Sleepless (i)

Lois Barnum sat, bleary and uncomfortable, within the voluntary prison of a red-eye flight. She hated flying, but it was a necessary evil. Flying overnight, in this grotesque, screen-lit limbo, was not. It was either the sign of an intensely well-managed schedule, or of a botched one. This, of course, was the latter. But there she was, not quite half-asleep in a metal box trundling through the night sky. All for the reward of rushing out another episode of the bullshit TV show she hosted.

She adjusted her eye mask and pillow for the thousandth time, and began to grumble for the hundredth over how this had happened. Season five of the euphemistically titled “Out of the Ordinary” was all cut, spliced, and ready to go, and she was ready for a holiday. Then some fucker in the network decided that three of the episodes would be ‘problematic’ given the ‘current climate’. So, she had to say bye-bye to the man who thought that Jews invented Africa, the man who thought that space was a myth perpetuated by Jews, and the man who… well. It involved a certain ethnoreligious group. All quality stuff, in the sense that it possessed the show’s most saleable quality in being reckless, exploitative and tacky. But apparently it was a little close to the bone. That was the problem in dealing with a network that was morally bankrupt, but not yet close to being actually bankrupt. PR.

So, she had to dip into the files and find three more lunatics to present to her viewers, as quickly as possible. Preferably people who weren’t going to say anything racially inflammatory – at least, not so much that it couldn’t be edited out. Sadly, most of the quick hits were already covered for the season. They had reptilian shape-shifters, they had gruesome dietary habits, they had an embarrassment of outlandish fetishes. They had flat earth, hollow earth, pyramidal earth – any shape but spherical, basically. That was a bumper episode. Still, she wasn’t allowed any raging anti-Semites. In short, she had the bearded lady, the tattooed man, and the conjoined twins, but her freak show had just been robbed of all its growth disorders. To the bottom of the barrel she went.

She managed perhaps two hours of sleep before being rudely ejected into a harsh airport morning. Tom, the camera guy, had the misfortune of already living in Georgia and would be meeting her there. He was loitering outside as planned, twirling the keys to a beat-up SUV.

“Hey.” He said. “You look like shit.”

“Very astute. Fortunately, there are people willing to take my money in exchange for a solution to this problem.”

“Mine is to stand on the correct end of the camera. You can have that one for free.”

She made a vulgar hand gesture and climbed into the passenger seat. They were on the road, which was better than being in the air, but still pretty miserable.

“You know where this guy lives?” She asked.

“Yeah. Never heard of him, though. What’s his deal?”

“Claims not to have slept in the past forty-odd years. He’s had a few local news articles to his name. I guess he thinks that sleep is some kind of engineered flaw in humans that he’s managed to overcome. Like a test from our space-alien overlords, or whatever.”

“Or a magical Jewish curse.”

“Don’t get me started. Anyway, we’ve got to bust this out quick, so hopefully a day and a night should do it for footage.”

“Not exactly going to leap off the screen, is it? We gave the viewers somebody who was willing to fuck a box of old socks, and now we’re asking them to settle for somebody who’s just quite tired?”

“Well, he probably lives in a total pigsty. That’s always good for a start. Then I’m hoping he’s a good talker, basically. Maybe­ he has some mysticism stuff going on. If we’re lucky we can get a shot of him sleeping.”

“Right. That’s always good stuff.”

“Get a sequence of him explaining that he wasn’t actually sleeping, just communing with the world serpent. You know how it goes.”

“Yeah. Should be an easy gig for me, anyway. All hinging on the interview this time.”

“Nothing new there. How far out are we going? I should get some shut-eye.”

“Middle of nowhere. Rest up.”

Sleep proved to be more of a technicality. She was able to flicker in and out, but only at a rate that made the whole endeavour rather fruitless. It was enough to remind her of how punishingly tired she was, but not enough to provide even the most perfunctory relief. The internal grumbling began anew.

It was deep into the afternoon when they arrived. Even so, it was hotter than hell and many times more humid. They’d gone some way off the beaten track, taking dirt roads and detours (Tom was not a fantastic navigator), before finally arriving at an old farmhouse. She rubbed her eyes, clenched her forehead, and winced her way out of the car. First impressions were good. It was always a boon when things played exactly to stereotype, and this place was putting on a virtuoso performance. Dilapidated, tucked away in an overgrown pastiche of rural isolation, pocked with the shoddy repairs and contraptions of a man who clearly had little connection to modern life. Inside would likely be even better.

“Alright.” She yawned. “Let’s get some shots before the family of cannibals that so clearly live here decide to greet us.”

“Sounds good. Might as well die doing what we love. Producing crap.”

“There’s probably a joke in there somewhere, but I am far too tired to reach for it.”

She was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the misery of being sleepless and exhausted on a plane was handily outmatched by that of being sleepless and exhausted in the depths of Georgia. Her head was spinning in the heat, she felt like she’d been sweating for two days straight, and any kind of complex thought was rapidly fleeing the scene in a doomed hunt for cooler pastures. In theory, this was her time to prep some interview questions. This was a rushed shoot, so every stray little window of time was important. Wasn’t going to happen, though. A yawn and a grimace was the most she could get done.

It didn’t take long before Tom felt satisfied with his collection of ‘spooky countryside’ footage (a technical term). It was time to go and meet their man. The house was even more flamboyantly decrepit up close. Strips of bare wood rubbed shoulders with three or four different paint jobs. A motor flecked in seven different shades of rust puttered away to one side, serving as vanguard to a liquor still of equally ruddy complexion. This house was an old, forgotten pauper that never got the help they needed, all trauma, isolation and decay. It was perfect.

“Right, let’s get this over with.” She said. “You good to go?”

“Yeah.”

His name was Al – that was all he was willing to give. He certainly looked the part. Long, tangled salt-and-pepper hair. A pair of coarse red eyes presided over cavernous dark circles. He wore a hodgepodge of thick, greasy fabrics beneath a leather jacket, seemingly unperturbed by the heat. He stank, enough that she was confident it would come across on film. Some smells can reach the eyes. For all that, he was quite affable.

“You the TV guys?” That was the greeting. He had a soft, educated sort of voice. “Want to start with the tour? I expect you’re going to want to get some footage of the mess.”

She could hardly argue with that. It was a pleasant surprise to be working with someone who recognized the conceit of the exercise. You normally had to spend some time convincing the star that you were offering them a serious platform (then deal with the hate mail later, if it came to it). Al seemed happy enough to go along with the demands of the show from the outset. He ushered them merrily about the place, which was palatial, albeit for a particularly undemanding definition of ‘palace’ – a creaking labyrinth of dust, splinters, and strata upon strata of discarded knickknacks. He pointed out areas that might be of particular interest. The cupboard whose sole purpose was to play host to an improbable array of spiders. The bathroom that could only be described as ‘disconcertingly brown’. The flight of steps rolling down to a cellar that even Al had never found the stomach to enter. He was also a painter (of sorts), and his work was nailed up all over the house, unframed. The prodigious volume of the work was probably to be expected, as was its nature – a melange of abstract and minimal styles, slathered onto canvas with titles scrawled illegibly above.

Then, of course, there was the bedroom. For an episode about a man who never slept, that was naturally going to be the centre of attention. ‘Bedroom’ was something of a misnomer, even if that was what Al called it. There was no bed, for one thing. A slightly grimy-looking armchair squatted in the centre of the room, flanked by heaps of books. The walls here were smothered in paintings, some applied directly to the wood. An easel stood in one corner, a padlocked old chest in another.

“This is where I spend the nights, mostly.”

“In the chair?”

“That’s right. Or painting. I like working in poor light. Means you can’t really see the finished product until dawn.”

“Sure. You happy to shoot some interview stuff here?”

“I am.” He looked over to Tom. “Have you filmed enough of the house? Don’t be shy about it.”

“Oh, more than enough.”

She let out a prolonged yawn. The house’s charms had kept her stimulated, but that spell of alertness was fading quickly. The fuzz and the fog were rushing back in. She had forgotten how hot it was, how heavy her limbs and eyelids were, how nice an imaginary bed felt.

“Are you tired?” Asked Al. “Would you like some coffee?”

“No, no. Maybe later. Let’s just press on.”

Well, that was probably a bad decision, but she was sticking to it. Time to let the madman say his piece.

The End (i)

Reunion

It was shortly gone dawn when he left the village. He hadn’t been able to sleep, and he wanted to be one of the first to get there. As such, he was a little disappointed to see the temple already flooded with hopefuls. He shouldn’t really have been surprised. This was their chance, same as it was his. For most, this was all they would get. It took a shrewd and dedicated pilgrim to attend this event twice. Any more than that was a life’s work, the resort of the inescapably obsessed or desperate. This was the asking, and it was the most extraordinary event to which many among this growing throng of the ordinary would ever be party. It was their blue moon, their black swan, an event that could well define them for years to come.

Purple and gold banners flapped wistfully, their rows marking a path down into the valley and the mouth of the temple. An old, stony maw into the rock, a landmark seldom visited and a threshold seldom crossed. It was uncanny to see the crowd stirring about it. The people of this county feared this place, respected it, and so neglected it. But the arrival of a noble swept away old suspicions. They were the new gods, the new power, a face of sovereignty that could be both seen and touched – but only when they allowed it.  And so, on this sacred occasion, the people would defy their reverence for the old in pursuit of a glimpse at the new. He was already privileged, in that respect. He had seen a princess when he was stationed in the northwest, and the mark of even that briefest of encounters had not been erased by all the blood and trauma that followed. That was a trade that many would be glad to make. For him, it was not enough. And so he was here, at the asking. For those lucky enough to step inside, this would be more than a glance, more than a chance and passing visit. It was a meeting, one to one, with greatness. Am opportunity to make one’s pleas to a different class of ear, to show one’s troubles to a better class of eye.

Down among the masses, he starting inching forward, brushing past the idle and the lackadaisical until he was within a dozen or so yards of the temple door. Here, the valley was thick with the hopeful. Bodies pushed up against him from all directions, the smell of humanity filled his nostrils. The rumble of conversation, loud in its own right, was peppered with shouting and hysterics. It was not dissimilar to times past. Had he closed his eyes, he would have been back in two feet of snow, trapped in formation, hearing the violence drawing closer and closer. So he kept them open. Peering out over the assembled heads, he could see the noble’s personal guard – disquietingly tall figures wrapped in iron-grey robes, their faces hidden beneath hoods and behind masks. A true devotee would perhaps have been able to read into their garb, their weaponry, their positioning. Nobles were seen so infrequently that they came to be identified by the events and the people that surrounded them. It was likely that nobody in the crowd had ever seen the face that awaited them inside the temple, but some would have seen or heard of their silent, towering custodians.

“What will you ask for?” The woman next to him sounded giddy. “I’ve come all the way from a frontier town. I’m going to ask him to drive the clans off our land.”

He didn’t reply. Even if he had wanted to, the moment was stolen by the sound of a gong, whose rippling was immediately outmatched by the fervour it incited. At once, a hundred pairs of hands reached out towards the door just as a hundred voices cried out to be chosen. The mass swelled forward, stopping short of the guard, and becoming somehow even tighter. He was carried along in that vice-grip, clearly powerless to resist the motion of the group, swallowed up in a rush that was at once kinetic and claustrophobic. It was, again, familiar.

Then the choosing began. One at a time, the guard plucked members from the waiting mass and escorted them through the door, into the innards of the temple and their moment of asking. He stood and watched as a series of awestruck, nerve-wracked, euphoric faces were ushered inside. Some returned, flushed with tears, to a hero’s welcome. Others did not. There would be other ways out of that place, little hidden doors tucked away in the hills. Some would want to be alone. This went on and on, all through sunset. By evening, the periphery had left. Those who were only there for the spectacle, whose need to go inside had been less than their need for food and warmth that night. Let them go, he thought. They had no place here to begin with. He still stood, locked in place with the rest of the desperate, holding on to this opportunity until the very last.

That was when he was chosen. In a blur, a surreality, he was taken from the crowd, through the maw, down many generations of stairways and corridors, to a doorway bordered in purple and gold. There, he was left alone. His breath caught. His skin shook. This was the first moment of trepidation, of new fear, that he had felt since those days beyond the frontier. The fright and powerlessness of war were soaked deep in his skin. This was new, a peaceful terror, in this moment of self-determination. It is one thing to spend long years in the pursuit of a chance, another entirely to receive one. Gathering himself, he stepped through.

The noble sat on a throne carved out from the rock, now draped in silk. He wore a garment, impeccably tailored, the likes of which he had never seen, something that spoke of sex, sovereignty and military all at once. An iron circlet separated hair and visage, both immaculate. He glowed, even in the sombre light of this buried chamber. He was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.

The noble raised an eyebrow, or curled a lip, or twinkled an eye – it was impossible to tell. He fell to his knees, bowed his head, and kissed the floor.

“Your name?” The noble’s voice was quiet, soft, but all-consuming.

“Hughes, my lord.”

“That is not your birthname.”

“No, my lord. It is my peace-name.”

“Then you have fought for us.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“You may raise your head.”

He did, feeling both shame and excitement at the chance to look once more upon his benefactor.

“What is your asking, Hughes?”

“There is… someone I want back.”

It was a thought that had driven him this far, put wind in his tattered, fraying old sails for this long. Now, in the light of such glory, it seemed ridiculous. Why want anybody, anything when one such as this exists? In that moment, he understood the pilgrims, the unhinged devotees who would chase the ghost of a noble to the ends of the world. To meet one in such intimate circumstances was to lose something. A moment’s basking in this man’s presence, and he could feel the hooks digging in, the exquisite barbs that would prise some vital part of him away in the inevitable parting. It was possible that nothing would be worth anything after this. But still, he had come for a reason, and he would see it through.

“A soldier.”

“Yes.”

“From death?”

“No, my lord. At least, not that I know. Just from somewhere far away.”

The noble fixed him with a perfect, prying gaze.

“They are beyond our borders.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“It is a difficult thing that you ask. You would put such an onus on me, in the pursuit of your own satisfaction?”

“… yes, my lord.” This response had to be forced from his throat. He hated himself. What measure was his petty, impossible wish and the finite joy it might bring him? Certainly, any beauty therein was less than the ugliness of imposing it upon the god before him. He began to cry.

“Stop your tears.”

The tears stopped.

“I will do this for you. But there will be a price.”

“Yes, my lord. Any price that you name.”

“This person will find their way to you, and you will spend a decade together. Then, you will be taken, and you will serve me.”

“You are too generous, my lord. It is hardly a price.”

“But do not have false hope. You will serve me, but you will not see me, or hear me. When we part today, we are severed. You will have a decade of warmth, from my benevolence, and then a lifetime of cold in my debt.”

A lifetime of cold at the noble’s behest was infinitely preferable to a comfortable life with no connection to him.

“Do you accept?”

“I do.”

“Then leave. It is done.”

He rose slowly, on weak legs. This was his last chance to see this beauty, to share in its light and air. If he was slow in leaving, he might yet be graced with another syllable. He lingered, but not another word was spoken.

He walked alone through another lineage of corridors and stairways. Joy, sorrow, fear and anticipation ran messily together into a numb frenzy – it was unbearable. He emerged from a hidden little door, tucked away in the hills.

Some years later, he found himself at a port on the eastern seaboard. He was wrapped in an embrace, touching cheeks with a familiar, beloved face that had been lost to him for so long. As a tear ran, he closed his eyes. There, behind his eyelids, was an image of beauty that would never be seen again.­­­

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jeremiad

Somewhere in the depths of the bureau, two researchers lurched through a graveyard shift. Tara flicked through screen after screen, feeding data to a tired brain that did not appreciate the gift. Management kept the room, and the screens, in a state of perpetual dimness, making everything just slightly too taxing for a pair of drowsy eyes. The smell of coffee and ozone covered the whole scene like a blanket. This room never smelled any other way. A few metres away, Carlos rotated slowly on his chair. He had been doing that for ten minutes.

“So, I’ve been thinking.” He said. She gave a nondescript mumble, which he was happy enough to take as dialogue. “You have all these stories, right? Or myths, or whatever. Where humans, or sentient things that are basically humans, are made out of something fantastical.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Like dust, or clay, or ants, or bones, or…”

“I get the idea.”

“Right. So then, all through history, there’s this constantly evolving story about how you can ‘make a man’, and what he’d be like, and whether he’d be truly human, and so on. And that’s all still going. People are still reading Frankenstein. The guys over in bio are still arguing about cloning and all that philosophy bullshit. Then you’ve got the exact same conversations with androids, and people are still reading Dick.”

“Yes.”

“And then you look at what we’re doing.”

“Sure. What’s your point?”

“Oh, nothing really. Just thinking out loud. I guess, like… truth is stranger than fiction? Plus ca change? Dunno. I think the boredom’s getting to me.”

“It’s been getting to you for the last five hours.”

“Try months.”

“Count your blessings. You weren’t around for version one of this. That was one tenth the speed, and ten times the oversight.”

“Congratulations on your suffering.”

“Thanks.”

Carlos resumed his spinning. She resumed her sifting. Some arbitrarily long, arbitrarily short length of time passed, before something caught her eye.

“Well, this one’s gone to shit.”  She sighed, eyes fixed on the monitor.

“Which one? 17e?” He looked worried.

“No. Well, give it an hour. It’s mid-cycle. But 14h right now.”

“You’re kidding. El Dorado?”

“Yup.”

“Jesus.”

“If you say so.”

“How long have B-group been in there?”

“Four cycles.”

“I’ll buzz Mr. Douglas. He was interested in that one. Get them up on the main display.”

The wall-sized array of screens hummed into life, dousing the office in over-bright, electric light. With a few keystrokes, Tara magnified the scene in question. It was in the heart of their palace, the centre of the small but dazzling world that had been built for them.  A leader stood, mid-speech, draped in the fullest and most luxuriant regalia that his people knew. The crowd watched in rapt attention, jubilance and anger painting their faces. They were dressed in almost equal opulence, this occasion calling for their culture’s highest grade of luxury (although even the lowest was a gilded extravagance by most standards). Behind the orator, a bare, limp body swung, its lifeless form in grim contrast to the animation of the crowd. Tara turned on the audio, and the fire of rhetoric rushed into their dim little office.

“And so, my friends, I say to you that we must act now, or our downfall is at hand. The brightest days live on only in the memories of our fathers, and the darkest will be all we leave for our sons. These newcomers, these aberrations, they stain and blemish all around them. They do not know the art of our prosperity, and in their crude imitations will topple even the greatest of our works. There was a time, not so long ago, that we were perfect. A time when every man, woman and child was wealthy, resplendent and content. That time is sinking further and further into the deep, and we must have the courage to dive in and grasp it, before it is blackened and drowned. No act is truly ugly when performed in the defence of beauty, and the beauty of our city is absolute. Better to bloody our gold than to let in tarnish in strange hands…”

“Alright, that’s enough. Turn that off.” Carlos rubbed his brow.

“Did you really think that wouldn’t happen?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Probably not. I mean… we gave them so much. It looked like a joke, on paper. Way more of every resource than they could ever need. Then four cycles of B-group and they’re burning themselves down?”

“You wait. There’s trouble brewing in 14i. I’d bet my paycheque that within the next two cycles they’re killing each other over the choice between emeralds and jade.”

“So, a ‘no’ on the whole 14 series?”

“Negative results are still results.”

“You tell that to management. They’re getting shirty.”

“Oh, I’ll them something alright. These things take time. We’ll get there.”

Carlos did not seem convinced. He turned back to his station and began poring over something, presumably the 14h data. He wasn’t seeing the big picture. They would find something that works. But they’d have to wade through a lot of defective scenarios, then defective combinations of defective scenarios. One day, they’d have the good fortune to start on defective combinations of viable scenarios. But that was a way off. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Rome fell. They needed something much more robust.

Still, it was hard not to feel a little disheartened. With nothing to do until Mr. Douglas rolled out of bed and made his way down, she found herself combing absent-mindedly through past failures. There wasn’t much to be gained from this kind of rumination, and she knew it, but it had been a long night. A little guilty displeasure wouldn’t hurt.

In 11d, the people starved. The conflict over a common but miserly source of food had left both groups with nothing to eat. In 15b, the doomsday clock was all but spent. No agreement had been reached – for stopping it, or on its veracity as a doomsday clock. In 18a, the C-group was all dead, and the A- and B-groups were both starting to look like hammers in search of nails. Easy enough to see what was coming. Across the board, they failed. They failed quickly in the harshest scenarios, slowly in the most generous. Given a problem to solve, they refused to solve it. Given a helping hand, they refused to take it. No matter what world she made for them, it was only a question of time until the battle lines were drawn, and then, eventually, the last breath. It was easy, if only for a moment, to feel that the endeavour was hopeless.

But she would press on. This was still the basic stuff. They had reams of reams of future tests, each just waiting for the limits on extremity and complexity to rise. Parameters that were totally implausible in the real world, but that could yet bear fruit. The possibilities were vast beyond consideration, and somewhere in that haystack lay a needle. They would find it, even if it meant taking the whole thing apart, one straw at a time. They had to, after all. There she sat, part of her own much larger, much more intricate scenario. One that, much like all these little simulacra, was well on its way to shit. And, although vast and inscrutable, the universe was what it was. No more, no less. The options available were predetermined, even if they could only command the utter rudiments at present. Through some unseen combination, some undreamt application of those instruments, the course could be averted. That was a matter of faith. Hers were the tools of insight and inquiry, the lenses and the mirrors, and she would operate them dutifully.

Mr. Douglas would arrive soon. He’d grind his teeth, fret, talk politics and funding. The segregationists would have a field day with 14h (surely peace could be achieved by simply keeping A and B apart?). Their opponents would argue that, had the two groups been present from the start, the scenario would have been a roadmap to utopia. The cult of austerity would point to the luxury and abundance of 14h’s culture, a harbinger of moral decay and atrocity – their scenario was too easy, and so it was too difficult. On and on it would go, each voice taking the result as their own, just another weapon for the proselytisers to point at each other. And, in each case, there would be completed trials just waiting to disprove them, all going ignored and unheard over the din of battle. Ultimately, the downfall of 14h’s people didn’t mean anything much. Right now, downfall was the only constant.

That was just a matter of time, or so she’d tell them. And that was just a matter of faith. Management was caught between those who believed in pushing projects, and those who believed in ending them. It was strange. All agreed that they were heading for a fall, one way or another, and yet so many insisted on not trying to change it. Well, maybe that wasn’t her problem. She had her hands full with all those tools of inquiry and insight. That had to be enough, even if it didn’t always feel like it.

On her screen, the flames were rising in 17e. She watched the numbers run down to zero, took a sip of coffee, and started writing the report.

 

 

The End

Preta

It was getting late. He was in that clumsy window of the evening, too early for sleep but late enough that no desire remained to stay awake. So, he was settling into an hour or so of cosy, drowsy boredom to cap off the day. Circumstance had conspired to offer him some idle time, and he was happy to accept it. There is a rare sort of comfort in having nothing to do and a healthy chunk of time in which to do it. Life is not inclined to reward laziness, but it will sometimes demand it. He intended to oblige, and savour the moment.

Then came a knock on the door.

An unexpected guest was never the start of anything good. In the daytime, it meant salesmen, activists, fussy neighbours, and so on. After dark, it meant nothing, and therefore anything that one’s mind might like to conjure. That was much worse. The sun, in his view, had a sanitising effect on the world. Its rays made everything nicer, safer. It marked the better half of the human experience, the half in which routine and normalcy held sway. Chaos and all its unsavoury cohorts were strictly nocturnal beasts. Their presence changed everything. Harmless strangers by daylight were dangerous by night, and likewise for their activities. Violence and depravity could not tolerate sunlight. This was their time. And now, with this knock, they were looking to invade. He had no line of salt, no black tourmaline. If somebody truly wished to do him harm, they would succeed.

He sank deeper into the sofa and made an attempt at perfect silence. If he could ignore a phone call, he could ignore someone at the door. It was gone ten. The rules were different. He was, he told himself, under no obligation to respond. It was probably a drunk, or somebody of similarly loose conduct, looking for a free phone, or the money for another round. If anything, the onus was on him to spare them both the trouble. That said, he had also heard of an old trick whereby thieves would knock on their victims’ doors. If there was no answer, they would assume that the house was empty, and have their way with it. In that case, he’d be better off responding. Still, it seemed less likely than his first assumption, and it was generally preferable to succumb to the paralysing fear rather than the galvanising one.

Another knock. He would weather the storm. Even a canvasser knocks twice. This product of an indecent night could hardly be expected to exercise greater consideration. He would stay the course, and it would pass.

Then came a neat, rhythmic sequence, an ordered tune composed entirely from the quiet, harsh clacking of metal on metal. The invader persisted with this for some time. As he listened, he found his mind changing. If this stranger had the discipline for such an appeal, then perhaps they were sober. That being the case, perhaps they were looking for help of some kind, in all good faith and for a perfectly respectable problem. It would hardly be proper of him to deny them of it, or at least of the chance to ask. In uncertain relation to his better judgement, he stood, adjusted his glasses, and made his way to the door.

Fully expecting to come face-to-face with some knife-wielding vision of bacchic horror, he unbolted the bolt and unchained the chain. This symbolic wooden slab was his armour, and he was moving to denude himself to the night – or perhaps he was blowing things out of proportion. Still, there was a lump in his throat as he turned the handle.

On the doorstep, half-glowing in the streetlight, a young woman stood expectantly. He had, unconsciously, been expecting a man, and was immediately put at ease. The scenarios he had feared remained entirely possible, but that fear had lost its bite. It now had to be reconciled with an element that he did not associate with threat, and his psyche was not in the business of reconciling unless absolutely necessary. He had gone from a place of exaggerated danger to one of exaggerated safety, and that transition suited him just fine. And she was perfectly unthreatening. She wore a very sensible-looking coat, with her (undyed) hair tied back in a very sensible-looking style. She was pretty, but not in a way that made him overly conscious of sex. All things told, she looked composed, if cold, and quite disconnected from whatever other debauchery might be occurring out there.

“Hi.” She said.

“Hello.”

“I had a good feeling about this door. Been trying all around this part of town. Um… I need some help. Something fell through, and now I don’t have anywhere to stay tonight.”

“… so you’d like to sleep here?”

“Yes, if at all possible. Just until the early trains. I know it’s a lot to ask. But, you know… the houses around here are nice and the people are decent. I just felt like I’d be able to stay out of the way in a spare bed, and stay safe for the night. I really don’t want to risk a cheap hostel or anything like that.”

Well, he could hardly argue with that reasoning. This was indeed a nice, safe area, and his house was probably the nicest, safest part of it. Anywhere still offering beds for a reasonable price at this time would surely be exactly the sorts of places where an honest young woman would have the most cause for concern.

“Oh, well. Um… of course. I have a spare bedroom that you’re welcome to use. That’s what it’s there for, I suppose.”

“You’re sure?”

“Absolutely. It’s not the sort of thing I’d normally do, but I can hardly turn you away in good conscience.”

She let out a charming sigh, and formed an equally charming smile.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you. You have no idea how much of a help this is. You may well be a literal life-saver, you know.”

“Erm… no problem. Happy to help.”

“So, can I come in?”

“By all means.”

He stepped aside, clearing the way for her to enter. This she did with visible relief, bustling through the front hallway and into the kitchen as if to solidify her presence in the house, putting at least one room between her and the outside. He took a second to collect himself before joining her.

“It feels so good to be out of the cold.” She beamed, removing her coat to reveal another eminently sensible ensemble underneath.

“I imagine.”

“Look, I don’t want to get in your way. If you were doing something before, or just going to bed, you can carry on as you were. I’ll be as quiet as possible, and wake up nice and early. Probably be on my way before you’re even awake.

“No, no, that won’t do. Hospitality is a virtue that I don’t want to see lost. Make yourself at home.”

“You’re very kind.”

“Not at all. It’s basic human decency.” Internally, of course, he was congratulating himself profusely.

There was a brief pause as she sat down and untied her hair. Realising that he was now obliged actually to offer some of the virtuous hospitality he had promised, he appealed to the universal emblem thereof.

“Cup of tea?”

“Oh, no thanks. A glass of water would be nice, though.”

“Certainly. I hope you’re not one of those mineral water people.”

“Tap is fine.”

He filled a glass and handed it over. Her eyes seemed to light up as she touched it, and she rubbed the outside with what seemed to him to be a slightly indecent fascination. She was entirely too enthusiastic about it, in short, and was barely attempting to hide the fact. There was, he felt, something decidedly off about that. But he could hardly begrudge her a quirk or two. Nobody’s perfect, or perfectly normal.

“Um…” She paused for a second. “Are you sure you don’t want to go to bed? I don’t want to keep you. It’s late.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me. I’m not too old to stay up a little longer than usual.”

“Are you sure? I’m very grateful to you, but really, I can take things from here.”

At this point, a touch of mistrust was starting to creep back in. Perhaps he had been too quick to judge. Perhaps he was repeating that mistake.  Either way, that was not the sort of dilemma he wanted to have on a Friday evening, and he had brought it on himself. He resolved to be more careful with his kindness in future, regardless of how this turned out.

“I’m sure.”

She took a deep, strained sort of breath. Her stomach growled. It sounded desperate.

“I really… could use the privacy. Really. Just go to sleep. Please. It will be easier for both of us.”

“Alright, that does it. What’s going on here? Are you going to rob me? Because that’s not going to happen. I hardly think you’re going to be able to overpower me.”

“No. That’s not it.” She twitched. “That’s not it. I just have to… sort some things out on my own, alright? Call it a woman’s business.”

“Well, I don’t know how much woman’s business I’d like going on in my home in any case, but that ship has sailed. You’re going to have to be straight with me, or I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

She sat, drumming her feet against the floor, blinking erratically. Both hands were wrapped around the glass, massaging it with increasing agitation.

“… fuck it. Sorry.”

At once, the windows cracked through. The lightbulbs began to splinter, flickering wildly. Her mouth opened wide (much too wide, he felt), and she put the entire glass in, crunching down into it with a look of utter satisfaction. He watched, aghast, as she swallowed, the outlines of shards clearly visible as they pulsed down her neck.

She stood just as he took a step towards her, freezing him in place with an admonishing finger.

“Don’t.”

Blood tumbled out of her mouth when she spoke. His head was spinning, his legs were shaking, and he obeyed, watching silently as she picked apart his windows and ate mouthful after jagged mouthful. With that done, she fixed him with another warning gaze, climbed onto the table, and plucked the lightbulb. That was one bite, little more than dessert. She stood there in the dark, a silhouette of sticky, bloodied lunacy standing tall over him. Then her stomach growled again, and she jumped down, prowling off deeper into the house.

This act of further invasion gave him back a little bit of fighting spirit. He collected himself and went off in pursuit, which was not difficult – a thick, red trail was soaking into the carpet. She was in the living room, hunched over the remnants of a coffee table.

“Stop!” He cried. “Stop it, stop it, stop it. I don’t know what you are or what you’re doing, but please. You’ve got to go, now, or I’m going to have to get violent.”

The threat had just sort of… flopped out, and was about as convincing as could be expected from a man who was visibly trembling. She stood, and walked slowly to him, stopping just inches in front.

“A person.” She said, removing his glasses. “Has got to eat. And it’s not easy when your appetites are all wrong.” She popped out the lenses and ate them like after-dinner mints. “But it is what it is. Nothing I can do. I can hardly just starve, can I?”

“No… but, this… this is…”

“Broken eggs. Can’t make an omelette, and so on.”

He looked down at the bloody, glass-seeded rug, felt the night air blowing in through a now-vacant window, and found the comparison wanting.

“Please.” He could feel his throat catch, and was actively resisting tears. “Tell me you’re done.”

“All full up, thank you. It really was sweet of you to let me in.”

She hugged him, trapping him momentarily in a warm, sodden embrace. It was not pleasant.

“I am grateful.” She continued. “And hey, if I ever win the lottery, I’ll make it up to you. But I figure you must be doing pretty well for yourself, right? Single guy, in a house like this, in this part of town. I tried. I’m not perfect, but I tried.”

He didn’t know to what extent he was angry, or to what extent he could blame her. He wasn’t thinking about it. He wasn’t thinking about the damage to his property, or the violation of his rights, or her situation, or what he might do in it, or how any of this was even possible. Thought was a lost cause. He just wanted it not to have happened. Failing that, he just wanted it to be done.

“I’m… I don’t… I’m done. Can you just go? Just leave, and that can be that.”

“Of course. But, erm… I’m going to have to use your shower first.”

He slumped to the floor, failing miserably in his attempts not to cry. With a voice of total defeat, he offered to show her to the spare bedroom.

He never did tell anybody about what happened that night. The clean-up was long, expensive, and full of awkward questions, but he took it on the chin and moved on – another of those virtues he was keen to preserve. All things told (and with selective ignorance of a few items) he was rather proud of his composure throughout the whole ordeal. She had been right about his finances. Barely a dent’s worth of damage caused, in the grand scheme of things. One year later, and the whole ghastly business was behind him.  Or so he told himself. Whether he knew it or not, he was a changed man. For the rest of his days, he felt a strange discomfort about unthreatening young women. And, needless to say, he never answered the door again.

The End

Second Chance

In the days since her diagnosis, she had found herself preoccupied with one idea, one strand of thought. That life, or at least the experience of it, was not a matter of facts, but one of possibilities. It was defined not by the path currently walked, but by the upcoming forks, and then the forks after that, and so on and so on into some infinitely dense, vaguely fractal mess of potential. Whilst individual circumstance was comprised almost solely of present and observable aspects, it was possibility, no matter how infinitesimally small, that fuelled the whole device. The poorest among us could suddenly find wealth, the loneliest suddenly find love, the most oppressed suddenly find a voice. Likewise, any amount of happiness, fortune or influence could just as soon be undone by a single twist of fate, a single blind turn in the wrong direction. All it took was the wrong objects to do the wrong things, and you were done. Almost no matter who you were, no matter the facts of your life, a total reversal of fortunes was always just a couple of readily-conceivable steps away.

These tiny, vastly improbable kernels of potential change were all that it took to keep people trudging apprehensively through life’s maze. This was the normal state of affairs – ‘sanity’. Insanity was the delusion of certainty. At least, that was one of its more intoxicating offerings. The conviction that a situation is entirely hopeless, or else totally untouchable. The knowledge that a given action would, without fail, lead to a given result. The transmutation of that labyrinth of forked roads into a straight line, and so freedom from the tyranny of choice.

That was how she saw it. Indeed, looking back, it was how she had lived most of her life. But of course, anything could change. Even in a life driven by the omnipotence of chance, a certainty (or close enough to one for human purposes) was always just one room over, one turning away. In the diagnosis of an acutely fatal, untreatable condition, for example, one might be faced with the certainty of imminent death. And so, in arriving at this cul-de-sac, one stops to consider the true nature of the maze, and finds that its twisty little passages were, in fact, all alike, whether they were paved with gold or with dirt. Or perhaps those were just a scared mind’s attempts at comfort.

Lost in these thoughts, she went to sleep, and died.

She found herself in a small, dark room. The only light came from an audience of unusually tall candles, which flickered down at her in intense curiosity. Across from her was a figure (which can sustain no further description), or perhaps many.

“Our apologies.” It sighed. “That wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Understandably, she said nothing.

“Oh, don’t be like that. We all make mistakes. It’s a complicated world, you know. Impossible to keep track of every little thing.”

Again, she said nothing.

“Besides, do you really need that many moving parts? A handful of cells break rank while I’m fixing something else, and suddenly you’re dead? Come on! How am I supposed to work under these conditions?”

“I… really don’t know.”

“This whole set-up is ridiculous. And don’t you go acting all blameless! You had one little task on the cosmic itinerary and you couldn’t even get that done before your body went rogue. Even Jesus got through most of his list, and some genius decided to put him in before the internet. This is a fucking shambles.”

“I’m… sorry for being worse than Jesus?”

“Good! You should be. Well, at least contrition is a start. Listen, I’m sending you back in. We’re going to try the whole thing again, and you’re just going to have to really hustle this time. And try not to get cancer, or fall off a bridge, or be born in a warzone. Common sense, really. Sort yourself out, or I’m bumping your part onto someone else.”

“I don’t follow. I’m not dead?”

“Of course you’re dead, you moron. But we’re going to have to fix that, because you’re also woefully inefficient. Please try harder this time.”

“At what?”

“Oh, for… look, I don’t have time for this. Get out of here. Go.”

Later that same night, a child was born. It was mostly a blank slate, as infants tend to be. Still, it knew some things, after its own ignorant fashion. It would know, for example, if it were too hungry or too cold. It would react in different ways to different sounds, be tuned even at this early stage to the voice of its mother and the language of its birth. This child in particular knew more than most, although its mind was perhaps not yet structured enough truly to receive the information. It knew that even the surest of worldly things was still uncertain, it knew that it had some unknown part to play, and it knew that it was already dead. This was the beginning, or the mid-point, of a highly unusual life.

The End

On a Train

I was huddled up at the back of the carriage, trying to look as small and unassuming as possible. My bags were firmly planted on the aisle seat, presenting a wall that I hoped would deter my fellow travellers. There was always the danger of a particularly gregarious assailant resolving to topple, sap, or otherwise overcome my defences, but there’s no sense in planning against such pure psychopathy. In general, I felt that my position was as secure as could be expected. I was all set to people-watch happily for the duration of the journey, untroubled and unmolested until I reached wherever it was I was going.

At a nearby table, a young man was striking up a conversation with the young woman sitting across from him. She was being as politely uncooperative as she could, but he didn’t seem too discouraged. Their stop-and-start patter continued as we rolled on. I was paying half-attention. He’d apparently been let out of prison recently (that did little to ease her discomfort). She was coming back from visiting her granddad. His had died last year. Hers was recovering from a minor infarction. Et cetera. The whole thing was affable enough, I suppose, but awkward in far greater measure. Never sit at a table. The risks are simply too high.

I was drowsy, flirting with sleep but never quite making the connection. Still, there were times when I was sloughing gently from the world, far enough gone to have no awareness apart from the rumbling of the train and the spritzes of colour sailing across my eyelids. It must have been during one of these intervals that he showed up. Drifting reluctantly back into an approximation of wakefulness, I saw a man across the aisle who looked exactly like me. He caught my gaze, a knowing glint in his eye, and I snapped back to staring out of the window. Curiosity proved stronger than aversion, and I took a series of furtive, skittish glances at my doppelganger. Sure enough, it was me, in nigh-perfect facsimile. He was dressed a little sharper, he looked a little less muggy than I must have, perhaps a little graver, but that was it. He’d even erected the same luggage-fort I had. I tried my hardest not to focus on it. These things can happen. Well, clearly. It just had. Still, it was eerie, oppressively so. I was tingling with the impulse to look again, but held in check by the fear of once again meeting his eye.

Distraction, eminently welcome, came in the form of a hen party claiming the front half of the carriage. The event was clearly already mid-flight, its participants being fairly drunk already and bedecked in luridly pink regalia to match their luridly blue conversation. The situation with my double went more or less forgotten as I hunkered down and took shelter, both from the torrents of jubilant innuendo and from the groundswell of finger-wagging complaint stirring among the other passengers. Attempts from the staff to resolve these tensions proved effective only in the most ephemeral sense. The true cure, as ever, was time and absence. The group left after two stops, presumably to besiege a nearby restaurant. As the chorus of satisfied tutting petered out, I unthinkingly looked over to my mystery twin. A mistake. He was crying, quietly and without much outward motion, but clearly enough. For whatever reason, I sat and watched. This window into another’s misery felt somehow acceptable, given our resemblance. There was no logic to that, and yet I allowed myself to indulge in this naked voyeurism, unafraid of being caught, fascinated by each rolling tear and each twitch of distress.

This transfixion was broken only when physical circumstances forced the matter – my line of sight was interrupted by a mother and child, a boy of maybe seven or eight years. Realising what I had been doing, I jumped ship and instead focused on these new arrivals. The other me deserved his privacy. Besides, the boy was in the throes of a creative fervour, a prolonged flight of slightly over-loud, slightly over-agitated artistry that I supposed had been going on for the entirety of their journey. The mother certainly seemed to have gotten tired of the concept a long, long time ago, and was now offering only the most perfunctory of responses as her son charged on. He was writing aloud, working on what seemed to be a rather optimistic spacefaring epic. The scene at hand called for a fleet of invading spacecraft, the description of which was… comprehensive. Having exhausted every type and category of vessel known to him, and apparently to humanity at large, he was now interrogating his mother for further suggestions. Many were forthcoming, but all fell short. Frigates, dreadnaughts, corvettes, brigantines, monitors, and so on… all had already been included in this obsessively thorough armada (wasn’t she listening?). With admirable grit, the mother battled on in a seemingly endless cycle. For somebody not directly involved, it was surprisingly soothing. I drifted off, as the train and the conversation trundled down their rigid courses.

The sun had set by the time I woke up, so I suppose I must have been asleep for at least an hour. It was near pitch black outside, the country offering only fleeting, misshapen silhouettes of hedgerows and trees. These were almost entirely walled over by the reflections from inside the train. The lights felt garish in their intensity, insensitive to the empty quiet of the carriage and the gentle night. There was nobody there but me, my double, and a dozing passenger much further up. Perhaps it was just an excuse for morbid curiosity, but it seemed to me that there was nowhere else to look at that point in time. The doppelganger had cast his bags to the floor, and was now lying, foetal, across both seats. He was mostly still, except for the occasional sob, and his clothing was crumpled, flecked with bits of dust and other dishevelment. Clearly our similarities did not extend to the willingness to make a scene. I felt awful, but nonetheless compelled to watch. And so I did, vaguely hypnotised both by the display of sorrow and by the fascinating discomfort of one’s own reflection. After some time, long enough to draw me in without my habitual defences, he moved his head and looked at me. There was a sense of vicious accusation in this glance that put me to flight at once (to say nothing of the inherent panic of unexpected eye contact). I pushed myself hard into the corner, turned my head and tried with all my might to become a world unto myself. An island, totally unassailable by the likes of this distressed mirror-image, or anyone else for that matter. It didn’t work. I tried to deny the outside, to focus only on safe thoughts and scenes of my own construction, but few were forthcoming, and those that were did not survive for long. No method of self-absorption, no matter how desperate, was able to isolate me to the desired extent. The other’s presence could still be felt, a tickling of stinging nettles that I was unable to soothe.

Clearly, my own mind was incapable of mustering up a functional distraction. Trapped within my fortress, with only two other people in the carriage, there was but one remaining straw at which to grasp. Pouring my every drop of effort into the endeavour, I listened to the old woman sleeping. It proved remarkably effective. There was a certain tranquillity to her snoring and muttering, and I was happily subsumed.  I imagined her to be totally free of all concerns, both in this slumber and in all things. Just a perfectly contented person, leading a perfectly untroubled life, her struggles being all behind her. It was a fantasy, of course, but a comforting one. My heartbeat slowed, and I was calmed. If I needed an imagined, vicarious peace to achieve that, so be it.

There was a chime, and the driver announced that we would soon be arriving at the terminus. Stirring back into attention, I felt a breath on my cheek. Fighting every impulse to somehow shrink yet further into my seat, I turned to look. The doppelganger loomed, inches away, perfectly still, staring straight into me with wide, vacant eyes. He was pale, intense and motionless, projecting an aura of such pure, cold absence that all the drowsy warmth of this long journey was at once dispelled. Were he not still breathing, anybody would have thought this was a corpse. I loosed a (mostly) internal scream, sprang to my feet and pushed him down into the aisle. He simply lay as he fell, crumpled and unmoving while I rushed to the door. I made it just as the train came into the platform, pounding against the ‘open’ button with a shaking hand.

I sprinted out into the station, taking a few random turns before stopping for breath. It was unlit, silent, and empty. In a confusion of fear and relief, I slumped to ground, the sound of my fall echoing out into oblivion. Still overwhelmed, still uncertain of what to do next, I lay down and drank in the blankness of the hall. Here, if nothing else, there was safety.

The End

Priestess

It was late afternoon, and she was tired. Her robes, damp from the rain, rested heavy on her back. They were thick and plain, but festooned with countless wooden idols and talismans, such that each movement was set to a trancelike clattering of symbols. Beneath the hood, a pair of stark young eyes stared out from behind a veil of chimes. What they saw, what they had seen on these months of travel, was exactly as she had been told. Her elders had not deceived her. The world was old. It was greying, slowing down. Dying. The signs were myriad and inauspicious. All roads were less travelled, all dawns less bright. Clouds ripened and burst in ceaseless, languid cycles, leaving the sun with precious little of his former glory. Her travels had been a tapestry of ill omens, each new vista feeding thread to the loom. This newest path was no exception.

Winding down the hillside, she cast her focus out onto the fields below. Even through the fog, she could see that most of the crop had gone to rot. Clouds of wingworms fluttered idly above the still-living patches. In her mind’s eye, the scrolls of long-dead prophets unfurled. She had memorised them all, as all of her order must.

“Many plagues will issue forth from their submerged gaols. In blindness and folly, they will sense the end, and believe that they may yet flee, and they will run rampant across the land.”

The ground would be crawling, too. This was a fresh and vital pestilence, one that still had food on which to chew. It would kill the field and its dependents, but it was no danger to her. The wards along her robe would screen her, and the herbs in her inner pockets could heal her if needed. She glanced upwards.  A storm would likely break in earnest shortly after sunset. A roof would be needed. The horizon was throttled by haze, but she could make out the crests of buildings. Perhaps there would be people. She was in need of a flock. A vain hope, most likely. The able among them would certainly all be gone, and it was only a matter of time before the rest would follow.

“Men and beasts will exchange homes, such that no creature’s lair will suit it, and there will be great uproar.”

Wild dogs and rats did not suit her, but there was little choice in the matter. The open air was not a safe choice tonight, and a town’s ghost still offers shelter. Now at the foot of the hill, she started in that direction. It was good to be on flat ground again, but that was more a mercy than a true blessing. The plain was squalid. Wet, infested and stinking. She extracted a paste of blossoms and smeared it across her face. It had its ritual properties, but it would serve her better as a competitor to the stench. The rattling of her strides and the sanctity of her being would drive away lesser vermin. The passage was without incident, and she made it to the town by sunset.

It was as expected. Silent and still, but for the obscured shuffling of unknown creatures. The new residents were giving her a wide berth, although their curiosity laced the air. This place had been abandoned some time ago, and its new residents were well established. Most likely something had driven the people away even before the blight set in. A cursory search of the buildings revealed nothing of use to her. No food or suitable tools. There were still some dead, infants and the infirm. People who would have burdened the exodus.

“The strong will outpace the weak, but find their own strength to be wanting. The shrewd will outwit the foolish, but find that not all trials are of the mind.”

She resolved to cleanse the town tomorrow. Her mission could not afford to be slowed too frequently, but this was a wound that required dressing. She was not willing to let it fester any longer. It was a knowingly palliative gesture. That was the nature of the beast, at times. In all their tutelage, the elders had never made it clear whether their task was to heal the world or merely ti ease its passage. An easy enough mystery for their generation to bear. Less so for hers, now that the time was at hand.

The sun was down, and the storm was mustering up the opening sobs of the nightlong wailing to come. She settled on an old shrine, although the local faith was wholly alien to her. It was a matter of practicality. Such places tended to be built well, and at times some virtue still lingered in them. She turned her eyes to the night sky before entering. There was no clear sign there.

“The heavens are a page upon which an elder script is written. When earthly knowledge fails, the people will look to them, and find themselves illiterate.”

Indeed, the scripture was of little help in reading the stars and the moon. It warned of the most brazen omens, but the prevailing message was one of ignorance.

The shrine was small, and its contents had been taken. It would do nicely. There was a firepit in the centre of the room, presumably intended for the burning of offerings. It would serve her just as well for warmth. Some stonelice had taken up residence in the cracks, no doubt delighted by the unchecked moss, but that looked to be the extent of the place’s corruption. Certainly, it had not yet fallen so far as the rest of the town. Happy with this relative safety, she kindled a fire and began the nightly chant.

She raised her arms, forming two wings of rattling pendants, and began to circle the spluttering light. Her voice emerged in a sinewy contralto, shaping strange and unknown words with a lifelong confidence. This was a song said to have preceded them all, to have somehow passed through the death of a previous age into the birth of theirs, and fated to survive yet again until such a time as fate itself dies. Whether that was true or not, it was certainly old. Older than melody, and so the singer must fight against her instinct to put tune to the sound. Older than sequence, and so she must know each of its morae as a phrase unto itself. No two performances could be alike, but each must be perfect. With a dramatic sweep, she cast a vial of incense from within her sleeve onto the fire. The flame quivered, and plumes of defiant, bitter odour filled the room. The final note trailed off into the quiet outside. The rite was done.

Curling up into the folds of her robe, she began to sleep.

It was some hours later when she awoke. The storm and the night now held this little shrine tightly in their grasp. Rain beat wildly against the walls, and the winds forced their way through gaps in the stonework, spreading icy fingers across the warmth that she had invoked there. The fire was mewling, keeping its vigil but waning fast. Bleary-eyed, she watched it struggle for a while, listened to the shrieks and percussion of the weather. Then, slowly and yet somehow suddenly, a change came over the room. The light dimmed to an ember, darkness swallowing all but a tiny pool of hot, stifling orange.  The sound from outside seemed to withdraw, becoming distant and muted, as though submerged. In response, all stimuli from inside the room bristled with renewed focus. The scent of cool stone and smoke, the patter of lice, the quiet clacking of wood as she shuffled to attention.

“That was a nice song.”

The words came from somewhere beyond the firelight, or indeed everywhere. The voice was deep, silky and formless. It betrayed no gender, no intent, no aspect of the speaker’s nature. She did not reply.

“No need to be afraid, my dear. I am simply extending a greeting, from a wise old thing to a wise young one.”

“… old?”

“Oh, yes. There has been nothing for so long, in all this life and vigour. You and I have no place in a young world. But now the leaves fall, the rabble clears, and the stage is readied for its true actors.”

A passage emerged from the corners of her mind.

There will be voices in the dark, and voices in the light, and voices in all the grey between, and all will ask fealty, and all will be deceivers.”

She had not expected so literal a realisation of the scripture. Something was reaching out to her, hoping to ensnare her, or perhaps simply to entertain itself while its power grew. This place had been a land without a master, and this entity a master without a land. No void goes unfilled for long. It was as her elders had taught, and as the voice boasted. Man’s dominion withered, and older, stranger, neglected things emerged to take his place. The cities and the towns were fairweather friends to this world, its carers and companions only in good health. Now, in its twilight years, it fell to the voyeurs, the carrion-eaters, and the sworn custodians. To those who knew that the end was not a storm, but a season. She had not been deceived. It was good that she had chosen this shrine. It was likely the one place in this town where the voice would not be too strong to resist.

“Come now, relax. We are of a kind. We can find a flock for your taking, if that is what you desire. It only gets worse from here… you will need help, I assure you. Why do you hide behind your robe and your icons? I am a friend to you. Do you not see how I preserve your flame, how I address you in your own tongue? You are young, too young to be alone in this coming season. I have been here many times before. I have seen the mistakes that you will make and the suffering that you will endure. Do not waste your pleas on vacant thrones, and do not think yourself strong enough unaided. You are naïve, and you are flesh, and the age for such things is ending…”

The voice went on, the words coming out in woven strands, coursing throughout the dark of the room in attempts to constrict her. She could not move. This was not the same place she had entered. A new and malicious law held sway, and she was strong enough only to exert freedom over her tongue. It would be enough. She had been fortunate, to encounter this ­­thing while it was still weak. It was dependent on the breaking of her will, but it was not strong enough to force the matter. In crescendoing whispers, she uttered a mantra. It was not something she had been taught, nor did it hold any particular meaning. It was merely something that was of herself, and not of this voice in the dark, and that, she hoped, was all that would be needed.

It resisted, of course. It buried the room beneath a wall of abject menace, until air and stone alike trembled in their fear and desire to placate it. It crushed the flame, completing the blackness of the scene, and so bringing itself all around her. She was steeped almost to the skin in its coercion. Still her mantra persisted. She became one sound only, a language unto herself in which no fear, acquiescence or defeat could be expressed. With a final hiss of resentment, it was gone. The rain, wind and cold came rushing back. A welcome return.

She curled back up, but could not find the courage to sleep. It was worse than she had been told, worse than she had seen thus far. Omens are one thing, but to glimpse the end of the path they mark is another. And it had been just a glimpse, a pale reflection of a pale reflection. This encounter had been no victory. It was but a single, exhausting feat of survival, one of countlessly many on her journey to come, a journey into the bowels of ever deeper despair with no promise of success. For the first time since setting out, she was afraid. Not merely cautious, or uncertain in her decisions, or doubtful in her purpose, but afraid. In that respect, she supposed, the voice had won her over.

She left at the break of dawn, not stopping to cleanse the town. There was no time. She needed a flock, and somewhere, there was a flock that needed her. As it was, both she and they were floundering, half-blind and alone. Neither would survive much longer without the other. She knew now to fear the sunset, but it would not be long before the sunrise held no reprieve.

 

 

The End

Cow

The boy stared at the cow. The cow stared back. What began as a casual stroll had led him here, face to face with a beast the likes of which he had never seen. He knew only the picture-book shadows of cattle. To him, a cow had always been a smiling, mooing little friend on the page, a lovable oaf coloured in crisp white with clumsy black splotches. The creature before him now could scarcely have been more different. It was brute of earthy brown hair and muscle, dwarfing him in all dimensions. Its face was hung in a bitter, joyless glare, pocked with fat black flies eager to partake of its squalor.  This, he felt, was not an animal that could moo. It would communicate only in throaty, invective lowing, and then only in the event that its mere presence was not enough to terrify. How he cursed the naivety of just minutes prior.

Their eyes were locked. He was trapped in a meeting of minds. Within that massive skull, a brain was seething. Stunted and weak compared to his, but keen enough to have already judged that he was a stranger, an invader. It was surely now observing his weakness, pondering the slightness and fragility of his body. For his part, he had already come to understand his role in this encounter. It was Behemoth, and he the lowly Job, resigned to be ground back into dust should the world will it. The cow could destroy him instantly, just as soon as it chose to do so. He been cast into a world where meat and hoof overwhelmed all human advantage. Paralysed, he dared not proceed down the path or retreat back along it. He could but wait until his conqueror’s blunt mind arrived at his same conclusions. It had the right to kill him, and he the right only to futile protest. This was nature’s own commandment. The greater force has the privilege and the obligation to erase the lesser.

His heart leapt as the cow’s head lurched, before returning to rest. He stood, shivering, for minute upon agonising minute. How stupid and yet how awesome his subjugator was, to have dominated him so utterly but to be so slow in observing it. As time crawled on, a sense of indignation stirred. Could the monster truly not understand the implications of its superiority? Did it not appreciate the nuisance, the competition that he represented if left unchecked? Did it not also see the ease with which he could be removed? This creature was free of humanity’s aberrant, distracting sapience. It was a sage, a prophet, a jurist of the most fundamental code. Its brain was a slate upon which truth itself was etched. All the while mankind resorted to petty glosses and hermeneutics, to moralities and other flights of obfuscation.

Indeed, its blessings were enviable. In both might and wisdom, he was wretched compared to it. And yet, it would not act. Despite having every license and every reason to kill him, it did not. As a missionary of Gaia’s own truth, was it, the strong, not compelled to trample him, the weak, as its own needs dictated? There he stood, an alien, a pest in the cow’s domain. For all it knew of his intentions, he was there to soil its grazing fields and reap its calves. Even now, in his still obedience, he interrupted its rumination. Its continued inaction in the face of such trespasses from such a weakling was nothing if not a heresy, a foul betrayal of the natural order. He felt an urge to scream, to inform this dullard of these errors that were so apparent to him. But he also saw that it would be just as egregious on his part to invite death. Clearly, a life must do all it can to endure.

It seemed he had survived. He was relieved, to be sure, but outraged in far greater measure. His life was forfeit the moment he strayed onto this part of the trail. He had not retained it through any virtue of his own. He was alive only because an adversary, his superior in Darwin’s great contest at that moment, had refused to enact the laws of nature that it embodied. It was a slight, a torrent of spit aimed at the noble face of philosophy. Still, those same laws prevailed, and in his weakness, he was powerless to oppose their desecration.

Feeling i­­mpotent, bewildered, and impassioned, the boy stormed off. He resolved to crush the first insect he saw.

The End

Leukocyte (i)

Somewhere in the middle floors of the city, Inspector Dionne was waiting for her target. It was quiet, especially for lunchtime, and she couldn’t help but feel conspicuous. She was in a booth at a small yassa bar, the sort of spot typically favoured by ageing men looking for a midday drink. Not exactly her demographic, and not exactly ideal. But there wasn’t a good alternative. Half the street was boarded up, the other half even less apt than here. She wasn’t overly concerned about it. It wouldn’t matter if she was made, as long as the right guy walked through the door before it happened.

The proprietor was giving her sideways glances. Given his associations, he had good cause to be suspicious. Whatever else happened, he wasn’t going to be going home tonight. She sipped her tea and watched the headlines scroll by. Residential unit collapses on floor 48. American Federation yet to launch third warhead for the day – the slowest rate in two decades. Ten dissidents arrested in upper floor gathering. New filtering units to reduce cost of clean water by twelve percent in the coming period. Et cetera.

A few minutes passed. This was pushing it. The target was ‘Jefferson’, the latest in a highly select line of Federation infiltrators. Given his calibre, he must have had a good network. He might have caught wind of something, gotten spooked. There was still a slim chance that he was just running late, but she doubted it. These people tended to be meticulous. She moved her hands into her coat. It seemed increasingly likely that the firearm would be necessary. An assassin would be wearing something too thick for the nerve gun to penetrate.

Another few minutes passed. That settled it. She’d apprehend the owner now, try and get some information that way. Just as she stood, a young woman in a combat suit burst through the door. Dionne shot her in the neck before she could fire, training the nerve gun on the bartender with her other arm in the same motion. The whole thing was rather flamboyant. It felt like one of the manoeuvres that the idiots at the academy would attempt whilst failing their evaluations.

“Was this you?”

“What? Please, I…”

“You work with these guys? Federation cell?”

“No, no, no I just… food and drink, that’s all.”

Time for a snap judgement. If Jefferson knew that somebody was after him, he’d almost certainly try to enact whatever plan he had rather than go into hiding and attempt to rebuild. No time to waste on somebody who didn’t know anything. This man didn’t know anything. She fired the nerve gun and started walking. Her cochlear implant rang as soon as she hit the street.

“Mahmud?”

“Correct. What’s the situation?”

“Jefferson didn’t show. Sent a gunman instead. Assailant dead, proprietor incapacitated.”

“For arrest?”

“Yes. Send a unit, but it’s not urgent.”

“Roger that. I’ll add one fatality and one arrest to the file. What now?”

“Jefferson must be about to make his move. Set the internal threat level to critical, get all available resources on the case and let’s see if we can pull a lead in the next ten minutes before it’s too late.”

“Are you certain?”

“Yes.”

“Shit, OK. What’s your next move?”

“I’m heading to the office on this floor, southwest quarter, unless something changes. Dionne out.”

“Got it. Hopefully I’ll buzz you before you get there, or we’re probably fucked. Itani out.”

He wasn’t wrong. It was about a ten-minute walk to the office. If Jefferson had something ready enough to action, and it was likely that he did, he was surely going all-in on it now. She was falling behind. If nothing came up soon, he’d be too far ahead to stop. A device would be detonated, a vital system disabled, a biological agent released… something. She found herself now, suddenly, in the same moment that the greatest of her predecessors had shared. The brief, eternal window in between the die being cast and the number showing. The moment at which all preparation ceases, all relevant wheels are already in motion, and only blind luck makes the choice between certain defeat and the continued possibility of victory. Parts of her brain remained utterly focused, committed only to discerning and performing the optimal sequence of actions given the information available. Other parts flailed in numb panic. She did her best to ignore them.

The implant rang.

“What have you got?”

“Well, it’s something. Some uniforms caught a long-range connection in the northwest quarter of your floor. Not too far from the office. I’ll redirect them.”

“Good stuff, Mahmud. What are the odds on this guy?”

“Well, he’s got virtually no form, but the surveillance algorithm has him flagged from locational data. Must be associated somehow, right? Given the timing.”

“Agreed. Put the arrest on the file. Dionne out.”

“Itani out.”

She passed a beggar, and gave him a sizeable donation without breaking stride. She was back in business. Dissidents respond like bacteria. They thrive when it’s warm, but if you pile on enough heat and pressure, only the extremophiles remain. Those are the hardcore, the ones with serious ties, who truly believe in what they’re doing. The higher-ups had been stomping out long-range internet connections for months, long enough that all the everyday rebels were out of the picture.

She arrived at the office before shortly before the lead. ‘Office’ was generous – they were glorified armouries and interrogation rooms down on these floors. Just two small rooms, and a cubicle for decontamination if needed. She took the opportunity to refresh her equipment, then indulged in a glass of water and a deep breath.

It was a young man, no older than his mid-twenties, skinny and understandably panicked. Pale, which may have been the root of his Federation sympathies. The analysts could unpick that mess later. She took him into the interrogation room, sat him down, and applied a localised nerve gun blast to his legs, paralysing them. This would be ugly. It was the sort of situation that she would go to great lengths to avoid, on any other day. But there wasn’t time for great lengths. She needed a geodesic.

“What’s going on?”

“Shut up. Look, I’m sorry about this. But I need everything you know about a Federation operative. I think you know who I mean. And I really don’t have time to talk you into it.”

“What? No, don’t…”

She attached ‘the device’ to his arm, set the timer for three minutes, and walked out of the room. It was, fortunately, sound-proof. She turned away, shut her eyes, and tried not to think about it. Her own record during resistance evaluation was eight minutes, forty-two seconds. That was considered exemplary. Those tests also served as a reminder that the device was for use as a last resort only.

He was sobbing, caked in sweat when she returned.

“Information. Everything you know. Or that’s going back on and I’m walking out of here.”

“J… Jefferson? That’s what you’re calling him, right?”

“Correct.”

“I, I don’t have m-much.”

“Do you know his plan?”

“He’s going to disable the nuclear defence grid. I don’t really know how. I think he has someone in the NDB, maybe. Disable the grid, let a strike through on the upper floors.”

“Is it ready? Can he do it today?”

“Probably. Probably. He had me put a signal out on the long-range maybe half an hour ago, but I don’t know what it meant. The plan was not today, but I think he’s going to try.”

“That’s it? That’s all?”

“Yes… yes.”

“You’ve met him? Describe him.”

“Um… ah. Only twice. White, of course. You would expect that. About your height, average build. Green eyes… shaved head.”

“Contact details. Implant frequency if applicable, current phone number if you know it. If he’s moving today, he must have given you something.”

“He did, he did… fuck. Give me a second.”

“Precisely one second. Go.”

“Try 7431-8011-8019. I think that’s it.”

“Got it. Listen, I’m sorry for that, I am. You’ve been good. Keep it up and things should be painless from here on. Be valuable, they should keep you alive.”

She turned and accelerated to a brisk pace, bordering on a jog. She fired up her implant.

“Mahmud, I’ve left the source at the office. Get a unit to him.”

“Sure. What did you get?”

“Jefferson’s targeting the NDB somehow. I’m heading to the interlayer elevator now. He’s ahead of his schedule, so we may have a shot.”

“You sure? That’s going to cause an utter shitstorm if true. Place should be completely watertight, impossible to compromise…”

“I’m sure. How many of our people are in there?”

“Four.”

“Let them know. Jefferson’s a white man, about six feet, shaven head, green eyes. Average build. Don’t know if he’s going there in person, but odds are good.”

“Will do. Current elevator code for B17 is… 54772. Anything else?”

“54772. Got it. Give our lead a green mark. He was compliant. I used the device.”

“I’ll put those both on the file. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Dionne out.”

“Good luck, Inspector. Itani out.”

She reached the elevator, entered, and dialled the code. High-security floor codes were kept very close to the chest, and changed every hour. Jefferson probably didn’t have it. He was most likely using a maintenance route. Much slower. The difference in speed would erode most of his head start. She afforded herself another deep breath, then signalled Jefferson’s number into her implant. Anything to slow him down. There was a click, and the connection was made.

“Yes?”

“Jefferson.”

“… right, that’s what you’ve been calling me. I like it. An inspector, I presume? Care to introduce yourself?”

He was willing to talk, then. Either he was in transit and could afford to waste time, or he hoped to confuse her in some way. He was making a mistake, she felt. If his plan was at all solid, this was his game to lose. Her best approach was to throw everything at him, hope to shake his confidence, encourage unneeded haste or caution.

“Dionne.”

“Well, I hope you weren’t too rough with my poor comms officer. I know how barbaric you people are.”

“You’re planning to compromise the NDB. You’re heading there now.”

“Oh, you’ve been busy I see. Well you’re correct, but you’re slow. It’s been compromised since a couple of days ago. I’ve got… substantial leverage over somebody inside. Substantial leverage. And I’ll be exercising it very, very soon. Then it’s goodbye Nuclear Defence Bureau, goodbye Pan-Africa. God, my blood’s pumping!”

“Your boy told me that the plan was to target the upper floors. That’s not true, is it?”

“Indeed it is not. You’re surprisingly capable, considering the obvious. No way in hell the Federation is going to waste a window like that putting one warhead into one layer. This whole place is going down, and all of us with it. It’s just hard to recruit people if you tell them that. Not a great pitch.”

“This is an ostentatious plan, Jefferson. More so than your forebears.”

“Oh, look at you with the words, sounding all educated. You don’t fool me! Anyhow, my forebears were worthless jackasses. Dinosaurs. I’m the new shit. Christ, these things are slow. Do you not have engineers on this continent? Well look, I’ve got a few seconds. Tell me that I’m going to fail. Tell me that you’ll stop me. It’ll be funny.”

“We’ll see how it goes.”

“That we will. Oh hey, my stops’s coming up. Be seeing you soon, sugar. We can spend the rest of our lives together.”

There was space for exactly one more deep breath before she arrived. She was about to conduct the most urgent, most critical field operation of the last six years, inside the most sensitive facility in the city. That was how it went. They were locked in a cold war that seemed desperate to ignite. Any assignment could veer wildly into crisis at a moment’s notice, and you just had to keep pace and stay on it. Discern and perform the optimal sequence of actions given the information available. The rest, the difference between nothing happening and nothing surviving, was a roll of the dice. There she was again, trapped in that moment outside of time, where everything is to play for and nothing is to be done. There was a sort of quivering, nauseous frenzy attempting to distract her. It would fail. She couldn’t control her adrenaline, but she would be the undisputed master of her thoughts. The situation demanded it – anything less than perfection in the coming minutes could mean extinction. Her grip tightened, her breathing slowed, and the fog cleared.

The hum of the elevator went silent. She had arrived.

The End (i)

Infant Industry

There was a crowd outside. More accurately, there was a mob outside. But that was nothing new. The Stanton Clinic had grown a permanent skin of picket lines and protest signs, a snug little blanket of eggs (the irony) and death threats (ditto). For all the nuisance that they caused him, Stanton couldn’t help but pity the assembled opponents of his enterprise. They were pouring an awful lot of themselves into their efforts, and they weren’t going to see much return on that investment. Even their detrimental effect on staff morale had lost its edge. The intimidation was a factor, certainly, but that began to change after the first few months of no actual assassinations being carried out. The fear was increasingly replaced by righteousness, by a sense of virtue in continuing with one’s work in spite of the urban barbarians at the gates. Some of the technicians were now comparing the business to the other great, trailblazing victims of intellectual history, fancying themselves the modern-day counterparts to Galileo or Socrates. Stanton found the comparison asinine, but was more than happy to encourage it if it served as an aide to productivity.

No, the crowds outside had ceased to be a cause of concern. They would either fade in time, or a major incident would justify a more proactive approach to their removal. Rather, he and doctor Lindgren were facing a fresh hurdle. The pair sat across a conference table from their first dissatisfied customers. Mr and Mrs Fassburg were here, he strongly suspected, to attempt to coerce a financial settlement from him. Mrs Fassburg drummed her fingers impatiently over the glass tabletop. Her husband wore a face that looked like it was attempting to retreat into itself. It seemed that she would be doing the talking. Between the two parties was the product at question – the two-month old Philip Fassburg. He had been administered with a light sedative following a unanimous agreement that, although the child’s presence was necessary, his consciousness would probably be detrimental to proceedings.

Stanton had the case file. Lindgren had just received the test results. She was sitting with her left index finger over the top-right hand corner of the document. That was their ‘all-clear’ signal for situations like this. Either they weren’t at fault, or there was nothing in the baby’s samples to prove that they were. In all honesty, Lindgren would probably have been able to jargon these two into oblivion if the situation called for it. As far as he knew, and he was confident in the knowledge, this was a strictly no-lawyers, off-the-record affair. If the Fassburgs could afford decent legal counsel, they would have brought someone, and if they were undercover journalists, they would have to be miraculously good actors as well. It seemed that he was in the clear, whatever the complaint was. Even if he wasn’t, it was a bad idea to consider the possibility now.

“Well.” He said. “Let’s begin. Mrs Fassburg, I take it you have an issue with an aspect of the service we provided to you and your husband?”

“Yes. Yes I do.” There was a faint waver in her voice. Either genuine distress, or just nerves. “We do, I mean.”

“OK.” He said, slowly and evenly, as he might address a child or a pet, if he had any. This was a fresh venture, but customers are the same wherever you go. He had developed a number of robust approaches to their handling. “Could you walk me through it?”

“Could I walk you through it?” She replied, forming the beginnings of what was almost certainly a crocodile tear. “Could I walk you through it? Look at him! Look at what you did to my son!” The tear dropped. A nice touch, assuming it was ingenuine.

At this point, all present realised that, having placed the young Philip equidistantly between the two sides, he was out of reach now that they had taken their seats. With an awkward sigh, Stanton half-stood, leaned over, and dragged the crib over to his end of the table.

“What a beautiful baby boy.” He said, laughing internally at the obvious, shameless conceit of the remark. “You should both be very proud.”

“Well we’re…” She stopped herself, presumably before the word ‘not’. “Never mind. Just look at his feet. He’s disfigured!”

Stanton began reaching his hands into the crib, but thought better of it. Better to have the professional take care of this part. Besides, babies made him uncomfortable. He found them to be warm and squishy in ways that did not seem entirely human.

“Doctor Lindgren? Could you…”

Lindgren nodded, and slowly pulled the crib over to her seat. With this done, she hoisted Philip out at a speed that showed supreme confidence in her sedative, and peeled his socks off. The toes were fused together, in a fashion that he would describe as ‘gruesome’, were he feeling uncharacteristically candid that day. He resisted the urge to vocalise his displeasure at the sight. Lindgren moved in for a closer inspection, a quizzical look on her face.

“We paid you and your… your ghoulish little business because you promised us a perfect baby. You said that you could make sure nothing was wrong with him, and… well, you know we wanted to do it naturally, but…”

“You were worried about a history of autism in your husband’s side of the family, and you knew from prior screening that you were a carrier for cystic fibrosis.”

“That’s right.”

“Yes, and that’s very noble of you, If I may say so. It’s cases just like yours that made me want to put my funds into this industry. Let’s see… I have the initial interviews here, along with your specification. In addition to our standard preventative package, I note that you dipped into the cosmetics as well.”

“Yes, well. In for a penny…”

“…in for an additional few thousand pounds. I understand. Look, I admire your commitment to giving young Philip here the best life you could, right from the beginning. And I’m not going to say that blue eyes and blonde hair aren’t a part of that. If I believed that, we wouldn’t offer the service. So please take me at my word when I say that I am heartbroken to see that your efforts have met with this stroke of bad luck.”

“A stroke of bad luck! My son is going to have to spend his life as a freak because of you and this… this scam that you’re running!”

“Mrs Fassburg, please. If we can be calm and think about this for a second, you’ll see that we…”

“You’ll see that our process successfully delivered every element of the specification.” Lindgren had decided that it was her turn. Fair enough. Stanton himself knew almost nothing about how their process actually worked, and so was a sitting duck in the event of any questioning. Lindgren, with her obvious authority on the matter, probably wasn’t even going to have to field any. “Today’s screening confirms that the boy is free of any genetic disorder in our testing battery. My eyes confirm that the genetically implausible cosmetic elements have also been achieved.”

“What are you saying? How can you be saying that you did your job? Look at him!”

Mrs Fassburg paused for a breather, managing to generate another tear in the process. Her husband placed a supportive hand on her shoulder. Stanton was not convinced.

“I am saying that the defect did not occur within the scope of our procedure. This must have been a developmental issue, during gestation. Perhaps just bad luck, perhaps something to do with the womb environment, or diet, or substance intake. That sort of thing.”

“You’re blaming me? You are actually blaming me? Oh, I’m sure the press will be very interested to hear about that.”

“Well, to the extent that blame is relevant to the situation, I would say that…”

Stanton panicked for a split second, and then jumped in.

“…that the blame doesn’t fall anywhere. But that it certainly doesn’t fall with us.”

Good save. Mrs Fassburg stared daggers into the pair of them. Mr Fassburg stared far, far into a distant nothingness.

“May I have my son back?” She growled.

“Of course.”

This time, he was able to slide the crib back across the table in one smooth motion. It felt strangely satisfying, in a tactile sort of way.

“Look, Mr Stanton, Doctor. All I’m saying is that me and my husband are at the very least entitled to a full refund. At the end of the day, what we got just isn’t what we paid for. And believe me, we really went out on a limb to make the payment. To try and make sure that our child would be healthy. We want a refund, and we want some sort of compensation for all the distress you’ve caused us.”

“And I do feel for you, I do. But our service is embryonic screening and modification. That’s what you paid for. And our tests demonstrate beyond any doubt that this service was adequately rendered.”

“Perfectly rendered.” Added Lindgren.

“Well, would that stand up in court?” She asked, with a hint of menace. Stanton thought to himself that it would soon be time to change gears from ‘patronising’ to ‘threatening’.

“I would stake my professional reputation on it.” Replied Lindgren, unfazed.

“Fine. Then we’re going to the press. I’ve seen the crowds. You’ve got a target on your head, and I’ve got a bullet.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t advise that.” Said Stanton, gear change in progress. “We’re prepared for hate. Been dealing with it since day one. You, on the other hand… well, you’re not going to come out of this smelling like roses if you want to start flinging shit.”

“And how’s that?”

“Firstly, you came to us in the first place. That lot out there aren’t going to forgive you just because you’ve got ammunition for them. They’ll take what you’ve got to give, but they’ll still be slashing your tires and spamming your Twitter, mark my words.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Secondly, we have solid evidence that Philip’s feet aren’t a result of our process.” Lindgren had observed the change in mood, and seemed more than happy to follow suit.  “Moreover, we’ll be happy to point out that we have a staff of in-house, professional surrogates, whose services we offer free of charge to all clients at your purchase level. We do this precisely because it massively reduces the instance of congenital anomalies such as Philip’s. This is because the development can occur in a controlled, monitored environment, completely free from deleterious factors…”

“… such as cigarette smoke, alcohol, substance abuse, dietary imbalance, impacts, other physical stress, or, God forbid, traces of anything that could be perceived as a deliberate attempt to engender a malformity in the hopes, say, of strong-arming a settlement from us.”

“We would of course be loudly, obstinately insistent on a blood test from you in the event that this story reached the general media. It would be vitally important to us as an organisation and to me as a scientist that we spare no effort in getting to the bottom of this tragedy.”

“How dare you!” Snarled Mrs Fassburg. Mr Fassburg nodded in approval. “Not only do you threaten me, but now you’re saying that I… that I could even possibly have deliberately done this to my poor Phillip?”

“Look.” Now was the time to dial back down to ‘conciliatory’ and polish this business off. “I didn’t mean to imply that. And I’m not saying that you mishandled your pregnancy. Well, not any more than any ordinary person does. All I’m saying is that nobody here wants to get into this. You know it. We know it. You’re not getting anything from us beside what you already have. And that’s a son. A blue-eyed, blonde-haired son with impeccable genes and some unfortunately misshapen feet. Maybe by the time he’s ready for school you’ll have enough in the bank to get that ironed out, maybe not. Either way, you’ve got something worth a lot there. You should be happy about that, for his sake and yours.”

That seemed to do the trick. There was a series of awkward, angry glances across the table, and some half-hearted promises of continued pressure. Well, he’d heard plenty of those in his time, and had not once regretted the decision to ignore them. Security could see them safely to their car.

“I think that went well.” Said Lindgren. “But it was quite frustrating. You can deal with the public on your own from now on.”

“Oh, you get used to it. I don’t know how things go in your world, but in mine, people are pretty much all talk. The key is not to take it at all seriously, and just hit the right notes at the right times. Like a really half-assed piano recital.”

It was at that point that a brick crashed through the window, passing within an inch of Stanton’s head before landing violently on the table. Trailing from it was a banner bearing the word ‘abomination’. He sprang out of his chair in shock, then stifled a tirade. Lindgren seemed amused.

“I suppose that’s a kind of talk. Lunch?”

“Rain check. I’ve got meetings. Something about a government contract…”

The End