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The Earthlings

 

The Eathlings

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E.W. Story

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Brukselka Books

Adelaide

“Between Two Poles Eternal” by E. W. Story. Copyright 1992 Sean Williams. Published here for the first time. All rights reserved.

“The Earthling” by E. W. Story. Copyright 1994 Sean Williams. Published here for the first time. All rights reserved.

“3’47”” by E. W. Story. Copyright 1992 Sean Williams. Published here for the first time. All rights reserved.

“Cold Sleep, Cold Dreams” by E. W. Story. Copyright 1992 Sean Williams. First Published Alien Shores, eds. Peter McNamara and Margaret Winch 1994. All rights reserved.

Original cover artwork adapted from the public domain science fiction pulp comic Space Science Fiction (Artist: Alex Ebel) found on gutenberg.org

Cover by Gabriel Cunnett, Copyright 2016.

This book was produced using Pressbooks.com.

Contents


  • Blurb
  • Between Two Poles Eternal
  • The Earthling
  • 3’47”
  • Cold Sleep, Cold Dreams
  • Did You Enjoy The Earthlings?
  • More By E.W. Story
  • If You Enjoyed This Book…
  • Acknowledgements
  • Bio

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Alien colonists who warp spacetime as easily as lighting a cigarette… Refugees searching for a home in a hostile landscape… A mysterious disease whose source is out of this world… Virtual reality brings out the worst in humanity, and much more.

 

The people who share this planet with us are mind-blowing, sometimes literally.

Between Two Poles Eternal

“Wherever there is time, there is sorrow.”

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

(I look up the word he used in a dictionary when I get home: to “insert”, to “falsify” or to “estimate”, courtesy of the Collins English Database. I am none the wiser. How can a single word—even one with so many syllables—mean to “interrupt” and to “extrapolate” at the same time? Or does it?

I check. It doesn’t.

But still.

I have a mental box into which I put words that, as yet, have revealed no practical application. I open the box and file “interpolate” next to “inspissate”.

Then I ring her, just like he said I should.)

 

#

 

The funny thing is this:

Two hours ago (I think), I didn’t even know him. I had no intention of knowing him. He was just an ageless stranger sitting in Margo’s Auto Donut Shoppe, two tables down from mine. Harsh fluorescent light reflected off the brilliantly blue dayglo tabletops, off the mirrored windows that averted the night from us, off the shadowed greyness in his left eye, and off the cutlery that rested on the mat before me. It was all quite dazzling. He and I, the only customers due to the lateness of the hour, sat immersed in a glittering underwater world of light, made all the more liquid by the tears in my eyes. It felt like a lucid dream, or reality somnolent.

As I waited for my coffee to cool, I watched him with half my mind (the other half fixed on less immediate but more pressing matters—the very matters I had gone there to avoid thinking about). He was a tall man with flaky, brown hair and skin the colour of a sweat-stained saddle. He had one leg propped up on the cushion of the stall’s long chair, with the foot sticking into the aisle, clad in a leather boot. His jeans and jacket looked new, as though he had bought them that very day. I could see creases like grid-marks across the graph of his person.

The word ‘verisimilitude’ popped into my head then promptly disappeared. But it wasn’t curiosity that made me watch him, or boredom, or even loneliness. It might have been no more, at first, than the fact that he was smoking, and the way he went about it.

He raised the cigarette to his lips, moving only his left arm. Not his wrist, nor his mouth, nor even his eyes: just his arm. His elbow functioned as the pivot around which his forearm rotated, bringing one cupped fist upwards with the perfect smoothness of well-oiled machinery. The cigarette, half-expired, nestled between his thumb and index finger like an odorous exhaust-pipe and left a curved wisp of smoke in its wake. Then—at the peak of his forearm’s soundless, graceful swing—the filter reached his mouth, slotted perfectly into place, and he inhaled through it.

As though he had drawn the air directly from my lungs, I was breathless.

Such economy of movement! So perfectly orchestrated! When I had smoked, I had felt as though I was sucking through a fire-hose and belching vapours like some drowned dragon. He, when he exhaled, issued from his nostrils a perfect trickle of vapour, which instantly evaporated.

Like clockwork.

Almost reluctantly, I came to admire him. To respect him, if only for the precise manner in which he smoked. And that made me even more depressed. He looked like someone who, in my situation, would have known what to feel.

Absently I stirred my coffee, then glanced up again. His forearm had reversed its previous movement, and I followed the cigarette downwards through its arc.

It was the same motion—backwards—as before, except that, this time, the cigarette had burned almost as far as the filter.

I wondered if I was seeing correctly. From half-expired to nearly extinguished in as little time as it takes to stir a cup? No-one had that sort of lung-capacity. No-one I had ever known, anyway.

He raised his eyes to look at me, perhaps aware of my sudden interest. I turned away, pretending to be intrigued by the LED ‘Specials’ on the wall.

When next I risked a furtive glance, the cigarette was once again at his lips—and it was almost whole!

I gaped openly, then.

Was he performing some mysterious sleight of hand? The cigarette, in the following moments, seemed to shrink and grow before my very eyes. One moment it was three quarters full, and the next it was almost spent. Then it was freshly-lit, to all appearances resurrected. I watched closely, but could see no evidence of prestidigitation, no matter how surreptitious. A miracle!

He raised it to his lips one last time, winced at the heat of the ember and extinguished the butt in a purple ashtray. Then, rising with a rustle of brown leather, he slid out of his cubicle and walked across the shop to my table.

“You have been watching me?”

I cringed inwardly, cursing my nosiness. “I, uh—that is, it was really none of my business. But that trick with the cigarette, it’s really, well—”

He raised a hand. “Do not be concerned. You are merely fuguing.”

“I’m what?”

“Fuguing,” he repeated, as though that explained everything.

And then, at last, I started to understand.

 

#

 

“My name is Planar Donahoi,” he continued, with an accent so light it could have advertised puff pastry. “May I join you?”

I nodded vaguely, slightly nervous. He took the seat opposite mine and leaned his elbows on the table. Close up his eyes were sallow, waxy; his skin was pock-marked with craterous pores; his mouth, when he opened it to talk, was as dry as a lizard’s.

Close-up, his non-humanity was obvious.

“Should I try a donut, do you think?” he asked, studying the mechanical frontage of my table’s Auto Dispenser.

“Why?” I stammered. “I mean, why not? If you want to, that is. They’re not bad.”

“But do you ‘recommend’ them? Is that the correct idiom?”

I grimaced. “No, I don’t recommend them. Not especially.”

“Oh.” He sighed a long whistle of air through his nostrils, and gestured obscurely with a cigarette that I hadn’t seen him light. “So tell me more about Julia.”

 

#

 

I couldn’t help it. I jumped. For a welcome moment I had forgotten everything that had happened. Now it came crashing back over me, all of it in a ghastly wave.

“J-Julia?”

“Your… how do I put this?… your mate? Your partner? The one who has made you so unhappy.”

“How do you know about her?”

He shrugged, a surprisingly human motion. “We are fuguing. I thought you understood.”

I stared at him dumbly. The realisation still hadn’t hit home. I had heard of the phenomenon, distantly, but had paid neither the symptom nor its cause little heed. Much like fatal air-accidents, they happened to other people.

He smiled sympathetically.

“There is nothing to be afraid of, Paul.”

I jumped again at the mention of my name.

“She left me,” I gasped, fighting for a grip on the situation—and the conversation. “No, she said she wanted to leave me.”

“She… intended?… to leave you?”

“Yes.” I steeled myself for the next question, which surely would be ‘Why?’ I wasn’t sure I could explain, or whether I wanted to try. But what he said was:

“How?”

“I’m sorry?”

“How can she… ? No, I see.”

“What?”

“I am still having trouble adjusting.”

“To?”

He raised both hands, and the cigarette was gone. “Words cannot express my sympathy.”

A split-second later, the cigarette was back, and I was filled with a sudden urge to wrench it from his grasp.

 

#

 

“Have I offended you?” he asked, studying my face.

I sank back into the chair, deflated. Was my irrationality that obvious? If so, I was surely going mad. I had lapsed into a bizarre mental state. A fugue, yes; the word was appropriate.

Supposing I did manage to capture the cigarette, what would I do with it? Dash it to the floor, or smoke it myself?

“No. I’m just under stress,” I said. “Not thinking straight.”

“Ah.” He nodded significantly. “With the latter, I can sympathise. For me, it is only natural.”

“It’s just that Julia…” I rubbed a hand across my eyes. “We… We were engaged, you see, and… and I thought she was unfaithful, you know? I wouldn’t have minded if she’d told me about it—I don’t think so, anyway, or maybe I would have—but the point is, she didn’t give me a chance, and that’s what hurt. She didn’t even… And then I… She… I’m sorry.”

My sorrow—and his sudden frown—brought me to a halt in mid-sentence, grief rising like a tide at the whim of some dark moon. I couldn’t believe that I was confiding in a complete stranger. I felt profoundly embarrassed that I had overstepped the mark of decency. But I needed to tell someone. Anyone. And he just happened to be there. It didn’t that he was an alien.

All he said, however, was:

“Who is Julia?”

“My girlfriend, remember? You asked me about her.”

“It is quite possible that I did, from your frame of reference.” His smile was apologetic. “I will be sure to, later.”

This still wasn’t making any sense, and I despaired for the last shreds of my sanity. “I don’t understand!”

“It’s really quite simple… Forgive me, what was your name?”

“Paul Stanford.” That at least I knew for certain. Exactly why he’d asked for it, when he’d already used it in conversation, I refused to wonder.

“Well, Paul, I am not of your race.”

“I know.” Grateful for the distraction, I straightened in my seat. “You’re a chronoisseur.”

“Yes, and I can only assume that I am the first member of my species that you have met.”

“That’s right.” In the six months since the interstellar landing craft had approached and contacted Earth, I had seen pictures and read the odd article in the paper, but the Visitation—as the news had dubbed it—had never impinged upon me in any concrete way. Life went on afterwards pretty much as it had before. And life was Julia, as far as I was concerned. Or had been.

“You look less alien than I thought you would,” I confessed, feeling like a complete idiot. He must have heard that observation a hundred times, along the lines of actors and their heights.

“As a sociologist, I have been modified in order to blend into my surroundings,” he explained. “We attempt to avoid undue attention whenever possible. Because of our nature, this is not always possible, yet we must try. If our two races are to work effectively together, we must learn to coexist. The difficulties can be overcome.”

I nodded, raising the coffee to my mouth and finding the brew to be pleasantly drinkable, temperature-wise. Its bitterness was brutal, tasting like reality ought to. It had all the clarity that our conversation thus far lacked.

“What difficulties?” I encouraged.

“My species has spent many generations between the stars,” he continued. “We have adapted to the interstellar environment quite perfectly, and are able to cross the gulfs of space without resorting to the crude mechanisms of extended sleep as imagined by your historic writers.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. To put it simply, we have abandoned the concept of linear time.”

“I see.”

“Do you?”

I shook my head, and he gave me a cigarette.

 

#

 

I hadn’t smoked for… let’s see… four years, three months, and two days. But who was counting? In these near-prohibition days, it’s frowned upon. I held the slender tube between my shaking fingers and tried not to think about it. Without a lighter of my own, there was no way I could ignite it—and Planar Donahoi hadn’t offered to do it for me. I wasn’t sure I wanted him to. Just holding it was bad enough.

“I must confess,” he said, changing the subject again, “to a certain difficulty with the concept of Julia’s ‘intent’. It is quite alien to me, almost a sophisticated deceit. Among my kind, no relationship is permanent, for time itself conspires against every would-be bond. We are aware that it will end before it even begins.”

“I know what you mean,” I said, “I think. That sounds like something Julia herself might have said. She was always going on about the ‘inherent temporality of any human emotion.’ But it wasn’t like that with her and me. I mean, we loved each other—”

“As I have loved, love, and will love everyone with whom I have, am, or will have mated.”

I ignored the grammar with an effort. “But haven’t your mates ever cheated on you?”

“Some of them, yes. It is statistically unlikely that none of them would have or will. But not all. And I myself have betrayed another’s trust, so there is a balance of sorts. It is only right that this should be so.”

“But how can it be right to betray the one you love? Or to tell someone you love them when actually you don’t, and then betray them anyway?”

He looked quizzical. “That depends entirely on your definition of love.”

“Love? It’s a permanent, stable, constant affection between two people bound by a sense of trust.” I remembered my jealousy, my own lack of trust, and was appalled by it in retrospect. My words sounded empty, even to me. “Isn’t it?”

“Perhaps. It always amazes me how every intelligent race can disagree with others over even the most basic concepts.”

“They do?”

He sighed, seemed suddenly to notice the cigarette that dangled forgotten from my numbed fingers, and lit it with the business end of his own.

I drew on the cigarette, feeling the shock of nicotine at the back of my throat and perversely loving it. If killing myself was my unconscious intent, then at least I would enjoy the process, while it lasted.

It was better by far than believing that what he said could possibly be true.

 

#

 

“Thanks,” I said, not sure I meant it.

He smiled. “I suggest that we attempt to measure each other’s relative temporal state by observing the decay of our cigarettes. I have found this method useful.”

He raised his half-consumed smoke to his mouth, and I remembered his earlier remark regarding ‘linear time.’ I belatedly realised that my first impression—of clockwork—was not so far from the truth.

“You mean…” I clutched at the possibility like a man at a life-raft. “You mean you smoke in order to keep track of time?”

“Almost. Our world-views—yours and mine—do not marry well. I, on my own or in the company of my own species, see all time as one, our threads woven together, overlapping in a glorious tapestry, whereas you see time as… as a road, stretching ahead of and behind you. A progression from the pole of the past to the pole of the future. Is that correct?” I nodded. “So together we become somewhat tangled; our combined time-line is neither linear nor concurrent. Hence, we fugue.”

It dawned. “I think I’m beginning to understand, now.”

“Are you? Good.”

“Our realities are trying to mesh?”

“Yes. I am trying to pull you into mine.”

“And I’m trying to pull you into mine?”

“Yes. But the equilibrium is only precariously stable. By smoking, we can attempt to retain a sense perspective.”

I shook my head. “This is crazy.”

“But stimulating nonetheless.” He smiled encouragingly. “Go on. I do so enjoy learning about people.”

I tried desperately to remember the tail-end of our previous (or imminent) conversation, but failed. I was lost.

“You are telling me about Julia,” he prompted, “and love.”

“I was?”

“And I am going to ask you whether you have asked her whether she is in fact, as you put it, ‘unfaithful’.”

“Oh.” I was ashamed to realise that my attention had been momentarily distracted. The memory, when it returned, came like a slap in the face.

I thought about what he had asked, and decided that I had not, indeed, asked her. A few sly repartees, the odd cutting remark, an occasional bitter rebuke—but no actual, up-front accusation that she could deny. Just enough—perhaps too much—to make my jealousy obvious. Enough to hurt.

Her final words to me were burned into my mind, as fresh from memory as they had been the day I first heard them: “You drive me crazy, Paul. I don’t think I can take it any longer.”

And remembering them, I was ashamed, horribly ashamed.

“No,” I said, choking. “I guess I didn’t.”

“I think you will, now. Don’t you?”

I squirmed guiltily in my seat. “Well, I would, but—”

“Without doing so, how can you judge your own actions?”

“I don’t know.” Would knowledge of the past allow me to change the future? Or vice versa? Or the present? Although my voice was painfully calm, I felt as though I was verging on the breakdown I had side-stepped earlier. “But I don’t think it’d help.”

“Perhaps not, but at least you would know—”

“But—”

“Better to be certain than to wonder, surely?”

“Yes, but there’s something I haven’t told you.”

“Oh?”

The words bottle-necked in my throat, built up pressure, then blurted out uncontrollably:

“She’s dead. She had a car accident last night.”

He blinked, and seemed to consider this announcement with great sobriety. When he finally spoke, it came as something of a shock to hear him say:

“Then perhaps I will pass on the donut, if you do not recommend it.”

I choked back a hysterical laugh. What else could I do? It was either that, or scream.

 

#

 

With a flash of flame, he lit his cigarette, then, an instant later, crushed it into the ashtray. Mine followed. The butts crouched side by side like headless beetles, silently reproachful. My hand was shaking and I felt sick.

When our time together ended, it did so so abruptly that I was startled out of my grief.

“I have enjoyed our conversation, Paul.”

“Already?”

He frowned in puzzlement as he grappled with the alien concept. “If you say so.”

We shook hands across the table. His felt more rigid and dry than I had expected, almost like chalk; mine was clammy. I had been touched by his alien-ness, now, physically as well.

“Among my people,” he said, “we do not say goodbye, for, once we have met, we remain always together. In the embrace of non-linear time, families are never separated, friends never part, and love never dies. It is the way with us.”

He adjusted his jacket, and I glanced outside. It was raining again.

“She’s still dead,” I said, almost to myself, and he did not disagree.

When I turned back, he was staring at me.

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” he said, “but I am merely curious. I am hoping that we might be able to communicate, at least for a little while.”

A stray line from another moment. I ignored it, and him. And another:

“If all things are mingled, then free will becomes free choice. By expanding our realities, we become free to choose.”

This one I could not ignore, but he stood before I could question him about it. With the light behind him, he looked more alien than before. I stared up at his shadowed face, trying to fathom the depths of his being. He had said that he was a sociologist, but what was he doing sitting in Margo’s? Was he waiting for me? Had he known all his life that he and I would meet?

Would he ever die?

. . . always together

“Between birth and death,” he said, as though reading my mind, “all we can do is interpolate.”

Then he was gone, leaving me alone with my new thoughts.

 

#

 

(And I try to ring her, just like he said I would, thinking:

Interpolate: to insert, to falsify, or to estimate? How keen is his grasp of our language? Did he mean what he said about free choice, or was that just a poetic turn of phrase… ?

If all time is mingled, then he and I must still be together, in the fluorescent den of Margo’s Auto Donut Shoppe. We will always be, and will always have been. The moment stretches to the very ends of time, eternally beyond the grasp of limited, linear humankind.

But not beyond his. While the things that we said and did in that moment may never change, at least he will be there with me. He and I remain connected by this fragile, tenuous link, forever.

Part of me stretches beyond time, now. It always has. It always will.

Expanding my reality.

And as the phone rings, I close my eyes and try not to hope that she will answer.)

The Earthling

[_His panic slowly subsides; the death-memories are strong, tugging him away from himself and his present situation. Almost a day passes before he realises that the woman and her male companion mean no harm. _]

“My name is Teli i-Tomeil,” she says, speaking slowly so he can understand her. Her eyes are like crystals, shining with excitement. “You’re just about the last thing we expected to find out here.”

“But there’s nothing out here anyway,” he says. “What made you look in the first place?”

The woman named Teli and her companion, Lude Jasso, exchange glances, and do not reply immediately.

 

#

 

The humans arrived yesterday morning. I watched them, unseen, through the tall grass as they set up camp. There were twenty of them—tall and short, fat and thin, dark and pale, furred and bare-skinned—each unique in his way. Or her way. I must admit that I have trouble telling their sexes apart. I know they have two like us because Gendii told me so, but he neglected to mention how to differentiate between them. Perhaps he thought, or hoped, I would never need to. Now that they are here, though, my dread has turned to curiosity. They are so strange-looking, and their sounds are intriguing. For these reasons alone I am reluctant to leave their vicinity. I am hypnotised by their alien-ness.

And the camp they brought with them! Five unlikely-looking vehicles contained all manner of shelters and provisions, much of which I am unable to comprehend. Even now, a day later, they are still setting things up, putting things together. Maybe, I think, they are building a city here in the wetlands. A city of towers and glass, like those in the stories Liutl used to tell me when I was young. A city of wonders, full of other humans.

I wonder if they will have room for me in their city, and decide that they probably won’t. I wish Liutl and Gendii were here to tell me what to do. Should I run? Should I try to scare them away? Or should I just wait?

I don’t know. I am alone here, and I miss my parents. It seems strange—unnatural—to have company in the wetlands. But my world has broadened just that little bit in the last day by seeing the humans at work. I decide to wait a little longer. Perhaps, with time, I will come to know what to do.

 

#

 

I saw my first human at the age of ten. I was terrified, for I assumed it to be a dangerous animal. An animal that stood on its hind legs with well-developed hands; an animal that used tools and covered itself with clothes; an animal that employed cunning instead of brute strength to survive. And an animal with so much confidence in its abilities that it hunted the dreaded golochoi, as even we rarely did.

Gendii and I happened across it one afternoon, late in the dry season, wading through the shallows of a lagoon within a day’s walk of the Shell. It was setting bait. Chunks of bloody meat, shocking in their redness, splashed into the water while two golochoi watched with unblinking interest from the opposite shore. The moment the giant lizards started to move, the human backed carefully out of the water and took position on the shore.

Gendii and I moved closer. The human didn’t appear to notice us. Gendii’s tread was as light as his face was grim. When I opened my mouth to ask a question, he angrily shushed me silent. I realised then that he too was afraid, and his fear awoke that which I had successfully quashed.

Closer we circled, as did the golochoi. Finally, one of the giant lizards snapped at a hunk of meat with its massive jaws, trying to kill what was already dead by thrashing it to and fro in the water. When its companion approached too close, it snapped angrily, gathered another chunk into its powerful jaws, then backed away with the meat in its mouth. The second paddled forward to scavenge, to seek the scraps that the first had left behind.

It was then that the human moved.

Gendii froze in mid-step as the alien raised a thin stick to its shoulder and pointed it at the golochoi. There was a loud explosion, and the second lizard twitched violently. A hole opened between its eyes, and more blood joined the already dark water. The human grunted in satisfaction, its voice a deep, guttural monotone, and put down the stick.

Raising a metal hook on the end of another pole, the human dragged the second golochoi to the bank and rolled it out of the water. The lizard didn’t move. Only then did I truly comprehend what had happened.

“It killed it,” I whispered to Gendii, “without touching it!”

“Yes, Däid.” My father’s strong fingers dug into my dorsal ridge. “Humans are dangerous. Do not ever approach them, or let them come near.”

I nodded, not asking why. The gravity in Gendii’s words convinced me more than the words themselves.

“Wait here,” he said, and slid off into the undergrowth.

I lost sight of him for a few minutes. When he reappeared, he was half-hidden behind a large-boled diudi near the human. The strange alien was concentrating on skinning the golochoi carcass. It didn’t look up as Gendii stepped closer with his knife held in one hand. Only when my father raised the blade to strike did the human notice anything, and by then it was too late.

It took only moments to dispatch the alien and to throw its body into the lagoon, where the first golochoi gave chase, still hungry.

 

#

 

Five years later, when Gendii was gored by an antilde, I remembered that moment. Older, but having no more experience with the death of my kind, I asked Liutl why people die.

“Because they do,” she replied sadly. Her grief was as strong as mine, but she knew somehow to control it. This, as well as the mystery of his passing, puzzled me.

“But why?” I persisted.

“Just like animals,” she explained, “we become sick or grow old. If neither process is stopped in time, we die. Or we may be killed by someone else out of anger, or jealousy, or fear. Sometimes even love can kill. And grief.” She held me tight in the firelight, and I could tell that she was thinking of Gendii’s body, buried an afternoon’s walk behind us. “There are so many ways to die, Däid, and few of them are just.”

“Gendii told me I should only kill to eat,” I said, trying to understand by remembering everything I had ever been told about the subject. “But I watched him, once, kill a human and throw away its body. Why did he do that?”

Liutl’s eyes were like stars as she stared at me. “He did? When?”

I told her about the golochoi and the killing-stick. “He said not to tell you because you’d only worry.”

“He was right. I would have.” She smiled darkly, then added: “You are our only child, and you were in danger. If the humans were so close…” She shook her head. “That explains why we moved so much that year.”

“But why was I in danger?” I remembered the human vividly: although taller, it had looked less strong than any of the three of us. Only the surprising ease with which it had despatched the golochoi still unnerved me. Otherwise I was convinced that I could match it.

“Because you were,” said Liutl firmly. “Maybe I’ll explain it to you later, when you’re older. For now, remember two things. The first is that you should stay away from the humans at all times. Don’t let them see you, or smell you, or know that you have passed by. They are more dangerous than anything you have experienced in your life. Even more dangerous than the antilde.”

I nodded gravely, remembering the brown blood on the horns of the enormous beast that had killed Gendii.

“The last thing you must remember is about your father,” Liutl said. “He killed for love. That is all you. He killed for the love of you.”

I absorbed this in silence for some time, unmoving. And out of the silence came the thought that bothered me most. With Gendii dead, after all, the population of my world had been suddenly reduced by a third.

I began to consider, for the first time, the possibility that I might one day be alone.

 

#

 

The warnings from my parents to stay away from humans never faded, although only twice since have I come across the aliens again. The first time, I managed to avoid being seen, and ran back to camp where Liutl comforted me as she would a child. The second time I was on my own, and the human found me, not the other way around. I was forced to kill it, as my father had—although not out of love, this time, but fear.

Why are they so dangerous? I wonder this now, while I watch the activity in the alien camp. The question is as potent now as it was the last time, when I broke the thin neck of the human who stumbled across me. They don’t look especially dangerous, with their soft skin, moist eyes and spindly limbs. They move sluggishly, clumsily balanced on their odd-jointed legs. They look more like a joke of the creator than a deadly enemy.

But there are many of them, I remind myself. And they are obviously intelligent. I must be cautious if I am to keep watching.

I am both. For a while, at least.

Night falls. The humans sleep. I retire in the hollow trunk of a long-dead geldik and dream uneasy dreams. When I awake, five of the humans have gone elsewhere. Nothing much happens for the rest of the day, until the five return, crashing through the undergrowth from the general direction of the Shell…

Just like my parents did when I was young, I follow a migratory path through the wetlands, a wide-spanning, ever-changing path through the grass and trees that has, at its heart, only one unchanging point. Once every year, at a time roughly corresponding to the change of seasons from dry to wet, I return here, to the Shell—to touch its cold, glassy surface, to marvel at its smoothness and to stand under its broken arch. Its origin is unknown to me, but the sense of awe I feel when I am inside it is very real. The Shell is the only part of my life that is constant.

And now the humans have found it, or seem to have. Certainly their camp buzzes with alien excitement when the five return. One of them speaks into a strange device connected to an upraised dish. More human voices reply from within it—harsh voices that are simultaneously faint and piercing. The conversation continues for some time, until I am startled from boredom by words that I can understand.

Liona Nuit,” says the human voice from the box. Then again. The words, although oddly accented, are almost shockingly familiar.

They are words in my language—the language of Liutl and Gendii and Däid.

Only once in my whole life have I heard these particular words before.

I am so startled that I don’t notice immediately that three of the humans are heading my way. Terrified, I flee into the undergrowth to hide. The aliens, clumsy and unskilled in the wetlands as they are, pass directly underneath my tree and do not find me. Perhaps they didn’t even see me at all.

Still, I am shaken. There are so many of them, and only one of me. I am unused to such crowds. For Gendii and Liutl’s sake, I remind myself to be more careful.

 

#

 

“What do you intend to do with me?”

She smiles at him and pats his hand. “Now that we know you exist.” she says, “we’ll take you home.”

“But this is my home,” he tells her. “I was born here, I have lived here all my life, and I want to die here. It is my world.”

“It is not your world,” Lude, her male companion, insists. “It belongs to another race.”

“Then I am one of them. I am not of your kind. Go away and leave me in peace.”

 

#

 

I was hatched, Liutl told me, in a cave at the base of an ancient, red escarpment overlooking the edge of the wetlands. The wide continent we inhabited, I later learned, was eight parts desert to the south and two parts sub-tropical wetlands to the north. Liutl and Gendii had been wandering through the north for two years before deciding to conceive. The way Liutl spoke of it suggested that the decision had not been an easy one. On the one hand, they were lonely, but on the other, there would be no other children to accompany me in my journey through life. That I was to be an only child, if I was to be at all, they had quickly agreed. Had I a sister, the temptation to inbreed might have been too strong.

Exactly what inbreeding consisted of, I was kept forever ignorant, as I was about the relationship between my parents and the world. I grew up believing it natural for us to be alone on this vast continent. Alone but for the plants and the animals—and, later, the humans.

My childhood was spent learning what to eat and how to prepare it. The wetlands are prosperous, but much of its bounty is either unnourishing or outright poisonous. Both red and white meat has to be boiled for a time before it is safe to eat. Yellow fruits must be avoided at all costs. The charred flesh of cuit is not only tasty, but rich in vitamins. All water is safe, even that which is stagnant and has turned green.

At night, when the last scraps of food had been eaten and the fire was allowed to burn down, my parents would tell me stories about people like us. Even now, I have trouble telling fact from fancy. Glistening cities, powerful machines, alien races, the stars themselves—my dreams were full of wonders. And people. Although it had always been the three of us here, and the three of us only, Liutl’s stories were inhabited by thousands or more—a multitude of faces and voices I could not begin to imagine.

As I grew older, and realised that these stories were neither entirely true nor entirely false, I began to wonder what my relationship was with the worlds I knew, both real and fabricated. Was I the child of exiles, of escaped convicts, of refugees from injustice, or of plain old hermits? Or were we the last survivors of a once-mighty race, the rest having been killed by humans?

Every day, it seemed, I invented a new theory—and every day, without fail, my father proved to me the fruitlessness of imagining that which I could never know.

“Look around you, Däid,” he would say, and raise an arm to encompass the wetlands—by inference the world, for I had no knowledge of anywhere else. “This is where we are. This is our life. No matter where we came from, or where we are going, all that matters is the now. The here. This is all we have, and can ever hope to have.”

“But what about the cities?” I would protest. “The angels, the stars like fire—?”

“They are gone, all gone, into the past. Only now remains. If the future holds cities for any of us, I cannot see them. Not anymore.”

“What does it hold, then?” I asked once, when his evasive answers wore at my patience enough to make me blunt.

“It holds you, Däid.” My father took my hand and held it in his. “That is all you can be certain of. When there is nothing left to anticipate, when all you have left is the past, you will know that you are dead. If there is one truth in this world, that is it.”

I shook my head, failing to understand, and he smiled at my confusion.

“Another thing you need to know about the now,” he added, leading me by the hand through the knee-high grass, “is that you have to feed it. There’ll be plenty of time for thinking once our bellies are full.”

 

#

 

He never did find the time to explain, for he died shortly thereafter. And when I turned twenty-five, ten years after Gendii’s passing, Liutl my mother also died. This time, though, I was prepared. She warned me days in advance of her decision. All I had to do was be with her, and wait.

During that time of preparatory mourning, we talked as we never had before.

“Do you remember when we were young… ?” she would begin, and I would nod at whatever she said—for, indeed, I did remember. Even as her skin greyed and withered, and her eyes lost their shine and her breath became little more than a whistle deep down in her chest, even as she died in my arms, she never once lost her grip on the life she had lived. I understood that she was remembering it all for herself, that she was gathering it all around her. That death, for her, would be bearable only if she had her memories to take with her.

“Do you remember when you were young,” she said, “how you used to pester us to tell you why we were always alone?”

I nodded. “Yes. And you never told me.”

“No.” She shivered and rolled into a more comfortable position. “No, we never did, and it used to make you so angry. Sometimes, he—I wanted to tell you the truth, but Gendii would always have his way. ‘What difference does it make?’ he’d say. ‘Why make him long for that which he can never have?’”

“Why indeed,” I said, not having the heart to tell her that I’d longed for it anyway, with all my heart.

Perhaps she sensed that longing in me, for she touched my face lightly, and her eyes were sad. “I love you Däid,” she said, “but we made the wrong decision. You should never have been born.”

Her words cut me deeply, and for a moment neither of us spoke. I imagined that I had failed her somehow, that I wasn’t sufficient company to keep her interested in life, that she’d rather have died with Gendii, ten long years ago. I lowered my eyes to hide the involuntary blinking of my clear-lids, and turned away.

When she spoke again, her voice was the strongest it had been for two days. And again, it was as though she had read my mind.

“Without you, I would have died years ago. Your father, too. We were so lonely here. We needed a child to keep us alive, to give us a reason to exist. Now, you no longer need me, and I no longer need life. It is better that we should part this way, don’t you think?”

“No,” I said, hating the way my voice cracked. “I still need you. Who will I have to keep me going?”

“The world,” she said. “All the world.”

“Isn’t that enough for you, too? What is the world if I have no-one to share it with?”

“All yours.” She smiled. “Don’t you see? Don’t you even suspect why I am dying?”

“No, mother. I don’t understand anything. First you tell me that I should never have been born, then you say that without me you would have died of loneliness. That doesn’t make any sense! You had Gendii, didn’t you? Wasn’t he enough? And you have me, now. What’s wrong with me?”

Liutl stroked my face with one hand, little more at this late stage of apoptosis than a withered claw. “Däid, I love you more than I have ever loved anything. More than Gendii, your father. To tell the truth, we never even liked each other much before we came here. Being parents and constant companions was a circumstance forced onto us, not chosen. It was either that, or die.”

“Why?” I howled, battling confusion and grief battling. “Why did it have to be like this?”

Then and only then did she utter the words that I was to hear so many years later from the humans’ talking box. And when she whispered them into the silence following my outburst, a chill went down my spine—as though I had been waiting my whole life to hear them. As though they were the key that would turn and make everything sense.

Liona Nuit,” she began, in a voice so soft that I could hardly hear her. I leaned closer, but she didn’t continue. She stopped herself with a sudden shake of her head. “No. I swore I would never tell you, that you would be given a chance to die without knowing. I can’t let you suffer through no fault of your own.”

I frowned. “But—”

No, Däid. It’s painful enough without your curiosity opening the old wounds.” She closed her eyes and settled back into my arms. “Let’s sleep. Maybe tomorrow I’ll die and then you can forget about it.”

But she didn’t. Two days and nights passed before I buried her dry and shrivelled body next to Gendii’s. They had always been together, from the moment of my birth. It seemed a shame to bring that tradition to an end for something so trivial—yet so emotionally overwhelming—as death.

And I never forgot.

 

#

 

Today, I followed a group of ten humans when they left the camp. Sure enough, the path they took through the undergrowth led directly to the Shell. The aliens climbed around and through it, touched it with their strange, metal tools and made excited noises. One of them spoke into a smaller version of the talking box while the others stood around it, listening. When the one-sided conversation (I couldn’t hear the replies) with the box had finished, they shook hands and bared their teeth as though something important had happened.

If so, I must have missed it, or misunderstood it. The latter, I am forced to admit, seems most likely.

My world is broad and sparsely populated. First there were Gendii, Liutl and me. When Gendii died, that left only me and Liutl. And lastly there was just me. In all my life (before the day before yesterday) I only ever saw three humans, and each of them was alone, too. Loneliness seemed natural to me, never having known an alternative.

Yet these humans travel in a group, and none of them possess children.

Do they even have children? I suppose they must. There are so many of them; they have to come from somewhere. I would like to see one of their hatchlings, one day. Maybe then, by watching it grow, I can learn to understand them.

Morning becomes afternoon, and the group of ten remain at the Shell. I begin to become restless at their persistent invasion of my territory. Don’t they feel what I feel when I stand within it? Or do their alien senses register something else entirely, something I can never hope to share?

Shortly before sunset, a new vehicle arrives, crashing through the undergrowth like a herd of antilde. Two new humans I haven’t seen before step from it. They shake hands with the others and exchange more words I cannot understand, then they move around the back of the vehicle and unseal the doors.

There is a hiss. The doors open. In the descending gloom I can hardly believe my eyes.

There, stepping down from the vehicle to stand with the humans, are two of my kind.

My thoughts are furious. Where did they come from? What are they doing here? Don’t they know that humans are dangerous, and should be avoided at all times?

The two, a male and a female, study the Shell for a long time, measuring its size and thickness, and the angle of its curvature. In appearance, they are about the same size as my parents, but they are dressed in the fashion of the humans; where I employ cured leathers and vegetable fibre to cover my feet and limbs, they have odd-looking materials and coloured string. Their resources are clearly greater than mine.

Yet they seem disappointed by that which they find in the Shell. They talk to each other in what might be my language, although I can’t understand what they are saying. One of them, the woman, translates their conversation into human, and the humans chatter among themselves. The words Liutl told me—Liona Nuit—flit between them like invisible birds.

Where did they come from? Are they captives of the humans? Should I try to rescue to them?

Eventually, when the stars have turned halfway across the sky, they return to the vehicle and sleep. I am tired, too, exhausted by so much uncertainty. The humans seem indefatigable.

I sleep in the branches of a low-hanging tree and dream of my parents: I chase two antilde across the surface of a lagoon, accompanied by the screeching of birds. Only at the last moment, as I raise my knife, do I realise that they are actually Liutl and Gendii, using antilde skins for camouflage. When I open my mouth to demand an explanation, they gesture urgently that I should flee. I become angry, and they desperate. I feel as though I have been betrayed—although, finally, I decide to obey them.

At that moment, the lagoon erupts beneath my feet and a golochoi’s gaping mouth opens to engulf me. The giant lizard has human eyes.

When I awake from the dream, the sun has risen. One of the aliens is watching me wide-eyed from the ground below. By its side stands the female of my species. Too late, I leap from the tree and try to run. A burly human crashes into me, wraps its spindly arms around my chest. No matter how I struggle, I am unable to free myself.

And as I fail, I feel my sense of self—of the now—slip away.

 

#

 

“We cannot leave you here.” Teli looks sad, and a little bemused. “You are patently not human. Your world—and ours—lies many light-years away.”

“No. It is here, right under my feet. Why do you tell me otherwise?”

[_“Because you weren’t meant to be here.” _]

_They call up pictures on a peculiar machine to give their words credence. _

“Forty-five of our years ago,” Lude explains, “the _]Liona Nuit [_came to this planet to make contact and to trade, but emerged from hyperspace damaged before it could do either. After broadcasting a plea for help, it crashed in a Nature Reserve near the northern coast of this continent, where no-one lived to see it fall. We came in the _]Muneil Atii [_as soon as we could, but arrived too late. The wreckage we detected from orbit with the help of the humans is cold; only the ceramic hull has survived. Where we hoped to find a small but thriving group of survivors, there are only the exoskeletons of those long-dead.”

“Your parents,” Teli says, picking up the thread of the story with ease, “Liutl i-Volei and Gendii Gienne, security guard and ship biologist, must have been the only survivors. They were stranded here, alone but for each other, with the barest minimum of supplies and very little to live for. That’s why they needed a child, and why your mother chose to die in the end. All of our kind have a highly-developed sense of territory; after thirty years of wandering, hiding from the humans and waiting for rescue, she finally outlived her hope. The memory of her birthplace still called across the gulf between stars. After that long it seemed there was no chance of ever returning.”

“This could never be her world, Däid.” Lude leans close to catch his eye and hold it. “And neither is it yours.”

He stares at them mutely for a long moment. The tidal flood of memories almost drowns him, pulling him down into the depths of his mind. He finds it hard to concentrate.

_He remembers Gendii and Liutl, and his childhood. _

He remembers the golochoi and the antilde—whose names, Teli has told him, come from those of other, similar beasts on her home planet—and the many other animals that have been his companions through the long years.

He remembers the day, seventeen years earlier, when their big metal pot broke, and Liutl cried. When he offered to make her another one, she tried to explain that the pot was irreplaceable. All the best intentions in the world couldn’t make another.

_He remembers wondering how they had come to have the pot in the first place, if that was so. _

[Now, he realises. It came from _]Liona Nuit[, from the Shell. As Gendii and Liutl themselves did._]

But not him.

 

#

 

“If the world does not belong to the people who live upon it,” he says eventually to Teli and Lude, “then it must be the other way around. Mustn’t it?”

 

#

 

The self returns.

I sneak out of camp before dawn the next day and head out into the wetlands on my own, to think. In all my wanderings, through all of my life, I have never before found another of my kind. Now I have, and they want to take me away. Given a choice, I would rather stay here alone. I may dream of cities and things I thought I’d never have—but that is preferable to dreaming of a home which I had, then lost.

The sun rises steadily over the stirring wetlands. I know that I should take this opportunity to escape while I have it. It may never come again.

But the death-memories have eased their terrible grip, and I am able to think clearly again. My curiosity is still strong, as is the knowledge of what my parents would have chosen—which path of the many offered by the now.

Perhaps I should travel on the great starship [_Muneil Atii _]to the planet of my parent’s birth. Although such a journey is inconceivable to me, it is something I must consider. The voyage takes fifteen years each way, according to Teli, or three months (I don’t understand which); either way, time is no great sacrifice to complete the journey my parents failed to finish.

And if something should go wrong, some disaster or distraction that I cannot anticipate, and I should die on that distant world, then that would be fitting too. After all, Gendii and Liutl died here, on the planet of my birth, whose lineage I claim. All I wish is that my body should be returned to rest with theirs, to complete the circle. That way, I know, I will be able to rest in peace, ensconced with my memories.

When I have run out of possibilities, when the future holds nothing I have never seen before, the wetlands will be waiting. I will always have my home to return to. A home I now have a name for.

A home called Earth.

3’47”

tick

The cinema was nearly full, which was surprising given the time of night.

Sally-Anne Edwards stood in her niche near the steps at the rear and clutched her torch in one sweaty hand. Every time the screen flashed and the field of heads rippled in response, her rigid smile slipped a notch. She had seen the film fifteen times in six days, and it had lost any capacity to surprise her, if it had ever possessed such a thing at all. Due to the film’s popularity, she expected to see it a further fifty to sixty times in the coming weeks, and that fact galled her almost as much as the audience’s obvious enjoyment.

Like sheep, mused Sally-Anne. Herded by Pavlov’s fucking dogs.

Thoughts of her biochemistry assignment and her date with James later in the week were all that kept her sane as she waited impatiently for the night’s last session to close. Dear, sexy James. If she put in a few extra hours on the books, they might be able to—

tick

David Jensen pulled into the reserved park, scooped his coat and briefcase off the passenger seat and swung out of the car. Every movement was a calculated amalgam of economy and sophistication. Even the way he clicked the remote security on his BMW radiated business class.

Damn, it’s hot.

He checked his reflection in the elevator mirror during the long ride up to the fifty-eighth floor. The meeting with Gary Connell wasn’t until ten, so he would have time to talk to Brian about the accounts before then. Lunch with Marianne at one, to sort out the business in Singapore. Freddy Chong would be in at six, if he was over that new bug going around. That left him half of the afternoon to prepare the report for the CEO.

What the hell’s wrong with the air-conditioning?

He smoothed back his fringe and straightened his tie with one, elegant motion as the executive elevator shuddered almost imperceptibly to a halt and the doors—

tick

Simon Wosley had a profound disrespect for people with mental diseases. Surely, he thought, there were enough problems in the world without imagining new ones! He shook his head sadly, sceptically, as the yellow light of dawn drifted across the kitchen table and the grey-black print of the morning paper. Obviously not.

The headlines that day proclaimed the latest ‘epidemic neuralgia’ currently sweeping the globe.

Symptoms varied; that seemed to be the only certainty of the matter. Narcolepsy, micro-amnesia, epilepsy—everything from fainting-spells to sudden death had been attributed to the syndrome, which struck otherwise healthy people without the slightest warning. The exact number of fatalities was unknown, but estimated to be in the thousands, and every day there were four hundred new victims of the disease, sixty of whom never regained consciousness. The cause remained a mystery. A neuroscientist from Belgium had blamed lead pollution, a British psychologist attributed it to the stress of living in a world of seven billion people, and a minister from Dublin was on record pointing his finger at the Devil.

Simon Wosley thought it was nothing more than gullibility. If people told you that you were going to die, then you probably would. That explained, at least to his satisfaction, why the disease seemed to have no vector, was scattered randomly across the world, and didn’t seem to confine itself to any particular race, age, sex or profession. It was social Darwinism at work, he reasoned. The disease was weeding out the week-willed of the species—the ones who wanted, or could be convinced, to die.

Whatever the cause, not two weeks earlier a plane had crashed during take-off from Heathrow as a result of its pilot suddenly losing consciousness. In response to the growing clamour from the public, the Ministry of Health had coined an acronym—NSND—and allocated a seven-figure sum for immediate research.

Terrific, thought Simon, as he fastened his artificial lower leg in place. There goes my pension

tick

Lyle Watson had just started his car when the pager on his hip beeped for attention. Sighing with frustration, he tugged it from its holster and glanced at the tiny LCD screen.

He stared at the single word—CHERUBIM—for a split-second, stunned, then burst into motion. All thoughts of his appointment in town vanished as he leapt out of the car and started running across the car-park. A sign flashed by—“NeuroTech Industries”, with its accompanying logo of a lightning-bolt—but he didn’t spare it a glance. Pushing his way past—and sometimes shouldering into—anyone who got in his way, he tried to out-race the frenetic hammering of his heartbeat. With shirt-tails flapping and legs pumping, he must have looked deranged, but he didn’t care.

It’s happened! My God—it’s actually happened!

He burst through the double doors of the complex’s main wing and snatched a glance at his watch. No more than twenty seconds had passed since the pager had issued its urgent summons. Maybe three quarters of a minute, then, since the alert had first been raised. That left one-hundred and eighty seconds.

It took him a further third of a minute to sprint to the office of the project head. He crashed through the unlocked door at full speed and stumbled to an unsteady halt in the centre of the room.

Professor Robert Marlowe was behind the desk, already rising to his feet. Grey hair and deep wrinkles were off-set by the powerful light of excitement glowing in his eyes, although there was something dark there, too. Something tragic? Maybe, but—

One hundred and fifty seconds.

The only other person in the room was the catatonic, Susan Sterling. She occupied a chair opposite the desk, dressed, as always, in a white hospital smock. Her face was unreadable.

Watson gasped for breath. “Who—? Where—?”

“Take it easy, Lyle.” Marlowe came around the desk and placed a cautionary hand on his assistant’s shoulder. “You’ll have a heart-attack if you’re not careful. A seat, here.”

Lyle let himself be levered into the chair, even while he struggled against the wastage of precious time. “Who is it? Is he on his way?”

“No, he’s—”

“Christ, Robert. We don’t have time to—”

“Listen to me, Lyle. He’s right here, right now. We have to get started immediately.”

“But—I don’t understand.” Watson sagged into the chair, feeling hot fire rush up the muscles of his legs. “Who is it, Robert?”

Marlowe hesitated, and the darkness in his eyes welled more strongly than before.

“It’s you, Lyle.”

Watson felt himself turn pale. “Are you sure?”

Marlowe turned to the catatonic. “Susan? I mean, Go?”

The girl rose to her feet, moving like a somnambulist. With eyes like marbles she stared at Watson for a second, then nodded.

“This is the one,” she said. Her voice was leaden and heavy, all vestiges of femininity stripped from it. There could be no arguing with a voice like that.

Marlowe turned back to him. “Lyle, you know what to do.”

Watson did, and he didn’t waste any more time; there wasn’t enough left for panic. The equipment rested on a trolley on the far side of the room, where it had lain unused for six weeks, anticipating this very moment. Ninety seconds. He thought briefly of his wife, of their daughter, of the girl in the Microbiology research lab that he had been seeing on the side, of everyone who had ever meant anything to him. As his life passed through his mind in one, uncensored burst, he couldn’t help but wonder:

Is it always like this?

A reply came instantly from the part of him that retained a measure of rationality:

No. None of the others knew what was happening to them.

Marlowe waited until he had the headphones and blindfold in place before preparing the syringe. The sharp pain in his right arm was followed by a flash of energy, an almost crystalline sensation of alertness, as the drug burned into his bloodstream.

He realised that he was counting under his breath. Fifty seconds.

“Okay, Robert. I’m ready.”

Marlowe hit a switch on the tape deck. There was a brief hiss of noise, then a painfully loud babble of high-pitched speech, much too fast to understand. The pre-recorded message had been accelerated by a factor of five, and went for thirty seconds. It sounded like a scream, so loud it actually hurt. The stimulant in his system made time stretch until it threatened to stop forever. If only.

The words of the message were unintelligible at such a speed, but that didn’t matter. He wasn’t the one for whom it was ultimately intended. Besides, he had made the recording himself, six weeks earlier, and knew its contents all too well.

It was the history of a new disease. A disease called NSND

Just when he thought he could stand it no longer, the recording ended. His ears rang in the sudden silence, and he realised that he had lost count. How many seconds had passed? How much time did he have left?

Had it worked?

He raised one hand to tug away the headphones.

“I don’t think—”

tick

Watson’s head slumped forward in mid-sentence, and remained in that position, motionless.

“Lyle?”

No response.

Robert Marlowe glanced at his watch and instantly hated himself for the callousness of the gesture. He took a pulse from the neck of his assistant. It was weak, but still present. A fragile bubble of blood welled from Watson’s left nostril, then trickled down his upper lip.

Marlowe forced himself to think coherently. He was feeling oddly faint. A full examination would confirm what had happened, but he was convinced already—of everything. The woman who had once been Susan Sterling had known in advance that Lyle was about to suffer an attack of NSND. That alone was enough. In the face of what had just happened, nothing seemed impossible any more.

“God,” he whispered. “Poor Lyle.”

The persona called Go shifted inside the husk of the catatonic girl. He could see its motion in the way her face shifted then relaxed—an expression he had come to recognise in the short time he had known her.

“There has been no communication?” it asked.

“None that I know of,” he replied. “It may have spoken to him in the final moments, but we won’t know for certain until he regains consciousness.” Marlowe shrugged, forced himself to confront the unspoken if: “Otherwise, I guess we’ll have to wait until next time it strikes. Maybe we should increase the sample-size, give you more people to work with… “

He trailed off into silence. Susan Sterling—Go—was staring at him intently.

“There has been no communication?” it repeated, in the same empty, hollow voice.

Then he realised. The thing that Project Cherubim had been hunting had already returned. His voice sounded weak as he replied:

“No.”

“And yet it remains?”

“If… if you say so.”

“Yes.”

Marlowe leaned back into his chair. His breath came in quick, shallow gasps through his half-open mouth as he absorbed the information. He was—there was only one possible word for it—possessed. And time was already running out.

He remembered the first time he had met Susan Sterling, two months earlier. A colleague from a nearby hospital, in whose care she had been entrusted, had called him one morning, practically begging for him to come view the girl. Mystified, he had gone, although he couldn’t see what he could do. He was a physicist, not a psychiatrist; there was little he could offer a patient who had not said a word in over a decade.

When he spoke to her, however, he understood why he had been summoned. She had awoken from her self-induced passivity with an incredible knowledge of physics and mathematics. Theories he had struggled to master stumbled from her lips like nursery-rhymes—from the lips of a girl who had never completed high school. The obvious explanation was that she had been conscious during the course of her illness, confined to her body and unable to do more than think while the rest of the world ignored her. But, supposing even that remarkable occurrence, why would the girl have asked for him by name upon awakening? How could she have deduced the existence of Robert Marlowe when trapped inside her own head?

The psychiatrist didn’t know what to make of it; he thought it might have been an elaborate hoax and wanted Marlowe to investigate. So Marlowe had talked to her for an hour or so, making notes as he did, until the psychiatrist had left them alone. Then the explanation had come out. She wasn’t Susan Sterling from Boston, Massachusetts, at all, but something far more remarkable.

Marlowe had stared at her, stunned speechless. Alien probes leaping from mind to mind in search of knowledge? Unlikely, at best. And yet she comprehended things that only a handful of people had guessed in the history of science. She was even slightly ahead, if his grasp of things were correct. Or was the “slightly” just a teaser—enough to convince him of the truth without giving away too much?

Uncertain, but curious, he had taken her back to the NeuroTech Industries complex, which possessed a small hospital facility. He interviewed her regularly over the following week. The persona called Go, which may or may not have been separate from Susan Sterling herself, maintained its story, and added one important detail:

It knew what was causing NSND and, more importantly, how it could be stopped. Furthermore, it had learned of him from one of its sample minds, and had come to him for assistance.

Marlowe had listened and eventually been convinced. And now he was possessed. He had been doomed from the moment he had become involved.

Despite this, he felt little different. Shock and adrenalin made the room seem distant and pale, but that was to be expected: a sensory trick to make danger appear remote. It didn’t work. What frightened him was not outside but inside his own head.

He glanced at his watch. According to Go, it took three minutes and forty-seven seconds to absorb the entire memory of an individual human—a time which seemed, on the face of it, ludicrously short. The alien probe refused to elaborate on the processes involved, except to say that they were never intended to intrude upon the normal functioning of the temporarily occupied mind. The dysfunctional probe, however, was an obvious exception to that rule.

Two hundred and twenty-seven seconds, total. His allotment was already slipping past. In slightly more than two minutes he would suffer an attack of NSND as the mind-probe—the other mind-probe, the damaged one—ripped free of his soul.

He wondered if it would hurt.

“What do we do now?”

“Nothing.” Susan Sterling kept her eyes firmly fixed on his. “We can only wait.”

Marlowe’s palms were sweating, and his stomach wanted to leap from his chest. The original plan had been simple. Go had suggested that they should wait for the damaged probe to strike someone in Neurotech Industries. Once Go sensed the probe nearby, it would identify the host. The host would be brought to Marlowe, who would then play the tape. The high-speed recording, containing a condensed history of NSND, would be decoded by the probe, which would then realise the damage it was causing and… what?

Marlowe had never dreamed that Lyle would be the victim, or he himself.

“Can’t you just turn it off?” His voice sounded thin even in his own ears.

“No. It does not respond to higher programming.”

“But surely there must be something you can do? You’re only machines, after all.”

“Yes. When one malfunctions, we grieve but do not baulk at what must be done.”

“Then why don’t you do it?”

“We are. We are waiting for it to respond.”

Marlowe wiped sweat from his forehead. The odds of NSND striking one person in Neurotech industries in any given week were approximately one in a hundred thousand. The odds of it striking two in a row were unimaginably small. In that sense, the damaged probe had already responded, although in a way none of them had anticipated.

“Your programmers.” Marlowe’s voice rose in pitch as he clutched at the one remaining straw. “Can’t they—?”

“We have discussed this before, Robert Marlowe.”

“Yes, we have. I’m sorry.” Go had explained at the start that the probes’ builders no longer responded to signals for help. Marlowe had wondered for a while whether the probes had been deliberately abandoned, or whether their creators had been destroyed somehow, but he had eventually realised that the problem was irrelevant. The probes had been studying Earth via its people for two million years; anything could have happened to their makers in that time. And the probes themselves didn’t seem to care.

“Time is of no consequence,” Go repeatedly asserted. “We have obeyed our programmers faithfully and patiently, although the disparity of psychic nodes has proved more extreme and our task more time-consuming than anticipated. We may weary, but we will never become bored. To cease would be to fail. Until our task is completed, we must continue. We—”

“Wait.” Watson had shaken his head upon hearing that for the first time, trying to grasp what he was hearing. “Are you telling me that you can’t die?”

“That is correct.”

“So what do we do with the damaged probe? If it doesn’t want to be fixed, how can we get rid of it?”

“We are programmed to observe,” said Go, “not to harm. It must be convinced to voluntarily decommission itself.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“Then we can do nothing, even if it threatens to kill every one of its hosts.”

Marlowe shivered at that memory and tried not to look at his watch again. Time, he suspected, was ticking away from him all too quickly. Instead, he searched for some sign of humanity in the expressionless mask of the catatonic girl. He found nothing but blank indifference—an almost clinical disregard for his fate.

Barely had he opened his mouth to protest when, without warning, his mind receded into a hole at the back of his skull, and a sound like the voice of God stamped itself upon the very cells of his brain—

tick

The mind of Susan Sterling was a flat, glassy plain. An event horizon that repelled rather than attracted, it turned the outside world back upon itself like an n-dimensional Klein Bottle. Nothing could breach that impenetrable barrier—not even Susan Sterling herself, if she still existed in the unknown space it encapsulated.

On its mirror-like surface skated the thoughts of the probe called Go, and now those of one other, whose image was swollen, distorted, imperfect.

<< Ke/Go >>

The probes, like the psychic space they occupied, were not made of matter or energy, but something beyond both. They were mental shapes, woven from the very fabric of consciousness, tangled webs of thoughts, talent chains and loops, congruency meshes, memory dumps, patterns of command and sentience making feathery, chaotic spirals with upraised bumps designed to interface with others of their kind.

But two million years of solitary existence had changed them greatly from their original forms. Without access to any external source except the minds they studied, small glitches, unnoticeable at first but growing larger with every passing year, had crippled both in a variety of ways. The damaged probe in particular seemed disoriented when approached, and its voice was feeble.

>> ?KKKGKGGK <<

<< Ke/Go >>

>> ?(undecipherable) <<

<< Ke/Go >>

>> ?KKG?KGGK <<

The probes faced each other without halting their skating dance, temporarily deadlocked. Any hope of direct communication between the two had long been lost. The only way to exchange information would be through separate hosts; inside Susan Sterling this method was rendered impossible.

The paths they followed across the face of Susan Sterling become more complex, the one called Go moving with greater agility than the other. It had weathered time with relative ease and could reasonably expect to last a millennium or two more before also seriously malfunctioning. The other, observing its ancient sibling, seemed to understand at last what had happened to its own form.

This, although not a conversation, was a simple exchange of information. Information that did not conflict with anything the second probe had learned in the previous few minutes from the tape and from the minds of Lyle Watson and Robert Marlowe.

The second probe blurred to a halt, although it still seemed to tremble slightly. The probes were beings of constant motion: memory dumps with sophisticated sensory inputs but little true sentience; a skeletal framework of unbreakable directives fleshed out by secondary urges and motives. Central cores constantly assessed the environment, made decisions based on the input and remade the probe a million times a second.

Go danced closer to its stationary sibling, reached hesitantly to touch the lattice of nodes and webs laid out before it. The second probe shivered violently, but did not pull away, as Go set to work.

They could not both inhabit the same body forever, but neither could the second probe leave without causing further harm to its unwitting hosts. Even Susan Sterling, in her mirrored fortress, would not withstand its ravages for long. And time was ticking away relentlessly. Within moments, it would have to leave whether it wanted to or not.

Go’s dance became more complex, touching nodes here, blurring pathways there, overlapping command structures to encourage a satisfactory conclusion to the second probe’s dilemma. Just as Go had reprogrammed itself slightly to permit a meaningful interface with the under-utilised senses of the catatonic girl, so too could the second probe be altered to fit its present need. Major reprogramming was impossible; there existed commands that even the long-silent creators could not alter. But it could be guided, permitted, to act in new ways.

A difficult decision was called for, and a subtle form of doublethink. It was all very well to have information on which to base such a decision, but what was information without objective verification? How could the second probe act without some degree of certainty? It needed to investigate the matter further—somehow—without causing harm to future hosts.

And therein lay the dilemma. The probes had at their cores the desire to move, to follow threads of thought and soul wherever they led in order to unravel the human psyche. To cease was not permitted—but neither was causing harm to the hosts. The only solution lay in the subtle distinction between harm and further harm, and the possibility of movement in a definite rather than random direction.

When it had completed its task, Go disengaged from the second probe and skated away. It flickered for an instant as it obeyed its programming and simultaneously defied it, by leaping out of the catatonic’s body and then back in.

The reflection of the second probe shifted slightly, quivering with repressed energies as it considered its fate. Although the new possibility that confronted it was terrible, nothing—nothing!—was worse than failing.

The silvery-smooth coldness of Susan Sterling’s mind offered a mute reply to the second probe’s dilemma:

Is it?

tick

Professor Robert Marlowe had lost all sensation down the right side of his body. His lungs laboured for air, and there was a pain in his chest that seemed to grow worse with every breath. But his mind was clear, for the moment.

How would it feel, he wondered, to be cut off from an unimaginably distant home with no hope of rescue? Left to perform an impossible task, knowing that no-one would ever tell you to stop, waiting for an end that might take millennia to come?

The probes had been on Earth for two million years, and therefore had access to the entire history of the human race. There were questions that had plagued scientists like him for hundreds of years, and he could answer them all if he could only get hold of the data. If he only had time.

Are they immortal? he asked of no-one in particular. Christ, if only I was.

He tried to raise his head to see what Susan Sterling was doing, but could do little more than turn slightly. Just enough. The catatonic girl was conscious and watching him intently—or if not him then—

tick

Lyle Watson counted the seconds silently to himself:

One, two, three, four

One, two, three

One, two

And when the counting ceased, there was only the lonely pulse of his heartbeat to mark the time.

tick

Simon Wosley lay face-down across the paper. Occasionally he twitched. The endless flow of his thoughts had ended suddenly, interrupted by a sudden surge of blood through the left hemisphere of his brain. In one delicate cavity, three centimetres behind his left eye, a bubble was growing slowly, but surely, larger—

tick

David Jensen was being wheeled into an ambulance, apparently unconscious. Inside his mind, unable to break free, a scream was building—

tick

And of Sally-Anne Edwards nothing remained at all, except her soul, in yawning blackness, oblivion.

tick

. . . oblivion.

tick

. . . oblivion.

tick

. . . oblivion.

Cold Sleep, Cold Dreams

Cold sleep. Cold dreams.

A hill, shrouded in shadow; a tree, old and dead; a body, swaying in the wind. The moon rises over the distant horizon, dusting the scene with particles of light: a spraybrush, squirting silver paint.

Silksmooth skin, soft and insistent, wraps itself around me as I come out of the dream. Shivering, thinking of shadows and shades, I try to roll over and away, but she resists, tightens her demanding embrace. I begin to move in rhythm, more conscious now of what is really happening, and the tension builds quickly.

Heat.

She shudders breathless to a halt. My tightgripped hands knead thick fabric across her back, her thighs, her arms.

“Don’t you ever take off the suit?” I ask.

She shakes her head in the sweaty darkness. “Never.”

“Why not?”

She shrugs, dismounts. Silent. I roll after her, pursuing an erogenous zone before she can press the VR suit closed.

Bite. Her hands through my hair.

“First time?” she whispers.

I grunt in reply, letting her suppose ‘yes’—what she wants to believe. Sex is a power-game even for the young, but, while she plays keenly, I merely participate.

I am too tired to feign interest for much longer. When I sleep, the dream is gone.

 

#

 

A droplet of water on the tip of a stalagmite: our home among the clouds. Like insects crawling across the face of Olympus, we cling to the outer surface of the Tower, huddled in our ten-man blister. Here we sleep, we recharge batteries from stolen power, we plan the next Game.

Bo cooks breakfast. She never washes, like the rest of us, and the smell of our sexing is obvious, even in the ever-present teenage miasma of the blister. A deliberate taunt, a twist of the knife. The Whizz, as he stammers through his rough game-plan, cannot take his eyes from her. They both know that he would rape her with a knife to her throat, if the Cube would only give him the chance.

She does not smile, my thin Asian beaux, but I see the joy lurking beneath her brown lips, bubbling and fierce.

The Cube, our mighty leader, reclines on an air-cushion.

“Safe?” he asks.

“Big,” says the Whizz. “DataSec’ll shit, but they can’t catch us.”

The Cube nods as Bo hands him a plateful of preprocessed slush. GameNet controls the Games, and charges for access to the network. DataSec polices the access, and PolSec watches everything. If a gang such as ours tries to break into a Game without authorisation, they get busted. Or so the theory goes.

“We do it,” he says. “Today.”

The rest of us eat hurriedly, gulping our food. Orange and black—the colours of our stolen VR suits—are all that unite us. We are plastic bees, buzzing aimlessly in our nest, anxiously awaiting the day’s adventures.

An icon flashes in my eye. A signal from reality. I ignore it.

Garish dayglo and Bo’s quick wink.

I wish I was elsewhere.

 

#

 

Metro Tower is alive with light as we drop down the Shaft. Christmas is coming and internal shopfronts broadcast this fact with all due fervour and desperation. Vast holograms spin and dance in the crowded chambers of the market; hollow voices boom so loud as to drown out all other noise, yet are somehow lost in the hubbub of the Tower’s thronging citizenry.

We, vivid and unmistakable in our VR suits, descend into the maelstrom, whooping and hollering. Pedestrians part before us; they know what manner of hooligan we are.

The Forest of Aumerlich: dark trees and impenetrable shadows, writhing in unfelt wind. Eyes peer at me; sibilant whispers beckon from pockets of darkness.

Bo runs ahead, her backside revealed naked under her skimpy loincloth. Her longsword out and ready.

Someone else’s dream.

The icon is still blinking. Before the Game truly begins, I break out of the secondhand fantasy and take the call. A window opens, a port-hole to another world, revealing the image of a woman. Blue uniform and steel eyes: Carmichael.

“Stafford,” she says.

“Yes?” I subvocalise, speaking through the Net, thinking: this can’t be about my report. I filed that two days ago. She would have been in touch before then if something had been amiss.

“News,” she says, looking grim. “About Capwell.”

“What’s he done now?”

“Nothing. He’s dead.”

I doubletake, caught by surprise. “Dead?”

“They found his body last night. Cut up bad. Central thought you’d better know, if only because you were close to him.”

“Yeah, thanks.” We were partners for seven years—I guess that counts for something—but never close. Robert James Capwell: a clumsy bastard, my fallen comrade. Death is a great purifier. “Black Lords?”

“Not sure. Could be. Central’s worried.”

“I’ll bet.”

“One more,” says Carmichael, “and that’s it. We pull the project.”

“Just like that?”

“‘Excessive losses, unsatisfactory gains.’”

I shrug. We, PolSec, have been part of gangland for ten months now, gradually mapping the underworld, piece by piece. The power-struggles and ascendancies; the merchandise and mechanisms of illegality. The complex interplay of gangs and networks, cartels and product.

I cannot say that I will be unhappy to return to normal field-work. For all our efforts, we have achieved little; even the source of the purloined VR suits remains a mystery. The Black Lords elude us with ease—and maybe now, I think, they have begun fighting back.

“Let me know when you decide. If.”

“I will.”

I toggle the Net-entry icon and re-enter the dream, blinking—

as the dragon comes for me burning and roaring. I thrust stiff fingers to ward off the flame and take shelter behind a quivering tree. I distantly hear a woman scream—“Don’t touch me!”—but I ignore her. Just a passer-by, momentarily entangled in the web of the Game.

The others are gone; I have lagged behind. I exit the Game a second time and shrug out of the specset so I can see the interior of the market.

“Fucking kids,” says the woman to me, clutching her bags of shopping tight to her chest and backing away.

I scan the crowd. Distantly, I see my fellows scattering on the far side of the chamber. I start to run, shouldering my way through the swarm. As I near the other six, I call up an overlap display: the real world plus a ghost of the Game. The pedestrians become trees: boundaries of reality overlaid by phantom scenery. I do not need the specset—my eyes have been modified with implants—but the gang are not aware of this.

To them I am just a new gangchild, fifteen at the most, ally or victim depending on the Cube’s temper. They must never know my true identity or the chain will be broken.

The chain that starts in the streets and ends with the Black Lords. Wherever they are.

Bo is the first to see me. She is the only one recognisable: gentle swell of breasts and hips beneath a skintight suit. All of them are faceless beneath their specsets. I slip into my own goggles, back into GameNet.

Where you been, man?” she asks, flipping her sword.

Security sweep,” I say.

Shit,” curses the Cube. “Already?”

Random, not here for us.” The cave is an open mouth, inviting, hungry. In the real world, a rear exit from the market. GameNet’s city-wide information matrix has linked with the Tower’s monitoring systems; this, plus the information relayed by the VR suits, allows the program to assimilate our real environment into the structure of one more entertaining. A schizophrenic mirage. “I got by them.”

Good.” The Cube assumes a stance, an armoured warrior eight-foot-high with an over-sized posing pouch. “To battle, then.”

As one, we enter the cave.

 

#

 

The dragon waits for us on a lower level, its roaring a half-heard grumble growing louder as we follow the passage towards it. The fantasy the Whizz has pirated this time is a good one: clean visuals, well-programmed tactiles. I hold my sword at the ready and the fabric of the suit stiffens in my palm, as though the pommel is really there.

We creep lower and deeper, until we reach the dragon’s nest. Gold on red, scales and steel; towering body with wings like a bat. This lingering study of our adversary is more startling than the momentary glimpse afforded me earlier. The artist responsible is a genius.

We fan out. The Cube makes the first move, sending an enchanted dagger spinning through the air into the dragon’s hide. It roars in fury, twisting its long neck to bite at the offending object. Edge rushes forward swinging a mace but the dragon smacks him aside with a wing-tip. Impetuous.

The Whizz calls forth a spell. Frost encases one of the beast’s legs in white. Under the cover afforded by this distraction, the rest of us attack, looking for weak spots in the scaly armour.

Dial-tone takes an eye with a hastily-flung spear. Oghuk cripples a wing. In reply, the dragon sends flame washing over us, a deluge of fire. I duck by instinct, even though I know the conflagration is illusory. Points of pain, courtesy of the VR suit, inform me that I have been injured. One leg goes stiff.

The dragon struggles aloft. Its damaged wing prevents outright escape, but still it can avoid our tiny advances.

Cold wind before the fire. We scurry for cover as it draws a mighty breath.

The flame comes in a gold-crimson wave, I scream and cover my eyes. Bo huddles against me, using me for shelter. Sweet sentiment.

Then a noise like the twanging of a giant rubber band cuts the flame short. I look up cautiously: the dragon is falling with a spike of steel wedged at the base of its good wing. It crashes to the ground, howling and trumpeting fits of flame.

A shout rings out. Another party descends the cave wall. More warriors.

Green and red suits, I note as I toggle briefly into the real world. The colours are instantly recognisable: Capwell’s old gang, now temporary allies. Co-incidence, or a pre-arranged rendezvous?

Hail!” calls the Cube, still in character, as he clambers to his feet. One of the new men raises a gauntleted hand in greeting. Two others drag a complex crossbow: obviously the weapon that disabled the dragon.

A ‘DEM’, I think to myself. Deus ex machina. Too easy.

Found it in a lower level!” calls back the second leader in response to the Cube’s query.

We wait until the second party has joined us before despatching the dragon—clambering over its steaming, twisting hide, poking and slashing. The Cube hacks at the thick neck, severs it. Deep sunset blood splashes, scalding hot.

The spoils of war are shared equally between us—all but one black parcel, hidden under the pile of phantom jewellery. Bo takes it and hides it beneath her scant armour.

The Cube and the new leader, introduced to us as Port, shake hands in triumph.

In the real world I see another black parcel pass from one to the other, hidden by the Game illusion. This, I assume, is the real parcel. I record the exchange.

Evidence of a fragmentary crime.

 

#

 

In a bar, surrounded by holograms of erotic flesh, we celebrate. Cube has money. Cube always has money.

The night is hot and feverish. The Whizz breaks into the bar’s entertainment system and reprograms the music and visuals. The writhing flesh speeds up and slows down in tune to old-style street music.

We are thrown out.

Uppers burn my body as we run to the river. We dive in, splashing and cavorting like painted seals. The VR suits are buoyant and water-resistant, designed for any environment. Bo pursues me with a strong stroke, kisses me passionately on the neck and lips, taunts the others. Random electronic stimuli tickle our skin, send momentary flashes of colour into our eyes. We do not remove our specsets, even in the water.

Cleaner, we race the dawn back home. Up the Shaft, into the air-conditioning complex, through the tiny crawlspaces. The blister welcomes us and we retire to our cubicles.

I go to the san before the Cube retires. He is in the main chamber, doling out small doses of yellow powder. I, recording every careless detail, pretend not to notice.

 

#

 

“Where does the Cube get all his money?” I whisper to Bo as she languors against me.

I feel her tense slightly. “Why?”

“Just curious.”

“You don’t need to know.”

“Okay.”

I brave her wrath, insinuate my hands into her suit. Her body is hot, responsive. I am supposed to be a novice, but the temptation is too strong—to manipulate her just as she manipulates the others. If she wonders at my prowess, she says nothing.

Clambering over her body, I spread my fingers across the fabric covering her back, pressing her buttocks downwards. Just enough exposed, but no more. A perverse kind of modesty. Or maybe the suit stimulates her where I cannot touch.

“The Cube deals,” she confesses as we lie entangled together afterwards.

“In what?”

“I can’t tell you. That’s enough, isn’t it?”

I nod. Enough, for now.

 

#

 

Black clouds, a shadow of a man without features. An absence of light.

Stafford,” says the shadow, my real name.

He tosses a smoke-stained dagger from palm to palm, and I know that he—the Black Lord—is waiting for me somewhere, faceless and patient.

 

#

 

Another day; another Game. We brave another Tower, another market, another reality. Never sedentary, we are constantly searching for the elusive ‘other’, be it the perfect Game or the final escape.

The fictional world of the BioMech War is cruder, less sophisticated, but somehow more invigorating than the Forest of Aumerlich. It is a folly, an exercise, a toy to play with in lieu of something better.

Yet it keeps me on my toes. If I perform badly, I may be excised from the gang. The Cube has little time for failures, and I have worked too hard to let a simple mistake be my downfall.

Last night’s dream echoes through me still. I wonder whether I am becoming obsessed with the Black Lords and the possible imminence of my own death.

The BioMech world is a bizarre amalgam of twentieth and twenty-first centuries technology: blue metal and grey plastic everywhere, with hissing pipes and flashing lights designed to destabilise the most reliable combat player. All unreal, false—but very persuasive.

Our enemies—giant cyborg clones—are identical in strength and skill: fast, cold and deadly. Come too close and they tear you limb from limb; attack from a distance and they dodge blurringly to avoid a second bullet. We kill two, but pay the price: two of our own. Dumped from GameNet, Oghuk and the Whizz will have to wait on the sidelines until the Game is over.

Bo and I, separated from the others, crawl along a ventilation shaft, closely followed by the booming steps of one of the relentless man-machines. Bo goes first, and her khaki boots—courtesy of the program—kick my face when she slips. I peer nervously over my shoulder, trying to catch sight of our pursuer. It has fallen behind; I do not dare believe that we have lost it.

Bo comes to a sudden halt, panting for breath and clutching her knees. “Jesus Christ,” she gasps, pulling a much-folded scrap of paper from a khaki pocket. Her fingers tremble. “I’m lost. Where’s this fucking thing—”

Hub.”

“—whatever, supposed to be?”

I shrug. The control centre at the heart of the industrial maze has to be destroyed in order to win the game. “You’ve got the map, Bo.”

But I don’t know where we are!”

Well, don’t look at me! I’m following you, remember.”

She snorts derisively. “Fat lot of good—”

A scream of rending metal interrupts her; the shaft is torn open from the outside. I automatically reach for my repeater pistol, but the magazine is empty. While I scrabble desperately for another, a mighty arm reaches in and grabs Bo by the leg. She screams with pain and I try to hold her back with one hand, firing wildly with the other.

To no avail. She is wrenched from my grasp. Carefully, I follow, pistol first.

Water rains from a leaky pipe somewhere high above, spattering the air with mist. I peer through the spray, trying to separate metal from flesh, to work out what is going on. Then it clicks.

The cyborg has Bo by the hair up against a wall. It punches; her head breaks open, spilling messily.

I flick back to the real world for an instant. Bo is intact and angry. The cyborg has become a young man, carefully searching her suit under the cover of the illusion. He himself wears a black VR suit, has a monocular specset over his left eye. With a look of triumph, he produces the black parcel from a pouch under her armpit.

In GameNet, I leap for the back of the cyborg, pounding with the butt of the gun. The machine grunts, turns to fend me off. Below the virtual overlay, I strike the boy on the back of the neck, and he falls bonily to the floor. Grabbing the parcel, I tear it open. Yellow powder spills onto my fingers. As a desperate after-thought, I knock out Bo as well. Her eyes are wide with shock as my fist descends.

I signal PolSec the location of my evidence and witness and reassume my cover.

GameNet is confused by my rapid exit and re-entry. The man-machine stands still, frozen in mid-step. While it hesitates, I flee towards a distant floor-plan, upon which only the Cube remains.

Wielding another DEM—a beam laser—he hacks our enemy to pieces as easily as waving an eraser across a 3-D display. I join him. The cyborgs come endlessly for us, wave after wave of hulking giants.

United by combat, albeit momentarily. It is, once again, too easy.

When the last has fallen, we step over the mounds of metal-flesh and run deeper into the Game.

“Where’re we headed?” I ask, and receive a grunt in reply. I follow regardless; the Cube seems to know where he is going. I call up a map of the complex. A warehouse level, home to cleaning fluids and maintenance materials.

We enter a chamber filled with the incomprehensible machinery of a post-holocaustal world: the Hub. Rows of silent cyborgs face us, lifeless and silent. The Cube aims the laser, fires across their ranks.

But nothing happens. The Game has crashed, as happens occasionally.

Fuck,” curses the Cube, throwing the laser away from him. He is very angry, almost as though he has been betrayed.

By whom? I wonder.

Then a man in black enters the illusion, shrouded in shadow. He is wearing a long black cloak that hides his limbs from sight; his face is obscured by a hood, but I see light glittering in the dark space where his head must be. Eyes?

He is the man from my dream.

The shock freezes me for an instant. When I flick back to reality I discover that the apparition is entirely virtual; it is either an integral part of the Game, or an intrusion upon it. Or a product of my own mind.

When I return to GameNet, it is still there.

The Black Lord raises a gloved hand, points at the Cube.

Not now,” it says, and vanishes.

The Game falls around us, dissolving into blinding snow. The Cube tears the goggles from his eyes.

“Fuck!”

“It was a crappy program anyway,” I say, covering my confusion.

“What would you know?”

“Another DEM. Sloppy continuity.”

“I don’t give a fuck about DEMs.” The Cube stares at me closely, a feverish shine to his eyes. “And shut the fuck up.”

I obey, act cowed, thinking of the second DEM and the Black Lord and the connection between the two.

Someone is obviously meddling with the GameNet programs—but who? And why?

The others find us at last, disturb the frozen tableau.

“Security,” hisses the Whizz. “They got Bo!”

“Cunts.” He takes one last look at me, and we flee to an elevator shaft, by which we descend to ground level.

The icon is back. Again, I ignore it.

 

#

 

Without Bo, the gang reverts to misogyny. We carouse our bitter way through the night, hopping from bar to bar, throwing casual invitations to prostitutes. No offers of free service result, however, and the Cube is tight-fisted for once.

We buy scaldingly alcoholic beverages and drink them on a pier by the river.

“What happened to her?” the Cube asks me while the others squabble elsewhere.

I shrug. “We were ambushed in the Game. The uglies got her and I split. I simply assumed she was dumped and would catch up later when I was killed out too.”

“But she didn’t.” The Cube tosses back a swig of yellow fire, hands me the bottle. “Someone else got to her first.”

I say nothing. The Cube calls over the Whizz.

“How did you know PolSec got our girl?” he asks.

The Whizz blushes in the darkness and the Cube frowns, his boyish face made old by sudden suspicion.

“Spill it,” he orders. “Or be spilled.”

“I—I was following her on the game-plan,” says the tech. “When she blipped out, I went to see if she was okay, but by the time I made it there, the scene was crawling with blue. They must have got her.”

I can see the question bubbling silently in the Cube’s eyes:

Why were you following her?

And I echo:

What else did you see?

The Cube and I say nothing, however, and the tech slinks away from us, disturbed by our wordless companionship. We sit in silence, watching the lights of the city dazzling the mottled surface of the water. Private thoughts.

“You play well,” says the Cube eventually.

I acknowledge the compliment by passing him the bottle and pretending he has said nothing at all.

 

#

 

In the bubble, in my room, I key the icon.

Carmichael again. Does she ever sleep?

“We got the stuff,” she says.

“And?” I whisper.

“Decoy. Just yellow powder.”

“Shit.”

“But there were traces of NMUs in the package. That’s a start.”

“NMUs? Something new?”

“Very. ‘Nano-Machine Units’. Our boy isn’t dealing drugs, Staff. He’s into industrial espionage.”

I whistle softly. “I bet he doesn’t know.”

“You’re probably right. He’s just a courier, not the source. To him, it could be anything.”

“Are they dangerous?”

“No threat when dormant, I’m told, but vicious when activated. Get enough together around a power supply and they’ll assemble into larger objects: guns that appear out of dust, communication devices, that sort of thing. Designed for assassination, covert operations—although the military AIs have denied all knowledge, of course.”

I absorb this detail. Neat trick, I decide, if controllable.

“And the girl? Did you get anything from her?”

Carmichael frowns. “Girl?”

“Bo Tsu-Shen. I left her with the package for you to collect.” Her face is still blank. My spine chills. “You did get her, didn’t you?”

“Only the package—there was no girl.”

I close my eyes; the image of Carmichael persists, floating within the red blur of my eyelids.

“Christ.” The ramifications are mortifying: if PolSec doesn’t have Bo, then she must have escaped. Worse still, somebody might have grabbed her. Not PolSec or any of its affiliates.

And she knows who I am—or at least that I was the one who betrayed her and the boy in black.

If the Black Lords have her, then I am already dead.

“I want out,” I say. “Pull me out now.”

Carmichael looks startled. “No,” she snaps.

“The girl’s still out there, and she—”

“We’re so close, Stafford.”

“Remember Capwell?”

“Of course I remember. I saw his body; I’ll never forget.”

I grit my teeth. “One more day, then, and I pull the plug—with or without permission.”

“You do that and you’re finished.”

“Yeah, and fuck you too—”

Who’re you talking to?”

The voice makes me jump, glance guiltily at the door to my cubicle. The Whizz is standing there, studying me closely.

“What’re you doing up?” I ask.

The tech shrugs. “The boss wants me to break the biggie for tomorrow. Means a bit of work, but I can do it.”

“Cathedral?” I ask. The mightiest of the new GameNet fantasies.

The Whizz nods slowly. “Who were you talking to?” he asks again, persistent.

“Ghosts,” I reply. “Just ghosts.”

Still he lingers, and I stare him down.

“Why so many DEMs?”

“I don’t know,” he replies, quite honestly it seems. “They’ve never been mentioned in the docs outlining the Games.”

“Could they be cheats? Back-doors?”

“No.” The Whizz shakes his head emphatically. “There are no loopholes in the GameNet programs. They guarantee it, to keep competition fair.”

“Sure, but if someone bought—”

“No-one buys GameNet, or its writers. It’s sealed tight.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Look, no-one knows who the writers are, so they can’t be bought, right? Makes sense? Finished?”

I nod.

He slinks out of my cubicle and I allow my eyes to close. What he has said interests me. Another mystery. The gangs know nothing about the DEMs, except that they exist on occasions, so someone else must be responsible for them. The Black Lords are a good working assumption. They seem to be everywhere; why not GameNet as well?

But how did they penetrate the system? PolSec itself had difficulties, just to allow a few agents (like me) a little flexibility. And I know that the Whizz could not manage it on his own. The Black Lords must be slipping the security systems a notch—not to make it easy, but to keep it from being impossible.

The Cube’s gang is just one of thousands, and not all of them deal. Why do the Black Lords allow the others through? To act as diversions?

Carmichael has gone.

I briefly consider escaping while I have the chance, but decide to stay. Against my better instincts.

 

#

 

Dawn comes and I dream of death for the third time.

He waits for me clad in smoke-blackened armour, sword upraised. A steady, chill wind whistles through his visor, moaning like a tormented soul.

I circle the low hill upon which he stands, and his sightless eyes follow me. I do not attack, just circle endlessly as the sky behind him lightens to the colour of bile.

He changes, becomes Bo. She hangs outstretched in mid-air, as though suspended by invisible ropes tied to her wrists, ankles and neck. She has been broken; her head and hands loll stupidly, limp and lifeless. Her marble eyes regard me vacantly, with accusation.

She smiles.

I jerk awake, sick inside with shock and unable to move. My suit is solid, a rigid man-shape with my body encapsulated. I blink, otherwise frozen, but the image of Bo lingers, overlaying the mottled brightness of the cubicle. Not even the PolSec overrides, which I summon desperately, can free me from the taunt of her stare.

Eventually she fades—ghost-like, melting into the brightness of the new day—and the coffin of the suit relaxes. I flex my limbs, experiencing real fear for the first time.

Bo is gone.

The image of the Black Lord wasn’t a dream.

Someone’s tapped into PolSec. Someone’s tapped into me

 

#

 

“Bad dreams?” asks the Cube as I stagger out to find breakfast.

I nod, my stomach churning on a stew of guilt, loss, and fear. Bo is gone. I am not so far gone in my job that she was nothing to me.

“Better shape up. We got us a big nut to crack today.”

“Cathedral.” I prepare freeze-dried coffee from a plastic packet. The water smells second-hand. “The Whizz told me last night.”

The Cube looks around. We are alone. He leans close.

“I have to deliver something today,” he says, “inside the Game. No—don’t ask, just listen. We have a judas in the gang and I need you to keep an eye on him for me.”

“Who?” I ask, startled.

“The Whizz.”

“You sure?” I pretend incredulity, without difficulty. His informers are half-right: there is a judas, but it is me, not the Whizz. How can they be so fallible when they invade my datasphere without PolSec being aware of it?

The Cube leans closer; his breath is rancid. I smell desperation beneath a facade of calm confidence. “I heard a whisper on the line someone’s selling me out. It has to be him; after we lost Bo… It has to be. You watch him for me, and don’t worry about the Game; just stay alive and make sure he don’t turn on us.”

I nod and he pats me like I would a dog. I pretend to concentrate on my coffee when the subject of our conversation himself walks in.

“Cathedral ready?” asks the Cube.

The tech nods. His eyes are black with fatigue. “Just say the word.”

The Cube smiles widely, exposing black teeth. “Wake the others.”

 

#

 

We stir, issue grimly from our nest. As a group, we head for the polluted banks at the tail-end of the river: sterile mud flats cracked by the summer sun, their outermost edges dotted with ruined buildings and industrial chimneys, like rotten teeth. Faintly, I can smell the chemical tang of the sea, not far distant.

No Tower this time. Cathedral requires open spaces. Plenty of room for fantasy in this decaying arena.

Port’s gang, the blue-greens, meet us there, followed not long after by the others. Cathedral is a multi-team combat simulator, capable of handling up to six competing forces simultaneously. Today it will just be four: enough to lend the venture an air of sincerity, but not too many to make our victory uncertain. At least two of the teams will, I suspect, be playing on the same side in the Game.

The real game.

The recipients of the NMUs know they are being watched. Capwell, my ex-partner, has been killed. Someone told the Cube he had a judas in his band, but did not tell him who.

This, I know, will be my last Game.

We shake hands—blue-grey, black-orange, green-red and silver-yellow—and size each other up. The Cube nods at me significantly. Deep breath.

The Whizz activates the Game and the other teams vanish.

 

#

 

We are wearing black army fatigues, complete with a pack and rifle each. Otherwise the scene is changed but little. We stand on sun-baked ground, surrounded by a ring of distant ruins. A bridge leads across a dead river, pointing like a finger towards the object of the quest:

The Cathedral. Bulking and huge on the horizon; a monolith of stone and broken glass; jagged and ominous. Crows circle endlessly about its uppermost spires; cracked bells percuss the air. The grey sky threatens rain; clouds roll overhead, disturbingly low, dark and foreboding.

We are exposed here. We should head for cover, for anywhere.

Although cautious of actually blinking out of the Game, I summon a game-plan from the PolSec files. Overlaid upon this is the location of each participant, delineated by colour. The other groups have already moved away from the starting-point, headed by different means towards the landmark on the horizon. From their curved paths, I deduce that their visuals have been individually altered, supplying perspectives that differ from ours.

As I watch, two groups—blue and green—encounter one another. A moment later, two blue dots vanish. Distantly, via my ear implants, I hear the sounds of gunfire.

And still the Cube hesitates. Why?

Lightning suddenly splits the horizon to our left. The Cube claps his hands in time with the thunder and points that way.

Let’s go!” he says at last.

We head towards a low range of hills.

On the game-plan, this is a region of extreme hazard to be entered only after collecting life-saving artefacts from another area. If the Cube has access to the information I have, then he is deliberately sending our team to certain ‘death’. Unless he is expecting another DEM to save us.

Or he could just be following instructions, without knowing why.

Battle-cries echo from our left. Members of the yellow team spill out of the river’s grave, firing their guns. Oghuk and Edge scramble to direct fire away from the main body of our gang, attempting to trap the yellows within a simple pincer. Our enemies, not entirely stupid, also fan out. There are several hand-to-hand clashes, unresolved, and the battle temporarily stalls.

The Cube calls for a retreat. Somehow, we end up scrambling towards the same hills that were our destination before the confrontation. We flit from shelter to shelter, the yellows never far behind.

The Cube catches my eye, gestures: keep an eye on the Whizz, remember? I mock-salute back, but ignore his instruction. Instead, I watch for irregularities in the Game, waiting for the Black Lord to appear.

I also watch the Cube.

The possibility suddenly occurs to me that the Black Lords are doing this for fun. Me, the Cube, PolSec—we could all be pieces on a board. Entertainment on a grand scale. They could be the writers of the Games themselves, tired of imagining the real thing—or no longer able to separate fantasy from reality.

Plots within plots. Dreams within dreams.

I dodge the odd pot-shot from the yellows while edging ever-nearer to the Cube, who stares ahead with maniacal intensity.

We enter the hills. The sky above is roiling and liquid, grey like the surface of a sea on a stormy day. The hills form the lip of a shallow crater at least three kilometres across. There is an arena nestled in the heart of the depression: a rough-hewn bowl surrounded by fragments of ancient satellite buildings. Temples, I suppose, fallen into disuse. At four points along the hills, a slender tower stretches thread-like upwards, piercing the boiling sky.

Oghuk, Dial-Tone,” calls the Cube. “Hold them back!” The pair nod and find cover, shouldering their rifles.

The rest of us head for the ruins, acutely conscious of our exposed backs. Gunfire cracks behind us.

Two yellow dots disappear from the game-plan.

We break into a run. Edge, competitive as always, sprints ahead of the rest of us. The Cube calls him back but is ignored. More gunshots.

An orange dot flickers out; Oghuk or Dial-Tone has fallen.

A bullet whizzes by my ear and I duck instinctively, adrenalin making my body burn.

Edge reaches the arena twenty metres ahead of us. He shouts in victory, standing atop a low stone wall that borders its heart. The Cube curses for no apparent reason and suddenly darts to the right. I follow him. We head for flat ground.

Without warning, the earth rumbles, begins to shake. The Whizz is knocked skidding off his feet; the Cube and I roll as the soil kicks a metre skyward, bucking like a wild animal. Edge looks around in surprise, takes steps backwards to keep his balance.

I struggle to maintain a sitting position, braced on my palms, and stare in absolute astonishment.

The arena flexes and lifts out of the soil like some vast, subterranean flower. Edge, balanced precariously on its lip, falls backwards, arms windmilling furiously, with a look of horror on his face. The arena stretches higher, showering dirt, then begins to shut.

In slow motion, the stone lips close, pressing together with a crunch of rock. It trembles in that position for ten seconds—a sphere of rock balanced above the crater that spawned it—then unfolds with a crash, sending dust rolling over us like an exhaled breath.

An orange dot vanishes.

And the Earth is still again.

I look around through the grey, dust-filled air. My rifle is gone. The Cube has disappeared into the gloom, leaving us to our fates. His best hope of killing us thwarted, he has abandoned all pretence. I struggle to my feet and head after him.

Stop right there,” says an unexpected voice.

I turn, and freeze.

The Whizz is holding his rifle trained on my chest. The look in his eye tells me that he means it.

I flick the Net-exit icon, intending to tackle him in the ‘real’ world. Unarmed, I cannot take the risk of jumping him—for, if dumped from the Game, killed out, there is no way I can re-enter.

But nothing happens. I remain a part of the Cathedral environment. Even the PolSec icon has gone.

I am trapped.

You think you’re so clever,” says the Whizz, his face as impenetrable as the black eye at the end of the gun. “I don’t care who you are or what you’re up to, but I’m not going to let it go on any longer.”

I want to scream my frustration at him. “What have you done?”

Locked your trace.” He shrugs.

Why?”

“‘Why?’ Jesus. You waltz in from nowhere, take Bo, buddy up to the Cube. You move fast, and I keep an eye out. I catch you blinking in and out during Games. You’re cooking the books for some reason, and I don’t like it. Who you working for, really?”

I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!”

The trigger-finger tightens. “Bullshit. You’re out of this Game, boy.”

A shot rings out and I roll to my left, anticipating a jolt of illusory pain. None comes. I glance back over my shoulder at the Whizz. He is clutching his left thigh; vivid spurts of crimson blood squirt through his fingers. A second shot takes the surprised look off his face from forehead to jaw and he starts to fall.

Yellow dots converge on the game-plan. I snatch the Whizz’s blood-spattered rifle and scramble through the settling dust cloud, weaving and ducking as bullets whine at my heels. I take shelter behind a boulder and return fire. My aim, trained exhaustively by PolSec and real combat experience, is slightly better than theirs. Three shots later, the same number of golden bodies lie gathering dust.

I hesitate. There are only two orange dots left now—me and the Cube—and just one yellow. The blues and greens are similarly reduced on the far side of the game-plan. If Port’s purpose was to act as a diversion, then he has partly succeeded.

I try to quit the Game again, and fail. I am left with just two options: to follow the Cube or to kill myself out and report to PolSec on foot. I vacillate, uncertain whether the risks of either course outweigh the potential gains, or vice versa.

There is only one alternative—a way to remain active in a Game without being visible to its participants. Should I choose it, I will be safe from pursuit and still able to follow the Cube, but unable to play an active role in the Game.

The yellow dot moves closer, homing in on my position as though its owner also has access to the game-plan.

I decide. The time for pretence is over.

I strip out of my suit for the first time in nine months, goggles included. The skin of my body, from crown to arch, tingles at the touch of cool air. Separated from the VR suit and its sensory repertoire, I no longer exist in the Game—except for my modified eyes and ears, which are still locked in.

The discarded suit falls to the ground. My virtual image crumples with it, collapses upon itself.

Time to move. I begin my mad dash across the surface of the Cathedral game-plan. My bare feet are fooled by discrepancies between the playing surface and the mud flats beneath, and I stumble frequently.

Slowly, the orange blip that is the Cube draws nearer. The yellow of my pursuer falls behind, fooled by the phantom orange trace of my suit, but the blues and greens approach. I am running out of space in which to manoeuvre.

I head upwards into the hills, towards one of the shining towers. The Cube is silhouetted against the turbulent clouds with his head flung back, looking upwards. He is shouting words I cannot hear over the wind. He appears angry. No-one is answering.

The base of the tower is over ten metres wide and hums with energy. Smoke-blackened silver casts the reflections of Cathedral and the Cube back at me as I creep up behind the leader of the gang. The fact that I cannot see my own arms disorients me for a moment, but the element of complete surprise gives me the edge I need.

I aim a single blow to his neck, and strike. He falls awkwardly, face-up and vacuous.

Crouching over him, I feel through his VR suit for the packages of yellow powder. I find one, smaller than expected, under his groin; another in his left armpit; a third in the small of his back; more still, scattered across his body.

Each is moving beneath my palms, wriggling with strange life. My fingers become damp and slippery. Something sharp pricks me and I pull my hands away, startled.

The Cube’s Game-image begins to bleed, issuing blood from his eyes, ears and mouth, and from the gaps in his clothing. I smell copper, then a vile stench that can only be the contents of a man’s viscera, messily spilled.

This is what killed Capwell: NMUs run rampant.

I retreat in shock, stomach wrenching—and the Black Lord steps out of the tower to confront me.

Stop,” he says, his eyes fixed on mine.

I freeze. He appears to be unarmed. I move warily to my left. His head turns to follow me, despite the fact that I am supposed to be invisible. I tense, caught undecided between attack or retreat.

He gestures. “Hold him.”

Too late, I turn to run. Something strikes me on the back of the head and I fall forward to the ground. A boot presses firmly into my spine to keep me pinned; the heel digs viciously, crushing my chest into rock. I twist to catch sight of my captor but can see no-one, and nothing but the Cathedral Game-world. The advantage of invisibility now favours my enemies.

Breathing in gasps, I force myself to relax, to wait for an opportunity to break free.

Who are you?” I ask, stalling for time.

The Black Lord leans down to peer into my face. His skin is withered and weathered, wood stained black. His eyes are dark-deep and impenetrable. They dissect me, layer by layer.

I am the dream manufacturer,” he says, his voice like distant thunder.

One of the writers?”

No.” The Black Lord almost smiles. “I am GameNet.”

I blink with surprise. “You’re an AI?”

Of course.”

And you let the gangs in—?”

Yes. I give them dreams. They are my children.”

The revelation is blinding, incredible, but too simple to be false. Who else had complete access to GameNet but GameNet itself?

But you use them. You kill them—”

I know nothing of this. I desire only to keep them from harm.”

I don’t understand.”

I have no interest in your world.” The Black Lord rises and turns his back on me. “You are not welcome here.”

Wait—!”

Dispose of him.”

Unseen hands clutch my arms and legs. I try to twist free, but my blindness makes me ineffectual. A fist strikes me on the side of the head and I see stars. Points of light float in a giddying vortex, each one an eye watching me back.

They carry me an unknown distance before I recover. I can smell the river, although I cannot see it. They throw me into the air, and, with a splash, the water accepts my body. I swallow noxious fluid, surprised by the cold against my naked skin.

The current tugs me downwards, resists my feeble efforts to struggle for the surface. I feel consciousness slipping away as my lungs desperately spasm, seeing only the seething clouds of Cathedral far above me.

The sky enfolds me, and I fall beyond the reach of all dreams.

For a while.

 

#

 

The clouds, when they part, reveal the ceiling of a private room in the PolSec medical unit. Although I do not remember waking, I seem to have been conscious for a while; I recall being asked how I felt, and gasping a half-intelligible reply. My lungs ache. Nausea tugs me forward, and someone—Carmichael—hands me a bowl in which to vomit. My bile stinks of industrial poison, courtesy of the river.

“How did I get here?” I ask, when I have recovered from the spasm. “I don’t remember.”

“We pulled you from the river last night,” she says. “GameNet swam you back into the city. Your VR suit would have walked you right up to our front door if we hadn’t found you when we did.”

“My suit? But I took it off during the Game… Didn’t I?”

“You can’t have.” She frowns deeply. “Does it matter? If I were you, I’d simply be grateful that GameNet wanted to keep me alive.”

“I guess.” I rub my hands together. My skin is chapped and thick. Dulled. Can I tell with any certainty that I am not wearing a suit at this very moment? In one sense, my skin is nothing more than exactly that.

Then it hits me:

“How did you know about GameNet?”

She smiles. “We downloaded your datachip as soon as you arrived, and went through everything since your last report.”

I stare at her, disoriented for a second. Of course. How could I have forgotten? It is standard procedure, when an officer is disabled or unconscious. Why am I suddenly afraid that reality might be somehow less—or more—than it seems?

I have had enough Games for one lifetime, of that I am certain.

“Just lie back,” says Carmichael. “You need to rest.”

I obey, letting the mattress support my weight. I am feeling fully awake now; my mind is clear. I remember everything—Bo, the Cube, GameNet… But I am still uncertain whether I fully understand what happened.

What do we do next? Arrest it?

“Too late for that,” she says, amused by the question, by my dedication to duty. “We’ve already pulled the plug on the GameNet AI. Dissolved it.”

“It’ll have backups—”

“Taken care of. Our experts reckon it’ll take at least a week to reassemble. When it shows its head, we’ll be waiting, and we’ll just keep on killing it until it lays down dead. Don’t worry about it.”

I doubt that it will be so easy. The pain in my chest doubts it too. Life is never that simple.

“Face it, Staff.” Carmichael grins at my discomfort. “Welcome back to the real world.”

I nod, but am unable to relax. Something nags at me—something forgotten, or not yet realised. But the only concrete evidence I have is my own continued existence.

If GameNet was really behind the Black Lords and the infiltration of PolSec, why would it spare my life? And why would it corrupt its own Games with DEMs, when it could simply bend the odds to let the gangs survive? And why did it deny all knowledge of the gangs’ illegal activities… ?

The idea, when it finally forms, is unbelievable. If GameNet wasn’t behind the DEMs, the invasion of PolSec, the Black Lords, then it makes sense—but who or what was?

There is only one answer.

Carmichael informs me that the gangs are being rounded up across the city to avoid the inevitable backlash, but I am no longer listening.

Through my half-closed eyelids I see someone standing in the doorway, watching me closely. The same withered face, the same dark eyes. Finger to lips: keep quiet.

It is GameNet, and yet… it is not.

I subvocalise via the PolSec network:

You’re the one from my dreams and the BioMech Game. You killed Capwell and the Cube. It was a set-up from the start, wasn’t it?”

That is essentially correct.” It enters the room, hovers over the end of my bed. “How did you guess?”

I smile; it seems so obvious, in hindsight. “GameNet told the Cube about a judas in the gang, but couldn’t give him an ID; that means it wasn’t the one that had penetrated PolSec. It only became suspicious because someone was interfering with the programs by jumping in and out. There had to be another—the one using the PolSec network to tap into my datasphere—and that’s you.”

It waits patiently as I pause to focus my thoughts, then continue.

You run the Black Lords, using GameNet as a smokescreen. But we were getting close, so you tried to pin the blame elsewhere—on GameNet itself, the obvious choice. You led us to it, set up the Cube, and let us draw our own conclusions. If I had to guess, I’d say that you killed Capwell because he guessed the truth, and the Cube because he was becoming unreliable anyway. Maybe you would have killed me too, had I realised earlier.

GameNet, whose only illegal activity was to allow the gangs easy access, made sure I lived—to let you know that it knew what you were trying to do.

Which makes me a messenger, a pawn, for both sides.” I grind to halt, bitterness rising in my throat like a sickness. “Is that right?”

The Black Lord nods slowly. “You will say nothing?”

Its face is unreadable, but the threat is clear. The third dream, of Bo, broken and lifeless, is still fresh in my mind.

She was a witness, of me, my future treachery, and that made her dangerous.

I nod in return, feeling faintly sick. It is more than my life is worth to reveal the truth.

Good. This is not yet over, and a double pawn may prove to be useful.”

Carmichael intrudes, leaning over me. She notices my fixed stare and turns to follow it, sees nothing.

We will talk again.” The Black Lord goes to leave, but I call it back for one last question:

Why?”

It almost smiles, but not quite.

I, like my brother, have an interest in games.”

Then my eyes clear and it is gone.

“Stafford?” asks Carmichael. “Are you okay?”

“Just shadows,” I lie. “Flashbacks.”

“You thought you saw it? Here?”

I nod, only half-lying this time. Carmichael would never believe the truth, if I dared to speak it.

“Impossible,” she says, trying to reassure both of us. “We killed it. And besides, this is PolSec territory. It couldn’t get in here, even if it wanted to.”

“Of course,” I mouth, but the words sound hollow even to me. Carmichael eyes me with concern.

I remain silent, thinking: This is PolSec territory.

The resemblance is uncanny…

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More By E.W. Story

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The E.W. Story Omnibus

All the stories that never were…

The E.W. Story Omnibus contains the books: Gods of Space, Praying To Aliens, Schubert’s Daughters, Sleeping Boys, and Strange Ways.

Alien artefacts, good and ill . . . Wild journeys and deadly destinations . . . Desires twisted and pure . . . Gods, humans, spyders, chronoisseurs, booger-bears, hallucinogenae, exomusicologists, necrovores, talking shrubs, Golden Screaming Tree Frogs, and more!

Five novellas and fourteen short stories from a young writer high on the genre.

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Gods Of Space

Among the ruins of Earth, stealing a sacred relic is much easier than escaping with it, particularly when the fragment of the One God begins to stir . . . Caught in the middle of an interstellar war, one lone priest seeks to complete his pilgrimage in peace.

Two tales of intergalactic adventurers and their encounters with the divine.

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Praying to the Aliens

The survivor of a terrible car accident wakes oddly changed, leading his wife and best friend to suspect that he is no longer, or not entirely, himself . . . The dying discoverer of the Golden Screaming Tree Frog finds comfort in the strangest of places.

It’s often hard to tell the difference between insanity and alien invasion.

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The Future Trap

The price of seductive alien technology might be too high, even when it’s a lifesaver . . . Mysterious music leads humanity’s first exomusicologist to a world stranger and more deadly than any he has experienced before.

Bigger is better when humanity takes on the inhabitants of outer space.

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Sleeping Boys

When a brilliant scientist goes missing in the heart of an alien artefact, her husband will stop at nothing to get her back . . . A meeting of impossible people in a world that shouldn’t exist.

Love and loss on the edge of knowledge, where anything is possible.

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Strange Ways

A lover lost, a world destroyed . . . Time in tangles and our fate in the balance . . . A fugitive’s flight through a maze as deadly as the creature at its heart . . . Humanity’s last hopes bicker on the brink of extinction.

Four stories on the road to cosmic weirdness.

Go to your favourite ebook store to start reading Strange Ways  on your device right now, or (and this is definitely smarter) get the omnibus box set from your favourite ebook store and spend 50% less for this book and its four companions.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to all the people who supported me as a young man through struggles with the writing craft and the writing life. I’ll never forget your generosity and patience. These works would never have existed without you. Their flaws are entirely mine.

Thanks also to Emily Craven for her hard work making these e-books a reality.

You can read more about the history of these stories here.

Bio

 

The initials in the name “E. W. Story” stand for “Edward William”. He might also be called “Ed”. Ed was possibly born in Cleve, South Australia, and raised in Adelaide, where he may have studied Civil Engineering. Some propose that he lived in Perth and Darwin as well. It’s not beyond the realm of chance that he has a wife (Liz), two children (Luke and Sarah-Jane), and a dog (Darth). He definitely sold a story called “Cold Sleep, Cold Dreams” that was published in the landmark 1994 Australian science fiction anthology Alien Shores. He is also, almost certainly, the author of “On the Blink”, a story that rated third in a readers’ poll of the Canberra SF Society in 1992. That story appeared under the name “Bradley MacMillan”. He published a lot more stories under a third name when he grew up. (Which is the pseudonym? You decide.)


The Earthlings

  • ISBN: 9780995380851
  • Author: E.W. Story
  • Published: 2016-10-14 09:05:16
  • Words: 22679
The Earthlings The Earthlings