I say hesitantly.

‘No, no; you don’t!’ he protests, pulling me close, holding me tight. ‘I’ve okayed it all with Dad; I’ll take up the training to replace him as Master–’

I’m so shocked, I instinctively pull away from Joel.

‘Joel, no! Not the Master of Nevaeh!’

‘What’s so wrong with that, if it means we can be together–’

‘No, no! Your father will never allow it! He’s full of tricks!’

‘He promised…’

He says it with an air of someone who doesn’t believe his own words.

‘Promises? From your father?’

He shrugs resignedly, like he knows what I mean, but can’t see what he’s expected do about it.

‘Look,’ he says, a little more brightly than before, ‘if I run Nevaeh, I can make changes–’

‘The Rooms of Pleasure; you’ll close them?’

Joel grimaces, frowning doubtfully. I recognise that doubtful expression. It’s the one his father used in the elevator.

‘Well, eventually, yes…’

That underlying hint of unease has returned.

‘Eventually?’ I repeat sceptically. ‘No, Joel; now, if possible! It’s obscene, unfair–’

‘It pays for everything else!’ Joel snaps exasperatedly, like it’s bursting out him, like it’s a nagging boil that’s been building and building inside him until it has finally had to erupt. ‘Every other part of Nevaeh, Iona; it’s too elaborate, too expensive to run! If it wasn’t for the Rooms of Pleasure, Nevaeh would cease to exist!’

I draw back completely from Joel, letting the last fumbling touch of his hands fall away from my waist.

‘Well, if that’s the way you see it, Joel; maybe you’ll be pleased to hear that I agreed with your father that I’d return to them–’

‘No!’ Joel shrieks anxiously, grabbing me about the waist once more. ‘Not you, Iona! You don’t have to–’

‘I do!’

I force his hands away from my waist, stepping back even farther from him.

‘If not me, who else?’ I demand, glaring at him. ‘We have to make the money, don’t we? To keep dear Nevaeh going?’

‘Iona, this is ridiculous!’ Joel protests, trying to step closer towards me only for me to step farther back. ‘I can’t have you–’

Can’t have me?’ I say scornfully. ‘Yes, in that, I think you’re right, Joel: you can’t have me!’

About me now, I hear the strangest sounds; a dreadful slithering, an horrendous gurgling.

It’s the plants; they’re wilting, withering.

Dying.

 

 

*

Chapter 39

 

‘I hope you’re pleased with yourself!’ Joel growls, observing the collapsing plants with a mingling of sadness and fury.

Pleased with myself? Why would I be pleased with myself? Do you really think I want to go back to the Rooms of Pleasure?’

Joel makes an attempt at conciliation, staring forlornly into my eyes, fruitlessly reaching out with his hands for mine.

‘How could you make such a deal with him?’ he asks miserably. ‘Why couldn’t you trust me to work things out?’

‘It’s…it’s best this way…’ I stammer unsurely.

We would have had to part anyway.

Isn’t it really for the best that Joel at last gives up any hope of persuading me to stay with him? His father would never allow it. He would chase us to the ends of the earth.

At least, this way, Joel remains safe. And if he hates me; well, isn’t that better than being in love with someone destined for the Rooms of Pleasure?

I don’t want to be responsible for causing him such endless agony, that worm of envy endlessly eating him up.

I’ll always know that someone once thought me worthy of their love.

‘We can run away…’ he continues to hopelessly protest.

‘Your father would rather see us dead.’

‘Better dead than…’

‘No; I don’t want to die, Joel,’ I lie. ‘Unlike you, I haven’t been alive long.’

‘What sort of life will it be in the Rooms of Pleasure!’ he snarls.

‘Well when you’re Master; obliterate them!’

‘I will, I will,’ he grimly assures me, ‘but by then, it’ll be too late for you; for us!’

 

 

*

 

 

The blooms around me now are as sad as I feel.

They had crumpled completely as Joel had stormed off, heading back toward the gates.

Now they are rapidly decaying, even rotting in some cases.

Soon, there’ll be nothing left of their briefly fabulous flowering.

The girl is watching me.

She’s smiling; but I can tell she’s sad, that she feels sorry for me.

She’s sitting on a park bench, swinging her legs gaily.

Like the gates, the bench’s frame is of wrought iron. Like the gates, too, some of the scrolling has been formed into letters running along the backrest.

PleaseD.

It’s like the girl’s drawing attention to the fact that she agrees with Joel that, somehow, I’m responsible for everything that’s happened to us.

That I’m pleased with myself for what I’ve accomplished.

She jumps off the bench, revealing that she had been unintentionally hiding letters that had run behind her back.

PleaseDream.

The girl points back along the line Joel had taken as he’d sternly strode off towards the exit.

In the distance, the flowers are burgeoning once more.

Reaching up for the clouds.

Flowering in a multitude of the very brightest colours.

Joel!

He’s come back!

He’s forgiven me!

He loves me!

Loves me more than ever, going by the soaring blooms, the brightness and colours of the flowers.

As I had done only a short while ago, I break into yet another excited run towards him. But as I draw alongside the area of La Noi’ Tome, with its apt symbolising of writhing serpents, of Trees of Life denied us, I realise it’s not one person heading my way, but two.

It could be Joel, of course, arriving with someone else.

But that would be even worse, for the flowers erupting everywhere around them are the unmistakable signs of a couple deeply, resolutely in love.

The burgeoning blooms are so much more wondrously resplendent than anything that had flowered around Joel and myself; perhaps a sign of other, greater emotions we have yet to realise.

It’s an older couple I see, as they draw ever closer.

Holding hands.

As they always do, whenever they’re out together.

For I recognise them immediately.

They’re my parents.

 

 

*

Chapter 40

 

Hah!

Just how ridiculous could I be?

I don’t have any parents (unless you flatter my designers by calling them my mother and father!).

And, somehow, I don’t think this charming couple have had anything to do with my creation.

How could someone like them be responsible for producing a girl fated to work in the Rooms of Pleasure?

As the couple continue to approach me, the girl is smiling, of course.

But it’s a warm smile, the warmest smile I’ve seen her manage; and yet, the sadness remains.

Then I see it; the similarities.

Between the girl and the woman.

The girl and, to a lesser extent, the man.

She’s their girl.

They’re her parents.

 

 

*

 

 

‘Iona?’

It’s like a desperate whisper on the wind. So soft; so full of longing but also, strangely, fear.

But the voice doesn’t come from the girl; it comes from the mother.

I nod.

‘Yes…I reply uncertainly. ‘I’m Iona.’

‘We were told you were here…’ the father sighs thankfully, as if he hadn’t believed it possible that I would be.

‘We asked for you…’ the mother adds.

Their voices are hurried, breathless. They’ve been in a rush to get here, obviously.

‘But…how do you know me?’ I ask edgily, hoping, I realise, that they do know me, that they can provide me with answers to why I possess this fault.

‘We don’t,’ the father admits, hurting me far more than he realises or intends with the honesty of his reply.

‘But we have to ask you,’ the woman adds as they at last stand before me, as she tearfully reaches for and takes my hands in hers, ‘what does the presence of the crimson worm mean in Jonah?’

 

 

*

 

 

‘I’m…I’m sorry…?’ I begin unsurely, taken aback by both the familiarity of this question, yet also the strangeness of this couple asking me what it might mean.

The man’s head droops forlornly.

‘Oh, I knew this was all too good to be true, Gill.’

‘Nonsense, Jim!’ the woman pronounces determinedly. ‘Iona is here; just as Maxine said she would be!’

She looks back resolutely towards her husband.

‘Surly that means something, yes?’

I take this as an opportunity to fleetingly glance the girl’s – Maxine’s? – way.

Can she help me in any way?

My expression must be as imploring as it’s possible to be; and yet the girl offers no help.

She smiles.

I grip the woman’s hands reassuringly.

‘I know it’s not much help,’ I say, wishing I’d never started, realising what I’m about to say is completely useless to them, ‘but that’s a question…well, I’ve sort of asked myself before.’

Wow!

Just how stupid is that statement, right?

I wonder if I should tell them that there daughter is here, watching all this?

But would that freak them out?

Would they think I was crazy?

And what if I’m wrong; what if the girl isn’t their daughter?

I’d be raising their hopes for no reason other than flattering myself that all my suppositions are naturally brilliant.

I hope you’re pleased with yourself.

‘It’s something to do with sin,’ Jim says assuredly.

‘Isaiah,’ Gill explains. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.’

She intones it as if it is a well-practised reading.

‘The worm turns a waxy white after three days after it dies,’ Jim says, offering further explanation. ‘And it’s tied to the wood using some form of cotton thread.’

If the crimson worm represents sin, that would fit with Jesus referring to himself as this worm: didn’t he absorb the sins of the world?

But that’s hardly startlingly new information, is it?

‘It devours the tree God has sent to give Jonah shade,’ Gill adds morosely.

Ah; now that hardly fits with Jesus’ suffering upon the cross, does it?

‘The tree had miraculously grown overnight, making Jonah blissfully content; a life of endless ease, of no cares, no worries,’ Gill continues. ‘Yet God berates Jonah for complaining about the loss of his tree, pointing out he’d had no thought for the people of the city he had expected God to destroy.’

She glances suspiciously at the many serpents snaking their way through the Trees of Life.

The serpent had swallowed Jason as he’d attempted to retrieve the Golden Fleece; but the concoction of the witch Medea, the Kukeon, put the serpent to sleep, restored Jason after he emerged from the serpent…

Now why would I know that?

‘You’re religious?’ I ask, wondering what else to ask, embarrassed by the fact that they know more about this damn worm than I do.

They shake their heads, grin sheepishly.

‘No, no; never, really. Not until, well…until Maxine fell ill. Then, you know – well, you sort of look anywhere for answers, don’t you?’

‘And Maxine, your daughter? Was she religious, then?’

Again they shake their heads, smile shamefacedly.

‘She said religion was fascinating,’ Jim chuckles, ‘as long as you didn’t get too caught up in it all.’

‘Like us, when she knew she was suffering from cancer; well, then she started reading various religious tracks.’

I fleetingly look over towards the little girl.

She doesn’t look old enough to have taken a deep interest in religious matters.

‘We found all the notes she’d been making after she died,’ Gill says.

‘She’d got hung up on finding an answer to this thing about this damn worm,’ Jim adds a little bitterly ‘Even the little details, like how its scarlet dye was used for religious items in the tabernacle, or how it was used for cleansing and purification purposes.’

‘She’d left us a letter containing tickets for this show,’ Gill says, ‘and she’d also written that you – Iona – would have the answer.’

 

 

*

Chapter 41

 

‘I’m really, really sorry: I just can’t understand why she would think that!’

Once again, I wonder if I should let this grieving couple know of the presence of the girl.

Why isn’t she helping me, if she arranged for them to meet me here?

‘The tickets we can understand,’ Jim says. ‘She enjoyed it here so much, particularly this garden. But that was all so long ago, Iona; how would she know you’d be here, as she promised?’

It was a long time ago if the garden was still flourishing.

But yes, how did Maxine know I’d be here? Even if it is Maxine’s ghost who’s been following me around, she’d only be capable of that after she’d died: so how could she leave a letter for her parents telling them to seek me out?

The girl is still refusing to offer me any help working all this out.

Gill looks into my eyes apologetically.

‘Forgive me for asking, my dear, but you must be what; sixteen at most?’

I nod nervously; they obviously don’t realise I’m a droid.

I’m flattered; I don’t want to point out there mistake.

‘You wouldn’t have even been born then when we brought Maxine here as a little girl,’ Gill continues sadly. ‘And as far as we know, she’s had no other contact with Neveah until she died earlier this year.’

‘This year?’

I’m so startled, I blurt out the question without even considering that it might be rude, hurtful.

‘Why yes, it’s only a few month ago since Maxine…passed away.’

Gill tries to bravely smile.

My own expression must be one of blank shock.

The girl can’t be Maxine after all.

 

 

*

Chapter 42

 

The girl is gleefully pointing off towards the garden’s entrance once more.

Like all this is so incredibly pleasing to her.

The garden is flowering more than ever. Rapidly, too.

Whoever’s causing it is moving quickly.

Running maybe.

Running towards us.

This time it really is Joel.

 

 

*

 

 

He picks me up, whirls me around in his arms.

‘I’m sorry, so sorry!’ he says almost tearfully. ‘I’ve been a fool – an idiot! Please say you forgive me!’

‘Of course I forgive you!’

I’m relieved to realise that it’s true: I can forgive him.

I glance over towards Gill and Jim who, like all couples caught up in this type of situation, seem both happy for us and a little embarrassed that they’re having to witness our elated reunion.

I feel ashamed too; it doesn’t seem right that Joel and I are so gleefully embracing when they’ve come here seeking answers about their dead daughter.

Apparently sensing my unease, Joel apologetically turns towards the couple.

‘I’m sorry…’ he begins

‘Oh, there’s no need to apologise,’ Gill reassures him with a smile.

I’m sure it’s a similar smile to the girl’s.

‘We’ll be on our way,’ Jim adds, taking Gill’s hand and preparing to walk away.

‘You know, from a distance, as we’d approached, we’d even hoped…’

She can’t finish her sentence, her face creasing in anguish.

‘Your hair,’ Jim explains for her. ‘Styled so much like Maxine’s…’

‘We’ve obviously bothered you for no reason, Iona,’ Gill apologises, resolutely gathering herself together. ‘We’ve just got to accept that Max has gone…’

‘Let’s get away from these awful serpents at least!’ Jim says with a laugh and a theatrical shudder.

‘No, I’m the one who should be sorry,’ I point out ashamedly. ‘I wish I could have been more help.’

As Gill and Jim have continued to walk away from the garden of trees and serpents, I’ve naturally fallen in alongside them, keeping a hold of Joel’s hand, taking him with me.

Jim shrugs resignedly.

‘Don’t berate yourself, my girl,’ he sighs miserably. ‘We’ve looked for answers ourselves, and come up with nothing.’

‘Frankly, even though we’re hardly committed Christians, we found some of Max’s notes a little disturbing: I mean, thankfully we’ve just left those dreadful serpents behind us – and yet, of course, Jesus himself referred to himself as being a serpent!’

‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,’ Jim adds helpfully.

‘I suppose that it could be his way of saying he’s taken man’s sins into himself.’

Gill doesn’t sound convinced by her own explanation, yet grimaces with distaste when Jim offers another one.

‘Max equated the serpent to knowledge, particularly knowledge of self: if we recognise that we’re worm like, then it leads to recognition and knowledge of God.’

‘Jesus also said he was a worm…’

Gill is obviously appalled by my words.

‘A worm? You’re saying Jesus is a worm?’

Wow! That just doesn’t go down well, does it? Even with supposedly non-religious people.

‘Well, not me exactly; Jesus himself more or less said it,’ I point out defensively.

‘Oh, Gill,’ Jim says, reassuringly clasping one of her hands in his, ‘it’s obviously just another referral to his absorption of sin…’

‘But what sort of answer is that, Jim?’ Gill wails morosely. ‘All this is just…just the sort of stuff anyone knows!’

I hang my head ashamedly.

Why did Maxine send these poor people to me for answers?

They obviously know far more about this bloody crimson worm than I’m ever going to know!

 

 

*

 

 

Even the remarkable love so clearly on display between Maxine’s parents can’t make the golden flower bloom.

Everywhere else that they’ve walked is abloom, the most glorious garden you could imagine.

Yet the golden flower remains miserably withered.

‘What does it take to make her flower?’ Joel wonders.

I shrug.

It’s yet another question I’m completely incapable of answering.

Joel turns to me, grins happily. Grips my hand a little tighter.

‘If anyone should know, it’s you,’ he says.

‘Me?’ I laugh unsurely. ‘Why me?’

‘Well, just look at you,’ he says, his brightly glittering eyes taking in everything about me. ‘I mean, when I first saw you, I thought you were beautiful; but now you’re more wonderful than ever!’

I’m both flattered and embarrassed by his compliments.

‘Hah, lucky for you, right, that it turned out I had a mind of my own!’

Joel laughs.

‘Well, yes,’ he says, ‘just because you were beautiful didn’t mean that you would also be beautiful inside…’

‘Yeah, I could’ve been incredibly evil…’

I claw my hands, grimace maliciously.

‘Ah, if I’d thought that, I’d never have switched you on…’

Oops.

I wish Joel hadn’t said that.

I glance Gill and Jim’s way: yes, they’d heard.

They’d understood.

I break away from Joel.

‘I’m sorry I didn’t–’

‘No, no! There’s no need to be sorry, Iona,’ Jim insists, his voice strangely excited.

‘It…it – maybe – begins to make more sense…’

Although Gill says this with all the elation of Jim, she still seems to be struggling to bring all her thoughts together.

‘Max had always said how beautiful – how incredibly lifelike – the new droids were…’

‘That was her job; programming girls like you!’

‘She’d know you were bound for Nevaeh…’

‘So…in your programming, did she leave a hidden message for us?’

 

 

*

Chapter 43

 

‘Could that be the simple meaning of the crimson worm? It’s just some sort of trigger; to help you recall the hidden message?’

Gill is now almost ecstatic in her excitement.

‘But…but I’ve known about this crimson worm for a while now,’ I admit, hating myself for bringing this poor couple back down to earth, ‘and I can’t think of anything I know that could be a message for you!’

I glance over towards the young girl

All she’s doing is smiling!

That’s it!

Just smiling.

She’s not helping at all!

She’s just standing there, looking bizarrely pleased with everything that’s happening.

But nothing’s happening; not really.

For the life of me, I can’t think of any message that I’m supposed to be passing on from the poor, dead Maxine!

 

 

*

 

 

‘What have you done?’

The pained shriek comes from behind us.

We all whirl around.

It’s the Master, but not the Master I’ve become used to seeing.

All his confidence, his arrogant stature, has gone.

His hair is all completely array, like he’s been anguishedly rubbing his hands through it.

He’s looking about himself at the flowering garden as if it’s all easily the most horrendous, even frightening, thing he’s ever seen.

Gill and Jim stare at the weirdly dishevelled Master in bewilderment, unsure what to make of the arrival of this wild man.

Despite his disturbed appearance – or, perhaps, because of it – Joel makes a few conciliatory steps towards him, his arms spreading in a pacifying gesture.

‘Dad, isn’t it wonderful?’ he says, making me wonder if he really has noticed his father’s outrageous appearance, his crazed demeanour. ‘Isn’t the garden just so absolutely beautiful?’

He raises his arms, gives a little, elated spin on his heels, indicating the gorgeous blooms surrounding us.

‘The garden still works!’ he adds joyfully.

‘Works?’ his father repeats incredulously. ‘Beautiful? No, no: it’s dreadful!’

He stares up at the looming bushes as if they’re about to leap down upon him at any moment.

‘We don’t need the Rooms of Pleasure,’ Joel insists, so wrapped up in his own thoughts he’s unaware of the furious glares his father is giving us all. ‘The Gardens of Pleasure will pay for everything!’

‘Garden of lies, you mean,’ his father spits back at him. Even so, his intensely ferocious glower is now directed only at me.

‘Now I know that what I’ve always suspected about this dreadful garden is true,’ he rasps angrily. ‘It never tells the truth!’

 

 

*

Chapter 44

 

‘Don’t you see, you idiot?’ he snarls at Joel, but furiously pointing at me as he continues, ‘I wanted you two to meet here so you’d know the truth about her!’

‘The truth is she loves me!’ Joel protests bitterly. He draws his father’s attention back to the soaring blooms. ‘Look; the garden proves it!’

‘The garden proves nothing, you fool!’ the Master growls, adding with his first hints of delight, ‘The garden’s obviously broken!’

Joel reaches up towards one of the perfect blooms, clutching it gently by its stem, tenderly bringing it down towards us all so that we each catch a whispering of its wondrous fragrance.

‘You call this broken?’

‘Yes, broken!’ the Master declares triumphantly, once again aggressively pointing at me. ‘The garden works – should work! – differently to all Nevaeh’s other experiences. It’s supposedly infallible – reading the vibrations, the fluctuations, of your very soul!’

His finger wags at me accusingly.

‘And as we all know, she has no soul!’

 

 

*

Chapter 45

 

What passes for my heart flutters anxiously.

If he’s right about how things work here – and I’m sure he must be – then he’s also right about the garden being faulty.

(Is it me? Do I have this effect on everything?)

I could easily have been fooled into thinking my love for Joel was having an effect on the blooms when the influence was all coming from him.

‘But the garden–’ Joel continues to protest, if now a little weakly, a touch doubtfully.

‘And what was the garden like before these two arrived?’ the Master demands, regarding Gill and Jim with a puzzled glower as if he’s only just been made aware of their presence.

He’s obviously implying that it is their love, not the love between Joel and me, that has made the garden grow.

‘Like this!’ Joel announces gleefully, seeing at last a weakness in his father’s argument.

He fails to mention, thankfully, how the garden had withered everywhere around us as we’d fought.

The Master laughs richly.

‘That was you’re love for her!’ he sneers. He points angrily at me once more. ‘How can she love you? She’s not even programmed for love!’

‘I know what I saw–’

‘You know nothing,’ the Master growls at Joel, ‘and I can prove it!’

He begins to wave his arms commandingly, ushering Gill and Jim, even Joel, back; making them move away from me.

It’s the old Master, the one who brooks no argument. Who automatically expects everyone to obey his orders without question.

Joel grins at me, a grin that manages to say forgive me, but I know you’ll pass whatever strange test he’s got in mind.

Gill and Jim smile at me in the same way.

I wish I felt as sure as they do that I’ll pass whatever trial I’m put through.

 

 

*

 

 

I glance about me, seeking out a patch of the garden requiring rejuvenation.

He’ll ask me to walk through there, won’t he?

To see if it all springs into bright and glorious bloom.

I’m…not sure it will.

I don’t have any soul, do I?

Before I can decide what I should do, before anyone has a chance to realise what he’s about to do, let alone stop him, the Master charges at a crouch towards me.

He hits me incredibly hard in a flying tackle, one that carries me through the air with him. We fly back toward the withered stems of the once golden flower, landing amongst its carpeting of yellowed petals, its dark tangled roots.

As we tumble through the dried petals and leaves, throwing them up in a storm about us, the Master is already laughing triumphantly.

When we at last come to a halt beneath the bush’s innumerable crooked branches, he quickly spins around, looking back towards an anguished Joel.

Joel, Gill and Jim are already rushing forward to help me.

The master cries out to them all, but particularly to his distraught son.

‘See?’ he screams, drawing everyone’s attention to the withered bush, the dead bloom, with an airy raising and wave of an arm. ‘You call this love?’

I hate myself.

I hate myself for hurting Joel in this way.

What must it be like for him to see that my supposed love for him was nothing but a lie?

I can’t stop the tears from flowing.

I don’t want to.

So it’s through the murky haze of my weeping that I see Joel and the others come to a sudden halt in their rush to help me.

They’re no longer even looking at me.

They’re staring in awe at the bush.

 

 

*

Chapter 46

 

Everywhere about me is darker now.

Shade; I’m lying in a deeply mottled shade.

The once bared, warped branches spreading above me are full of thick, olive leaves.

An exultantly grinning Joel darts towards me, tenderly helping me up while ignoring his dumbfounded father, whom he lets confusedly struggle to his own feet.

Joel jubilantly draws me back towards the still spellbound Gill and Jim, an increasingly bewildered Master wildly loping after us.

The bush isn’t just a deliciously sparkling green once more, the leaves spreading like a billowing, ever-expanding cloud; a large golden bud is also developing in its very centre, growing in size even as we all gaze at it in amazement.

The Master weeps, his eyes red with anguish.

‘No, no! It’s not possible…’

He whirls on Joel, his whole face now red with a blushing fury.

‘How can she love you,’ he demands terrifyingly. ‘How, when your mother – a real, flesh and blood woman – never loved me?”

‘You sent her away!’ Joel furiously snaps back. ‘Why should she love you?’

The ferocity of their argument is lost on Gill and Jim. They’re whole focus is still upon the opening of the bud, golden petals already begin to spring up, to flop languidly to one side like gloriously silken sheets.

The bud is immense, yet the bloom is still growing, still rising and spreading.

‘I didn’t…I didn’t send her away,’ the Master moans dreadfully, as if he were a wounded animal. ‘I loved her. I brought her here, to show her my love…’

As the golden bloom rises and rises up before us, the Master watches its growth with ever increasing fear until, at last, he falls to his knees weeping inconsolably.

Forgive me, Fay! Please forgive me.’

 

 

*

 

 

The base of the bloom spreads out, like a soft bed of golden clouds, rose-like in its beauty. Yet the main part of the towering bloom is slender, curvaceous, more tulip or lily like in its form.

Its curves are curiously feminine: the long legs, the hips of a woman; the narrowing of the waist, the spreading once more of breasts, of shoulders; the falling of reams of golden hair.

Between the separating curtains of hair, smaller petals ripple, taking on the aspect of a beautiful face.

She smiles.

The Master shrieks, clutching his heart.

Fay! No, no!’

His legs crumple, his face contorting in fear and anguish.

He falls to the floor, lying completely still.

 

 

*

Chapter 47

 

Joel dashes towards the still form of his father.

The girl approaches me, reaching for and holding my hand.

She smiles.

‘It’s nearly time,’ she says mysteriously, yet curiously reassuringly.

Gill and Jim are unsure how to react to everything that’s going on. I give them a reassuring smile, and it seems to calm them.

‘It seemed like a heart attack…’ Gill says unsurely.

‘He’s dead,’ Joel confirms, rising up from beside his father’s lifeless body.

He sounds bitter, even sad, that the Master who had treated him so badly has now gone.

‘What have you done?’ he demands of the golden flower angrily. ‘Who are you?’

The woman doesn’t answer. She simply smiles.

The serpentine stem that the bloom sprouts from sways, extends. The woman floats up and away from the bush’s centre, floating serenely towards Joel.

The girl grips my hand a little tighter, her way of telling me he’s not in danger.

Joel doesn’t realise this, of course.

At first he steps back, raises his arms defensively; but then he curiously halts, holds his ground, lowers his arms.

The woman draws closer; smiling.

Smiling like the girl smiles.

She draws closer still towards Joel, petals beneath her golden tresses rolling slighting into the form of silk-draped arms.

Arms that reach out for Joel, that embrace him.

And I’m sure I see tears of water droplets fall from the woman’s eyes.

 

 

*

 

 

Unsurely, Joel lets his own arms embrace the woman.

A conversation is passing between them now, I’m sure. A conversation similar to the ones I have with the girl.

Joel stares down at his father, his expression now one of fury and hate.

‘Dad,’ he says, as if forgetting that his father is now dead, ‘is this true? Is what she saying true?’

‘Yes,’ the Master answers sadly, turning and beginning to rise unsteadily to his feet. ‘Yes, I’m afraid it is true.’

 

 

*

Chapter 48

 

Like me, Gill and Jim gasp in a mingling of surprise and horror.

Joel, however, reacts to his father’s reanimation with nothing more than an angry glower.

No doubt the woman has already explained how this is possible, this resurrection of the dead.

‘You killed my mother!’ Joel growls, pointing accusingly at the ground beneath the golden flower’s spreading bush. ‘And you buried her here?’

‘I loved her!’ his father protests. ‘I brought her here to show her my love for her; but it only showed that she didn’t love me!’

The woman reaches out to tenderly touch Joel’s heart.

He groans, but not in agony. It’s a moan of ecstasy, of relief.

Of love.

I sense a change too.

It’s his heart; it’s alive once more, a heart of spirit, not stone.

‘My heart of stone,’ he says to his father, more calmly and resignedly this time. ‘That was your gift to me, too.’

‘Real hearts are too delicate, don’t you understand? I didn’t want you to suffer as I’d suffered!’

The woman smiles.

‘She forgives you,’ Joel says, speaking for her. ‘Her body was a boundary, preventing her from experiencing greater things–’

‘Trapped here, in this garden?’ the Master gasps in disbelief.

‘No: not trapped. The garden has simply retained a memory here, a sliver of her greater spirit–’

‘This garden had to be closed!’ The Master is shaking now with terror. ‘I always feared it was proof of another life; but what’s that to someone like me, after all I’ve done in this life?’

‘The garden’s memory of you isn’t flattering; it won’t keep you any longer.’

The Master’s legs crumple once more.

His now useless body drops to the ground.

This time, there is no sense of horror on Joel’s face.

 

 

*

 

 

The golden woman turns to me.

She smiles.

Some think that they will see God as if He were standing there and they here. It is not so. God and I, we are one.

Did she talk to me?

I’m not sure.

The girl is tightly holding my hand; did I hear the woman through her?

The woman’s returning now towards the centre of the bush, floating away from Joel, still smiling.

Joel accepts it without demur.

His smile is like hers; benign, joyful.

I even detect a slight trace of that smile when the curves of the bloom are no longer womanly but purely that of a gorgeous golden flower.

Yet just because her body isn’t there, that doesn’t mean she isn’t still here.

A body is merely the worm, setting boundaries to whom we really are; yet it is also this worm who enables us to have knowledge of others, of emotions.

And so we shouldn’t fear its disintegration, when the time to embrace other things has come.

The girl is still holding my hand.

She looks up at me.

She smiles, of course.

‘Yet the ones we leave behind, they suffer,’ the girl says to me with her smile, fleetingly glancing over at Gill and Jim, a hint of sadness, of pity, briefly creasing that smile. ‘Naturally, I’d feared that, even with all my memories, you couldn’t ever be me: but my body was never the real me, for I can shed it, and still be who I really am.’

She’s the garden’s memory of Maxine – of Maxine’s soul – who had been so enthralled when she visited here as a child.

 

 

*

Chapter 49

 

And yet; Maxine hasn’t remained tied to the garden.

She seems, rather, to have had a closer connection to me.

Then do I…do I have all her memories?

I loved it here, in this garden; a garden like no other in its miraculous beauty, it’s incredible purity.

A new Garden of Eden.

Of life.

And yet, of course, when my life was ebbing, I feared I was leaving all earthly beauty behind.

And then I remembered the Garden.

Remembered that our purest self is formed of emotion, not earth.

Yet even I hadn’t dared hope that the garden’s own memory of me would present me with the chance of helping me recall everything I knew.

The girl is no longer holding my hand.

She’s gone.

No; she hasn’t gone, has she?

She’s here.

 

 

*

 

 

I step towards Joel, take his hand.

Kiss him warmly.

Yes, his heart is no longer of stone.

But then, neither is mine.

I step now towards Gill, towards Jim.

I embrace them warmly; and they cry with joy as they embrace and recognise me.

‘Mum, Dad,’ I say unnecessarily, ‘it’s me; it’s Maxine.’

 

 

End

 

 

 

 

If you enjoyed reading this book, you might also enjoy (or you may know someone else who might enjoy) these other books by Jon Jacks.

 

The Caught – The Rules – Chapter One – The Changes – Sleeping Ugly

The Barking Detective Agency – The Healing – The Lost Fairy Tale

A Horse for a Kingdom – Charity – The Most Beautiful Things (Now includes The Last Train)

The Dream Swallowers – Nyx; Granddaughter of the Night – Jonah and the Alligator

Glastonbury Sirens – Dr Jekyll’s Maid – The 500-Year Circus – The Desire: Class of 666

P – The Endless Game – DoriaN A – Wyrd Girl – The Wicker Slippers – Gorgesque

Heartache High (Vol I) – Heartache High: The Primer (Vol II) – Heartache High: The Wakening (Vol III)

Miss Terry Charm, Merry Kris Mouse & The Silver Egg – The Last Angel – Eve of the Serpent

Seecrets – The Cull Dragonsapien – The Boy in White Linen – Porcelain Princess – Freaking Freak

Died Blondes – Queen of all the Knowing World The Truth About Fairies – Lowlife

Elm of False Dreams God of the 4^th^ Sun A Guide for Young Wytches – Lady of the Wasteland

The Wendygo House – Americarnie Trash – An Incomparable Pearl – We Three Queens – Cygnet Czarinas

Memesis – April Queen, May Fool – Sick Teen – Thrice Born

 

 

 

 


Self-Assembled Girl

  • ISBN: 9781370079520
  • Author: Jon Jacks
  • Published: 2016-12-26 15:35:18
  • Words: 31857
Self-Assembled Girl Self-Assembled Girl