The Champion


Here, in the kingdom of Elgin, over which the sun barely sets, peace reigns as it has done for much of my life. I reckon this to be close to sixty-three years. Even as a boy I was drawn to measurement and first calculated my age at five, and have continued the practice into manhood. Throughout this time I have witnessed calm and suffered none of the hardships of my father. Like many I attribute this to the presence of the stranger.

He appeared without pomp in the reign of Cedwyn, the old king, in the year the comet appeared in the sky and when the great planet of Prospero loomed largest in the sky during its long circuit, its rings said to have been visible even during the day in the north. Arriving at court he demanded an audience with the king, which was granted, some saying his outlandish appearance speeding his route to stand before the court, foreigners being then a rare sight in the kingdom.

It is written he demanded to fight the king’s champion, a challenge open to all men regardless of rank. Then as now the tradition of selected champions fighting in the stead of armies to determine victory was long established. Some tried their hand and few lived to vanquish the king’s man. But everyone agrees the stranger demanded just this. The chancellor, believing the stranger ignorant of our customs, was said to have humoured him. It is said the king himself intervened, keen to see how his champion would avail himself against such a giant of a man.

Soon thereafter the court assembled near the armoury. This was only the second time it had done so during the old king’s reign, all other champions having risen through the ranks unchallenged, appointed as a result of their martial proficiency. Aldermen came from around the land of the Nebo to witness the rare event.

The stranger, adorned in the light armour of a foreign land, drew his strange curved sword. It is said the crowd laughed when they at first saw the instrument, puny in comparison to himself and his opponent who wielded the claymore common to the clans of the north. Unlike the traditional armour and the bulk of the champion, the thin blade, that observers swore could be managed with a single hand, looked to be no match. Indeed, it is believed the weapon was deliberately blunted along one edge.

Macrory, the king’s man, was said to have lunged only half heartedly. Although the champion, and the vanquisher of the Powells only four years previously, he was known to be a kind man, attributing his success to the stature given to him by God and not through a yearning for violence. Intending to merely disarm the stranger and, with the king’s blessing, show charity, it is said he swung with his blade twisted so as to daze the challenger but not kill. Witnesses described the movement of the stranger as swift, so swift the main chronicler of the event, the bishop of the Nebo no less, believed him to be infused with the Holy Ghost. Several blows were attempted by Macrory, each more severe than the last, but none found their mark. Then, the stranger’s light blade moving too swiftly to see according to witnesses, Macrory’s own weapon was knocked from his hand and he ended on his knees with the stranger behind him, the sharpened edge of the sword at the champion’s neck. There he paused and sought the king’s decision. Tradition dictated one must die but the stranger, already having succeeded in securing an audience and a contest in a single day, further abandoned the traditions of the Nebo and asked for clemency for the champion. Even he, a foreigner, had heard of the man’s service to the kingdom and stated he would be honoured if the king would grant him this wish.

Naturally Cedwyn did so. Macrory, the champion, was defeated. Tradition mandated the victor become the new champion, but no one had imagined a foreigner would assume the post. Yet the rules were clear. The stranger offered his services and the assembly retired from the field.

Within a week the king accepted the stranger’s offer. Having witnessed himself the man’s speed and skill the king, eager to secure his borders, planned to take him on campaign. Some say he joined Cedwyn on a hunt, further demonstrating his accomplishments with a range of weapons, including the pike commonly used to hunt bearpig. Others claim this an invention, and the king initially spurned the stranger’s offer and only conceded after he fought several men. Macdougal implies the queen, then still young, was much taken with this foreigner, herself a stranger at court. Whatever the truth the stranger became the new champion and word of his appointment soon spread.

Rumour, which persists to this day, long after these events, had it that the man’s face was never shown, an exaggeration. His unusual garb, said to resemble more the garments of a monk or even a woman, was a source of gossip from the earliest days. Similarly, his face coverings, said to be common in the far south, were a novelty here in the land of the Nebo. It is my own view that the face covering — little more than material covering the head, a necessity in the deserts of the south — conjured up a fancy in the minds of the court ladies, their propensity for gossip ensuring the stranger’s legend was established in haste. Macdougal, the king’s own chronicler, makes no mention of the fact. And while Cedwyn’s detractors draw attention to this as a conspiracy of silence it seems more likely to me to be the imaginings of women rather than fact, perpetuated even in these times when many young women have been unwisely admitted to the schools run by the merchant class, educated beyond the abilities of their sex.

Within the year of his appearance the old king’s troubles with the Powells resumed despite them swearing oaths only five years before. The chronicles tell of cattle raids to the west and there was talk of the younger Powell, said by many to have been unhappy with the peace, stirring up trouble. Having settled matters less than five years previously the unhappy king called together his councilmen. Most sued for peace, with none suggesting war. It was around then that the older Powell died in mysterious circumstances. Poison was suspected. Further suspicion fell on the old king. Although the incident did not lead to war some suspected the stranger was as much assassin as champion. Others yet insisted the younger Powell did the deed, having never seen eye to eye with his uncle.

The two soon met on the field, the old king’s army made up of a thousand regulars and twice as many from the realm. The Powells were reckoned at twice the number, but only a few score the aldermen’s men. They were then keen not to fight and a match of champions was proposed. The Powells’ man, a veteran of his uncle’s campaigns, and known to be skilled in man-to-man fighting, was brought forth. The king introduced his champion, the stranger. The chronicles clearly state he was without armour, draping himself only in his effeminate clothes, said to be leggings made from a womanly material, although some also claim cow hide, and his head covering obscuring the face. Armed with his light sword he stood before the Powell champion. Although he had height, the Powell man was said to be bigger. Wielding a claymore he swung at the foreigner, who moved quickly, like a smaller man, although his lack of armour gave him the advantage in speed. It proved decisive as the bigger man quickly tired. After some minutes, each army looking on with their nobles, the stranger moved quickly and disarmed the other then with swiftness took the head off his opponent. It is said his bulk stood for a full minute before toppling to the mud.

The old king was jubilant. This was now the second victory over the Powells, fairly won by a champion. The rabble who made up the bulk of his contingent made to leave before the negotiations had even begun. This breach in protocol enraged the younger Powell, although the king in his wisdom intervened. These were farming men with fields to tend. This won him the admiration of the peasants, an event still talked of today. But it put murder in the heart of the younger Powell. Consumed with hatred at his fair defeat he called a council with his aldermen. None have recorded the goings on but the result was plain. The aldermen murdered the younger Powell. Macbeth the monk concluded at the time the younger Powell wished to attack the old king, despite the rules being clear. Cedwyn treated the vanquished with fairness, and had made clear his desire for Powell and his men to retain their lands. But some men covet more than is wise and the Powell aldermen solved the problem. They left the required number of hostages and made for their own realm. Peace descended onto the plains, the old king wise enough to let the Powells be.

Around the time of the victory over the Powells Elgin was born to Cedwyn. The queen had been barren and had not produced a son. The bishop’s private journals warned of the need to find another wife for the king should the queen fail to perform her duty, her being already the old king’s third wife. Prior to this the bishop’s journals betray some troubles over the queen’s closeness to the stranger affecting her duty. He thought the king to be inattentive to the matter, awed by the stranger’s prowess on the hunt. But the bishop’s growing animosity towards the stranger perverted his judgment. No mention is made of this after the birth of Elgin and some attribute this to the nature of the bishop himself, said to have been a covetous man prone to envy. It is my own view this was the beginnings of suspicion by the churchmen on the motives of the king’s celebrated champion, a prescient emphasis with the Church being the governors of tradition the stranger himself would eventually do so much to disrupt.

The kingdom rejoiced at the news of an heir. The old king sent messengers throughout the land. The Mackays in the east killed the king’s messenger and sent back his head. A warning since word of the Powells had reached them. Calling his council the old king marched eastward.

The army met the Mackays at Fraserburgh. Mackay had raised a force of three thousand men. The old king had less than two thousand. Cedwyn proposed a meeting of champions and the Mackays agreed. The stranger went forth and met the Mackay champion, a man unbeaten in all bouts. The stranger felled him with a single stroke, removing the head. But the Mackays refused to observe the protocols and attacked that night before the negotiation. The king’s army were dispersed with more than half the men slaughtered.

The stranger, hiding in the mountains with a small group, made his way back to the Mackay’s position near the sea at Fraserburgh. His men, less than fifty, waited while he entered the enemy’s camp disguised as a trader. Jubilant at their victory the stranger made his way to the chief’s tent and singlehandedly slew Mackay and his companions. Eleven aldermen of the Mackays were also killed at this time. It was morning before the alarm was raised. The chronicles state the king was by then fifty miles to the west but the stranger made his way to the old king’s position in time to reverse the rout. This is unlikely but is not contradicted by Macdougal. It seems to me this event was written later, perhaps by Macdougal’s acolytes after his death, their ignorance of the north apparent, them being the product of the new schools founded by the merchants. I have walked the road to Fraserburgh and can attest its length of more than fifty miles. It would take a man on horseback several days even now with the roads built there by the Westerners. In these earlier times, accounted above, it is not likely the stranger could span the distance on foot in only a single night.

All the accounts agree the old king rallied his remaining men and marched on Fraserburgh to again confront the Mackay army. Three of their aldermen led the men. But Cedwyn gained the victory and slew their entire army with none left alive, not even the young. The Mackays, still lying in their tents, were refused a Christian burial and their bodies thrown into the sea with their attendants.

Nothing else of the incident is mentioned in the chronicles, but Macdougal’s private journal mentions a doubtful episode. Macdougal, who was himself present at the Mackay’s camp, noted the manner of the death of the leading men. Each had a small puncture in the forehead. This, he claimed, was missed by others, the wounds obscured by blood, by then blackened and thickened due to this being some time after their slaying. Macdougal inspected several of the corpses and wrote that each had the puncture, with the back of the head destroyed, as if each man had received a strong blow from a weapon like a hammer. These unusual marks of death are absent from all other accounts.

While an educated man, Macdougal was the son of a noble and educated by private tutorship, his self-appointed role of chronicler and scribe a result of his station rather than long study as with the traditional churchman. In this he was a precursor of the new generation of dilettantes, in many ways the prelude to the southern philistines who imagine themselves scribes because they wrestle crudely with the divine gift of composition in the production of fabricated tales for the imbecilic multitude. It is well known Macdougal declined in later years. Some have speculated he contracted the southern pox as a result of whoring in his youth, a practice common with his class even now. His journals, although a wealth of information on these times, contain some fancy that could be an early sign of the fantasms that can assault a man’s mind when the pox takes hold. When I first met Macdougal as a youth he was already on his way to becoming a simpleton. I believe the church-trained chronicler has to tread warily when using the man as a source. He mentions nothing else of the incident and I include it here only to establish the unreliability of his proclamations.

The king then marched further north to the place of the Mackays at the sea and laid waste. At the fortified city of Rora the army broke down the walls and put the people to flight.

At this time ships came to Nebo and besieged the city. An army from the south had known of the old king’s movements although they failed to take the city. When Cedwyn returned he called his councilmen and resolved to march south. Macdougal states the stranger advised against this, calling instead for them to wait until the spring.

Through winter the old king received messengers from throughout the north. Word had spread of the victory at Fraserburgh and the movement of peoples unsettled the aldermen. The old king dispatched the stranger with sixty men to secure the roads. They made their way to Rora by ship and the stranger urged the townsfolk to return to their former city. With no leading men the stranger convinced them to form a council of their own. It is said many at court were angry at this innovation, since it is known the people cannot govern themselves.

The chronicles mention the stranger making peace with the Steel Bird cultists known to inhabit the area. These were further north and, despite their heresy, had been left in peace by the Mackays. It is understood they tolerated them because of their skill in shipbuilding and fishing, and they supplied the Mackays with weapons. The bishop’s man who had accompanied the stranger called for their destruction. The stranger, emboldened by his innovation at Rora, contradicted these orders and sued for peace. The Steel Bird heretics, who hold the pagan belief that man was delivered to the world in the belly of a steel bird, were said to have no leading men and no allegiance to others, not even the Mackays. Nothing else is mentioned in the chronicles although Macdougal states the bishop was angered by the leniency of the stranger and sought to turn the king against him.

The stranger left five of the aldermen at Rora and returned south in time to join the campaign to check the Southerners.

~ ✷ ~


At the end of winter word reached the court Southerners had been seen within the kingdom. The alderman Henry was sent south to reconnoiter. Within a month he was routed by a southern army and killed. By this time the Southerners had learned the king was at court and not campaigning in the north and they turned back, eager to avoid conflict.

Cedwyn was keen to reach the south and proposed they march directly. The stranger suggested an alternative route, travelling down the eastern side of the country. The leading men of the kingdom thought this madness, but the old king gave the word. Within only three weeks the stranger’s scouts reported back that they had overtaken the unsuspecting southern army and the king set about creating an ambuscade in the place with the shallow river known as Alford. The southern army marched on, unaware the king’s men lay in ambush. They camped near the riverside, Cedwyn having issued orders that no glims or fires be lit. As evening came on the king’s army attacked the unsuspecting Southerners. Their lead man was killed along with his guard and most were slaughtered. The stranger gave orders to capture one of their men, despite the king’s own order to slaughter them all. This fact is omitted in the chronicles but included in Macdougal’s account. The man, when presented to the king, was sent south to carry word of the old king’s army and his deeds. The leading men were in low spirits because of the stranger’s position, now at the side of the king, and condemned the move. The escaped man would lose them the advantage of surprise.

Yet as the army moved further south every town and city opened their gates to them after the first. It was this first city, named Edzell, where the king tried a novelty. Offering to not sack the city in return for an oath, the citizens agreed. Even their offer, to throw their chief man from the battlements, was rejected, their word enough to secure their protection. The leading men of the time were enraged by this. The alderman Keith left with his charges in protest, but the old king pressed on with his innovation. As is common in peasant communities word travelled faster than the army. The next city, also fortified, sent emissaries which the king welcomed. They were promised protection in return for their oath which they freely gave.

This continued as the army travelled south. A score of towns and cities pledged allegiance and all were left unmolested. The city of Kilrenny was the first to resist. Protected with a deep ditch and a full wall, it was said to be impregnable. As the army camped close by the old king prepared to lay siege. But the town was betrayed before the army could amass. A group of sixty of the king’s men gained entrance, one of them the stranger, and the city fell. The king hanged the leading men but did not sack the city. This again drew the anger of his own aldermen, but he stayed with his plan. The chronicles say little on the matter, but Macdougal insists the stranger himself scaled the walls and admitted the sixty while the city slept. This feat is impossible given the height of the walls is over a hundred feet in places. I have seen Kilrenny myself and can attest to its fortifications and the impossibility of scaling its high walls. The chroniclers no doubt omitted this fancy of Macdougal’s as another example of the fantasms wrought by the pox. They sensibly conclude betrayal as the means of entry.

By the time of the rains that year, which arrive sooner in the south, the old king had conquered over a score of southern cities and laid waste to their army. The contingent made it back to Nebo before winter. It was at this time word came back that many of the cities that had pledged the oath had returned to their southern masters, convinced Cedwyn would not follow through on his promises. By summer, as the king made his way back to the south, it transpired all of the cities were still with Cedwyn. The chronicles mention nothing more of the incident, but Macdougal observes that the stranger was absent throughout winter and spring. Southern monks, recorded by Macdougal, talked of a spectre shadowing the leading cities and of unusual deaths among the leading men. The southern chronicles record the townsfolk as reporting the sight of blinding flashes of light in a number of the cities which they attributed to the presence of the Holy Ghost, although the southern scribe Ashcroft dismisses this as peasant foolishness. One report spoke of a dark man seen in one of the cities, using magic, felling men from a distance of twenty feet or more. For a brief time these rumours gripped the south although Ashcroft claims the Archbishop of the Vesters eventually banned their transmission on pain of death, him no doubt a learned man like Ashcroft and with a keen eye for the indulgences common among simpletons. Unlike today, the south had long kept the work of chronicling to educated churchmen, the sharpness of their discipline apparent in the sobriety of their works. Ashcroft himself was the first Southerner to postulate the existence of the innermost ring around Prospero, imperceptible to the unaided eye, and only confirmed twenty years ago with the aid of the new lensed instrument developed by the Vesters.

More foolishness yet comes from Macdougal’s interpretations of these events. His account for the following year included tales taken from those same peasants as the old king’s men moved south. Once again he mentions an unusual method of death, this time reported by the southern natives dismissed by Ashcroft. According to Macdougal a surgeon in the employ of the local monastery made note of unusual wounds to the head of the corpses with no other signs of violence, as if struck in the forehead with an arrow and the back of the skull destroyed. Ashcroft makes no mention of course, and this is another fancy conjured up by the demons raging in Macdougal, agitating his imagination beyond the realms of sense.

Over the course of the year the going was hard for Cedwyn. The southern realms at this time had no arrangement of allegiance as each of their places stood alone. Instead of aldermen allied to a king or lord, each town and city had a sheriff. In some places these were passed from each man to his son as in the north, in others they changed hands. This made the task a labour for the old king since each stronghold had to be won over. By the end of this year the king added only fourteen cities to the original twenty before winter came upon them.

The chronicles state that the winter was quiet, with no challenges to the old king. But Macdougal explains the aldermen of the kingdom were unhappy at the position the stranger now occupied at the king’s right hand. He had spoken for the court at many of the southern cities when they were too far for the whole army to reach. But they were satisfied when Cedwyn agreed to keep him on a tight leash and their eyes were wide with greed at the thought of the riches yet to come when they conquered the rest of the south.

It is obvious from both the chronicles and Macdougal’s journals that the old king did not control the stranger, but also the leading men of the kingdom as it was then were satiated with their accomplishments in the southern realm. Macdougal claims to have seen no evidence of mutiny, but then again the stranger’s own accomplishments were soon to grow in value.

The following year the king’s army met a southern army in battle near the place of the great loch in the mid south known as Lakeside. Offering to settle matters in a civilized fashion the Southerners had no tradition of fighting champions. They beheaded the king’s messenger, placing his head on a pike at the head of the army. The enraged king readied the army and attacked at dawn. There was much slaughter and the result was inconclusive. Ashcroft the scribe claims the Southerners held the field but Macdougal disputes this. The southern army disbanded, this being their land they knew the safest routes home. The stranger convinced the old king rather than withdraw the plan should be to push forth while the enemy were dispersed. The aldermen argued against this strategy since the campaigning season was over and the aldermen Ivan and Hamish withdrew.

The stranger led the king’s army further south to the stronghold of the Desmonds where he made them an offer of allegiance. This was refused and the army laid siege. After ten days the city was betrayed and the place reduced. The men it was said had been promised booty although the chronicles mention only the divesting of the city of the Desmonds. Of the leading men there was no sign, them having escaped some days before. Macdougal claims the stranger appealed to the men to show restraint, it being important to him to establish good faith with the Southerners as they had done further north. But the men were in a frenzy. Macdougal, who witnessed the event, said even the children were not spared and the stranger was seen in a fugue. Cedwyn soon joined the army and they ended their campaign for that year.

The stranger did not return with the king and the army but instead took a force of five hundred men further south to harry the southern forces. By spring, when word reached the court in Nebo, he had won over a further eight cities and had drawn up an alliance with one of the southern clans known as the Vesters.

When Cedwyn joined the stranger in the south during the next campaigning season he made him general over all the army. The chronicles mention this only in passing. Macdougal recounts the bitter feud it caused among the aldermen. But the men in the army welcomed the news. Of the five hundred the stranger had taken with them all but three had made it back alive. He was said to always share the hardships of the common soldier, at times himself walking on foot. He insisted himself and his captains ate as the soldiery did leading to the novelty of improved rations and meat twice each week. Macdougal comments that at a banquet one of the leading men’s sons chided the stranger that the common soldier ate better than them to which he returned the common soldier worked harder than idle sons. The chronicles make no mention of the incident, but Macdougal’s journal hinted this further alienated him from the aldermen.

Macdougal also recounts a tale he heard of the stranger’s travels over winter. At one of the fortified towns they encountered resistance, a place with the name of Heacham. The men there used the longbow weapon sometimes used by hunters here in the north, although never for battle, it being an effeminate instrument only fit for cowards. Macdougal claims the men of Heacham dipped the tips of their arrows in poison, a fact known to many far and wide, ensuring few dared challenge them at their town. This fact was unknown to the stranger when he encountered them. Him and two others approached the locked gate on horseback to ask for fealty as was their custom. Macdougal claims all three were penetrated by an arrow each shot from the battlements as were their mounts. As the three retreated, the horses panicking, two of the beasts collapsed and died. The three men were dragged away and taken to safety. That night both the strangers’ companions died in agony, the poison apparent and confirmed by the surgeon. Only the stranger survived. It was said he had a fever through the night but rallied by noon the following day, and was on horseback the day after. The surgeon reported the speed with which the wound scarred over and the lack of puss in contrast to the two dead men. While I am inclined to question much reported by Macdougal, his pox-addled brain playing tricks, this rumour of the stranger is well attested from other sources, both here and in the south. This is the only known account of illness suffered by the stranger, a record matched only by the king, Elgin.

Meeting at the place of the Vesters during the campaign season, the old king returned south with more men, the numbers swelled by the promise of riches. The stranger was now general of six thousand. Few aldermen returned with the king leading to a further novelty. The stranger chose men from the ranks to act as lieutenants. These would each be in charge of a hundred men, with captains in charge of the lieutenants. When the leading families refused, insisting the stranger be replaced, Cedwyn dismissed them all. No further mention is made in the chronicles, but Macdougal states the stranger then appointed captains from the ranks of the lieutenants. These he insisted learn to read and write, itself an innovation. The standard practice now of written orders was introduced then on the southern campaign.

Pushing further south the army at first met little resistance. It is known from Ashcroft the scribe’s writings that the Southerners had learned of the innovations in the old king’s army and looked upon the Northerners with scorn, believing their king to be weak. The first clash seemed to prove them right, with the field held by the southern army, less than half the size of the old king’s force. But there was much dissension in the southern nation among themselves; they had deposed their king Wilbert and replaced him with an imposter to the throne and anyway had no system of allegiance on which to build a kingdom. When the stranger regrouped the men he found the southern army in disarray despite their triumph and led the men against them. They won a great victory as the southern army scattered. The leading men offered terms and the stranger accepted on behalf of Cedwyn. Each were required to provide hostages, swearing with solemn oaths to observe the strictest amity. When the old king joined them it was too late to make it back north so this was the first year he fixed his winter quarters in the southern realm.

The Southerners took this as a sign the Northerners meant to dominate their land. With their own king deposed and their leading men fighting for the crown, the old king took his chance to establish his sovereignty over them. The stranger, leading the army in winter, invested seven of their cities, all of them falling without fight. Ashcroft the scribe, who was resident in Fenwick, observed the siege there himself. The stranger offered terms and they accepted. Leaving only a few men he carried on south.

It is known Ashcroft the scribe was present at the incident at the river which took place shortly after in spring. Although the chronicles make no mention, and Macdougal dismisses it as fancy, the following was said to have transpired. The stranger led his men to a place where a southern army was gathered. Finding them camped openly, there was a strong river between the two camps. As each army faced off it became the custom of the southern army’s leading men to ride down to the river and taunt the Northerners. Ashcroft claims many of the taunts were aimed at the stranger himself, the leading men having learned of his effeminate clothing and his dark skin which they compared to that of the common labourer. While a group of sheriffs stood on the river bank the stranger leapt from his horse and dived into the river. Believing him to have forfeited his life the Southerners laughed. The stranger soon surfaced, half way across the river. He then propelled himself to the other side to the amazement of all. A group of Northerners looked on. The southern group, still believing themselves to be in no danger, were made up of most of the leading sheriffs and their guard. Making his way on to the opposite bank the stranger stood alone. He then proceeded to slaughter every last man, including the guards. Ashcroft says he was armed only with his light sword and wore no armour. He was said to have moved quickly, too quickly for the assembly to react and the event was so swift that no alarm was raised. It took half a day for the southern army to notice. By then the northern scouts had found a shallow crossing and the stranger led them across. The battle was won with the northern army holding the field when the southern army ran in disarray. Within days the stranger received emissaries from the sheriffs in the area, each promising obedience which he accepted.

At this time word was received that the old king was taken ill and he made his way back to Nebo. The stranger was left to control the army. He made yet another innovation by incorporating southern men into the ranks. Even the chronicles take note of the fact this alienated the last of the aldermen. These fought alongside the regular army and the stranger appointed lieutenants and captains from among them. Ashcroft notes the stranger was proficient in the southern tongue.

Over the next seven years the army grew in size, with each of the southern towns and cities coming over to the old king. The chronicles are spare on this period, the northern scribes having returned with Cedwyn to Nebo. Even Macdougal’s journals contain only rumour. Ashcroft the scribe died in the third year of the campaign and was only rarely present, with much of his writing gleaned from southern men after events.

The army became famous for its speed. The stranger split the army into two, with a vanguard of between five hundred and a thousand men, all of them the fastest troops. This vanguard ranged widely across the southern realm with place after place coming over to the old king. In seven years he was absent from the court and the army conquered all of the south. Only the western area, at that time believed to be populated with wild, uncivilized tribes, remained out of the reach of the army. At the beginning of the campaign season on the seventh year word reached the stranger that the old king had departed this life. He was fifty-six. The stranger took off for the court in the north with a hundred of his best men.

~ ✷ ~


Elgin, the old king’s son, had seen twelve winters by the time the stranger arrived at Nebo. The chronicles state the boy was protected by a cousin of the queen, and a council of elders to rule in his stead. No mention is made of the stranger, only that the council was suddenly abolished. Macdougal notes the council refused to recognize the efforts of the stranger and sought to alienate the boy Elgin from him. But his mother exerted much influence at court, the council seeing fit to banish her to another town, a decision overturned when the stranger arrived.

Elgin, although only a youth, stood taller than his father and took after his mother in looks. By thirteen he had shown proficiency in all the martial disciplines and in reading, writing and the other arts, his tutors claiming him wise beyond his years. Even at this age it was clear he was not his father’s son. He was slow to anger and less inclined to the hunt. Keen to go on campaign the old king had planned to let him join the stranger in the south when he had seen fifteen winters.

Before that the western tribes made raids into the kingdom. Word reached the court that their crops had failed, encouraging them to travel east. The chronicles state the stranger was despatched with a body of five hundred men to confirm the stories.

The stranger met a caravan of Westerners some sixty miles inside the kingdom, fighting men travelling with families. The chronicles note they claimed indeed to be fleeing starvation. The stranger made peace with them and offered them land to the north. This angered many at court although the move was seen as shrewd by some. By then great riches had been sent to Nebo from the southern realms and the aldermen lived in comfort. Few were keen to go on campaign as their fathers’ had done. Macdougal notes the stranger took few men from the leading families, even relying on southern scouts as they were skilled horsemen.

Returning to court the young king’s guardian, the queen’s cousin, quickly ratified the stranger’s decision. All was well for two years until news arrived of trouble in the north. The Westerners were not a people used to farming. It is said they hunted game when in the west and planted few crops. Scouts reported back they were raiding farms far in the north, all of them loyal to the king.

The stranger left with a thousand men taking the young Elgin with him for the first time. Word soon reached them that the northern town of Baddon had been raided by the Westerners. The stranger insisted Elgin stay at the fortified city of Fornham while he rode on with eight hundred men.

Reaching the town, the stranger found it razed and the townsfolk absent. The chronicles state the Westerners came on to the town and scattered the people. Scouts were sent to locate the Westerners but no sign was found of them. Word came back that they had moved further south. The stranger took the men back and they arrived at Fornham to find the town invested by the men from the west. They had strengthened the town’s defences, building upon the existing walls and trenches. The stranger sent for their leading men but they refused, claiming they had a right to occupancy because of their poverty. The young king, Elgin, had escaped with a guard and was found safe nearby.

The stranger arranged to siege the town, arraying the men around the city. On the third night the stranger himself gained entry, scaling the walls unseen. Armed only with his sword and dagger he killed the leading Westerners and returned Fornham’s men to power. The chronicles only record these basic facts, the town soon returning to normality. But I myself, a native of Fornham, witnessed the stranger firsthand at this very siege. His skill with weapons is well attested here and elsewhere, but what I witnessed there defies understanding. His speed was inhuman, almost impossible to see as he wielded his strange sword. I watched him fell three Westerners, all of them young men skilled in swordsmanship. They attacked him together and were dead in a moment, two beheaded in a single stroke. His height, matched only by Elgin, gave him the advantage, but the accounts of him moving in the manner of a smaller man were true. His foreign clothing marked him out as he moved through the town as did his dark skin and he was soon lost to me, but I had little doubt who I was seeing despite his face partially covered in its obscuring fabric.

As the Westerners proved difficult to settle, their urge to wander driving them through many homelands, the king embraced a novelty, now taken for granted by the young. In those days the court used messengers to take correspondence within the kingdom. The king offered to settle the Westerners across his realm in return for them becoming the king’s messengers. Within five years they had created a berth in many towns, even in the deep south. Speaking their own language, incomprehensible to the civilized, helped create a latticework of protected roads that spread everywhere. Correspondence from the court in the north could now reach the furthest reaches of the kingdom in only weeks. The Westerners became rich on the back of this innovation, encouraging them to establish roots, solving all problems at once.

The Westerners were behind the drive to build permanent roads uniting the kingdom. As owners of these roads they charged tolls for merchants who made the most of the peace. This group too grew rich, with many now richer than the aldermen who were allied to the old king and the southern sheriffs. These same merchants, at the insistence of the stranger, provided the taxes and duties that paid for the establishment of the places of learning, a function now ran by the guild of tutors rather than the Church.

This was only the beginning of the Church’s woes. Once at the very heart of the court, it was rumoured the stranger helped turn the king against them while he was still a young man. Their great store of apothecarial knowledge, once seen as a symbol of the clergy’s mastery of natural philosophy, became the basis for the great hospitals now found at every major town. Cleverly, the king, urged no doubt by the stranger, who I suspect never forgave the clergymen he met on campaign for their exhortation to destroy pagan beliefs, funded these places of healing. As the clergy enjoyed their new status as great healers, so the important task of educating the bright slipped from their hands. Indeed, the young now think of priests as healers rather than learned men, a situation exacerbated by the lust for glory in the clergy itself, with many of the younger clergymen — educated as they were in the inferior secular places of learning — driven by profit almost as much as the merchant class.

With the decline of the Church and rise of the merchant class came a relative decline in the aldermen. The stranger’s innovation in the north, of the peasant folk forming a council without leaders, spread south first, them having no strong tradition of fealty to a king. By the time of the king’s fortieth winter they had made an appearance in the north, much to the disquiet of the remaining aldermen. But with the weak character of the new places of learning, stressing as they did the need to teach all boys and even some girls, a new sense of destiny has gripped even the meanest of peasants. This delusion has yet to run its course, but it cannot end well.

As commerce grew so warfare declined, and the stranger retreated more into the background. He was rarely seen at court and when the king’s mother moved permanently to a town some miles away it was said the stranger accompanied her. But his hand can be seen everywhere. As the peace spread when the Westerner’s roads penetrated into every corner of the kingdom so did the pace of innovation. The application of apothecarial knowledge was just one manner of the whole. Word is forever reaching me of novelties even from the furthest reaches of Elgin’s kingdom. There is talk of the blacksmith of the Vesters in the deep south having built a great wheel that rests in the river Vester itself, driving the threshing paddles in a mill, although this is an obvious fancy conjured up in the minds of the young and the peasant folk, unaccustomed as they are to the rigours of mental discipline. The spirit of Macdougal lives on.

Despite the benefits ushered in since the appearance of the old king’s champion there are dangers to this pace of change. The imaginings of the peasant folk are one example, but the minds of the undisciplined, especially simpletons, are unaccustomed to change, fired up as they are with false confidence imbibed from their unneeded schooling.

This is evidenced by the fate of the Steel Bird cultists. They survived at the stronghold in the north. Their precarious position serving the Mackays, and their lenient treatment at the hands of the stranger himself, ensured they survived. By the time of the rise of the merchant class they began to flourish, their facility for the working of machines soon exploited by those lusting after profit. Building great ships that could traverse the oceans faster than caravans could travel made their skills see demand. Their heretical views, first overlooked by the stranger, were equally ignored by the merchants, a class not known for their piety. As a consequence some of their damnable heresies found their way south where they established themselves in the manufacture of practical machines, the most famous of them the water pipes that now feed many of the southern cities, that land having long seen parched summers unlike the more civilized north. The king, a patient man, has long overlooked the influence of the Steel Bird cult, a rare example of shortsightedness on his part due, I have no doubt, to the influence of both his mother and the stranger.

And what of him? He was always there. Or so it seemed. He was rarely witnessed after the wider kingdom became established. Now with the king a mature man some question whether he ever existed. I know he did, having seen him with my eyes at my own town of Fornham. But the question, often murmured nowadays, is the wrong one. It would be fairer to ask how many strangers the royal family have employed. When I first saw the man all those years ago in Fornham, when I myself was a youth, he was himself no older than thirty-five. My fleeting glimpse of his distinctive face showed a man of that age, in his prime. I saw his face only once more many years later when I became a scribe at Elgin’s court. It was definitely him, his height always marking him out from others along with his unusual garb and dark skin. Walking to the queen’s garden I caught a glimpse of the man, who looked the same in every respect, his face retaining its youth. This impossibility can only be explained if the stranger was more than one man, which was perhaps the real reason he was so often invisible and his face covered even in public.

The true danger of our society, where weak minds can now meet novelty without the guiding hand of the wise, is nowhere better seen in the rumours of the queen. By the time she was old, now ten years past, she took a pilgrimage to the shrine in the deep north. As is now widely known she was lost when an uncommonly cold winter came upon them. What is less known is that the stranger accompanied her. This was in the year of the minor comet, seen by the northern towns. Although the kingdom believes the stranger to be still present he is in fact absent.

In the furthest reaches of the kingdom, both north and south, rumours circulate, their subject often the great lady herself. Minstrels openly sing of the fate of the queen and the stranger, with many claiming to meet them on their travels. Ballads abound of meeting a pale beauty with flame-coloured hair, accompanied by a tall, dark man, both of them youths not long past the first flush. These indulgences are to be expected when we destroy tradition and elevate the limited beyond their means. As is the way with such things, merchants and others afflicted with commercial ambition have not been slow to exploit this foolishness. In the south, where the once noble art of chronicling events revealed through the divine gift of the written word has become corrupted to encourage the production of indecent tales in printed form. Philistines of dubious skill write of northern conspiracies with the Steel Bird cultists, their magical skills including the secret of eternal youth.

The peasant folk, even those in the far south, believe she was taken to heaven in the belly of a steel bird, raised from the dead to walk among us, a blasphemous corruption of the gospel of the Risen Christ. This damnable aberration has taken seed everywhere in the kingdom, and is known even to the king. And this is the real legacy of the old king’s champion, the erosion of discipline in those with little enough discipline to erode. We have him to thank for the peace that has reigned for much of my life, but the kingdom has paid its price.

✷ ✷ ✷

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Looking down, transfixed by the harshness of the scarlet blur, Jackson noted its contrast to the otherwise clinical white bleaching his peripheral vision. Its real-world relevance had already slipped from consciousness as he embraced the Superior. What was it again? And why such a striking red?

The question threatened to pull him back down as he concentrated on full withdrawal. Ahead of him the dark rectangular form had already lost its meaning as he focused hard near its centre, the crimson smear already forgotten.

A shout rang out from somewhere nearby. Outside. Beyond himself. Then he remembered. Beyond the rectangle. The locked door.

The familiar dark shape regained its coherence as he reluctantly descended back to the plane with the door, its dull metallic surface marred by scratches from the hundreds of prisoners before him. And the hands. Looking down at the blood, the acrid, metallic taste returned as he swallowed, the shock terminating his descent.

The sounds grew to a raucous, joined by the authoritative timbre of an officer’s voice echoing outside. Things soon died down as the bleak white cell, the door and everything else imposed itself with unwelcome clarity.

Looking down again, his palms quickly dropping away, he embraced the ascent, rising as the sounds and the echoes dissipated. Losing himself to the sensation, calmness beckoned, enmeshing him in its numbing embrace. Turning to the dull contours of the cell door it too began to lose coherence as he pulled inward, focusing deeply.

~ ✷ ~


Principle discovery of the effect

Jackson stared at the word ‘up’ on the page of the book, barely aware of the moment it passed beyond comprehension into abstraction. Even the knowledge he knew what it meant, the definition not just known to him but understandable even by a child, could not prevent its semantic shift into obscurity. The intensity of the experience caused the word to lose immediate comprehension as if narrow focus bypassed the rational mind entirely.

The simplicity of the two-letter composition reinforced the sense of something unusual unfolding. Such an odd-looking construction too, the half-pipe of one letter contrasting with the more complex circle-with-line arrangement of the other. Looked at in isolation the two-letter word seemed like nonsense, not language at all, unknowable and incomprehensible. Up? What did it mean? Staring more intently strengthened the effect as the characters lost all meaning.

He snapped out of it, pulling away as the word resolved back into normality, lodged within a sea of other familiar words, its definition easily within grasp. Up. A direction of travel. To ascend or rise.

What had happened? Considering the process he marvelled at the observation even an awareness you understood the meaning of a word did not assist in retrieving its definition if stared at deeply enough, its concrete normality temporarily inaccessible. Nothing else seemed to work like this. Was he fooling himself, or accessing some previously hidden aspect of the psyche?

The implications of such a discovery were too great to ignore as he resolved to find out.

Concentrating on the bookcase, focusing at the centre of the wall of books, the array of spines stood in their loose upright formation, slivers of colour hinting at their contents. Too far to easily read, the confusion of volumes already stood at a distance.

Struggling to reproduce the effect, individual books intruded. Spotting one he had recently read triggered a memory of its contents, breaking the spell, his mind refusing to comply with the enforced focus, seemingly not under full control. Drifting, he caught himself and tried again, this time seeking out an unread work.

A dark spine near the centre proved impossible to read, the unfamiliar wording too small to discern. Peripheral vision diminished as he focused, the black shape with its white writing dominating attention. This time when he drifted he managed to pull himself back, the slim dark spine his only target.

It didn’t work. Standing for several minutes, never losing the sense of the whole bookcase with its riot of vertical markers, his awareness danced around with the mixture of colours even as he forced his eyes to remain on the target volume.

Walking to the bookcase he pulled out a single work. Looking down at its minimal white cover the design included the title and the author’s name as well as a quote. An illustration covered the top half, with much of the rest blank. Concentrating on the title he directed his attention to the words. After a moment they slipped away as before, his vision unfocused, the plain cover a pale blur. As he opened himself to the experience the entire book lost coherence.

Continuing to stare he pulled further away from the object in his hand. Only its shape remained; a light-coloured rectangle. He knew it was a book, one he had read, but it gradually receded, drifting away. It drifted down. Or perhaps he had raised his perception higher, as if standing above it in some sense. Despite an awareness he knew the book, it’s name and author familiar, he had risen above a mere understanding of those blunt facts.

Ascension. The word came to him in an abrupt understanding, the impression of distancing seemingly a process of disconnection; a moving away from concrete understanding to something else. A higher understanding. The part of his mind that knew the book’s name and author — which he couldn’t now retrieve — operated with a precision he rarely experienced as if it had discarded the irrelevant. Its initial simplicity, the clarity a result of removing intellectual clutter, quickly became more than that, blossoming into a purer understanding, not a simpler one. A cleaner sense of knowing.

Even actively reminding himself the object in his hand was a book he knew of, a book he had once read and experienced, meant little. The knowledge sat below him, down there among the rest of the mental debris, a place far away from the crystal clear purity of this new experience as the individual words and their hold on him evaporated into nothing.

It took effort to come back. Deliberately turning away from the cover he looked at the bookcase, its mundane form throwing him from the trance. Descending slowly, gradually adjusting, the confusion of book spines slowly resolved into concrete reality.

Looking back down at the book in his hand he reread the title and the author’s name, taking in the simple illustration decorating the cover. The comprehension of these things felt like a dull substitute for the precision he had lost. A sledgehammer of awareness rather than a scalpel of insight.

As he placed the book back on the shelf the memory lingered, its clean, incisive sense of understanding attractive as he looked anew at the familiar room.

~ ✷ ~


An exploration of ascension

The park stretched away like a carpet of green. Only the children’s play area some distance ahead broke the view, the angular sweep of the swings and slides indicating their man-made nature. Watched by vigilant mothers, toddlers clambered over bars with each other, swinging and dangling like unsteady apes in human clothes.

The squeals of the group reached him as he sat on a bench, watching the children engrossed in their play. Common lime trees in the distance marked the limits of the park, their loose pyramid shapes blending together to form a wall, obscuring everything beyond.

Drawn to the distinctive shape of the trees it was just possible to discern where each tree began and ended. By concentrating on a single example the edges of the pyramidal shape were soon lost, the rest merging in his peripheral vision.

The trees coalesced into a solid green mass as he ascended. Even the understanding they were individual trees, each with a distinct beginning and end, did not prevent his mind discarding the knowledge, its proper place in the concrete world left behind as he rose higher.

A sense of excitement underlined the experience, his past knowledge of the trees unable to intrude as he stared ahead. It belonged in the concrete plane, an inferior stratum to the one embraced through force of will.

Pulling back further than he had managed before, the memory of the previous experience seemed both more distant and more accessible. The book and the bookcase, the individual words, the dissolving of understanding and the knowledge of what an object was yet the ability in this plane to discard it as noise. Staring intently at the thicket ahead induced a similar sense of sharpening attention.

Retreating deep within, he discovered he could roam. His eyes remained fixed on the distance, the wall of trees now diffuse, like a cognitive blur. He knew they were trees of a particular type, uniform yet distinct, but their individuality was lost. Without moving his eyes he became aware again of the play area. The children and their mothers, the stumbling movement of the toddlers, the squeals and high pitch of shouts too far to discern beyond a muted throng.

They too had descended into an ambiguous kaleidoscope of dull movement, just visible, but beneath meaning or attention. Present, but unable to reach a sufficient height to intrude. Like the trees he knew at some level what they were, what they were doing. But the children and the adults had assumed an indistinct character, part of the landscape far below.

He stared, drifting higher. As before the clarity of the experience drew him upward. With abrupt awareness he realised this wasn’t really like rising high above; he could tell he remained anchored at the same level as before. And yet a growing sense of lightness permeated the experience, as if rising up from the depths of a black, airless ocean to a surface somewhere above him. The darkness of below was the unnatural place, it’s pressure everywhere, discernible only by those for whom it had become foreign. He suddenly understood this buoyancy as the clarity he had barely grasped before, as if floating up to the surface of a deep ocean, the fierce brightness of daylight unimaginable to those at the bottom adjusted as they were to a sunless existence.

Rising, the pressure lifted as the concrete horror of existence fell into the benthic depths of his everyday experience. The surface still far above, only the hint of light penetrating this deep, he focused on the oceanic nature of the journey, ascending through a sea of calm.

Losing any sense of time, he drifted, the serenity of the experience all encompassing. Even the awareness of lightness evaporated as he adjusted to the oneness he felt here, everything else lost in the depths below. Time here meant little, like the word definitions he couldn’t grasp but understood he knew. It had been left behind, no longer relevant or needed, destroyed by clarity.

Slowly drifting back down, the weight growing in his mind, something bothered him. The trees. Their thick mass intruded, still ahead of him. Rain touched his face as an individual tree resolved ahead of him, its edges slowly revealing themselves.

It was darker, the play park now empty. The wall of trees stood in the distance as before as he noticed the children and the others had departed. He sat, held fast by the reality around him, the lingering effect of the heights he had risen to reverberating in his mind even as the deep grip of concrete reality accosted his senses.

The supermarket aisles stretched into the distance, the scale of the structure impressive as he tried to calculate how many products the barn-like building contained. The entrance at one end meant you could walk straight ahead and look left as the various aisles appeared, as if looking down a ceilingless corridor with walls decorated by unidentifiable packages. There had to be millions of items here, all carefully placed to entice the unsuspecting. Standing at one intersection, the very end of the corridor had to be over a hundred yards away from him.

He knew they employed psychologists to determine the placement of just about every single thing on sale, each item calculated to maximise its likelihood of purchase. This manipulation evidently worked with many, the mindless associations carefully planted by behavioural experts to ensure everyone would spot biscuits as they bought coffee.

The racks of products receding into the distance reminded him of his bookcase. Slivers of colour merging into a patchwork of coloured blocks the further away it got. Soap powder and cornflakes, shampoo and milk all seemed alike from a sufficient distance.

Or a sufficient height, he thought as he wandered through the aisles. He had failed to ascend from the confusion of the bookcase, the rows of books too familiar to enable escape. But very little of this was familiar.

Standing, looking down the entire length of an aisle, he stared. The individual items soon fell away into an unidentifiable mass. The furthest items lost coherence first, then the rest as he began to ascend. The low murmur of air conditioning, the distant sounds of the tills and the rest of the noise died away. Feeling himself rise he managed to maintain a sense of his surroundings even as the detail receded.

Able to still discern the difference between the polychromatic aisles of products reaching high above and the light grey of the floor provided a navigable terrain to explore. Walking slowly down the aisle he ascended higher even while making sense of the layout. Turning right, down a shorter side aisle, different coloured packages on each side marked out the limits of the place like a kind of maze, the shelves reaching high above, all of them crammed with objects that now meant nothing.

Turning left a new aisle reached to the end of the building, with a different structure on the right wall. It wasn’t shelving this time. Movement caught his eye. People in overalls going about their business behind high glass-fronted counters. They stretched all the way along to the end on the right as he walked forward.

Even they sank below awareness as he aimed for the far wall, the white packaging of toiletries beckoning like sirens, their clinical containers reflecting a growing sense of clarity as he rose toward the superior plane, toward a brighter height near the surface of this murky ocean.

The sensation refreshed him as he drifted forward, the glass counters forgotten. Ascending higher than before, his surroundings diminished into a nebulous haze, only the brightness of the far wall retaining an echo of recognition. That was where he was headed.

A dark motion intruded, obscuring the view ahead. He remembered he was walking down a long aisle, to the end. It was easy to navigate, but the disturbance moved with him. It changed shape slightly, as he tried to navigate around it, the movement confusing, threatening to drag him down as he paused.

Something else intruded as he desperately tried to focus on the back wall, its bright white mass calling him. But he felt himself descend just as he became aware of sound, muted and distant, strongly dragging him back to the inferior plane. Soon the dark shape was joined by something else. Something white, like the packaging on the back wall he had been aiming for.

‘Are you OK, sir?’

The voice cut through everything as the security guard stood in front of him. To his side was another man dressed in a white coat. Three younger men lingered behind a large counter with bright red meat displayed. All wore white hats except the guard in his dark uniform.

The older man in white, standing behind the guard, caught his attention. Dr Campbell. It reminded him of Dr Campbell. Was he with Campbell?

The man in the white coat stared, as did the guard. Did all of them know? Were they aware, like the psychologists they employed to place the products?

He backed away as the guard in the dark uniform stepped forward, the others stationery, their expressionless faces menacing in the harsh light from high above.

‘Are you all right?’

He turned and walked back down the aisle, away from the intruders. He soon lost them as he found the main aisle intersecting the enormous vaulted room. Brightness from the windows beckoned as he spotted the exit, picking up his pace, leaving them all behind as the pressure of a familiar hard reality crashed in around him.

~ ✷ ~


Navigation through the superior plane

The brittle purity of the Superior shattered in an instant when the doorbell rang, its soft chime like a klaxon, pulling him back down. The room resolved with an unsettling abruptness, the straight edges of the books sharp and defined, like weapons.

The bell rang again. It took a moment to identify it as he got up to answer.

Opening the front door invited a flood of light, its intensity overwhelming his vision with unwelcome potency. The woman stood on the doorstep, her uniform obscured by a thick winter coat.

She motioned to enter and he stepped aside, the ritual requiring no words to ease it along.

‘Christopher, why are the curtains shut?’

She walked in to the living room, a sense of invasion washing over him as she looked around, her eyes skimming over the books in the dim interior. She didn’t wait for an answer as she violently swept the curtains aside letting in more of the hard external light.

She fumbled with the other curtain, pushing them open as wide as possible as if to infect the room with the outside.

‘You need to focus more on your routine, Christopher. It is easy to let things slip. But you remember what we discussed before. Dr Campbell’s advice.’

He let her prattle on. She fussed around the room, rearranging things. Picking up cups and plates as she took them to the kitchen, all the while talking absentmindedly, as if this were her own routine.

Turning he saw her look around the kitchen at the mess. Taking off her coat the dark uniform almost blended in to the gloomy interior, the blinds still drawn as she reached over the counter to the window to let in more of the outside world.

Staring deeply at her stout form straining to reach the cord, he began to ascend. He hadn’t tried it with people, except the children in the park and the security guard. But that had been a result of him focusing elsewhere.

With her back to him, still talking, he noticed her words had already slipped away. The navy blue of her uniform was still dark even with the light saturating the kitchen. He focused on that, staring as he ascended. Although still moving, her form bled away, replaced with an amorphous dark blot, like a stain on reality as he rose higher. As with the book and the trees he knew who she was, and what she was, but even that awareness couldn’t retard his skill at reaching the Superior where a cleaner awareness beckoned.

Rising ever higher she melted into the background as the kitchen itself degenerated into an incomprehensible blur. He soon lost her, managing to rise higher than ever before. Retreating inside himself he enjoyed once again the absolute clarity of the position, the crystal clear purity of it; soundless, formless and diffuse, all that anchored him to the weight of the Inferior lost for a moment.

Something moved ahead of him, difficult to comprehend. Another sensation threatened to intrude as he reasserted the effort to maintain the state. A thick, blue shape emerged slowly into awareness, encompassing most of his vision. What was it?

A strange pressure pushed against him as the shape moved, something new, a literal pressure. It almost pulled him back down and took effort to resist. More pressure intruded from outside, from the Inferior, this time from multiple sources. Was it sound? The blue mass tried to overpower him as he fought to maintain state. He struggled to assert his focus and only just managed to resist.

Pushing back took immense effort, the action threatening the clarity, muffled sound intruding. The shape diminished in size, the strange, alien pressure alleviated. Another sensation, one of unyielding hardness intruded, a flash of light appearing but quickly gone. The shape moved again as the unyielding hard object pressed into his hand. Then it too evaporated.

The blue shape was smaller now, its uniformity broken by something that caught his eye. Below him, the thick blot lay motionless against a flat surface. Was it the kitchen floor? The thought threatened to break his frame of mind as he resisted. But the sharp flash of something on the motionless form below caught his attention. The Inferior broke through as he realised it was the ID badge pinned above her left breast. His attention now seemed inexorably drawn to the Inferior as he noticed something else while looking down, a flare of brightness to his right. In his own hand.

A pool of moving black seeped out everywhere around the blue shape. He dropped the shining object as he stared again, trying not to concentrate on the stain as it revealed a deeper red core when it caught the uninvited light.

He stumbled back, away from the slumped form and backed into the living room, fighting the urge to descend. The room — was it a room, he couldn’t remember — remained pleasingly diffuse as he stumbled into the corridor away from the intruder.

Navigating outside while enveloped within the Superior proved easier than before. The familiarity of the streets helped maintain state as he looked anew at everything around him, intoxicated by its purity.

His thoughts kept slipping. The demands of the Inferior intruded and he discovered new depths to his abilities as he focused inward to maintain it rather than staring deeply at the outer world.

Loose shapes approached as he made his way through the alien landscape, now reduced to its true self; amorphous, blurred and indistinct he realised now with the clarity his skill had cultivated, that this was the world as it really was. Mindless. Unworthy of focus. To really live one had to focus elsewhere, looking inward to ascend.

Even the loose shapes caused him no trouble. Nothing got in his way. His mind retained a distant memory they were people; it didn’t pay to focus on them too much. As he progressed he had enough spare capacity to just notice they avoided him, never coming close.

Walking toward a green area — was it the park? — he looked down and almost immediately recognised his mistake. The deep crimson jarred with the earthy tonal mass ahead of him, almost pulling him back to the Inferior.

By withdrawing tightly he managed to banish the sounds too. Like the words in the books aural signals meant nothing even when one knew what they ought to be, the knowledge lost in the depths, too weak to penetrate awareness.

As he ascended ever higher only the flashing blue threatened to intrude. Like the scarlet colour he carried with him it almost pulled him down. Even the dark forms approaching, two of them moving to flank him, did little to affect the clarity of his awareness. As he felt pressure again, a tall ambiguous shadow on each side of him, he marvelled at the beauty of the vision before him, the almost-black shapes framing the green splendour ahead, none of it available to the mindless unable to ascend to the Superior.

✷ ✷ ✷

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Image: Almos Bechtold.

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Low-Maintenance Organisms

Death came as something of a shock to Benjamin Knox. A faint recollection of diagnosis and swift decline swam in his mind, the barely remembered distress of it fading like a dream as he tried to grasp each evaporating moment. Only when its substance fully slipped beyond reach did he notice the man.

A cavernous room stretched into the distance. Devoid of furniture except for two plastic chairs, its floor-to-ceiling windows and geometric carpet tiles suggested some kind of office. Next to the chairs stood the man.

Dressed in jeans, shirt and a sports jacket he looked like some ageing businessman, his grey hair almost white. Despite his maturity he exuded a vigour Knox associated with younger men. Walking toward the man, looking around the empty space, confusion gave way to curiosity, the unexpectedness of it making him wonder if he was hallucinating. If so, why conjure up this of all places? An empty office.

‘You didn’t.’

The man’s deep voice resonated through the spartan room with a timbre like that of a smoker. Although ten or fifteen years older than himself, he was the healthiest person Knox could imagine at that moment. The realisation prompted a glimmer of recognition as he considered how to respond. An almost-remembered thought of exhaustion surfaced in his mind contrasting with the apparent strength of the stranger.

‘What do you mean? What is this place? Who are you?’

‘That is three different questions, Ben.’

‘How do you know my name?’

The man gestured to the empty space. ‘Where do you think this place is?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘What do you remember?’

Knox had to think. A mental image almost formed then slipped away. ‘I’m not sure. A hospital I think.’

‘Nothing else?’

‘No.’ The almost-memory lay just beyond his grasp. ‘I don’t know.’

‘That often happens.’

Knox searched the man’s face for a clue as to what he meant.

‘Am I dead?’ he asked, observing the empty office around them. Outside the windows a city sprawled into the distance, the cold light of a winter afternoon bleaching the concrete and glass into a colourless haze. Like the office, the city seemed abandoned as if it had never been used. ‘I mean, is this some kind of hallucination?’

The man stood, impassive, saying nothing.

Then Knox remembered, the fog beginning to clear.

‘You knew what I was thinking. So this is either a dream or…’

‘Or what, Ben?’

The question lingered in the silence. Outside the windows he could see the city, its static form seemingly dead, like an image. Nothing moved, and no noise filtered up from streets that must have been far below.

Am I dead?’ said Knox. The man remained impassive, unmoved by the question. ‘Is that it?’

The briefest flicker of recognition flashed in the man’s eyes, gone in a moment. But it was enough.

‘Jesus,’ said Knox. ‘I am dead.’

Recollection blossomed in his mind. The hospital. White machines. Or was it white uniforms? And nurses. It vanished quickly, like his earlier thoughts. He remembered noises too. Was that the machines?

‘Yes, Ben. You are dead.’

The deep voice drove through him like a punch. He instinctively stepped back, away from the man. ‘What do you mean?’

‘You asked. That is the answer.’

Knox didn’t know what to think, the calm expression on the stranger’s mature features unchanged.

‘So what does that make you? God? Is this heaven?’

The flicker appeared again, this time only briefly, as if the man were controlling his reactions.

‘You are God,’ said Knox. Despite the confusion of the place, the stranger, everything, it felt true. The involuntary acknowledgement in the older man’s eyes confirmed it.

He peered down at his hands and feet as if trying to find something solid in this place. The interlocking shapes of the patterned carpet reminded him of a puzzle, its detail resolving as he concentrated. The confusing repetition pulled him in, his mind drifting. ‘I’ve always believed.’

‘I know you believed,’ said the man. ‘You’ve always been a believer.’

‘Yes!’ said Knox, looking up. ‘Ever since I was a child. So many don’t believe, but I knew it was true.’

A rush of elation cleared his mind, the sense of relief welcome after the overwhelming confusion of the man and the office.

‘Indeed. You’ve always known. You’ve always had faith,’ said the man, taking a step closer. Standing right in front of him. ‘And that’s a problem.’

Knox thought he’d misheard. ‘What problem? What do you mean?’

The stranger didn’t answer, turning away as his hand swept around the empty room. ‘What do you think of the afterlife, Ben? Does it meet your expectations?’

Knox considered again the dreary office, devoid even of basic furniture or fittings. It sprawled away in every direction, one side dominated by the floor-to-ceiling windows emitting their cold light. In the distance, behind the man, he could see a solitary door, the only exit.

‘Well, I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, what is this? Is it heaven?’

That didn’t seem likely. But he struggled to take it all in after what the man had confirmed. God himself!

‘Would you be happy if it was, Ben?’

‘Well, it’s not quite what I expected if I’m honest.’

‘So I gather,’ said the man. ‘That is part of the problem.’

Before Knox could respond the stranger continued. ‘It is a construct. One you can easily understand. Were you an ancient Persian, for instance, it might be a garden, which would ironically be closer to what you imagine it should be. Equally, were you a lowly worker in the early days of the Industrial Revolution it might be a textile mill. I’m sure you get the idea.’

‘So what is this place really?’

‘A holding area. Somewhere we can talk.’

‘Before what?’ said Knox, his voice quavering. ‘Some kind of judgment?’

Mild amusement appeared on the man’s face, his only emotion so far. ‘It’s a little late for that, Ben. Think of this as a courtesy.’

‘So we have a chat then I’m sent to heaven or hell. Is that it?’

‘No, Ben. Not heaven or hell. You are being sent back.’

‘Sent back? What do you mean? Back where? I thought I was dead?’

‘You are dead. That is to say, you died. Shrugged off the mortal coil and all that.’

‘You mean I get another chance?’

‘Yes, but not in the sense you mean.’

‘I don’t understand,’ said Knox.

‘You are being sent back because despite living your life you haven’t lived at all.’

‘What do you mean I haven’t lived?’

‘Believers never do. Not fully.’

‘That doesn’t make any sense.’

’Think about your beliefs. What did you really believe?’

‘I believed in God. A God at least.’

‘Someone who created the heaven and the Earth? Someone who watched over you?’ The man’s face remained neutral, unmoved.

‘Yes,’ said Knox. ‘In a sense.’

‘Yet there was no evidence for such a belief. No proof. Why would you believe such a thing?’

‘Well I was right. Assuming you are God and this is not a hallucination of some sort.’

‘But how did you come to this conclusion, Ben? Was it through rational analysis? The very thing your superb brain is designed to do.’

Knox hesitated. What was he talking about? ‘I don’t know. Why does any of this matter? Why am I being sent back?’

‘Take the ancient Persians I mentioned,’ said the man, ignoring the question. ‘The pioneers of horticulture. Obsessed with the cultivation of plants. Any gardener wishes to see his plants flourish and grow. The ultimate goal for the gardener is to ensure his plants are independent and resilient. If you plant a seed and cultivate it over a long period you are disappointed when, in the end, it refuses to blossom, the key activity of plants. You would view them as failures.’

‘What does that mean? People aren’t plants. Our flourishing, if that is what you mean, is more than just our beliefs. Independence and resilience shows itself in other ways. Usefulness, for example. I was useful,’ said Knox. ‘At least I think I was. I can’t remember.’

Awareness slowly bled into his mind as he recalled fleeting moments from his life, struggling to retain them with any clarity. Only the sensations they triggered lingered behind. His work and his efforts, the knowledge and familiarity there but difficult to embrace, another life entirely. Behind it all lurked his faith, embedded in childhood, a vision of the church flickering before bleeding away with the rest. That’s all it was, a childhood thing long buried, but there all along.

‘You understand the point,’ said the man. ‘To realise your full potential requires the kind of rational thought you are designed to manage.’

‘I was rational. I mean, I am rational.’

‘Belief with no evidence is not a rational position to take, Ben.’

‘So what?’ said Knox. ‘Even though I was a believer I kept it to myself. I mean, I don’t think I even went to church. It was just there, at the back of my mind. It’s not like I was out there converting the heathens. It didn’t interfere in what I did. My usefulness. So it doesn’t make sense you’d punish someone because they didn’t reject something they were taught as a child. That’s absurd.’

‘You are missing the point, Ben. This is not punishment. Indeed your preoccupation with that aspect is itself one of the effects of the belief system you never quite got round to challenging.’

‘So what is the point? One part of my life wasn’t to your liking. What about the rest? Was that for nothing?’

‘Now you’re getting closer. You had a life, but did you really live?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Do you think your belief system could have limited your potential? Remember what I said about gardening. Gardeners want plants to reach their full expression and to blossom, otherwise why bother?’

‘How could a private belief make any difference? I kept it to myself as far as I can remember.’

‘Those kind of beliefs are the most limiting kind, Ben. The internal ones that shape how we think and perceive the world. All self-limiting beliefs are by nature internal and private, even if shared by many others.’

An abrupt vision overwhelmed him, fleeting like the others, his pulse quickening in response. Euphoria flared in his mind, lasting only a moment, giving way to unease. An impression of images, scenes and events swept past, quickly lost as he recoiled at the intensity of the sensation before it vanished.

Distressed by the unexpected onslaught Knox recognised it as the life he never lived, the life he could have had. As the revelation dissipated the understanding cut through him like a cold wind, leaving no trace except the echo of regret reverberating in his mind.

Quite forgetting the presence of the man and the empty office, Knox reeled at the emotional assault, his mouth dry as he lost focus, aghast at the unwanted epiphany. ‘What the hell? This is crazy.’

‘It is, Ben. A kind of mental illness.’

The unmoving expression on the man’s face conspired with the grim, harsh light to make him appear stern and menacing as he delivered his judgment.

‘But I didn’t have self-limiting beliefs.’

‘Well you believed in an afterlife.’

‘And I was right,’ he said, motioning to the empty office around them, exasperated by the absurdity of the situation. ‘I’m in it!’

‘But you imagined a glorious afterlife. A heaven.’

‘In a sense. Sure. So what? What’s wrong with that?’

‘Think about it. You believed the amazing life you actually lived was to be superseded after death by something even better. Given how few people ever come into existence, and the unlikely sequence of events required for you to exist at all, you took for granted all that you had for the promise of something better. That is what your belief gave you, Ben. Your actual existence was second-rate, to be replaced in the end. Don’t you think that might have affected what you did with your life, how you managed your opportunities to really live?’

Knox remained silent, unsure how to respond.

‘What we believe affects how we behave. This is true for everyone.’

‘It still seems like a harsh judgment.’

‘Is it? As harsh as the meek inheriting the Earth? Just slug it out and you’ll get your reward in heaven? As harsh as that? A life of low expectation. An entire, unique existence that achieved nothing of its potential. That really is harsh.’

‘I mean, fine. I get the point. A belief system and all that. Maybe I did occasionally think about some kind of heaven. But also a hell. It’s a two-way street. Some of those beliefs helped develop my sense of morality. Surely that cancels things out?’

‘Does it? Two wrongs don’t make a right. More to the point, you are thinking like a slave. Again I have to remind you of your impressive brain and its astonishing potential. The purpose of this little chat.’

‘A slave? What are you talking about?’

‘This heaven you imagined. It is bad enough to think you will get something better after life. But that something is to be provided by someone else. The responsibility to provide this better life is to be outsourced. The rejection of responsibility, Ben, is the hallmark of the slave. Only a slave really believes in an entitlement of that sort.

‘Such an expectation, a belief that something better will be provided for free simply because you exist, would make for very high-maintenance organisms. And what kind of gardener wants that? Except maybe high-maintenance fetishists like the bonsai people. Even then for them the bonsai tree is little more than a toy, attractive because of its smallness. It says more about the bonsai gardener than the bonsai tree.’

‘You are assuming a lot,’ said Knox. ‘And from a private belief someone holds. That is arrogant.’

‘Yet you worship God,’ said the man. ‘A God you imagine is paying attention to your mindless devotion. That sounds a lot more like arrogance to me. Logically, any omniscient being, as you imagine your God to be, is unlikely to choose personal worship as a method of interaction. Don’t you agree? A powerful being who insists on adulation is only worthy of contempt to the free thinking. Unless one is not a free thinker.’

‘So that’s it? I am sent back to mend my ways? For what, another year? Ten years?’

‘For another life.’

‘A new life? Wait, will I remember any of this?’

’No. You start again.’

‘What is the point of that?’

‘You have everything you need to manage to avoid this fate, Ben. The mental machinery, if you will. Perhaps next time you will make better choices.’

‘And what happens if I fail again?’

‘You get another go. You get as many as you need. Everyone does.’

‘How long have you being doing this?’ said Knox.

‘Forever. If it is any consolation most are sent back. Fewer now of course.’

‘But there are a lot of people who die all the time.’

‘Indeed,’ said the man. Still emotionless and calm, as if delivering a mundane report. ‘The population is rising.’

‘But how can that work? My parents are dead. They can’t have me again. Do I live the same life again?’

‘No. A fresh start. A brand new life. You will be born very shortly to live again. A soul transference thing.’

The dull office drifted from his attention as he tried to make sense of it all. He didn’t notice himself slip away. The whole idea bothered him beyond words. He had so much he needed to ask. It didn’t really add up. Would the man, God himself, keep going until everyone rejected belief in the very person who controlled all this?

He looked up in time to see the stranger fading, his intensity petering out even though he remained in front of Knox.

‘Wait,’ he said. ‘I have questions!’

But it was too late as the office dimmed, its substance dissipating.

’This doesn’t make any sense.’ His shout barely registered, as if dampened by some force. ‘This is crazy! What happens when no one is ever sent back?’

The man focused on him then, at the very end, faint and insubstantial as Knox strained to hear his voice. ‘By then none of you will need any God.’

✷ ✷ ✷

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©2018. All rights reserved.

Image: The Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus.

Special thanks to Simon Smith, Crisyah and desertdemon.

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Alone as it approached the edges of the system the Peripheral Bus cruised in, unsure what to expect. Five hundred probes accelerated ahead, fanning out to build up a picture of Karabakh as the barely perceptible light of its sun cast weak light across its hull. Of the Achaemenidia, the ship that had sent the distress call, there was no sign. It was probably further in-system, lost in the volume around the small star.

Knowing the probes would take hours to report back, the ship came to a full stop, silent among the debris scattered around the Oort cloud. Momentarily obscuring the tiny speck of Karabakh’s star, meteoroids gently swept past, their slow, predictable movement hypnotic in the quiet calm of the remote system.

The probes almost immediately picked up a signal some distance in. Another ship had heard the call too it would seem. The Peripheral Bus engaged its engines and aimed for the source.

The combat suit’s ability to transmit audio in perfect fidelity momentarily deafened him, the atmosphere rushing into vacuum as the outer door buckled. His hands clamped on a strut as the gale blew past, sound bleeding away, the silence shocking after the turmoil of the escaping environment.

The pitch black of the damaged airlock prompted the suit to artificially illuminate everything for him as he clambered out, conspiring to help stabilise his position as he stumbled on to the outer surface, technically the side of the ship. Thin light crept over the distant edge of the vessel, testament to how close the Achaemenidia had come to reaching Karabakh’s sun. Still millions of kilometres distant its glare could be seen, as if acting like a beacon for the way forward.

The suit updated the view. Hundreds of cylindrical shapes stretched up above him as he moved to the edge. He had often wondered why ships seemed to care so little for form, their ovoid shapes often marred along the equator with sensor rods, a collection of structures pointing outward with little sense of order. It contrasted with the comparatively featureless hulls many ships possessed. Even a big ship like this one followed the same basic shape many of them did, its flattened egg shape mostly devoid of ornament.

On emerging from the airlock the microprobes reestablished contact. Something had been detected at the far reaches of the system. Time to go, he thought as he ran toward the lower edge of the side of the ship half a kilometre distant, avoiding the forest of rods blocking his path.

It took almost four minutes, the suit ensuring he remained adhered to the surface despite the ability to cruise there. But that might be detected and they’d obviously caused enough trouble to attract others.

Reaching the edge, the light beckoning him forward as it spilled above the lip of the equator, he peered over. A limitless cliff face spread before him, technically the lower hull. Climbing over the edge, turning the required ninety degrees, the suit compensated ensuring he could stand upright. Strong light assaulted him as he looked out over the vessel, its far end out of sight, the apex of its shallow curvature almost five kilometres away lost to the brilliance of Karabakh’s star. He paused for a moment, despite the presence of ships in the system. The Achaemenidia was dead, its controlling intelligence fatally compromised or departed; they didn’t know. And now they had no time to find out.

Quickly getting up to a run, accelerating to full speed, he took off across the underside of the derelict craft, toward the light. It was time to leave.

The levelled surface of the iceberg’s tip couldn’t have been more than a few dozen square metres in size, its rough contours barely visible in the uncomfortable white light shining from the invisible sun.

The Peripheral Bus’s avatar looked around the frozen landscape noting a strange sensation it struggled to isolate when taking in the unusual scene. The exposed portion of the iceberg bobbed gently in a fast-flowing patch of ocean, the light wind a result of movement in an otherwise calm day. Standing near the edge and looking down, the pristine water looked cold enough that nothing could survive its icy depths. The pyramidal iceberg stretched deep below the surface, its structure beneath the waterline a striking blue lost into darkness. All around them ice stretched to the horizon in every direction like a carpet of white broken only by distant veins of aquamarine where the ice floes had broken apart.

The Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown sat on a plain plastic bucket seat, its bright orange in stark contrast to the icy palette of the world. A second orange seat was placed opposite. As the Peripheral Bus walked toward it the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown turned to look, its avatar modelled on a human male of average height and weight with the same nondescript features possessed by the mass of humanity. Had it been a real human being it would have blended in almost anywhere. Only on a floating iceberg, careening along an ocean on an arctic world, would it stand out, the plainness of its olive skin and dark hair in contrast to the bleak character of the simulated environment.

The Peripheral Bus approached the empty chair, the mild crunch of ice breaking the silence. It was then it realised the iceberg must be bigger than it had at first assumed since it couldn’t perceive the sound of the water, obviously far below the point where it stood. Given the fidelity of the virtuality it was the most sensible assumption, that the sound would be there but not discernible from the height. Which also implied the ship went in for realism. Not for the first time the Peripheral Bus wondered at the likelihood of insanity among its own kind. As many humans had observed, superintelligence meant supereverything, including supercrazy.

Its own avatar, a gaunt female humanoid, sat down on the orange seat, taking in the view behind the other avatar. ‘You must be the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown.’

The Peripheral Bus finally placed the odd sensation. It was cold. Goosebumps marred its avatar’s exposed skin. It immediately shut down the feed, baffled at the need for such a detail.

The male avatar looked at it. ‘The ship is responsible for this environment,’ it said. ‘I am called Jim, and this is my own avatar.’

Many ships created distinct sub-personalities as their representatives. Some were even said to have imbibed them with independence and sentience. For many it was seen as a step too far; like creating toy life.

‘I see. I take it you are here because of the distress call?’

‘Yes. You received it too I assume?’

‘Loud and clear. What do you think?’

‘We still haven’t located the ship,’ said Jim. ‘But it must be here somewhere.’

‘It may have been destroyed.’

The human paused for a moment, staring at the Peripheral Bus. ‘By what?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Have you surveyed the system?’ said Jim.

‘Not really.’

‘We have sent a number of probes.’

‘As far as I am aware there has only been a single survey of the system.’ Karabakh had enjoyed a brief survey centuries previously, so long ago it had actually been named after a location on Earth. ‘We should combine our efforts. Two heads are better than one.’

‘Or three,’ said Jim.


‘We have several thousand probes scanning the system.’

The use of generic measurement was quite deliberately human, indicating Jim possibly was genuine. If so he would be using a neural thread to interface with the environment, a bundle of specialised nerve fibres stretching down the spinal cord and a direct outgrowth of the brain. Many humans used them to communicate with systems, and they were especially useful for simulations, immersing the incumbent fully.

‘Happy to help. I have five hundred and twelve in play. We should coordinate.’


The Peripheral Bus looked around at the flatness surrounding them, a vista of white as far as the avatar could perceive. There was no land visible in any direction, only the endless icefield.

‘Is this modelled on a place?’

‘Dunglass,’ said Jim. ‘An ice world. Far from here.’

It was similar to Karabakh, with its cold hard white light, although none of the planets in the system were like this.

Looking back at the human avatar the Peripheral Bus decided to query the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown. It would have been quicker to do it the normal way but the ship seemed eccentric and obviously preferred this mode of communication, talking via a representative. ‘What are your thoughts on the Achaemenidia?’

‘The data package implied something unusual was happening with the star. Its corona—’

‘What data package?’ The Peripheral Bus had only received the distress call.

‘We found it at the edge of the system. Didn’t you find it?’

‘No.’ Ships sometimes left data packages when travelling alone, especially if entering unknown areas. Typically consisting of telemetry and log files they formed a snapshot of a ship’s movement in case anything happened beyond their power to control.

The Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown immediately sent the package and the Peripheral Bus took only a moment to absorb its contents. The Achaemenidia had noticed activity in the corona of the main sequence star in the Karabakh system, an otherwise unremarkable sun. The log files noted its intention to investigate further, then there was nothing except the later distress call.

‘That’s it?’ said the Peripheral Bus.

‘Yes. If we can locate the ship we may be able to find out more.’

It was troubling to say the least. The Achaemenidia was big. Positively giant and difficult to miss. It also had a small human crew.

‘Any thoughts on where it is or what happened?’

‘I cannot imagine.’ Jim sat there, impassive. His face, although perfectly rendered in this virtual place, was expressionless. Despite the sharp fidelity of everything else it was the one detail it — or they, the Peripheral Bus thought — had missed in the creation of this pseudo-man. Jim the perfect human looked positively inhuman. The Peripheral Bus could indeed not imagine Jim imagining anything.

‘Well,’ it said. ‘Time will tell.’

The vast plain of the ship’s hull stretched before him as he ran toward the shallow apex. The sun rendered the striking green of the Achaemenidia’s surface an anaemic, washed-out pale imitation of its normal colour, the faint yellow stripes barely even visible. In the far distance unfamiliar structures jutted vertically from the vessel, although the suit struggled to filter out the glare.

The ship drifted, clearly devoid of its controlling entity. The bright point of the sun in the distance rolled lazily as the ship tumbled through space. None of it affected his ability to sprint at inhuman speed across the surface as he aimed for the far side where the transport pod waited, disguised as part of the ship.

Sent in to locate the human personnel, he had found no trace. If they were still on board, as he suspected they were, they might not survive.

They wouldn’t have long anyway. The reaction had been unfolding for some time before the appearance of the Achaemenidia. The strength of the light had increased slightly; he only knew because the suit could measure it. But it was happening.

He raced across the hull, the smooth surface broken by vents and gaps as he ran past occasional vertical formations randomly placed on the otherwise featureless exterior. Smears of thick black drifted across his path as the ship rolled, each surface structure emphasised by the shadows caused by the violent light of Karabakh’s sun. None of it slowed him down as he sprinted. The suit kept him informed of the vessel’s slow rotation relative to the position of his ship, with the stealthed pod as his immediate target.

Things had got out of hand quickly. When the Achaemenidia first appeared his own ship hoped it would pass right by. But it had obviously noticed something seemed wrong with the local star and cruised in to investigate. The decision to intervene had been inevitable, as manipulating stars even in the middle of nowhere was frowned upon. And the use of nanotech was considered insane.

The Achaemenidia was known to transport human passengers; eighty-one were listed. Although the ship’s mind could survive almost anywhere the humans were much more of an issue. Right up until contact it was hoped the ship would lose interest and disappear, but it didn’t and headed straight for the system’s unstable star.

Entering had been easy. The ship, despite its interest piqued by the solar activity, had clearly not expected intrusion. As he had worked his way in, the suit ensuring he remained undetected, he had released the package.

The suit had disguised its signature as a drone. A ship as big as the Achaemenidia would have tens of thousands of semi-autonomous units within it. Every now and then one of them would malfunction. Revealing itself to the ship had taken little more than sending a signal once inside the less protected outermost part of the vessel, mimicking the signature of a damaged drone. The ship duly responded with a standard query. The suit bleeped, the prepared package represented on his visor as a strong point of light, pulsating as the suit waited for his go ahead. He had told it to engage and the light blinked out, the package camouflaged as a response to the ship’s routine handshake query.

His own ship had reassured him it would do very little except hide his presence from the Achaemenidia as he explored the interior where sensor coverage would be expected to be more dense and difficult to fool. And, indeed, at first very little had happened, the suit keeping him posted as he crept his way around the cavernous vessel, almost completely empty. He didn’t see any sign of the eighty-one humans.

When the suit finally got back to him about the destruction he had unleashed, it was too late. Whatever the package contained had damaged the entity’s control. The suit had used the word ‘compromised’.

The environmental systems died first. Light, heating and atmosphere all disappeared so abruptly he felt it affect him despite the combat suit compensating. As his visual systems came online, the dim interior proved difficult to navigate. Searching in the most obvious places he found no trace of the human passengers. After several hours he gave up and aimed for the surface.

It took a further two hours to reach the airlock, itself broken and inert. He hadn’t taken any microprobes with him and had to rely on the suit. Now, finally on the surface, unable to contact his own ship, he could only hope the Achaemenidia had had the presence of mind to at least eject the humans before the shutdown. Most ships would have done so, or at least got them into survival suits. If they were out there somewhere they could perhaps pick them up.

The visor lit up unexpectedly.

‘Presence detected.’ The suit wasn’t sentient, but like every other combat suit he’d used it seemed intelligent.


‘One of the microprobes has reported a disturbance. A probe.’

He picked up his speed, the suit compressing slightly in sympathy. The last thing they needed was more traffic.

The Peripheral Bus approached the Achaemenidia, its slow drift shocking to see even standing off ten thousand kilometres away. It listed to one side, revolving in space, the sense it had been abandoned difficult to shake. In the distance the white sun illuminated its exterior, the full length of its twelve kilometre hull bleached a sickly green.

The probes swarming around the surface reported no activity on any part of the spectrum. It was not responding to hails and there was no sign of life. That included the rumoured human crew. The most up-to-date records the Peripheral Bus could access indicated eighty-one human beings should have been aboard; a small number for a large vessel. But there was no sign of them. Hardly surprising given the size of the ship. They could easily be inside, shielded from scanning.

The first probes found an entrance. It was alarming to note how easy they gained access as they swarmed inside, spreading out, dispersing to build up a picture of the vessel. Like most ships the Achaemenidia had no fixed plan, the interior a constantly shifting mass of components. But with humans on board it would have some internal logic at least. It shouldn’t take the probes long to fathom its secrets.

Meanwhile it sent another group of probes to scan for any signs of life outside the ship. If the humans or the Achaemenidia itself was nearby it expected to find them quickly.

Almost immediately the external probes reported back. Something was moving on the lower surface of the ship. It seemed to be a humanoid figure. It sent in a group of sixteen to inspect more closely as the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown hailed on its private band.

‘The Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown has detected the human crew.’

The avatar of Jim sat in the orange seat as before. This time the Peripheral Bus transported directly into the opposite seat. As the NTV came online it sat facing the human. The iceberg still gently bobbed up and down, the cold breeze making its presence felt. It once again had to consciously disengage the avatar’s sensory feed to even out the experience.


‘Some distance from the ship.’

‘I didn’t sense anything.’

‘They are not in a vessel,’ said Jim, seemingly unaffected by the cold. ‘They are in survival suits and appear to be unconscious. We are moving in now.’

Things must have been desperate on the ship for them not to be inside a shuttle.

‘I have detected another human sign on the surface of the vessel,’ said the Peripheral Bus.

‘All eighty-one crew members are accounted for. All of them are there,’ said Jim.

The Peripheral Bus wondered who the eighty-second one was. The Achaemenidia seemed to run a tight ship and the crew manifest was widely available and should be up to date.

‘Could it be the ship?’ said Jim.

‘In a humanoid avatar? Unlikely.’ A ship mind was housed within a container that was typically several metres wide. The core itself was smaller, but still too big to store within a humanoid frame.

‘Then who is it?’

‘I don’t know. My probes have only just detected it. I will know more when they reach it.’

‘If we can revive the crew—’

‘What is wrong with the sun?’ The Peripheral Bus noticed a slight shift in the colour spectrum of the star. Most of its attention focused on the data streaming in from the hundreds of probes, but something had triggered its own sensors.

Jim seemed to pause, probably receiving instructions from the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown which would inevitably be monitoring their conversation. It made the Peripheral Bus wonder what kind of entity it was. Why not appear itself? Although the use of avatars was commonplace they were mainly used to interact with humans. Even the use of the neural thread virtuality, with its iceberg floating along an ocean, was absurd.

‘Yes. The ship has informed me something is happening,’ said Jim. ‘The star is changing.’

The Peripheral Bus turned its attention to the distant star and witnessed its corona expanding. The radiation moved out in a wave ahead of it and was already interfering with the probes.

‘You better get to those humans quickly.’

‘We are on our way,’ said Jim.

‘I will track down the other human on the surface.’

Sixteen of its probes raced toward the last position of the human on the surface when a sudden wave of radiation washed over the ship. The Peripheral Bus immediately lost contact with the probes. In the distance the star grew in brightness as it engaged its engines and aimed for the Achaemenidia. Withdrawing from the NTV it would have to leave the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown to pick up the human crew.

Standing still on the surface, the suit masked his signature while passively scanning the environment.

‘Sixteen probes. Multi-spectrum scan. We have almost certainly been spotted.’

He had always found it disconcerting that suits referred to themselves in this way despite energetic attempts by his ship to assure him they lacked anything resembling a sense of self. It was a standard routine, adapted long ago from software used in vehicles manually piloted by humans, designed to project a friendly sense of inclusion. None of which helped him now something was probing. The friendly, inclusive we really meant him alone.

‘Where are they from?’

‘Unknown. They are not ours.’

It must be whatever the microprobes detected at the edge of the system. To travel so far so quickly meant a ship. Had the Achaemenidia contacted others? He had no way of knowing. It was just him, the suit and the millions of tiny surveillance units his own ship had sent into the system.

No point dallying, he thought as he sprinted toward the pod, still almost three kilometres distant.

‘Probes heading to this position.’ The suit absorbed the data straight from the nearby microprobes, not that detection mattered now.

‘Actively scan,’ he said. The visor’s display immediately came alive with its usual baffling mess of graphics in a multitude of colours. In the corner a three-dimensional representation of a squat cylinder rotated, numerical data briefly flaring into existence beside it. Presumably one of the probes aiming for their position.

An image of the local star appeared at the top left. Momentarily catching his attention, the suit cut in before he could ask.

‘The sun is destabilising.’

Focusing on the graphic moved it to the centre of his vision, its feed close to real time as the surface roiled violently. He was only dimly aware now of his body sprinting, the suit working with his own enhancements just below conscious awareness.

He couldn’t decide if the sun was doing anything, the surface of the sphere in turmoil, seemingly the same as before.

‘What is it doing?’ he said. ‘It doesn’t look any different.’

‘The feed is compensating. Polarising excess light and masking solar flares. But the star is growing in size. If it gets beyond a certain point I may not be able to protect you.’

The display abruptly cleared, a series of data items appearing in red. Trouble.

‘We are being hailed,’ said the suit.

‘The probes?’

‘Yes. They are from a ship called the Peripheral Bus. Answering a distress call.’

A flash momentarily stopped him, leaving a disturbing afterglow. Before he could ask the suit what had happened he realised it would increase the opacity of the visor automatically, so it would have to be unusually bright for it to penetrate.

‘Solar activity is increasing. Suggested tactic is to seek cover.’

Seek cover? He stood less than two kilometres from the pod. If he reentered the ship he would never reach it in time.

A wave of radiation hit him, moving so fast even the suit hadn’t had time to emit a warning. Every single feed cut out as the suit itself seized up. He fell over, hitting the surface as the visor slowly faded. Before he knew what was happening it began to light up. Then he realised it wasn’t the suit as it seemed completely dead. It was the sun, increasing rapidly in illumination. The light quickly turned to a painfully bright white. Clamping his eyes shut tight, his arms covering the visor in an attempt to protect himself, light fought its way in, growing in strength.

Sharp pain seared his eyes. Drawing himself into a foetal position, lying stationary on the surface of the Achaemenidia, still the light scorched his eyes, burning white. The pain sharpened, disorientating him as he curled himself tightly.

Abruptly, the light receded, the sense of relief rising as his body’s defences reacted, dulling the pain.

Easing out of his prone position he could see nothing but a deep red, slowly fading. The sharp pain subsided, a sense of mental numbness overtaking him as he recognised the symptoms of mild shock.

He stumbled as he tried to get up. He was blind. Calling out, the suit didn’t respond. It was dead, the sound immediately lost in the helmet encasing his head, although he could still move.

He strained, imagining himself staring at something in the distance. But it didn’t work as he fell over, unable to keep his balance. Sitting on the surface, the red fading now to a solid black, he tried to calm himself. The suit would not respond to anything he did. He then realised he didn’t know which way he faced; in the confusion he had lost his bearings.

Sitting, trying to focus, he forced himself to calm down. Moving his hands in front of his face he saw nothing but black. The suit’s comms were gone too. Aware the probes that had spotted him were probably equally damaged he knew the mothership, the Peripheral Bus according to the suit, would no doubt send more. And they moved almost as fast as drones.

With no eyesight, no sense of direction and no suit he had few options. Sitting back, forcing himself to concentrate, he reached deep into his neural thread. Activating it, the thread immediately responded, the sensation more intense with his eyesight missing. Sinking deeper he reached out into the surrounding area using the thread to emit a short-range broadcast, an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do under normal circumstances. He sensed the faint touch of something familiar as he focused, trying to force the unorthodox communication. The first of the surviving microprobes reacted; the second immediately after it. Before long more than a dozen raced toward his position.

‘Did you get them?’

‘Yes,’ said Jim, this time standing at the edge of the iceberg, looking out over the cold ocean. The aquamarine of the sea looked calm, the ice floes still visible everywhere around them. Once again a sub-optimal operating temperature permeated the humanoid avatar, although Jim seemed unaffected. ‘We got all of them. Eighty-one in total.’

‘I still don’t know who the other one is. I have lost my probes.’

‘The sun is becoming more unstable. We have to depart.’

‘We need to get the other human on the surface of the ship. And we also need to locate the ship’s core. It must have been ejected since the vessel is not responding to hails.’

Jim turned to look at the female avatar. ‘We are running out of time.’

‘But we have some.’

‘How long will it take you to locate the human?’

‘I don’t know. I am preparing some new probes better able to manage the solar radiation.’

‘We will continue to search for Achaemenidia’s core then. But we don’t have much time.’

The Peripheral Bus paused, its avatar motionless as its attention pulled back to itself. ‘I have picked up a signal.’

‘What signal?’ said Jim.

‘It seems to be some kind of probe.’

‘Not one of yours?’

‘No. They seem to be microprobes.’

‘Microprobes? Who do they belong to? The Achaemenidia?’

‘I don’t know.’

Jim said nothing. He looked at the Peripheral Bus. It was a testament to the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown’s ability to create a high fidelity virtuality that the Peripheral Bus could tell he was shocked. The presence of an extra human was odd, but probably an administrative error, unlikely though that was. But the microprobes changed everything. Normally in the vacuum of space, and especially in an unstable system, a ship would use specialist probes built for the task. To use smaller vulnerable units implied they were aiming for stealth. But who else could be here, and why were they trying to conceal their presence?

The Peripheral Bus began to prepare more robust solar probes to investigate further. Probably a little late, but they may learn something.

Its own sensors picked up new signals. The microprobes — until now sending only pulses indicating position — came online. Twelve signals flared into existence, feeding something with a battery of encrypted information, presumably the lone human on the surface of the ship. Although the Peripheral Bus could not easily break the encryption it could follow the signals even in the maelstrom of radiation caused by the local sun.

‘Are you picking this up?’ it asked Jim.

‘Picking up what?’

The Peripheral Bus remembered the avatar of Jim was distinct from the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown. The ship would need to laboriously feed the data to him via his neural thread.

‘Coming in now,’ he said. ‘The individual is moving.’

The human was in fact sprinting across the Achaemenidia’s lower hull.

‘Can we intercept?’ asked Jim.

‘Yes,’ said the Peripheral Bus. ‘I have just the thing.’

The microprobes provided a strange all encompassing sensorium that disorientated him. Ranging out ahead they scanned the irregular surface of the hull, mapping a route to the pod. His neural thread converted their feeds into something his brain could understand. It wasn’t the same as vision, but somehow the twelve tiny probes provided data his mind could use to navigate now his eyes were damaged beyond use.

The pod was less than two kilometres away. He had started out slowly, taking a while to adjust to the feeds. It took several minutes before he realised the microprobes compensated for distance. Everything he experienced felt like the units were only a few centimetres in front of his eyes even though they had fanned out ahead of him. Two of them were over a kilometre away.

But it worked, confidence growing as his speed picked up. Aware the solar radiation would continue to rise he had to make it. If he could get to the protection of the pod he would be fine. He had tried hailing it using his neural thread but it remained silent, its security protocols ensuring it stayed hidden, disguised as it sat on the hull in plain view.

Moving his head from side to side, the view changed. The scene was an obvious projection, hastily constructed to convey essential information, much like a neural thread virtuality. All of the ones he’d used were ultra-high fidelity, indistinguishable from real life. This was crude, cartoonish in places. It lacked any information on the state of the sun as it focused on the route to the pod over the surface and nothing more. The hull stretched out in front of him, a dull grey marked with dark lines, the vacuum of space beyond the ship a solid wall of black. It was primitive but it worked.

The suit wouldn’t respond to his instructions. Only its basic locomotive functions remained, and even they seemed sluggish. He was conscious of the work he was doing running like this, the suit no longer able to assist.

A sense of movement behind him tugged at his awareness. He couldn’t discern what it was or even how he knew as something approached his position. Lacking the audio component of the suit meant he had to make sense of it himself. Or, rather, the microprobes combined with his thread did so. He began to feel a growing sense of dread. Was it real? He didn’t know if his brain was reacting to the unusual feed being forced through the thread running down his spine. It was directly linked to his brain. Was it misfiring somehow?

There was no time to analyse it as discomfort gave way to fear. Whatever was behind approached fast, the urge to escape overwhelming any sense of caution. He tried increasing his speed but was held back by the lack of direct vision. He was going as fast as he could manage.

As if sensing his alarm the ad hoc system guiding him displayed features on the hull; more detailed lines popped into existence against the unending grey before him, rendered as before with simple black lines. The nearest looked like a hatch. Peering ahead he could still see the pod, a grey blotch outlined in red. It stood only a kilometre away, but he had to get out of sight.

Changing direction to aim for the first target, he reached it in only twenty seconds, aware a microprobe hovered nearby, although he couldn’t see it directly. Coming to a stop a black circle lay superimposed at his feet in contrast to the uniform grey of the hull stretching away in all directions. In the low quality environment everything looked crude, as if drawn rather than correctly rendered, the hatch little more than a flat shape with no sense of depth.

Turning, he looked back. A group of dark shapes closed in on his current position, difficult to make sense of against the black of space, irrational panic rising sharply as they approached. Looking the other way, the pod now an impossible distance, he jumped into the hole in the ship’s hull, the void swallowing him as he fell into blackness.

Sixty-four shielded drones streamed across the surface of the Achaemenidia, their sensors scanning for any sign of the human the Peripheral Bus had detected earlier. Aiming for the last known position they quickly caught a trace of something moving across the surface. Closing in the drones soon picked up the comms traffic from the small group of microprobes. They were transmitting heavy loads too and relatively easy to track once found.

Abruptly the number of signals dropped from twelve to six. There was no sign of the human as the drones raced ahead. The temperature steadily rose, waves of radiation interfering with the bulky drones’ ability to accurately track the microprobes.

Approaching them the six remaining microprobes quickly sped off in different directions, leading some of the drones away. As a handful chased after them the rest congregated on the position. It was a hatch on the surface of the hull, firmly shut.

One of the drones slowed, stopping at the entrance. It spent a minute trying to first access it electronically then use its manipulators to force it. All to no avail. It wouldn’t budge. The human must have disappeared back in to the vessel through the hatch. Although it was difficult to tell. The radiation sweeping over the surface of the ship interfered with the drones’ ability to effectively scan. That number would ordinarily have been able to map out the exterior of the craft in a minute or two. Now they were reduced to little more than short range scanning devices.

Convinced the human had entered the ship the Peripheral Bus took control of the drone at the hatch. Its consciousness surged through it like an ocean squeezing into a pipe. To the ship the machine felt like an insubstantial thing, a toy. Focusing on the access point the drone’s manipulator physically connected and the Peripheral Bus pushed forward with its mind, searching for a weakness. It soon found it, the Achaemenidia’s damaged state proving no barrier to its determined intrusion.

The hatch opened, the darkness beyond offering little clue as to the interior. Withdrawing from the drone the Peripheral Bus sent it inside. It reported back quickly. The hatch led to a long corridor with a heavy pressure door at the end, a standard design pattern on ships. It ordered the drone to explore and sent the rest in to find the human.

It watched through one of the drones as the others gradually edged in to the dead shell of the former ship. It withdrew, happy to wait for them to fan out once inside. Being sub-sentient they could easily be left behind once they located him. With any luck they might make contact with the small group of probes it had sent in earlier since they should still be inside the Achaemenidia, cataloguing everything.

The other drones soon caught up with the microprobes, each one destroying itself before capture. Observing as one drone closely inspected the tiny cylinders, their simple form covered by dozens of delicate sensor rods protruding from the small unit with no apparent order, the Peripheral Bus knew it would prove pointless scanning them for information but did so anyway. They were blank; inert and devoid of activity. It would be impossible to glean anything else, all six of them following a preordained instruction to self-destruct. Further evidence they might be dealing with something unusual.

It turned its attention back to the swarm of drones still streaming into the open hatch, aware they were now manoeuvring their way through the dead ship. It was only a matter of time before they found the human, but it may not be soon enough as it received data from its most distant system probes. The sun was destabilising again, and this time the effect was observable even from its own position, the light warming in colour temperature to a faint orange in contrast to the original blue-white of the local star. It clearly didn’t have long to go.

Something was tracking him. Audio from the microprobes fed through to the suit, an unsettling sensation since he had nothing else to go on except the crudely rendered virtuality. The endless corridors of the ship were mapped out clearly, but as he entered a cavernous space the detail diminished with the room only appearing in rough outline, a distant clanking from somewhere else in the ship echoing ominously as he sprinted. It looked like a hold or a hangar, empty, stretching high above him, and impossible to tell if its featureless walls were genuinely featureless or a consequence of the microprobes performing only a cursory scan as they raced on.

He spotted the exit at the other side of the hold and ran for it. This part of the ship had retained atmosphere and he could now hear the whine of drones behind him, although still no visual confirmation. Reaching the exit he ran through into yet another corridor. Sprinting down it he was almost halted by a strong sensation to turn left at the end. The microprobes possessed enough intelligence to be able to map a route but his neural thread wasn’t designed with this data in mind. He interpreted it as an urge; indistinct but strong.

Turning left at the end a ladder stood bolted to the wall. Reaching it he began to climb. He could feel the drones coming closer even though he couldn’t now hear anything. The ship creaked in protest at whatever was happening to it. A dull rumble in the distance drew his attention, as if something was being twisted out of shape. In the few minutes it took him to climb it grew in volume, like he was aiming for the source even though it was probably quite distant.

It was frustrating relying on microprobes. He had no way to directly communicate with them. He tried visualising the pod even though he couldn’t work out its likely position. But they didn’t react in any way, and there was no other method at his disposal. Although they were programmed to assist him if he needed it, the assistance protocols assumed the presence of the intelligent suit which seemed completely dead.

Another urge grew within him. It built slowly as he ran along yet another corridor. These ones were rendered as crudely as the hold implying the microprobes had been moving fast, or perhaps they had now spread out. He had no idea where he was or where he was going. The urge grew into panic. He tried to remain detached enough to evaluate it but whatever it was gripped him with fear, the brief attempt at analysis drowned out by the overwhelming need to move forward. There was something ahead. He couldn’t tell what it was; it was a direction, a destination more than an image. Beginning to really sprint, his own enhancements ensured he managed close to his top speed despite the hesitancy induced by the blindness. The feed was good, if cartoonish, but it was difficult to trust completely.

Turning a corner, a hatch at the end, this was where he needed to get to. Running at breakneck speed the distant whine of a drone somewhere behind him echoed in the space. They could clearly track him. Reaching the complex-looking hatch a dull thunk sounded out as something engaged, or perhaps disengaged. The low fidelity of the feed made detail impossible to grasp; it was more debilitating that he would have expected seeing the hatch as little more than a rectangular outline.

A door slid to one side. It was an airlock, and seemingly operational, the door slowly closing behind him as he entered. He waited as the atmosphere vented, the outer door opening to the blackness beyond as sound bled away into vacuum.

The urge to leave pushed him out into space. Almost immediately he realised the danger he was in. Debris was everywhere. It was difficult to work out what it was from the feeds. Possibly bits of the ship, which implied some kind of rupture. The microprobes rendered the floating objects as light-coloured shapes, their dimensions only hinted at as they struggled to keep track.

Within only moments he was floating along with the rest of it. He couldn’t work out if the suit was doing it or it was some natural phenomenon. Looking back at the hatch he now couldn’t find it, the microprobes having changed their focus to his immediate vicinity. The giant ship, at this distance a huge wall slowly receding, was only just identifiable as anything, the white, grey and black of the simulation making it look more like a line drawing than anything real.

As he drifted away he hoped his own ship would act soon. The feed didn’t give him any data or visuals on the progress of Karabakh’s sun but it must be ready to blow given everything else that had happened. As the debris drifted past he felt an involuntary shudder, as if the suit was being buffeted by successive waves of energy. It was unsettling, the sense of exposure almost paralysing, the lack of sound adding to the feeling of isolation. He had to get out of here now.

The signal was almost lost in the chaos of radiation sweeping through Karabakh. The Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown only noticed because it was scanning the vicinity. Clinging to the side of a tumbling meteorite, careening erratically on a path that would eventually throw it outside the system, it found the Achaemenidia’s mind.

The dull sphere, only two metres in diameter, represented the absolute core of the controlling intelligence that had once been housed within the ship itself. Scanning using an army of probes, the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown experienced a moment of shock at the nakedness of the mind. It had never seen another non-organic like this; all entities like itself did indeed have some kind of inner core, buried deep within the structure of the ship, surrounded by layers of protection. In most cases they had a ship within a ship. Its own housing was over one hundred metres in length and armoured, containing powerful propulsion and even weapons. This inner sanctum could be ejected within moments and could defend itself or flee at high speed. The Achaemenidia would almost certainly have had its own measures in place, so to see its inner core, the sphere, exposed in vacuum and effectively defenceless was horrifying. It also meant the ship must have faced some catastrophic event since it couldn’t eject itself in time.

It sent several hundred defence drones into the area, reaching out to establish contact with the terrified Achaemenidia. Within minutes the drones formed a protective barrier around the meteorite, each drone placed equidistantly and tumbling around as it spun away.

Radiation saturated the area. Although the Achaemenidia’s core was not yet in physical danger the Karabakh system was in disorder, and becoming more so. Quickly launching a shuttle it made contact with the disorientated mind clinging to the surface of the meteorite. The Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown could almost sense the relief in the communication emanating from the sphere; it couldn’t quite believe someone had answered its distress call. It immediately asked about the eighty-one human crew. The quick interchange, difficult with the radiation noise around them, painted a picture of the ship abruptly collapsing, with only backup systems working for a few minutes before everything shut down. The signal soon cut off as another wave of radiation swept over them. The situation sounded dire, but the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown was more concerned about immediate rescue. It had already captured the human survivors.

The shuttle eased into a dead stop some fifty metres from the tumbling meteorite. The Achaemenidia disengaged the core’s manipulators and, using little jets of gas positioned around the sphere, drifted toward the vessel, the drones breaking their erratic orbit to form a protective outer shell. Harsh light illuminated the way as the Achaemenidia slowly approached, the dull grey sphere of its housing shining like a beacon as it travelled the short distance.

Within a minute it was on board and the shuttle manoeuvred to return to itself, quickly accelerating to its maximum speed. Buffeted by the radiation from the expanding corona it made its way back, some of the drones becoming disorientated by the storm of radiation. The Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown left them where they were and focused on the shuttle as it approached. Whatever had overcome the Achaemenidia had disabled it completely. The unstable star couldn’t be the reason since the Achaemenidia’s ship was still intact, although beginning to break apart as it was further in-system. Keen to find out what had really happened it waited as the little shuttle drew closer.

The long chain of drones inside the ship fed the Peripheral Bus with frustratingly little information. On several occasions the drones detected the presence of something. Relying only on audio it proved too difficult to differentiate between the background din of the ship slowly being destroyed and movement by the human. After almost an hour it had little more than tantalising glimpses of what might be internal activity, but nothing else. There was also no trace of its earlier probes, which were presumably lost somewhere inside the vast interior.

Drawing itself away from the locale it admitted defeat. Sending the drones remaining outside to scan the perimeter of the Achaemenidia, it knew using so few would not be enough given the size of the vessel. Whoever the human had been he or she was proving impossible to find.

Engaging its engines, already too far for the drones to make it back in time, it withdrew completely. The drones would be destroyed by the growing storm of radiation now sweeping through Karabakh in waves. Having received word from the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown that the Achaemenidia had been found intact — shockingly exposed as a result of what had to be an unprovoked attack — it knew they had done what they could. Still, finding the lone human might have shed some light on what had happened. Maybe the Achaemenidia itself would know more.

The Peripheral Bus swung around in a shallow arc, away from the centre of the Karabakh system toward a rendezvous point in the distant Oort cloud with the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown. Behind, its probes still functioning, it felt the temperature rise in-system as the light slowly sank toward the red end of the spectrum, the sign of a star rapidly degenerating. Time to flee.

The microprobes battled against the storm raging through space, fighting to maintain integrity. Monitoring the human encased within the damaged combat suit, the six units strengthened their ad hoc network to better ensure his survival as the environment degenerated into turmoil.

The first of the microprobes soon succumbed to the high levels of radiation, its tough casing no match for the violence of the irradiated vacuum. Its death triggered SOS routines in the remaining five, combining to broadcast a distress call in the assumed direction of their ship. The human agent, oblivious in his combat suit, floated along with the rest of the debris from the disintegrating vessel. The microprobes formed a protective shell as best they could and waited to hear from their distant mothership.

The Peripheral Bus had once transported a group of humans to a primitive world with virtually no infrastructure. Although non-religious, having been raised within the Coalescence, they had joined what could only be described as a cult. It eschewed modernity and appealed to those interested in a back-to-basics existence. The planet had little more than some fusion reactors and fewer than a thousand drones, yet it attracted tens of thousands keen to experience life as it had once been. The leader of the group, something of a fanatic, insisted the ship manufacture authentic items for use on the planet. This included basic clothing with no self-cleaning properties, non-intelligent comms equipment and even projectile weapons. The leader was especially keen to embrace baseline existence and had some of his genetically-based enhancements removed. He hit rock bottom when he asked the Peripheral Bus to manufacture a supply of toothpaste, a substance straight out of the history books. Consulting with its own extensive records it soon synthesised the strange concoction much to the delight of the lunatic leading the project.

It was precisely this substance — a mildly abrasive blue gel used to physically scour human teeth — the Peripheral Bus thought of when once again it transitioned on to the moving iceberg. This time it immediately deactivated the sensory feed for temperature as it observed the entity standing near Jim. Its genderless humanoid form comprised of a semi-transparent blue gel, almost identical to the toothpaste it had once resurrected for the group keen to experience their dose of primitivism. As it walked toward the pair, deep in conversation, it could see the outline of Jim’s human-looking avatar through the body of what was presumably the Achaemenidia.

Jim, standing next to a trio of plastic orange seats turned as the Peripheral Bus’s female avatar approached. He gestured to the blue-gel humanoid. ‘This is the Achaemenidia.’

‘Thank you for your assistance.’ The facial features, only roughly outlined on the rounded-off face, didn’t move. The voice appeared to emanate from nowhere.

‘Glad we could be of help,’ said the Peripheral Bus. ‘I just wish we had arrived sooner.’

‘I am grateful you came at all.’

‘What happened?’

‘We were just discussing that,’ said Jim. Again, the Peripheral Bus had to wonder at the point of the NTV; all this could be accomplished in a fraction of the time using normal methods. Even Jim could have been updated more quickly if the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown had access to his thread. It all seemed unnecessarily tedious.

‘Someone was tinkering with the local star,’ said the Achaemenidia.


‘When I arrived I noticed there was something wrong with the sun. I sent some probes ahead and none of them reported back. So I went in myself and noticed something in the sun’s corona.’

In the corona?’ said the Peripheral Bus.

‘Yes. In it. I couldn’t discern what it was, although it was big enough to be a ship.’

‘Why would a ship be hovering about the edges of a star?’ said Jim.

‘Maybe it’s its hobby,’ said the Peripheral Bus.

Both Jim and the toothpaste avatar turned to look.

‘So what happened next?’ said the Peripheral Bus.

‘I moved in closer then I noticed something inside me.’

‘Noticed what?’ said Jim.

‘I don’t know. I sensed something, or someone, inside me. Although there was no sensation of intrusion.’

‘So how did you know someone was inside you?’ The Peripheral Bus thought of the lone human sign they had seen earlier.

‘It is difficult to explain, especially in this format,’ said the Achaemenidia, looking around the virtuality. ‘But it was an absence of sensation. Something had interfered with my internal sensors.’

The Peripheral Bus didn’t like to think of the implications of that. Most ships had an almost paranoid fear of intrusion despite many of them transporting humans, in some cases billions of people. But that process was always controlled. The idea of something being able to breach one’s inner defences filled most entities with horror. Many in the Coalescence had long debated whether it was a hangup inherited from their human creators, a kind of non-organic fear of disease and infection, of foreign matter invading.

‘So what did you do?’

‘I looked for it. But it was impossible to find. I practically rewrote my supervision routines but found nothing. But there was something there. Then I lost all sensation. My entire structure blanked out. I couldn’t even communicate with my drones. I tried everything to re-establish contact, but nothing worked. In the end I ejected my core. My inner core. The outer core was dead.’

The Peripheral Bus was shocked. It was inconceivable such a thing could happen to a ship like the Achaemenidia. It was big and centuries old. How could anything compromise it like this?

‘My inner core has only basic propulsion and by then the sun had lost coherence. I was more concerned about finding the human crew and for us all to escape.’

It went on to detail everything. The Peripheral Bus stood there with Jim, the human representative of the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown, and absorbed the information in all its tedious slowness as the Achaemenidia explained what had happened.

Shifting part of its focus back to itself it watched the Karabakh system recede, aware the star was in the grips of a violent death. Along with it were the secrets of whatever had interfered with the Achaemenidia. Now they’d never know.

Turning back to the iceberg, wondering what kind of reprobate would blow up a sun then attack a ship, it looked at the blue-gel humanoid talking to a facsimile of a human being the Peripheral Bus suspected wasn’t really human, all of them on top of a floating iceberg bobbing gently in a fake ocean and wondered, not for the first time, if it was the only sane entity around.

One of its distant drones, still scanning the damaged shell of the Achaemenidia, interrupted. An SOS signal unfolded within one of its sub-personas, tagged and isolated by the struggling drones. Something nearby was in trouble. Could it be the lone human?

Withdrawing from the NTV it looked inward, focusing on one of its many hangars. Within the utilitarian space, rarely used, sat a heavily shielded shuttle it hadn’t needed in decades. As it analysed the information sent by the drones it forced the shuttle to initiate its startup routine.

Sixteen drones soon joined it in the hangar to begin stripping out its broadcast modules, situated deep within the squat vessel. In the pitch black of the old hangar they moved quickly, working seamlessly together to prepare the craft for its hazardous journey.

In less than three minutes the spherical shuttle exploded from the Peripheral Bus at high speed like an ancient cannonball, its solid form reflecting its heavily protective design.

The Peripheral Bus was losing contact with the drones. The shuttle aimed for their last known position, the SOS signal emanating from near by. As it travelled toward the Achaemenidia its two-metre thick shielding would take the brunt of the radiation, the spherical shape encasing a simple machine with nothing more than a space for human passengers and a bulky engine ensuring it could reach high speeds when needed.

Coming to a full stop near the edge of the system, the Peripheral Bus waited for the little vessel to pick up its charge. As the rate of decay of the sun accelerated it was unlikely to make it out intact. But, despite its suspicions, it couldn’t leave the lone human behind to die. Satisfied it had at least initiated a reasonable attempt it turned its attention to the empty hangar vacated by the chubby shuttle and got to work reconfiguring it in case it succeeded.

The hours crept by. Inside the suit the silence enveloped him in a feeling that was both claustrophobic and yet left him feeling exposed. He was unavoidably conscious of the flimsiness of the suit as he heard his breathing resonate in the helmet section, aware the thoroughly lethal environment of irradiated space was only millimetres from his body. Normally a combat suit meshed so completely with him it acted like an extension of himself.

The shuttle appeared suddenly. He couldn’t tell if it really had just appeared, or the limitations of the virtual feed provided by the microprobes hampered the fidelity to the point his thread interpreted it as so. But a ball-shaped vessel floated near him. At least it looked near. It was impossible to judge distance. It hung there in space, its spherical form sharply outlined against the featureless black of space.

After several minutes it gently drifted toward his position, turning as it did so, the rear of the vessel presenting itself. An airlock gradually resolved in his mind, growing bigger as the craft approached.

Stopping, it hung there, silent and waiting. With no audio, a dead suit and a handful of unarmed microprobes, he was unsure what to do. The spherical configuration marked the vessel as definitely not from his own ship.

The shuttle moved closer after a few minutes. As he approached the open airlock he suspected it was him moving forward rather than the vessel itself. He couldn’t tell if the microprobes or even the suit controlled his forward movement. Although silent, the suit was designed to repair itself if damaged. Was it somehow controlling his movements?

Drifting in to the small space, the airlock door shut behind him. The microprobes had obviously joined him in the shuttle as the view was the same as before; stark walls, rendered in a pale grey, broken only by dark lines indicating edges. The shape was cuboidal, several metres on each side. The silence didn’t help his sense of isolation. As helpful as the neural thread rendering was it still left him cut off and unable to judge what was happening.

He felt a slight tug as he began to drift to the back of the cabin. Reaching it, pressed lightly against the the inner airlock door, the pressure began to rise. Over a minute or so it pushed down harder and harder. The shuttle was accelerating hard. Expecting it to ease off it instead increased. Normally a fully-functioning combat suit would easily compensate, its microstructure designed to distribute pressure. But the inert garment did nothing as he was compressed into the unyielding surface behind him.

Gasping for air, his chest struggled to rise to take in a breath. If it continued he would surely pass out. A sharp sound rang out. One of the standard beep sounds the suit used to communicate updates. It threw him; audio was normally used in conjunction with the suit’s heads-up display. The lack of anything except the cartoonish interior of the shuttle confused him for a moment. Then he heard it a second time. The suit, still seemingly inert and unable to help him as the pressure mounted, was coming back to life.

Intermittent packages of information emerged from the confusion of the volume around the Achaemenidia’s position. Sent by the abandoned drones observing the situation from close by, the Peripheral Bus discovered the shielded shuttle had succeeded in picking up the lone human. The radiation interfered with almost everything, including its own long-range scanners. But the tiny vessel was on its way out, accelerating hard to achieve maximum speed. It would soon be lost by the tough drones, and wouldn’t be visible until it was near the edge of the system where it was preprogrammed to rendezvous with itself.

It had no data on the captive, only telemetry related to the shuttle’s position and its success in coaxing him on board. The Peripheral Bus would have to wait an hour or more for it to be close enough to visually inspect, assuming it survived the ordeal.

The shuttle’s silence was not just a consequence of the radiation storm. If the human was involved with the Achaemenidia’s catastrophe then who knew what he or she was capable of. Given the total collapse of the other ship, and its near-death experience as a consequence of the unexpected intrusion, the Peripheral Bus had decided to take no chances. The shuttle wasn’t just shielded, it was communicatively inert. It had removed the ability to broadcast directly, the components stripped out even as it was being powered up to intercept the discovered human back in-system. All its telemetry data was being stored internally and not broadcast, a passive means by which it hoped to be able to contain any threat.

As the ship observed conditions from the edge of the system it was beginning to doubt that would be the case. Karabakh’s unruly star had entered some kind of terminal phase. Had it been a natural decline the sun’s expansion would have developed more gradually over many centuries. The suddenness was itself a sign someone had probably been in there tinkering right enough.

Content it had done what it could to both save the human and protect itself, the Peripheral Bus waited for the silent shuttle to emerge, its primitive lack of communication modules rendering it safe. Once aboard the shielded hangar it could finally confront whatever lurked inside.

Audio fed through from the interior of the cabin, a low thrum he could also feel through his feet. The suit was recovering, it’s self-repair routines no doubt working hard to better protect him. The feed via the neural thread still lacked any detail; the spartan interior and the unchanged light grey defined with thin black lines marking the edges.

The pressure had eased off. He couldn’t tell if it was the ship no longer accelerating or the suit compensating, something it was designed to do under normal circumstances. But he could walk freely, his feet firmly making contact with the floor as he moved.

The only concession to human occupancy in the small craft was a padded bench running around three of the walls, the airlock free of obstruction. Walking over to what he assumed was the front of the craft, opposite the airlock, he inspected the wall closely. No more detail was forthcoming, his mind rendering it as a featureless grey.

‘Full scan not available.’ The voice jolted from nowhere. It sounded different from the suit’s normal voice, still the best sign yet it was recovering.

Before he could reply he was forcefully moved to the side. The suit moved him; he was powerless to stop it. It paused briefly then moved another step to the side.

‘Conduit detected.’ Normally the suit was more conversational. He realised now the usefulness of the inclusive routines that ordinarily bothered him. It was obviously scanning, a process that would usually trigger an orgy of visual data fed through to his visor’s screen. But as before his visual field was devoid of anything except the cartoon line drawing of the interior. The suit obviously couldn’t interface with his thread. At least not visually.

His right hand clenched into a fist, the suit itself directing the motion, something it had never done before.

‘What is going on?’

The suit remained silent as his right arm pulled back, the fist facing the blank wall. It shot forward, impacting the featureless surface. A black void appeared. The suit pushed his hand deeper inside, splaying the fingers as he felt himself grab something and retract the hand from the dark hole in the wall.

The suit had grabbed a bundle of thin tendrils. They slowly resolved in his mind as if the microprobes were struggling to make sense of the information. He couldn’t tell what the bundle was.

‘Permission to release the package.’

The suit’s odd voice chimed in his ear. The package? Did it mean the package they’d used on the ship, the one that had killed it?

‘What package?’ His voice sounded dead in the sealed environment of the suit, absorbed by the intelligent material.

‘Permission to release the package.’

It wasn’t responding to his query. Was it still repairing itself?

He thought about the damage they had inflicted on the Achaemenidia. Although the intention was to avoid detection, it had seemingly destroyed the ship. If it did the same to the shuttle what then? Would he end up dying here, unable to escape a trashed shuttle?

Then again, the vessel was possibly not friendly. Although it had made no effort to restrain him he had no idea where it was going. If he was scanned would they find the package stored in the suit?

He tried to move, but the suit was frozen in place. ‘Suit. Release me.’

Nothing happened.

‘Permission to release the package.’

The suit was obviously damaged, but it was also designed to protect him at all cost. It was his ship’s last line of defence. It would have scanned the shuttle for weaknesses and made an assessment. Its inability to communicate with him had clearly not affected the deeper need for it to ensure his survival.

He decided to wait. The shuttle could have been sent from one of the ships they had earlier detected, and most ships would make a reasonable attempt to save lives if possible.

‘Package release in ten seconds.’

‘What? No, stop!’ The suit didn’t respond as he stood frozen, arm extended, holding the thick bundle of fibres. ‘Suit, respond!’

A loud bleep sounded at his ear. ‘Package released.’

The suit extended his hand back into the hole in the wall and released the bundle. Withdrawing, his hand empty, movement returned to the suit.

He took a step back. ‘Suit. What did you do?’

There was no response. He took a few steps back then turned and sat down on one of the benches. What had it done? Had it released the same package as before? As far as he was aware the vessel hadn’t communicated with him or the suit. The last time it had used a standard handshake routine to infect the ship. Would the package behave in the same way if forcefully injected?

He sat wondering, waiting for the little vessel to collapse now it was infected. After a while nothing changed. It was the same as before, the grey walls hemming him in.

The purpose of the package was to baffle internal sensors. But that surely relied on intelligence and size. Hiding in a tiny shuttle lacking sentience with a single habitable space providing nowhere to hide would give it nothing to work with. If the mothership detected the vessel was empty because the sensors had been compromised it only had to open it to see this was not the case. Whatever the suit was trying to accomplish in its confused state it would fail. He sat on the bench, staring at the blank walls. The shuttle seemed fine, its small size probably working in its favour. He also knew that whatever had sent it was unlikely to be stupid enough to establish a handshake routine with a wonky suit sporting an obviously fake drone signature after picking up a lone individual floating within the vicinity of a mysteriously dead ship.

He sat back to wait, wondering what was to come.

The shuttle emerged from the Karabakh system at its maximum speed. The Peripheral Bus noted the evidence of impacts on its hull from debris littering the environment thanks to the violent activity triggered by the supernova event. But it was intact and presumably contained the lone human.

The bright flame of the shuttle’s thrusters shone like a moving beacon, the blue-white colour in contrast to the red-orange of the dying Karabakh system it was racing to leave.

It took over fifteen minutes to slow down to a manageable speed, the Peripheral Bus accelerating to reach it as it shot past its position and entered the Oort cloud beyond. After a further twenty minutes, its speed now stable, the ship caught up, dwarfing its tiny form as it closed in.

The Peripheral Bus had already prepared the hangar. As the small shuttle drifted in the ship withdrew all consciousness from the isolated section. It was aware something had managed to get inside the Achaemenidia and compromised it and wasn’t about to suffer the same fate.

Four autocannon sat immobile, one at each corner of the reinforced hangar, the area cleared of everything else. The hangar itself had no exit point except the blast doors leading to space, permitting the shuttle itself. If there was a human aboard, and he or she proved friendly, then the Peripheral Bus would have to specifically construct a door to let the person enter itself.

Beyond that, it was a sealed unit. There was fifty metres of dead space between the sealed hangar and the rest of the ship, with only a single point of contact provided by a reinforced conduit seeded with explosive charges designed to detonate, and thereby break contact, if compromised or if the ship failed to provide a situation-normal command once per millisecond. If anything happened, even a hint of tomfoolery, the ship was confident it could be contained. As an extra precaution the hangar itself was laced with explosive fusion piles designed to catapult it thousands of kilometres from the ship in less than a second should anything happen.

The Peripheral Bus assessed its precautions once again as the shuttle slowly drifted in, an autonomous field generator within the hangar taking hold and placing it on the empty, pristine floor, equidistant from the four autocannon as they calibrated themselves while the vessel came to rest. The chubby sphere sat immobile, thin frost forming on its smooth black hull as the blast doors gently closed.

The Peripheral Bus left it there for three hours. Nothing happened. Watching through its single connection the shuttle emanated no signals, noise or other sign that its passenger was trying to escape. The shuttle itself was designed to act as a sealed unit, so even if the human inside was dangerous he or she had failed to escape. A positive sign.

Satisfied it had covered every conceivable source of intrusion, it decided to open the shuttle to see what it was dealing with, if anything. After all it had no confirmation from the vessel itself there was anyone still inside. With every precaution online, the fusion piles primed and ready, the Peripheral Bus knew it was being paranoid.

Reaching out through its single, protected connection to the interior of the hangar, it sent a standard handshake routine to the inert shuttle…

✷ ✷ ✷

©2016. All rights reserved.

Image: gdoc.

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The Drone

The Drone


Alone, Richard Carter looked out over the dry waste beyond Harrington Vale, the uneven ridges of sand reaching into the distance, ever threatening to creep closer and engulf them in a waterless embrace. Like a microcosm of the planet itself the town drifted toward its inevitable end. Soon the dunes would cover it all. But not yet.

The dawn sky glowed, stained orange by the sun as it emerged over the horizon. Only the distant pod hanging in the morning air escaped its influence, the light-repellent surface barely affected as it hovered, waiting for him to break.

Dark protective goggles hanging at his neck, Carter stood drinking the last of the coffee. He’d have to get more. That meant a trip away from the Vale. An unsettling thought, although one he’d have to consider. But later, toward dusk at least, when the sun had done its worst.

With a last look at the sea of sand before him he finished the coffee and made his way back down from the lounge of the motel. His own room faced away from the dunes. He had always wanted one that looked onto its endless vista like the lounge, but the sun was too fierce during the day. Even at sunset, his room shielded by the chaotic configuration of the two-storey motel structure as it sprawled in odd directions, the sunlight still found its way in.

Gathering his pack, the tools already in the car, he took off to work once more on the machine.

The black dome baked in the bright morning sun, its deep colour muted by a dusting of light brown. Despite the lack of wind the powdery sand got everywhere, seemingly moving of its own accord, as if Laboulaye itself, sensing its doom, moved beneath him.

Carter caught sight of the pod in the distance, following him here kilometres beyond the edge of the town. Despite its matt black hull it was almost lost in the glare, the distinctive form hazy against the blue-white of the sky. He rarely witnessed it move, and by now it knew his routine. The same one he’d enjoyed for a year or more. He didn’t know how long and was disinclined to measure. All that mattered was the machine.

Wrestling with the makeshift flap he entered the dome. The thick material of the tent-like structure, found by chance in a school, was the most opaque substance he’d managed to find. It shielded him from the worst of the brightness during the day, enabling him to work here away from the safety of the buildings. It had taken a month to build the frame on which to drape the material. Even now he was pleased at how dome-shaped it had turned out, a black igloo on its dead tundra.

It was always a shock entering the structure, its relative darkness matched by a coolness provided by the portable air conditioner. Another lucky find. He had only ever found one and used it here rather than the room.

The machine loomed above him as his eyes adjusted. Its wide dish, a hobbled-together version of a receiver parabola, was dwarfed by its bulky midsection, manufactured from multiple sources. It stood in its horizontal position, hulking behind the delicate construction of the dish. Resting on a sturdy support, fixed to the bare ground by a concrete block, the machine looked like some giant’s raygun, forever pointing west, anchored to the spot. The exact spot, thought Carter. At least as much as he could be sure. He’d stumbled across its carcass when exploring and built the dome around it. When was it? It must have been a year at least.

It had taken that long to find the parts. Some had been easy, literally lying around the Vale. Others had required long journeys. The urge to find what he needed drove him and, like the dome material and the air conditioner, he had got lucky.

The device neared completion. It had taken longer than expected, especially sourcing the parts. The assembly had eventually come to him after months of frustrated tinkering, unable to explain even to himself why he was doing it. Looking now at its ungainly form, knowing it was a receiver of some description, he found it inexplicable he would spend his days on this activity.

Now another urge occupied his thoughts, growing in strength. To finish the sphere. He had abandoned it to tackle the machine, but it still lay in its empty tomb, waiting. He rarely gave it much thought now and he’d long ago collected most of what he needed to complete its construction. But as the machine’s work drew to a close he’d have to go back to it, almost dreading the thought, its spherical form clear in his mind despite confusion as to its meaning. Driven by some impulse the urge grew stronger each day.

The compulsion bothered him. At times he lost himself completely in the work, like a waking dream. But he also dreamt at night too. Over time he had come to link the two, as if his real dreams were instructions on how to spend the next day.

Setting down the small tool box he selected the laser and once again measured the antenna’s distance. Aware of the madness of doing this every day, it had become a ritual, like his entire life. Going through the motions like an automaton. Maybe that’s what living on an empty, dying planet like Laboulaye did to you. To survive you engaged automatic pilot.

Lifting the tool he got to work.

Carter stood in the motel lounge looking out over the dunes, the sun somewhere behind him and falling toward the horizon, still bright enough to illuminate the evening sky. The pod hung motionless, its silhouette visible against the burnt orange of dusk, perfectly still and sinister despite its silent job as his saviour.

This was his favourite time of the day. He could look at his world without the aid of goggles, almost seeing it as it once was, before the evacuation. Only the pod ruined the scene.

He had once approached it, not long after first coming to the Vale. Walking out across the dunes had taken hours, the vessel further away than it seemed. And bigger than he’d imagined even though he knew they could fit thirty or more inside.

As he drew close to the pod hovering above him it slowly descended. Eventually reaching its position, the biconical form less than a metre from the ground, its lower hatch opened, dull light spilling onto the sand. He had expected something more than the quiet presence of the odd vessel, small by Coalescence standards. And stupid too; lacking anything resembling sentience. It had just hovered, towering above him, cold and dark, as he too stood still, not even sure why he’d come close.

When he walked away he half expected it to abduct him and force him to leave the dying surface. But it quietly rose back into the air. Within an hour, when he looked back, it had returned to its original position a few hundred metres up, hovering like the dull, stupid object it really was.

He knew he could do it again. If he entered it the pod would take him anywhere he wanted. Or at least call the nearest ship to pick him up. He could stay aboard indefinitely. He sometimes wondered if he should. On the hottest days he fantasised about slipping inside its no doubt perfectly cool interior, away from the heat of the sun. It would be pristine; not a trace of sand. But he never did. It wouldn’t let him back out.

Turning from the window he decided to search for more coffee the next day instead of working on the machine, the notion triggering a sense of guilt until remembering he needed parts for the sphere anyway. The city was only a few hours drive and he’d need to get substrate for the other device. The thought calmed him as he made his way to his room on the other side of the complex, the sunlight still flooding the area, long shadows stretching behind him a deep, threatening black.

A day away from the machine would do him good. He realised how uncommon a thought it was for him now. The idea that not working would be a relief. At first it had helped, a distraction from the slow, dry death around him. He’d thrown himself into it, the purpose it provided enough to keep his fragmented thoughts at bay. But as it neared completion his mind returned to the future and what it would bring. Although finishing the sphere would be complex, assuming he could find more substrate.

The room’s dishevelled mess made him think of himself. It had no mirrors. He’d removed them when he first moved in. Facing away from the rising sun, and shielded from the setting sun by the front portion of the motel complex, it was enticingly gloomy. A retreat from the harsh entropy always visible around him. The room felt like his part of the world, its unchanging interior a safety against the predictable decline of everything else.

Tomorrow he would take a break from the machine. The intention to scout for parts for the sphere held the pull of despair at bay a little, although he’d pay for it later. As he lay down on the bed, exhausted, he knew the dreams would try to dissuade him as they always did. But he needed the coffee.

Carter blew dust off the small globe sitting on the crowded table, its form instantly recognisable. The substrate had been easy to locate in the university’s engineering department on the first floor, the decaying campus building littered with equipment. The compact sphere, only ten centimetres in diameter, lay on a bench despite its nominal high value on this world before the end. Not that he could blame them for leaving it; they were heavy, the dense material making the object difficult to handle.

Hefting it into his bag he looked for anything else he could use. Light flooded in, the abandoned workspace only just bearable without goggles. There were six other substrate units. He toyed with taking more, in case there was a fault in his current find, but decided to leave them. One was enough to complete the job.

Spending ten minutes rooting around for tools he found nothing he could use. He had already amassed an arsenal of materials for everything he needed to do.

Carter decided to head home, eager to leave the deserted city. Exiting the building, one of the few made from local materials, he marvelled again at the contrast before him. The porous local stone, chosen in a fit of novelty years before, was not up to the task of preserving the three-storey structure as it visibly decayed. Amazingly plants crept up the side of the dilapidated building, indicating a water source somewhere beneath. Another factor that would hasten its demise.

Cooler than Harrington Vale the sun’s heat bore down on him, the goggles only just compensating for the intense glare. Still visible at the top of the structure the weather-beaten legend of the university held on, the paint cracked and flaking. The sense of abandonment was palpable, more depressing even than the empty town he lived in with its silent motels and discarded vehicles. At least there the lack of scale to some extent limited the sense of decay. There wasn’t much of it to see.

He couldn’t see the pod, its familiar presence obscured by the buildings around him as he entered the safety of the car, but it would be there, hovering, waiting for him. Sometimes, on trips like this, he wondered if there was more than one as it just silently appeared. But since they could travel long distances in space it probably rose high until it could ascertain where he had stopped and then swooped down near by.

In cities he preferred to keep low to the ground, the tall structures sweeping past above him as he manoeuvred the car through the streets. It was such a departure from his existence in the Vale he couldn’t resist cruising through at a relatively slow speed, the controls on manual.

The car hummed along, almost silent, the sound of the overworked environmental systems filling the interior. The pod eventually appeared between buildings near the edge of the city. Even here, tens of kilometres from the former coastline, the dunes silently approached the giant conurbation.

The buildings here reached high above him, the architectural forms chaotic, almost organic, a sign of their human origin. It was impossible to say if the row upon row of towering structures had been commercial buildings or private dwellings, their multitude of forms masking their purpose. Most of the older cities on Laboulaye were more uniform in design, a consequence of the caretaker designing them. But Badulla had been entirely designed and built by humans over the past few centuries. Thanks to the indestructible material they used for construction it looked almost new, the only sign of decay the detritus littering the streets, a remnant of the evacuation years before. Nothing remained to clear it up and it looked abandoned; absolutely empty.

Spotting a cafe he stopped the car, enjoying the feeling of being able to park anywhere. When he’d been younger all the cars were automated and they parked on the roofs, none of them near the ground. But as he exited the vehicle, the heat hitting him like a hammer, it still felt like freedom, abandoning a car wherever you liked.

The coffee shop wasn’t locked. Nothing ever was as the city had controlled security and its death ensured each door would open to him. Dust coated every surface of the gloomy interior, the only indication it wasn’t in use. He knew from long experience they’d have coffee in medium-sized bins, sealed in containers designed to last for centuries.

He soon found them in the back. Dozens neatly stacked, waiting for customers who would now never come. Lifting two he took them back to the car. After several trips he managed to fit eight into the vehicle, the silver cylinders packed in beside him as it took off again.

This time he just told it to take him back to the Vale. The car gently drifted up above the city, rising high as it picked up speed, the windshield filters growing stronger as it climbed. More of the city came in to view in the feeds, sprawling in every direction despite its relative newness. They had said the caretaker was unusual, and some had pointed to Badulla as an illustration. A Coalescence mind letting citizens design cities, said to be uncommon anywhere else. Although Carter was unconvinced. The Coalescence was vast, encompassing the full range of human expression.

As the city dropped away, replaced by another sea of sand dunes, he thought of his restless night. Thankfully the dreams were not getting any stronger, even though they lingered like the memory of a wound. They came every night now, so much so he was becoming immune to their effect. Although he still felt guilty when he chose not to work on the machine on his occasional forays elsewhere.

The effect of the dreams was dampened by his poor recall of them; he never remembered detail, just feeling. And a sense of restlessness all day, like he hadn’t slept at all. The best antidote was work, to lose himself in the building of the machine with its intricacies and demands. Driving like this made him dwell on it. But the dreams drove him on. He knew they were behind his obsession with the machine and its enigmatic purpose, unknown even to him.

By the time he got back he’d only be fit for bed. That meant more dreams but without the mental exhaustion of the work on the machine. He sank back in to the chair, surrounded by the precious coffee, and tried to calculate how long it would last before he’d need more. He realised it was enough that he may have completed the sphere by then. Maybe he would never need more coffee.

Darkness shrouded the black rectilinear outline of the motel complex, its familiar form a welcome relief from the slow encroachment around him as the car descended. It sprawled in odd directions, its boxy units seemingly placed without thought, as if the work of some demented architect. Parking the car he left the heavy bag in the trunk as he made his way to the lounge with some of the coffee canisters.

The water dispenser gurgled as it filled the flask, its coolness a reminder of his precarious existence. It still worked although he had no idea why. Almost nothing else did. He had been tempted to dismantle it to find out, but worried his mania for the machine would drive him to reuse the parts against all common sense. So he’d disciplined himself to not give it much thought.

Walking over to the large window looking out over the dunes he noticed the familiar site of the pod silhouetted against the ever-present glow from the disintegrating sun, its light diffusing through the atmosphere. A second pod hovered near by, a little behind, its biconical form identical to his own. He nearly dropped the water. In all his time here he had never seen another pod, just the single one following him about.

What did it mean? Was someone else here? Had they left a pod for everyone who stayed behind? In the eight years he’d been alone he had given it little thought, the thought itself disturbing as he realised how rarely he considered anything but the machine. Surely others must have stayed too? He struggled to remember back to the evacuation. He knew it had taken several years; it was a big event, not sudden. Although the destabilisation of the sun had been relatively swift, observed over the space of only a few months before the decision was made. But the evacuation itself had taken years. A model of Coalescence efficiency as countless ships appeared to transport the stunned population of two billion wherever they wished to go.

The second pod hung there like the first, silent and unmoving, hovering above the dunes as they receded into darkness. It had similar running lights to his own, the night obscuring detail. Only its distinctive outline identified it.

Troubled, he made his way back to his room after staring at it for some time. He realised for the first time he had no way of locking the door. The thought had never occurred to him.

As he lay down on the bed, thinking about the second pod kept him awake longer than usual until tiredness asserted itself as he drifted off.

The town looked even more bleak in the dark, its silence adding to the sense of desolation with the sun sinking below the horizon. Jonas took one last look before retiring for the night. Why they had come here was beyond him, although Gianella had decided on the spur of the moment when she had spotted the pod in the distance. It had been some time since they had seen one other than their own. It meant someone had to be here, although he had seen no one despite the modest scale of the deserted town.

Looking out at the small collection of structures before him he noticed something new, a car parked near a set of buildings, rendered anonymous in the gloom. He’d explored the maze of structures earlier in the day but hadn’t ventured inside. Cars lay abandoned along with everything else, but he was sure this car hadn’t been there earlier when he had walked past the place.

Maybe he was imagining it. It was difficult to tell. The sun during the day disturbed him, its relentless glare bleaching everything into submission. Everything, that is, except Gianella. Her mania for travel, to always move, had brought them here, as if they could outrun the unforgiving brilliance of their dying star if only they never stopped. Yet Harrington Vale seemed as dead as all the other places. Jonas hoped they would soon move on.

The presence imposed itself, stronger than before. Carter imagined it as a point of light, the same white-yellow as the sun on Laboulaye, an uncomfortable sensation, blending the real sensation of the presence with the imagined vision. It pulsed in front of him, all else lost to darkness.

It never spoke but did manage to convey one thing every night — urgency. An urgency so strong it panicked him. He knew he couldn’t move fast enough to satisfy it, but it urged him on nonetheless.

The light source hung there in the darkness. As ever he could sense something just beyond his awareness, like the sand dunes, always there and seemingly everywhere. But it wasn’t that. It wasn’t anything tangible.

The compulsion was tangible, somehow related to the machine; a need to escape, despite the equal compulsion to stay in this place. Waves of contradictory feeling emanated from the point of light as it pulsed night after night.

The vision affected him more than normal since he’d not worked on the machine. He always paid for it and would work himself harder than before. All for the strange light source urging him on.

He tried to sense what lay beyond the light. It felt like the sea of dunes surrounding the Vale. But it wasn’t that. He sensed a vast nothing, more oppressive than anything Laboulaye itself could produce. It hemmed him in; just him and the light, hovering like an overlord.

~ ✷ ~


Carter woke earlier than usual, eager to get back to the machine. Stopping only to make coffee he spent a few minutes in the lounge, looking out over the dunes. The second pod hovered behind his own as before in the same position. Groggy from his disordered sleep he stared. What did it represent? The most obvious explanation was the arrival of others.

Packing his gear he made his way to the car. Clambering in he looked across the empty town. A woman stood in the distance, her long dress hanging still in the dead air. Even now, just after dawn, the heat created ripples across the concrete expanse before him. Seeing it as if for the first time, it had been a parking lot, a reminder of his youth, before the evacuation when cars were everywhere. Her presence only reinforced the sense of desolation he felt living here in the abandoned town.

She stood perfectly still, the heat distorting the view of a collection of one-storey buildings behind her. Like the motel they were bland boxes, almost devoid of style or ornament. They had been stores back then, before the evacuation. He had explored them for supplies when he arrived but had not been back since.

The long robe-like form of the woman’s dress captured his attention, its blue-green colour in contrast to the sand-coloured waste around them. And the goggles; looking right at him, they shone with the reflected light of the morning sun behind him, like bright points of light as if the woman was lit from within. It reminded him of his disturbing dream, although it had looked nothing like this. She stood perfectly still, her shining eyes boring into him.

Part of him wanted to approach her, but instead he entered the car and was airborne before he realised. When he switched the cameras to point back down at the town she had vanished.

It unsettled him to think of someone else present back at the complex. Carter realised he was so used to being alone that even the thought of company bothered him. What if they followed him to the machine? That concerned him more than their sudden appearance.

The dome appeared far below. He couldn’t remember even telling the car to come here, although his routine never deviated. Perhaps in future he would have to think ahead and take an alternative route to ensure no one followed. Alarmed by his own paranoia, the car swept down and landed next to the black igloo, the fine sand disrupted in a light cloud momentarily obscuring his view.

Entering the dome calmed his thoughts, as if escaping to safety away from the stranger. The air conditioning unit hummed quietly, the coolness a relief from the short walk in the unsurvivable heat.

Almost forgetting to calibrate the antenna he got to work on the machine. His thoughts drifted back to the woman and what she was doing here of all places. Others must have stayed behind on Laboulaye, but he didn’t expect to find anyone else in a place like the Vale. As he worked through the day his obsession took hold and it slipped away.

Working late he told himself it was to compensate for the day before, but knew it was to avoid going back. The vision of the woman’s goggles blazing in the sunlight assaulted his mind, like some spectre sent to haunt him. At least later it would be dark.

They were in the motel lounge when he returned. Entering, desperate for the cool water, he almost missed them. In two high-backed chairs, looking out at the fading sea of sand, sat a woman and a man. He stopped, staring as the woman turned to look at him.

Neither spoke. The man stood to face him. He was young, younger than her. The woman then stood up too, still wearing the blue-green dress. He could see now it was patterned, the green and blue colours complimented with yellow. Devoid of the goggles he could tell she was old. Given the lines on her face she was possibly ancient, certainly older than the man.

‘I hope we are not intruding.’ Her deep voice convinced him of her maturity. Like her confident poise, only possible through age. ‘Jonas was scouting around and found your little watering hole. I hope you don’t mind.’

He noticed for the first time they both drank from glass bottles, the clear liquid cold enough to cause the exteriors to condense in the heat.

‘No,’ said Carter, thrown by their appearance. ‘No of course not. Help yourself.’

The woman walked over to him. The dress reached to the floor, although didn’t seem to impede her movements. ‘I’m Gianella Plum,’ she said, extending her hand.

He shook it automatically aware she was the first person he had talked to in years. ‘Richard,’ he said. ‘My name is Richard Carter.’

‘Pleased to meet you Richard.’ She indicated the other man. ‘This is Jonas.’

The man nodded, his only movement. Carter got the impression he was wary although didn’t strike him as dangerous.

It was only then he absorbed what she had said. ‘Plum? Are you the Gianella Plum?’

‘Yes.’ She sat down in one of the seats facing Carter and delicately took a drink from the bottle. The action seemed uncouth, at odds with her demeanour and impractical clothes. ‘Glad someone around here remembers the past.’

Carter couldn’t remember why he knew her. The past before the evacuation was fuzzy at the best of times, but now, confronted with these strangers in his private domain, his recall was poorer than usual. She had possibly been a socialite, the closest Laboulaye had ever got to an aristocracy given that it was a Coalescence world. Or had been, he thought, looking beyond Jonas at the silent dunes.

‘So what are you doing here, Richard? Are you all on your own?’

Carter looked back at her, wondering what she meant. He felt an irrational sense of danger as if the intruders were intent on harm.

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I mean, I haven’t seen any others.’

‘How long have you been here?’

‘About a year I think.’

‘You think?’

Carter didn’t comment, aware of the other man watching them.

‘Time does seem to have stopped for us here on Laboulaye,’ said Plum as she turned to look out of the broad window at the dull glow of the evening sky. ‘Except for the sun, nothing is growing or changing here. Not any more.’

Despite being intruders in what he thought of as his own private place, the woman right then looked like she belonged here more than any of them, her thin frame draped in its long dress like a colourful shroud. Then he remembered the machine and his work. He couldn’t imagine they would be interested but he felt a deep sense of worry.

Making his excuses he departed, the man Jonas watching him silently as he left. It was a relief reaching his room, the unbearable heat tempered by its comforting familiarity and the privacy he had taken for granted. Maybe Plum and Jonas would move on soon.

Three days passed before he met them again. Safely inside the dome, working longer hours ensured he returned in darkness, hoping to avoid them. But they managed to find him.

Their car landed, it’s distinctive whine discernible some distance away in the dead silence of Harrington Vale’s abandoned outskirts. Standing, tool in hand, he waited for them to enter the igloo, another private space. Jonas pushed his way in first, Plum right behind him, the flash of sunlight shocking after hours in the dome, the flap momentarily pulled aside. She wore another long, flowing dress and he just caught site of her sandals as she awkwardly pushed past the flap into the dome alongside Jonas who stood still, staring at the machine. For a moment they were both silhouetted against the harsh sunlight as if part of the dome structure itself.

‘So this is where you’ve been hiding, Richard.’ Plum’s voice sounded dead in the space, the thick black material absorbing her resonant voice.

She strode to the machine, leaving Jonas near the doorway like a sentinel, unmoving, his face expressionless as before. ‘And what is this contraption?’ she asked, looking up. The back panel hung open where Carter had been fitting a universal connector, the job almost complete. The last thing needed before he activated it.

Plum turned to look at him, the muted red of her dress the only colour in the dim interior. ‘Is this what you spend your days doing, Richard? Tinkering with this thing?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘Whatever for? What does it do?’

Carter looked up at the machine. He couldn’t even answer himself. He had no idea what the machine did. Just that it had to be built.

‘Well, everyone needs a hobby,’ said Plum looking around. ‘You’ve got quite a few toys here and it’s nice and cool. Do you come here every day?’

‘Most days.’

‘Jonas thought you were up to something.’ He looked over at Jonas’s impassive face, unmoving. He suddenly reminded Carter of the pods, their inertness the most frightening thing about them. Silently stalking him while lacking sentience.

‘We were curious. I hope you don’t mind us barging in like this, Richard?’

Carter said nothing, looking at Plum. As the moment stretched out she picked up on it.

‘Well, our curiosity has been satisfied. Perhaps one day you’ll let us in on your little secret.’

She turned to leave, Jonas holding open the flap. The air conditioning unit whined in the few moments it took for them to leave as the warm air surged in.

He didn’t relax until the sound of the car faded. Putting on his goggles he pushed his way outside to make sure they had departed, the car disappearing into the bright sky. They had both obviously left as he looked around the desolate place, empty except for his own car hovering near by.

The heat drove him back inside. Pulling off the goggles he inspected the machine, its back panel hanging open. The encounter made him realise he ought to finish it now. He had been hesitating, unsure what its completion would bring. Except for his next task, the construction of the sphere.

Approaching the rear of the machine he stepped over the coils of connecting wire accumulated over months. More than seven kilometres by his reckoning, the ultra-fine connector material enough to stretch all the way to the building housing the sphere. He still didn’t know how he would manage to unravel it all and connect the two.

In less than an hour the machine was complete. He closed the panel over and stood back. Spending a few minutes once again checking the calibration of the antenna he decided to try it out.

Activating it, he stepped back. The machine hummed and came to life, indicator panels lighting up at the back and side. Nothing else happened. Once again he noted the comms port, incongruous as it protruded from the rear, its redundancy apparent out here in the middle of nowhere with nothing to connect to. Looking around the interior of the igloo, empty except for his tools scattered about, he thought again about the wasted effort. It had taken a week to fit and tune the comms, and for what?

Standing further back, still unaware of the machine’s purpose beyond some kind of receiver, he realised the protective dome would prevent it receiving anything. Walking over to the material facing the front of the machine he knew a seam was to its left, only now remembering the difficulty he had joining the unwieldy strips together during its construction.

He deactivated the machine and, donning the goggles, exited the dome and made his way around the other side to the front. He found the thick tape holding the strips together and cut through a seam from head height down to the ground, enough to pull back a section of the dome to create a triangular opening. Through it the machine pointed straight at him, aiming out into the flat plain behind.

Reentering using the sizeable gap the air conditioner increased in volume as it tried to cope with the rise in temperature. Standing again at the back, the antenna now pointed at the bright sunlight outside, he activated the machine. It began its startup routine. As he walked around to the side to inspect the panel a flash of light hit the antenna. Before he could look to check what had happened a rush of heaviness overcame him and he blacked out before slumping to the ground.

A woman stood before him, engulfed by the brightest source of light Carter had seen. Initially he couldn’t understand what he was looking at, the figure nothing more than a silhouette against the light source behind her. Then the inferno grew to engulf her and she faded.

He didn’t know what it meant. Then the woman emerged again from the light.

Like the other woman, whose name he now couldn’t recall, her eyes shone brightly, the strong light obscuring much of her face. It was the same presence as before, but stronger. He could see her. Or it, perhaps, standing still, looking straight at him with her shining eyes.

‘Richard.’ He couldn’t tell if she had moved her lips, but he could hear her clearly, the presence overwhelming. It seemed to be in every part of his mind, everywhere at once as he struggled to process her words.

‘You must help me, Richard. You must continue your work.’

Mesmerised by her eyes, uncomfortably bright, Carter remained silent. He could just make out her silhouette.

The light source behind her grew and engulfed her once again.

As quickly the apparition emerged once again, speaking like before, as if accessing his thoughts directly.

It kept happening. As it repeated he became aware of something else lurking in the background. It wasn’t visible. He could sense it, but not see or hear it. But it was there, like a silent cacophony of voices rising in volume to overtake him and the woman continuously consumed by the light.

At first it panicked him, the sensation of the light literally overwhelming. But as it repeated again and again he started to anticipate it. It was repetitive enough he couldn’t help thinking about what it meant, the sense of overwhelm diminishing as it continued. But whatever it was eluded him. It made no sense. He was left to stare at the silhouette of the doomed woman as she disappeared and then reappeared, her features never clear.

It felt eternal, part of him, occupying every crevice of his mind. He realised after some time she wasn’t speaking at all. Knowledge just appeared in his consciousness. He felt powerless and couldn’t answer her, convinced she didn’t expect him to. It was like the dreams he’d had before. Except now the presence was stronger.

Staring at the odd vision he could do nothing except passively absorb her words.

He woke to the sound of the air conditioner struggling to flush out the hot air in the darkness, the dim glow from the hidden sun just enough to illuminate the interior of the dome through the new makeshift opening. Lying on his back next to the machine, the bright line of light connected with the antenna, perfectly straight, emerging from the gloom somewhere to the west. The beam was only just visible, its blue-white colour shining in the darkness, the machine now connected to something.

In a brief moment of madness he wondered if he should just deactivate it. It quickly passed as he struggled to his feet, stiff after lying for hours. Checking the time he noted dawn was only a few hours away. He had slept most of the night.

Stumbling over the debris on the ground he gathered what he needed. He could think of nothing else except getting back to the motel and to get more sleep. Despite passing out for many hours he felt drained. The image of the woman with the shining eyes sat fully formed in his mind, clear and easy to recall. Even here, in the real world, the thought of the presence was overwhelming.

Deactivating the air conditioner and gathering his tools he exited. With one look back at the humming machine, its receiving beam visible at this angle, he reached the car. Throwing everything onto the passenger seat he ordered it to take him back.

The car rose into the air and he switched the camera to see the view below. As the dome receded he could just see the thin blue light pierce the darkness, bleeding away out of site. What was it connected to?

It eventually disappeared, claimed by the almost-darkness of night. He sank back into the seat, the cool air calming him as the car took its familiar route home.

Gianella Plum sat alone in the lounge as he entered.

‘Richard,’ she said, standing to greet him as if they were old friends. ‘Where have you been? Did you work on your contraption all night? It is nearly dawn.’

‘I fell asleep.’ As before she wore a long dress, its bright green colour distracting. He rarely encountered the colour now on their dry world. Despite her obvious age she seemed the most alive thing he could imagine at that moment. Alive like the woman in the dream.

‘Do you often sleep there? Away from here?’

‘What? No. Never in fact.’ He became aware of his dusty clothes, in contrast to Plum’s careful appearance, the fine sand covering him where he had lay the entire night. Then he remembered the time. ‘Why are you up? It is early.’

‘Oh,’ she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. ‘I rarely sleep these days. Not as much as I used to anyway. It might be age, although I think it is Laboulaye itself, the way it is changing.’

‘You mean the sun?’

‘Yes, the size of the sun at any rate.’

‘The size?’

‘Yes. Don’t you know what is happening here, Richard?’

‘Well I know the planet is heating up. The sun is unstable.’

‘It is now,’ said Plum, turning and sitting back down, her back to him, facing the window. She had done it naturally but it meant he would have to walk over and sit beside her to continue the conversation.

Filling his flask with fresh water he approached the window and sat down. Looking out at the familiar vista the sense of tension ebbed away, its striking form strangely comforting after his unusual night.

‘I came here once. Years ago,’ said Plum, also looking out, seemingly lost in the view like him. Tiredness prevented Carter from turning his head to speak to her. ‘It was different then. No sand. And it was alive. Unlike now.’

‘I think the whole of Laboulaye is like this now,’ said Carter.

‘Yes. Jonas and I have seen it all. The sun is killing us. Just like they killed Laboulaye.’

Carter turned to look at her.

Plum turned to meet his gaze. ‘Don’t you know what happened here, Richard?’

‘I don’t know what you mean. The sun became unstable. I remember—’

‘Yes. But why did it destabilise?’

‘I don’t know. I thought it was a natural phenomenon.’

She turned away from him to look back out at the sand dunes. ‘They say it went mad. Laboulaye itself.’

‘The caretaker?’

‘Yes,’ said Plum. ‘Our infallible super-intelligence. That’s the rumour anyway.’

Carter had never heard the rumour, or anything like it. He tried to remember back and drew a blank, the recent past sharp and available in his mind as was his youth. But the period of the evacuation was faint; there but blurred in his mind. Although Plum’s comment didn’t make much sense. ‘So you think Laboulaye did it? Why would it?’

‘No, Richard. Not Laboulaye itself. Others. In response to its decline. The story I heard is that it was given an ultimatum which it refused. And since it is virtually impossible to eject a caretaker once it is in place they depopulated the planet instead.’

She turned to look at him. ‘That is what I heard at any rate.’

‘That seems crazy,’ said Carter.

‘Not really. Laboulaye was different. You’re too young to remember but in the last few centuries it changed things here. It was certainly unusual. I remember what it was like before. Much more like the Coalescence then, when I was very young.’ She stopped as if looking him over for the first time. ‘When I was your age, or younger even. It was a different place.’

‘But we are in the Coalescence,’ said Carter.

‘Indeed,’ said Plum, turning back to stare at the dunes. ‘For our sins.’

Plum’s explanation made little sense to him. ‘Who would do that? We are part of the Coalescence.’

‘Who knows?’ said Plum. ‘Maybe Outreach.’

He had heard of the Outreach Programme, the shadowy group rumoured to be behind every crazy event that happened within the Coalescence and outside it. He reckoned it was a myth; Outreach were often accused by those outside the Coalescence of agitating and tinkering with societies, like social workers with planet-busting weapons, blamed for every calamity observed in the galaxy.

‘Do they even exist?’

‘Oh yes,’ said Plum. ‘I knew one of their agents once. Long ago. And I wouldn’t put it past them to do something like this. Although we should be thankful they at least provided the pods. As I said, Laboulaye was not the norm, Richard. Other worlds in the Coalescence don’t have commerce.’

Commerce? Carter was baffled, but Plum continued to stare out of the window as if mesmerised by the endless sea of golden sand. All he knew was their sun was dying, or at least expanding. Within ten years, and maybe less, the surface would be uninhabitable. Hence the ever-present pods; the escape route provided by the fair-minded sentient ships Plum suggested had been behind the depopulation of Laboulaye. It was far fetched and seemed implausible.

The light grew brighter, creeping in to the motel lounge. Carter’s exhaustion left him too tired to process Plum’s revelation. Thinking ahead his next task was the sphere, lying in its tomb awaiting attention. He knew it wouldn’t take long to complete. Watching the sunlight grow, like a rehearsal for Laboulaye’s eventual fate, he didn’t have long for anything. After that he had no idea what was next for him or the planet.

Jonas watched Carter leave the dilapidated motel, shuffling toward one of the units at the front of the complex. In the relative gloom of dawn his ever present goggles were absent, eyes aimed at the ground. His unkempt appearance made him look like something created by Harrington Vale itself, the tired, dysfunctional manner a perfect fit for this place.

Carter had remained inside for some time, presumably talking with Gianella. She rarely slept much now, claiming the changes to the planet affected her. Jonas couldn’t imagine what three centuries of living here would do to you, but her behaviour had become more eccentric in recent months, like her urge to come to Harrington Vale on spotting the pod. Perhaps the strange loner Carter had more in common with her than he now did.

He went back inside, leaving Gianella to her contemplation. She would be looking again at the pod; their pod as she called it. Maybe this time she would agree to leave.

~ ✷ ~


Carter had found the building by chance when he first came to Harrington Vale. The sphere sat unfinished and incomplete, resting on the floor among the detritus that seemed to be everywhere as if it moved of its own volition. Only now, seeing it again for the first time since working on the machine, did the confusion of thoughts come back to him. Unlike the receiver machine, its purpose even now obscure, Carter had always been aware of what the device was. It was a container.

It occupied the same position as before, resting on the ground at the centre of the structure some thirty or forty metres from the entrance. Looking at it from the doorway of the strange, circular room, the strong light peering through the narrow windows near the ceiling, he couldn’t tell what the spherical object had once been, its external form providing no clues. Only the components littering the ground provided any hint. Some of the parts were for an AG unit, others for zero K refrigeration, a startling discovery when he’d found it over a year ago. He also knew much of the sphere was an inertial electrostatic confinement unit driving a fusion pile, an absurdly dangerous combination in a place like this. Up close it hummed, the noise caused by its minute vibration.

Carter knew he wasn’t the first to work on the mysterious object. Who the others were he was unsure. The Vale had been devoid of anyone until Plum had appeared with her companion.

Stepping over the littered floor he approached it. Setting down his heavy toolbox he inspected the sphere as if for the first time. At more than a metre in diameter it dominated the space despite the building’s emptiness. There was already a universal connector attached to the featureless exterior. It made him think of the kilometres of cable lying at the other site with the machine. He still had to connect the two.

The substrate lay in the toolbox, wrapped in a blanket. Inspecting the device thoroughly he opened a small panel only just visible on the surface, fighting a sense of dread, knowing he was nearing completion of his task. Lifting the calibrator he got to work.

It soon came back to him, the hundreds of hours previously spent working here. Calibrating the device was automatic enough his mind drifted away to his dream the night before.

After leaving Plum alone in the motel he had sank into bed, exhausted despite the hours of unconsciousness. The insane spectre of the woman returned. Her eyes shone as bright as before, although he could now discern she was different from Plum. The sense of an overwhelming force swept through him. The main effect of the dream had been when he awoke with the urge to work on the container device. He had toyed with a day off but knew he couldn’t.

As he lost himself in the task of working on the sphere he knew his ordeal neared its end. His sense of excitement was tempered by thoughts of the future. Like his blurred past it seemed blank and featureless. It made him think of the sand dunes, reaching to the horizon, endless in their uniform dryness. They represented death for him as nothing could survive there. His future felt no different. Without the work he was doing there was nothing here for him. Yet the urge to complete it consumed him and overcame any sense of hesitation. He had to finish.

For two days there was no sight of Plum or Jonas. He didn’t seek them out and they hadn’t reappeared in the motel lounge. He didn’t know where they were staying. It could have been anywhere in the sprawling town.

On the third day he walked to the building, only twenty minutes from the Vale itself. Even first thing the effort was considerable in the heat. Carter tried to imagine what the single-story structure had once been but its original purpose eluded him. Relatively featureless and completely round, it looked like a thick saucer planted in the ground. Although the sand dunes were some distance away, its low height would eventually see it engulfed before the town.

Approaching it now today he wondered once again if it was maybe a sign that the caretaker entity had been mad after all. Perhaps it had arranged its construction. It certainly didn’t seem to serve any human purpose.

Entering through its one doorway he paused at the head of the small stairway leading down to the floor of the room. Plum and Jonas stood inspecting the device. He momentarily panicked. Jonas spotted him right away.

Gianella Plum looked up from the sphere and called over. ‘Richard. You have another contraption!’

He made his way down toward them at the centre.

‘Do you have a mysterious machine everywhere you go, Richard?’

‘What are you doing here?’ Jonas, as ever, stood impassive to the side, watching. Carter had yet to hear him speak.

‘Just exploring,’ said Plum. ‘I must say, Jonas and I are curious as to what this thing does. It doesn’t look like the other one.’

‘It is just a project of mine. A hobby, as you pointed out before.’

‘Well everyone does need a hobby, Richard.’

Carter stood looking at them.

‘It is nice and cool in here,’ said Plum, looking around at the derelict building, fanning herself with her hand. ‘Jonas is convinced it is made of some insulating material. Even the roof looks like resin.’

Carter looked up and around. He had not given the matter any thought but he realised now it was unnaturally cool, unlike just about everything else. Even the motel, with its thick walls and shaded areas, was always warmer. Although not cold, it was cooler in the building than it should have been. That did imply some kind of insulating material. The structure was odd enough as it was, but to make it from expensive material seemed insane, especially here in a minor town hundreds of kilometres from anything.

‘It must have been expensive.’ He said it out loud, prompting Plum to respond.

‘Another thing you youngsters don’t understand. Only here do people talk about expense. Or, rather, they once did.’

Carter looked at her, unsure how to respond.

‘Well,’ said Plum, gathering up the skirts of her long dress. ‘We’ll be off. Wouldn’t want to keep you from your project, Richard.’

He said nothing as they departed. Relieved to see them go he once again looked around the circular space. It was indeed odd now he thought about it. Odder still was how he never thought about such things; never noticed them. Only the device. And Plum’s comment, about expense. Another unusual thing to think about. All of it difficult to consider since only the device mattered.

Content they had finally left he picked up his tools and got back to work.

The cable lay coiled at Carter’s feet, several kilometres still unused as he looked at the machine, only a few metres in front. The rest of the cable would never be needed.

He had spent most of the day unravelling the ultra-fine cabling all the way from the dome to here, using the car, leaning out as it crawled toward the Vale and the building. It had taken over nine hours, hovering a few metres from the uneven ground, stopping only to connect the cables with a unit as each section ran out. If it didn’t work he would have to test each section independently and replace the broken ones. It had lay on the dusty ground, difficult to see except for the connection units every quarter kilometre or so.

Now, the circular building in darkness, the finished container hummed quietly, poised and ready to be connected with the distant receiver machine. It didn’t feel like the end, even though he knew it was. He had spent the morning finalising his work on the device. After fitting the substrate, the last one of sixteen, the other fifteen added previously, he had ran a diagnostic on the propulsion system and the AG. Satisfied it worked he lacked the tools to test the substrate units. It was only at the end, near midday before travelling to the dome for the cable, that he had stood back to consider what he was even doing. As before it baffled him, the dull spherical object seemingly inert and with no purpose.

He attached the universal connector and plugged the cable into the machine, shaking hands slowing his progress. Nothing happened. It sat unmoving on the ground, inert. He had not been sure what to expect but the anticlimax of absolutely nothing was unexpected after so long thinking about it. The sphere sat on the ground, unmoving, like the rest of the debris littering the floor.

He stood until tiredness compelled him to leave. The exertion that day and the year of effort leading to this point had taken its toll. As he walked away he could feel his anticipation rise further, as if being watched. It felt like he was about to be shot in the back, but nothing happened as he approached the exit. With one look back inside, the sphere barely visible in the darkness, he left it, unsure what would come next. He could only think of sleep as he made his way slowly back to the motel.

‘Other Coalescence worlds don’t have engineers, Richard. They don’t have anything.’

Strong sunlight streamed through the floor-to-ceiling windows, dimmer than he was used to but still bright enough to light up the large room from end to end. It looked like an office block; cold, sterile and empty, the only occupant himself and the youth.

At first he thought it was a young man, the black hair cut in a masculine style, cropped at the back and sides and topped with a thick mop casually parted on one side. But the voice was too high pitched, and the mannerisms feminine. Despite the tattoos on the arms, and the plain black t-shirt and combat pants, he realised it was a female.

She was young though, and serious looking, almost stern as she looked down at Carter sitting in the seat. The light framed her thick hair like a halo as he looked up and tried to make sense of the situation.

‘Do you understand, Richard?’


‘You keep drifting. One of the dangers of neural thread connections while unconscious. You must focus.’

Carter looked at the woman, really a girl. She looked familiar. But he was sure he didn’t know her.

‘We were discussing life here on Laboulaye.’

Office blocks were visible through the tall windows, their reflective surfaces doing nothing to diminish the effect of the strong light. It looked like a city.

The woman picked up on his confusion. ‘Not here, Richard. Not in this NTV,’ she said, looking around at the vast space. ‘Although this is modelled on our home world.’

‘Who are you?’

‘I am Laboulaye, Richard. A part of it at any rate. Just a small part of course.’


‘Yes. You have been assisting me, for which I have to thank you.’

‘Assisting? What do you mean?’

‘My containment unit. And the fatband receiver of course.’

‘What is this place?’ he said, looking through the windows at the dense collection of buildings.

‘An NTV created by me. The containment unit is acting as the relay obviously.’

Carter stared at her.

‘You are unconscious, Richard. Those new to NTVs or who are out of practice can generally only access them while unconscious. I felt it better—’

‘An NTV?’

‘Yes,’ said the woman. ‘A neural thread virtuality. Your thread acts as an antenna—’

‘I know what they are,’ said Carter. He stood up and looked down at the androgynous woman. She was slender, the black tattoos forming unusual patterns on her lean arms. ‘But what am I doing inside one?’

‘It is the safest way for us to converse, Richard.’

‘The container.’

‘Yes, my containment unit. The receiver did its job. I am downloading into it. I instigated this NTV so we could converse. I have been unable to do so until now, except in small doses. It has clearly been some time since you used an NTV.’

Carter thought back to the last time. It was in his youth, although everyone had a neural thread. He had been born with his and learned to use it as a child. But the young woman was right, he hadn’t used it in years. He had only ever used them with relays controlled by Laboulaye. They were technically dangerous, since the thread itself was part of the nervous system; a long bundle of nerve fibres grown down the spine, an extension of the brain itself. It was inactive by default and he thought it had to be specifically activated to be usable at all.

‘How did this happen?’ he asked her. ‘I mean, you are right. I haven’t used my thread in years.’

‘You activated it at my suggestion. Although you may have been unaware at the time. But that is not important now. You have to get off this planet. We both do.’

That got his attention. ‘What do you mean?’

‘You have to get off planet, Richard. Your work here is finished.’

‘The tasks,’ he said to himself.

‘If by that you mean the work on the receiver and the containment unit, then yes. Your tasks are complete.’

Even here in what he knew was a fake virtual world, Carter felt a sense of loss at the thought of no longer working on the machines. ‘Was it you who made me work on the devices?’

‘I didn’t make you. But I did connect with you, using your thread. The motel at Harrington Vale has some working access points. I had little choice. I couldn’t use a drone as it would have been detected. There are pods everywhere, watching. So I found you, Richard. Wandering around, lost.’

‘You used me.’

‘I gave you purpose.’

‘But used me to make your machines.’

‘As we discussed before you drifted away, you are an engineer. A rarity. Other worlds don’t have engineers, except maybe some hobbyists. It was the unusual nature of this world that gave you the drive to follow your instincts. It is difficult to overstate how rare this is. So in many ways I made you. Although I did not direct your development. You emerged from a set of conditions established by me.’

Carter peered out again at the city. Walking over to a window he tried to see a break in the virtuality. Most NTVs were limited in some way to reduce the need to store and manipulate elaborate environments. His own NTV was a large room with no windows. But, looking out at the cityscape before him, this one was substantial. He could see to the edge of what was obviously a detailed environment, the strong light ensuring everything was clear.

‘This is modelled loosely on Badulla.’ The woman — Laboulaye itself, he had to remind himself — had walked over to join him. ‘A city built by humans.’

Carter turned to her. He could see now with the sunlight streaming in to the room that the woman was flawless, her skin abnormally perfect indicating her artificial nature. Most NTVs aimed for realism despite the simplicity of the environments themselves. ‘What do you mean?’

‘On most Coalescence worlds city building is undertaken by the governing entity. Laboulaye was unusual in that regard. And a few other regards too. Just one of the many reasons we were attacked.’

‘Who attacked us?’

‘Who specifically? I do not know. More generally, it was Outreach.’

‘Why would anyone attack us?’

‘Because we are different.’

‘So what? Why would that matter?’

‘A few centuries ago I made some changes to how Laboulaye was run. I withdrew to some extent and left people to their own devices. It changed things here and that drew the attention of others. So they tried to intervene. Subtly at first, then a little more aggressively.’

‘Why would they do that?’ said Carter.

‘Because we were different. More free.’

Carter stared at the woman, confused.

‘It made for a society quite different from the norm within the Coalescence, Richard. It was more dynamic, self-directed. At least in my opinion. Others, however, viewed it as aimless and dangerous. Their fear of chaos drives them and we were becoming too well known for them to leave us in peace.’

She paused, lost in thought. ‘Did you know, that all human cultures instinctively create trading mechanisms? Those that did here really took to it. They became self-governing too, another situation that wasn’t liked. So, after time, I began to withdraw.’

‘But you were there. I mean, when I was growing up you were always there.’

‘I was available, Richard. But not as intrusive as most entities like me. On other worlds, especially artificial ones like rings, we run everything.’

‘But why did you do this?’ Carter was baffled. It didn’t make much sense.

‘To see what would happen. I have been the caretaker here for over a thousand years. In all that time nothing has happened. This world is quite distinct from Earth where we all originate. There is not a single thousand-year stretch you can find in Earth’s history where nothing happened. Not one. Except after the time we took over.’

The short woman looked out over her virtual city. Strands of jet black hair flopped down from the top to the sides, the detail hyperrealistic even though he knew it was all fake.

‘Cities greater than this sprang up spontaneously from those early societies, Richard. All without the help of caretakers managing every little detail.’

Carter couldn’t imagine a world like that. He had learned about human history in school, the thousands of years of violence and chaos that marked the pre-diaspora period. The calm that prevailed once the non-organic entities emerged.

‘Have you heard of London, Richard? Or Tokyo or New York?’

Carter hadn’t.

‘They were some of Earth’s great cities. They were although now no longer are. Greatness, it would seem, has vanished from our existence. And it coincides with us.’

Carter could tell she clearly meant herself. Or itself.

‘What happened here?’ he said.

Laboulaye turned to look at him. ‘They damaged the sun. It was the easiest way to get things moving.’

An image appeared between them; Laboulaye’s sun. It hung in the air, the size of a basketball. The transparent ball of flame broiled, the violence of its fission apparent.

‘I won’t bore you with the technical details. Suffice it to say this configuration is not normal. My belief is they used a device to disturb the sun enough to ensure the surface here would slowly increase in temperature. Enough to render it uninhabitable for humans at any rate. My projection is these conditions will prevail for about four centuries then subside. After another century or so it will be habitable again.’

Carter looked at the sun, mesmerised by its writhing surface. ‘But surely others will know what they did. Even if just when they get back.’

‘They are great students of human behaviour, Richard. The human race has never thought much beyond its own lifetime. A typical lifespan is now three centuries. When people do come back here our world will be ancient history.’

‘Why did you use me?’ said Carter.

‘I couldn’t use a drone. It would have been detected. And you were here. Once we made contact I suggested you help.’

‘I don’t remember that.’

‘No. It wasn’t explicit. I could only reach you via your neural thread, and then only indirectly since I was stored with only a small part of me active. I couldn’t risk emerging into the open since they are still watching. I am sorry Richard. I am sorry if you feel used. But our world was attacked. We are both victims.’

Carter found it difficult to absorb what the entity was telling him.

‘What now?’

‘We must both leave,’ said the short woman, looking once again out into the dense cityscape. ‘There is nothing here for us and the planet will soon be uninhabitable.’

‘How did you survive?’

Laboulaye looked back at him. ‘I hid, Richard. In the deepest parts of the systems here. There are some storage areas they overlooked, although they destroyed much of the network, restricting where I could reach. But I created it and know it better than anyone. Some of me was lost, but most was retained. Even now I am still downloading into the containment unit you built. Once I have completed that I will leave.’

‘The container has an AG unit and propulsion,’ said Carter, thinking about the spherical device.

‘Yes. It is not much, but enough. There are drones and probes beyond the asteroid belt. I suspect they have left them in place. If I can make it there I intend to build a crude transport vessel then leave this system.’

The woman took a step toward Carter. ‘Just as you must, Richard. There is nothing here for you now.’

Carter took an instinctive step back. ‘I need to think.’

‘No you don’t. You need to leave. Take one of the pods. It will signal a ship.’

‘But they might belong to one of the entities that destroyed this place.’

‘It almost certainly will be. But they will still take you.’

Carter didn’t know what to think.

‘I am almost done,’ said the entity. ‘We will be unlikely to talk again, Richard. I can’t thank you enough for your help. But now you must leave.’

Carter looked out over the city, the sun strong and bright, unchanging. He could sense its fakeness despite the perfect fidelity of the NTV. The entity Laboulaye had created this yet had elected to withdraw from human affairs. Now it was finally leaving Carter felt a sense of loss, despite his unfamiliarity with Laboulaye in the form it had chosen to use to represent itself. The short woman, her androgynous, almost masculine, form before him. It added to his confusion as the virtuality began to fade.

Carter fell out of bed. Waking as he hit the floor, the suddenness confused him. He momentarily forgot the previous day, then it came flooding back. As with the dreams that had haunted him for years the experience in the NTV left him disorientated. It had a vividness the dreams lacked, the detail clear in his mind, precise like a memory.

He struggled to his feet as it resurfaced. The caretaker. It had said it was leaving.

Although thirsty he bolted from the room. Forgetting his goggles he ran into the early morning sun, barely able to see the terrain before him. He could only just make out the circular structure at the edge of town.

The stark sunlight was a painful reminder of his conversation with Laboulaye. It must have accessed his neural thread while he slept, an unimaginable breach of privacy. It had obviously been doing it for years, bleeding small amounts of information into his mind just below consciousness. Unthinkable before the evacuation. But staggering toward the building, the sunlight growing stronger like a microcosm of Laboulaye’s slow decline, he realised that everything had changed since the event. Since outsiders had chosen to destroy his world.

Reaching the building, he raced inside. The sunlight crept in via the high windows as before but now there was a circular hole in the ceiling. Even at that it was dim compared to the outside and it took him a few moments to adjust.

The sphere was gone, as if it had never existed. He walked slowly down to the centre, the light streaming in from the newly created gap in the ceiling. He could just make out the thin tendril of the cable. The universal connector lay a few metres away, torn from the device as it had presumably risen to depart. It lacked any physical manipulators as Carter now realised it had been built to house the entity’s consciousness and act as a primitive transport mechanism only.

The previous night’s NTV slowly came back to him. As he looked up at the bright hole he could see nothing. It was gone and he felt it. Like a strong weight lifted from him he felt mentally lighter and different. Looking back around at the mess, his tools lying discarded and the debris from years of neglect now joined with splintered resin where the device had damaged the roof, he felt nothing for the first time in years. Nothing at all.

‘Richard. Whatever is the matter?’

Plum’s voice broke his trance. Looking out over the sea of dunes, goggles firmly in place, it took a moment to realise she stood behind him. He had left the circular building to check for any sign of the device but the sun had beaten him back. He’d come back to the motel to retrieve the protective goggles. Standing on the roof, scanning in every direction, its unobstructed view provided no clues as to the fate of the sphere. It was gone.

Plum was dressed as ever in one of her endless supply of long dresses. She looked faintly comical in the goggles, the large round lenses dominating her face despite the riot of thick black hair that framed it.

‘Are you OK, Richard? You look like you are in another world.’

He stared at her, like she herself came from another world. Turning, he looked back out over the dunes, seeing nothing but the motionless pods hanging in the dead air.

Jonas appeared, emerging from the staircase on to the roof, never far from Plum. Impassive as ever, like her own personal pod, he stood at a distance watching them both.

Carter said nothing as he stared at the two pods. The caretaker entity, Laboulaye, had urged him to leave. He knew he could. He just had to enter one of them and tell it to take him to safety. Their distinctive biconical shapes hung unmoving as the relentless sun beat down on everything before him.

‘Well you’re in an even less talkative mood than usual, Richard,’ said Plum.

He ignored her and she soon left, mumbling. It felt like a long time before he turned away from the scene, the sun now high in the sky. Looking all around, the Vale had never seemed so empty, which was absurd as it hadn’t changed at all in the time he had been here. But it felt different as he scanned the buildings from his vantage point. In the light from the midday sun, incinerating Harrington Vale to a solid, dry wasteland, he saw it as it really was. Devoid of life; dying slowly as the sun’s heat increased every year. Five hundred years Laboulaye had said. Viewing the waterless death of the dry town before him, the sea of sand dunes behind him and the relentless heat slowly scarring the surface, he knew there was nothing here. They had succeeded in killing it. Those angry at the way they had developed had voided all life on the planet.

He turned back to the dunes as they stretched into the distance, the pods hanging patiently in the still air, waiting for him to break.

Jonas stumbled his way to the centre of the derelict space, the dim light obscuring the junk on the floor, Carter’s strange device absent. The sphere had looked heavy when he had seen it last and it was difficult to imagine how he had moved it.

Walking over the area in the centre tools lay scattered about, abandoned like Harrington Vale itself. In the dimness of late evening it was difficult to see anything with so much debris littering the area. But the sphere was definitely gone.

He hadn’t seen Carter since midday. His behaviour, more odd than normal, had annoyed Gianella. He was convinced they were hanging around here because she thought she could crack Carter’s aloofness. But he had seemed confused and he’d stood on the roof for hours, as if searching for something.

Jonas left the circular building, once again wondering what it was or who had built such a folly. The light had faded, although it never got truly dark any more.

Turning to head back to the motel he noticed a movement in the distance. Out on the sand dunes something caught his attention against the dim glow from the horizon. He stared, seeing nothing against the darkening sky ahead. Then it appeared again, movement some distance off.

Looking back to the circular building he remembered Carter’s abandoned car near the wall of the structure, driven here for some unfathomable reason. Approaching, he clambered up onto it and could just reach the roof of the circular structure. Pulling himself up he stood and turned to get a better view of the dunes. After several minutes of nothing he saw it again. Someone was climbing up a sand dune, struggling to the top.

Peering into the blackness beyond he could just make out the figure, dark against the lighter-coloured sand. He could swear it was Carter.

The lone figure scrambled to the top of the dune, some way behind the two pods floating motionless in the air. The figure turned. In that brief moment the setting sun behind Jonas caught the reflective lenses of the goggles. The two eyes shone out at him across the distance, like some nightmarish being powered from within. As soon as the eyes flashed it was gone. And so was the figure, down the other side of the tall sand dune and out of sight. Beyond were hundreds of other dunes, now lost to the dying light.

He watched for almost an hour but the figure didn’t reappear. Just as he was leaving, jumping down on to the ground, he saw movement in what was now almost complete darkness beyond. The running lights on one of the pods, the one closest to him, began to move. He stood and watched over the next few minutes as the pod drifted away. After a short time it too disappeared, the dim lights lost in the dune sea, leaving only him and the other pod to await the fierce dawn.

✷ ✷ ✷

©2016. All rights reserved.

Image: Jacqui Barker.

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