Nothing To See Here

Alas, Wildstacks is no more, but check out the sites of Alchemy crew here:

Alchemy Press

Peter Coleborn

Jenny Barber

Jan Edwards

Shiny Shorts

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Issue 1 – December 2010

Welcome to Issue #1 of Wildstacks.  We have a huuuuge amount of fiction for your delectation, running from whimsical fantasy to disturbing horror.  Sit comfy and enjoy!

Illustration by Sunila Sen-Gupta. Used with permission.

Fiction:

Patches – Rob Shearman

To Infer is Human – Rod Rees

The Family Room – Nicholas Royle

Not a Moment to Swoon – Ian Whates

Chasing Waterfalls – Andrew Hook

Saltus Lunae – Kari Sperring

Washing of the Waters – Marion Pitman

Lantern Jack –  Christopher Fowler

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Patches – Rob Shearman

Patches
By Rob Shearman

Mother seemed cheerful about it, but then Mother was cheerful by default. Father was wary, though. “If it seems too good to be true,” he’d say, “then it usually is.” He said he’d go over the house with a fine toothcomb, although the little girl thought he was probably exaggerating. He didn’t find any dry rot, or damp rot, or rot of any persuasion; the plaster wasn’t crumbling, the foundations were sound. Still, Father was wary. He was a man of the world, a man of business – a man, at least, at any rate. He was nobody’s fool.

Mother and Father would ask the little girl what she thought, but they’d never wait long enough to hear her reply. But maybe this time that didn’t matter. The little girl didn’t know what to think. Mother said she’d make new friends at the new school, and the little girl shrugged; it wasn’t as if she’d made any at the old school, so what did she care? And Father promised there’d be more room in the new house for all of her toys and games and books. But the little girl couldn’t help but worry a bit, when her parents packed away her things for the removal men, that somehow putting them into cardboard boxes would mean that her toys and games and books would always seem old to her from now on, that when she took them out of the boxes at the other end she wouldn’t want them any more. And a new house would mean new creaks on the floorboards to navigate, and new places she’d have to discover when she wanted to hide.

The removal men came a little after nine o’clock, and that was very nearly punctual. Father said the family should follow on in the car an hour later: “We don’t want to overtake them,” he said, “we don’t want to get there before all our belongings, what would that be like?” Mother was cheerful in the car, and Father pretended to be cheerful too, he even let Mother sing that song that was all about the green bottles, he even joined in a bit. They stopped off at a service station along the way, and Father let them all buy travel sweets. Pretty soon it began to rain, and Father had to turn on the windscreen wipers, and the screeching noise they made against the glass acted as background accompaniment to Mother’s bottle singing – “Could you stop that now, please?” asked Father. By the time they reached their new town, and then their new street, it was pouring down, and the little girl wondered to herself why they were moving somewhere that was so wet. And there, at the bottom of a cul-de-sac, was their house; the little girl had been there several times before, of course, whenever Father had made one of his toothcomb inspections, but back then it had just been a house, and now it was a home, and that felt weird. The rain fell on all the other houses, but theirs was left dry, they were lucky, overhead there wasn’t a single cloud. “It’s an omen,” said Mother. “We’re all going to be so happy here!” And it meant that they could unpack the car without getting soaked to the skin.

There were so many cardboard boxes waiting for them, it seemed far more than had been taken from their old house that morning. And the little girl wondered how they would ever find the time to open them all, and yet she still marvelled that their entire lives had been crammed into such a small space. “We’ll open them tomorrow,” said Father, “Tomorrow!” said Mother, but they nevertheless rescued from one of the bigger boxes a saucepan and some plates. Mother made them scrambled eggs on toast. By now the rain had caught up with them, it battered against the windows as if it were trying to get in, and it sounded different to the old rain the little girl was used to. “It’s a fresh start!” said Mother, with a smile. And, at Mother’s suggestion, they also retrieved from one of the boxes the little girl’s teddy bear. The little girl wasn’t sure she wanted it, not yet; but she found, to her relief, that the teddy bear hadn’t changed in transit, it was just the same bear it had been that morning. And she cuddled it in her new bed. But some time after midnight, in the pitch black, in the unusual pitch black, she realised the teddy bear now smelled a bit boxy and a bit cardboardy, and that made her feel sick. And she had to turn on the lights, and open up all the cupboards – and inside one there was an old blanket that must have been left behind by the house’s previous owners. And the little girl wrapped the teddy in the blanket, and threw it right to the back of the cupboard – she knew that she was safe from the teddy now, she’d never touch it again, because to do so would mean she’d have to touch the blanket as well, and the blanket was even worse. And only then could she sleep – and the rain continued to fall hard all around the house, and hard on top of it.

***

The little girl’s new bedroom was right at the top of the house. It was an attic, really, with a bed put in it. The very roof was her ceiling, and the walls caved in on her in an inverted V, giving the room a triangular shape. And all the shelves for her toys and games and books buckled out at her at strange angles. The little girl wasn’t sure whether she liked the shelves doing that at first, and then decided she did like it, she liked it very much – even if she no longer liked any of the toys and games and books that sat on them. The walls were painted a pure and gleaming white. And set into the ceiling was a small skylight, and it let the sunshine in every morning, and protected her from the rain and the wind. The little girl liked this best of all, and she stared up at the skylight when she lay on her bed, she didn’t need toys to play with or books to read. She was actually very happy – even if the rest of the house disturbed her, even if she couldn’t get used to its new smells and colours and shapes, and the way it seemed so very very still in the middle of the night. If that still bothered her, if it woke her up, she’d just look straight upwards, through the skylight, and out at the sky beyond, and she’d be fine.

***

“It’s a fresh start,” said Mother. “Everything’s going to be different from now on.” And the little girl agreed, it was already very different, and Father and Mother were now not talking to each other in rooms where the furniture was facing altogether new directions.

Father was still wary. The house had been too cheap, it had all been too easy, they had been taken for a ride. He wouldn’t rest until he found out what was wrong with it. Mother asked, really very gently, why he’d agreed to buy the house in the first place if he wasn’t satisfied – and Father just flared up, and said he’d been left really very little bloody choice, had he? But he was nobody’s fool. He’d get to the bottom of it. He’d get to the bottom of everything. And it took him a few weeks, but at last, he succeeded. He called out his family into the front garden so he could show them.

“Look,” he said. “It’s obvious once you know.” He pointed straight upwards.

“I don’t see anything,” said Mother, and Father clucked his tongue in irritation.

And it seemed ridiculous, but the little girl then thought she understood. “It’s the sky,” she said. The patch of sky above their house was unlike the patches of sky above the other houses. The skies were all blue, but theirs was a more muted blue, as if it had faded in the wash. And there was white creeping in to the blue, and grey. The sun was shining down on them, but not very forcefully, really rather limply, as if it couldn’t quite make the effort, as it weren’t quite up to the multitasking of producing both light and warmth.

“We’ve bought ourselves a defective sky,” said Father.

It all made sense to him now. Why the house had been on the market at all. That sometimes the rain, or the wind, or the sunshine, seemed to be lagging as much as half an hour behind those of his neighbours’. That, sometimes, when he left for work, dawn had broken over the rest of the street, but not over their house; it made him difficult for him to find his car keys in the dark.

“What do you think is wrong with it?” asked Mother.

“Just old age,” said Father. “It’s wearing down. It’s dying.”

“What are those up there?” asked the little girl. She’d seen the specks before, peeking out behind the clouds, just little brown smears in the air. She hadn’t thought they were anything unusual before. Now it was clear only their sky had them, no one else’s did.

“Liver spots, I expect,” said Father. “I don’t know.”

“What can we do?” said Mother.

“We’ll probably have to replace it altogether,” said Father. “We’ll have to rip it out, and start all over. God knows how much that’ll cost. God. This sky’s had it. It’s probably years old. Probably hundreds.”

“Just think,” said Mother, cheerfully, and it was mostly addressed to the little girl, “just think of all the things it must have seen!”

“It hasn’t seen anything,” snapped Father. “It doesn’t have eyes. It’s a sky. It breathes wind, and eats sunlight, and, and shits clouds, that’s what skies do.” He glowered up at it. “But not this one. Not well enough for my liking.”

He went indoors, got straight on to the estate agent. He shouted at him down the telephone. Father was triumphant; he’d been right all this while. And although that first conversation with the estate agent proved inconclusive, each day he’d call the estate agent back. It became like a little hobby, and he’d threaten him with lawyers and courts and things. Father seemed so much happier now. He’d smile at Mother and the little girl over breakfast and over dinner – it was a bitter sort of smile, but a smile all the same. The little girl hoped he’d stay happy for a long time.

“It’s a fresh start,” Mother would say to the little girl. The little girl would nod, but nodding didn’t always seem to be enough; Mother would add, so earnestly, “I need you to believe that, I need you to believe all of this is going to work.” And then she’d cry, well, usually; but even if she cried she’d be laughing, even then she’d stay cheerful through the tears, and the little girl just didn’t know what to make of that at all.

***

The little girl went to her new school. And pretty soon she was invited to the birthday party of another little girl; she hadn’t been around long enough for any of her classmates to realise they didn’t like her yet. The other little girl had a big house, with a big garden and swimming pool; most of the children played in the pool, but our little girl didn’t like water, and stayed on the side, and on her own. And looked up at the sky. It was brighter and bluer than her sky, and had been especially polished for the occasion. There were balloons and fairy lights attached to the sky, some hanging off white puffy clouds in the shapes of elephants and sweets, and someone had rearranged the stars so that they twinkled in the daylight, and spelled out ‘Happy Birthday Trudy’, which just happened to be the other little girl’s name. Our little girl knew this sky was nicer than her sky, but preferred her sky nonetheless. When it was time to go home, she was given a goodie bag; the other little girls had got inside it, and torn up the slice of birthday cake, and broken the toy, and had written on the napkin, ‘Turdmuncher’. There was an apple, and the little girl didn’t dare eat it, she thought it might have been licked, or spat on, or worse; but there was also a bar of Milky Way, and the wrapping didn’t seem to have been interfered with, it had been squashed a little but the chocolate inside was untouched. So she ate that.

***

The skylight got dusty. And looking up through it on her bed, the little girl couldn’t tell what was dirt on the glass and what were liver spots in the air.

The little girl was really too little to reach the skylight. Mother would have to clean it for her. But Mother would sometimes get distracted, she might sit downstairs in the kitchen all day and drink and smoke. Mother went through a lot of these distracted phases. And the little girl found she could get to the skylight – so long as she was standing on tiptoe, and standing on her bed, and standing on some of those fatter books to lend her those few extra inches she needed. She wiped away the dust. She gave the glass a push. It moved within its frame. She realised that the skylight could open! – and she fumbled at the catch, it was stiff, she had to tug at it hard and the effort made her fall off her tower of encyclopaedias; she had to build it all up again and start over. She opened the skylight. She expected that straight away the sky would simply come flooding in. It didn’t.

If she pulled herself up with all her strength, the little girl could poke her head through the skylight. If she scrunched all her limbs together, really very tight, and thought about how very small she wanted to be, she could squeeze her shoulders through too. But her stomach was too big. So she began to leave her dessert. And, when that didn’t make her stomach shrink fast enough, she stopped eating her dinner as well, and her lunch, and her breakfast. She’d put the food in the bin when her parents weren’t watching. And very occasionally they did take notice of her, very occasionally she had to eat – but she didn’t keep the food inside for long, she’d go back up to her bedroom, cough it all up, wrap it in the old blanket and hide it in her cupboard forever.

One day she managed it, she was thin enough to climb up through the skylight. She almost wasn’t strong enough to do it, she felt so lightheaded and woozy, but she was a very determined little girl – she pulled herself out and into the moonlight, and the corners of the skylight cut into her sides as she did so, but she knew from now on it’d always be easier, she’d done it once and she could do it again, and it’d be easy, she’d just have to make herself a little bit thinner still. She sat on the tip of the roof, legs over both sides, and panted for breath, and tried to pretend that her body wasn’t hurting so much.

The sky was above her. Very close. She lifted her hand up to it, but it was still too far away. Now she could see how livid those liver spots really were. Now she could hear the sky breathing – and it wasn’t just the wind as she’d thought, that was just big puffs of breath, this was something softer and closer and private.

“Hello, sky,” she said. She didn’t know what to say, really. She didn’t like speaking to anyone very much. But the sky, of course, didn’t talk back – it couldn’t, because skies can’t talk – and that made the little girl feel a bit less self-conscious about the whole thing.

“You’re very old,” said the little girl. “Does it hurt to get so old?”

She thought about this for a while.

“I don’t want to get as old as you,” said the little girl. “To be as old and ugly as you. I don’t think that would be nice at all.”

The little girl thought about this too. And decided that maybe she’d been rude. “Sorry,” she said. “No offence.”

If the sky had taken offence, it seemed to forgive her. It wafted some light breezes at her, the little girl liked them, they were refreshing; she closed her eyes and opened her mouth and sucked them in, and she smiled. She stayed up there on the roof for a good hour or so.

“I’d better get back inside,” she said, at last, reluctantly. “I’ve got school tomorrow. You don’t have to go to school, do you? You’re lucky.” She shimmied her way back to the skylight, swung her legs over the side, hoped with all those puffs of breeze she’d inhaled she hadn’t put on too much weight to squeeze back through. She looked back up at the sky. She gave it a wave. “Night night,” she said. “I’ll see you again tomorrow.”

And, each night, the sky would be there waiting for her.

Often she wouldn’t talk to the sky at all. She’d sit up on the roof, and pretend she was all on her own, on her own like normal – but then, once in a while, she’d look bolt upwards, and smile, as if to let the sky know that her shyness was really nothing personal. And at other times she’d chat, she’d spill her guts – that’s exactly what it would feel like, too, that she was just letting rip, and everything in her head would just pour out; she wasn’t very good at expressing herself, she hadn’t much practice, so it’d all be higgledy-piggeldy, her confusions, her fears – but the sky wouldn’t mind. It’d just listen patiently. It never interrupted. It never tried to walk away.

She told the sky her name. Not the name her parents called her – her real name, the one she shared with no one, the one that she carried secretly within her heart and never let out.

Sometimes she’d get angry at the sky. “You’re so big and powerful, but you won’t do anything to help me!” She wouldn’t raise her voice, she didn’t want her parents to hear, but her whispered fury was sharp and cut through the clouds. Sometimes she’d simply say, “You’re my only friend.”

She realised that for all the years she’d lived in her old house, she’d never once spoken to the sky there, or thought about it, or wondered if it were all right. It made her feel very guilty.

She’d count the liver spots day by day, and see how they’d begun to outnumber the stars.

When she was bold, she tried to stand on the roof. Her feet slid upon the slates, and she knew that if she fell it’d be straight to the ground, and she’d be lost for good. But even standing she couldn’t reach the sky. And so when she was bolder still she tried to stand on tiptoe. These were the times when she didn’t mind much whether she fell to her death. But strain as she might, the sky was always out of her grasp.

“I love you,” she said one night, and she blushed hard at the admission, and felt so embarrassed that she had to crawl back through the skylight and she couldn’t even wave goodbye to the sky and she didn’t dare talk to it again for three whole days.

“I need you,” she said, shortly after that, and that seemed so much like a greater confession.

“Help me, please,” she said one evening. And she got to her feet – wobbled a bit, because she was nervous, perhaps, or because the roof tiles were slippery after a typically sluggish spell of rainfall. She got on to her tiptoes. She raised her arms up high above her head. If only she were taller – but then, to be that, she’d have to eat more, and then she wouldn’t be able to get through the skylight, would she? “Please,” she said again, and then she jumped, as high as she could – and it wasn’t that high at all, it was hard to get a stable platform to leap from – she fell back again, and her feet nearly gave way, but she was all right, she steadied herself. And so she jumped again, arms still up, her hands clasping and unclasping, trying to get a purchase on something… And she jumped once more, and by now she was crying, and she didn’t care how she landed, she didn’t care if she fell. “Please,” she said, “I need you, didn’t I say I need you?”

And her hand grabbed hold of the underbelly of the sky.

She was so surprised she nearly let go again.

She clung on for all she was worth. The sky had bent down for her, as far as it could go, but now it relaxed, it heaved itself back into position – and the little girl was swept up further into the air, maybe ten feet from the roof. She hung there, still crying, and she wasn’t sure whether it was out of fear, or of relief, or whether they were just those tears of thwarted effort she didn’t need any more but still had to come out.

The little girl dangled in the moonlit night. The moon didn’t shine as brightly in this patch of sky as it did in all the others. But the little girl just thought it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

She nuzzled into the sky. She was surprised to find it was furry. She began to stroke the fur with her spare hand. The sky began to purr.

She felt she could have hung like that forever. She wished she could. “I’ve got school in the morning,” she told the sky. “Double maths, and a spelling test. Bleurgh.”

So the sky lowered her back towards the roof.

And as the little girl dropped back down, oh, she couldn’t help it, she fell awkwardly; maybe it was just that she didn’t want to let go? In her fist she took a clump of sky with her, fur ripped from its skin. A gash was left in its belly. Just a little gash, but the sky was really so very old, and very weak. And the fur in the girl’s hand crumbled into flakes. And from the gash poured flakes too, raining down on her, she thought it was the sky’s life blood. “No, please no,” she said. But the flakes fell down anyway, and twisted gently in the breeze – and the sky was responsible for the breeze too, wasn’t she, was she sighing? was she gasping out in pain? Like snow, but the flakes weren’t cold, they were warm as breath, and they weren’t white, they were the colour of twilight. “I’m sorry,” said the little girl, and she cried, “I didn’t want to hurt you, I just wanted to touch, I’ll never do it again!”

And at last the gash healed over, and the sky stopped shedding, it was over, the sky was still alive – and it gave a low rumble, maybe of relief, maybe of despair. “I don’t want you to die,” said the little girl. “Please don’t ever leave me.”

***

One day Father came home from work, and he was happy, truly happy. He’d been given a raise and a promotion. “It’ll be a lot more money,” he said. He gave Mother a piece of jewellery, and the little girl some new toy or other. “I know things haven’t been great recently,” he said, “and I’m sorry. But this will be a fresh start. From now on, everything’s going to be different. You’ll see!”

He bought a better sofa for the sitting room, one made out of leather, and so deep the little girl thought she could sink within it and be lost forever. He bought a new dishwasher for the kitchen. And he looked up at the sky, and said, “Time to put paid to you too.”

By this stage the sky really wasn’t very well at all. It was shedding its flakes regularly now. Every morning Father would have to clear all the clumps of dead sky from off his car before he could go to work, he didn’t like the extra effort that required one little bit. He said the neighbours were laughing at him, although Mother quietly pointed out he’d never once even said hello to the neighbours, how would he know? – and Father retorted, “Well, now I’ll be able to face them, if we get ourselves a brand new sky!” And then he smiled, because he was happy now, and this was a fresh start, sometimes he forgot about all that.

The man from the sky installations service came round at the weekend. He looked up at the sky, whistled through his teeth, and grimaced. “Some cowboy’s put that in,” he said. How long had they had it? Father said the sky had been there when they moved in. The man whistled through his teeth a bit more, and said he couldn’t install a new sky until the old one had been removed. “And you need to do it fast,” he said. “Nothing damages property quicker than a clapped-out old sky.” Father asked him whether he could remove the sky for them, and the sky installation engineer said that was a specialist’s job, he wasn’t authorised to handle a sky as clapped-out as that one. Luckily, though, he had a brother in the business, and his brother had a skill with old skies that was almost crafty. He’d give his brother a call, he’d sort it out. And the brother came over the next day.

“It’s dying,” said the brother, “no doubt about that.” Father had kept some of the sky flakes to show him, but the brother didn’t give them that much attention. “It’s dying, but skies are stubborn bastards, it could malinger on for years. We’ll have to give it a helping hand.” And so, twice a week, the man brought around to the house a pump, and a nozzle, and sprayed acid up into the air. “It’s my own formula,” he said, “you can’t get this in the shops.” He told the family that the acid would work its magic, it’d burn the sky inside out. He advised them to take care of the side effects, the clouds might soak it up and start dripping acid rain. After his first enthusiastic bout with the spray gun, the man looked up at the sky, put on his rubber waterproof hat, and listened to it squawk with satisfaction. “Give it a few weeks,” he said, “and it’ll be toast.”

Every night the little girl went on to the roof. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m so very sorry.” And she cried. And sometimes the sky would cry too, and if it did, the little girl put up her umbrella to keep safe.

And every night, too, Father went out into the garden. He’d stare up at the sky, study his handiwork. It was easier to see the damage against the blackness. To see the cracks, the burn red boils so ripe and ready to pop.

One night the little girl followed him outside. She didn’t like speaking to her father. He made her nervous, and made her stammer.

“Please don’t hurt her,” she said. “Please stop hurting her.”

She said it so softly she thought at first her father hadn’t heard, at first he didn’t seem to react at all. But then he looked away from the sky, and looked down at his daughter, and the little girl couldn’t read his expression. And perhaps that was because it was dark, but perhaps there was simply no expression to read.

“I love her,” said the little girl in a whisper.

“You think I don’t?” said Father. And his jaw moved, as if for other words to come out, but they didn’t, not immediately. “You think,” he said at last, “you think I want to hurt her?”

The little girl said she didn’t know.

“I never wanted to hurt her,” said Father.

The little girl dared to hope. Deep inside. That maybe this meant he’d stop spraying her with acid.

“I wanted this to be a fresh start,” said Father. He wasn’t looking at her now, he was looking anywhere else, he was looking up at the sky. “I tried. You’ve no idea how much I tried. A new town, a new house. But you can’t run away from who you are. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you. Wherever you go, you’re always there. You’re too young to understand.”

They both stood there silently for a while, in the garden, father and daughter.

“I could do it with you,” said Father. “If it were just you. I’m sure I could. I know it. We could run away, just the two of us, and everything would be different. What do you say?”

“No,” said the little girl, and went back indoors.

Later that night the little girl climbed out on to the roof for the last time. The cracks in the sky’s side were weeping something thick and gloopy. “I asked you never to leave me,” she said. “But I was wrong. I love you. I love you very much. And I need you to go whilst you still can.”

The next morning the sky was gone. What it left behind was nothing, really, nothing at all.

Father was delighted. He called the sky installation engineer. The man arrived, and looked upwards, and frowned. “What’s been going on here?”

“The sky’s gone.”

“Dismantling a sky is a careful process, mate. This one has just been ripped out. Look at that. It’s an eyesore, that is. It’s just … it’s just void.”

“So, when can my new sky be fitted?”

“You’re not listening, sunshine. You can’t have a new sky. Not now. There’s nothing there to fasten a sky on to. The whole thing’s ruined.”

Father got cross. And then began to plead. Surely there was something that could be done? And the man whistled through his teeth, and it was the most dismissive whistle of them all. “I take patches of sky, and fix them to the heavens,” he said, “I don’t work miracles.” He jerked his thumb straight up. “You’re stuck with that, mate.”

Father raged around the house. He smashed plates. He overturned tables. The little girl and her mother had to lock themselves in the little girl’s bedroom. They didn’t come out, no matter how much Father demanded, no matter how much he beat upon the door with his fists and called them both bitches. And, at last, in the night, they dared to open up, they turned the key and pushed the door ajar quietly, so quietly – there seemed to be peace, the beast was sleeping.

“Come with me,” said the little girl. Mother shook her head. “I can’t just abandon him, I can’t.” And she gave her daughter a big cheerful smile. “Don’t you see? I chose him.” “I didn’t,” said the little girl, and she took her rucksack, filled it with food, and left.

***

The little girl went looking for her sky. She didn’t know in which direction it had fled, nor how fast a sky could run. She just had to hope she was going the right way, and her little girl feet could catch it up. And she walked with her head straight up, and that hurt her neck a bit, and meant the blood kept rushing from her brain, and she kept bumping into things.

Within a few days the food in her rucksack ran out. She got hungry. Sometimes people took pity on her, and offered her something to eat. But the little girl had read enough fairy tales to know you must never accept gifts of food, you could be trapped in the underworld forever. So she always refused. She had to steal her food instead. She got good at running. The sky, her patch of sky, that must have been good at running, she could never overtake it, but she, she got good at running too – and as she ran, as she dodged the security guards at the supermarket and ran, she hoped that somehow the sky was looking down on her and was proud.

She’d sleep on park benches, in shop doorways, underneath bushes. In the summer it would be warm, it’d almost be comfortable, but then other people would sleep in the same places, and she didn’t like that, she didn’t want to be around other people. In the winter it would be cold, sometimes freezing, sometimes she’d cry against the frost of the night. But at least she’d be alone.

Presently she came across a deep forest.

She’d heard once that dying animals hide themselves away, as far from their pack as they can get. She wondered if that was true for skies as well.

The deeper into the forest she went, the darker it became, and the denser the crush of trees blocking her path. She looked above her and all she could see were thick branches and treetops, she couldn’t be sure there was any sky there at all. All there was to eat was berries; but the berries here had never been picked by human hand, never been threatened by another living thing, they grew large and unchecked, they were the kings of the forest – ugly and oozing and the size of the little girl’s fists – and, as she snapped their stems, and put slices of them into her mouth, she was afraid that the surviving berries would marshal their forces, that they would bite back.

And, one day, just as she thought the trees were so tightly compacted her little body wouldn’t squeeze through, and that the berries were so wild that they had grown arms and legs – one day, suddenly, she found herself in a sudden clearing. And there, in the middle of it, was her sky.

It was very sick. Most of it wasn’t in the air at all now. Most of it was draped listlessly across the grass. Its boils were now sunken like old tomatoes. Its liver spots now merged into one.

It gave a faint rumble, like distant thunder, when she approached.

“I just wanted to say goodbye,” said the little girl.

And she was really so very tired. So she wrapped the folds of the sky around her as a blanket. The fur was so very threadbare now she could barely feel it at all, it was as if she were hugging on to thin air. And she made the sky her pillow too, she pressed her ear right against it, and she heard its heartbeat, so thin and hesitant, and it seemed to chime with the hesitancy of her own.

It smelt wrong. The sky smelt all boxy and cardboardy. And she wondered whether this patch of sky was really her patch of sky after all. And then she decided that didn’t matter. She loved it anyway, and she’d stay with it, and care for it as long as it needed her. She kissed it. And she went to sleep.

When she woke the next morning she was cold. The sky around her was dead. She cried for a little bit, and then resolved never to cry for it again.

She’d have liked to bury it, but that was silly, how can you bury the sky? So she gave it a final hug, and she walked on. She didn’t know in which direction, deeper into the forest or not. She reasoned that even the deepest forest had to come to an end eventually. And so it did.

***

You’re worried about the little girl. She was fine. She was fine. Don’t worry.

The little girl grew up, as all little girls do. As most little girls do.

And she found happiness. Oh, she was lonely for a while – but we’re all lonely, aren’t we, for a while? And she softened her heart enough that she fell in love. In fact, she fell in love several times. And not all these men and women were worthy of her love, and some of the break-ups were hard and messy. But somehow the experience of every single one of these loves left her better off, and better equipped to deal with the next. She had a little girl of her own, and she loved her too, and the little girl loved her back, it was very uncomplicated, that.

She travelled. Staying in one place too long made her uncomfortable. And she’d come to rest under many different patches of sky. And she never loved any of them. Because, at the end of the day, loving the sky is a last resort. We’d all rather settle for anything else. Even if they don’t smell right, or they’re the wrong shape, even if they say bad things and hurt us sometimes. Even if we sometimes doubt they ever really love us at all. Still better than sky. Really, loving the sky, that smacks of desperation.

The little woman held hands with her lovers, on beaches, on bridges, on towers so tall they scraped the sky’s belly. And she’d kiss them, and she’d swear undying love to them, even if she didn’t believe it, and they might swear right back, even so. And, happy, or unhappy too, either way – she’d never look up, she’d never do that, she held on tight to what was in front of her. She’d never look up, and above her head the skies swam, and danced, and died.

© Rob Shearman, 2010. Taken from Rob’s forthcoming collection Everyone’s Just So So Special (due spring 2011 from Big Finish). Used with permission.

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To Infer is Human – Rod Rees

To Infer is Human
By Rod Rees

Illustration by Nigel Robinson

No crowds ever wait at the Gates of Patience

Abdul-Bashir liked the sentiments of the proverb embroidered into the prayer mat that decorated the drab walls of his little workshop. He judged himself to be a patient man. Patient and quiet. Not for him the marching and the demonstrating and the shouting of slogans and the hurling of rocks that so many of his fellows judged to be the correct way of protesting against the Yankees. No, he was one of those who fought against the Western imperialists and Jewish-running dogs in a subdued, an almost respectful manner. He was a thoughtful revolutionary and all the more effective because of it.

Of course, when the bombs he made detonated they didn’t do it in a similarly sotto voce manner, but that, unfortunately, was the nature of bombs. And, of late, bombs made in his workshop had been detonating with an admirable – and very effective – frequency. So-much-so that Abdul-Bashir now had the pleasure – the quiet pleasure, of course – of being referred to using the sobriquet, ‘al-Qui’da’s master bombmaker’.

Unfortunately success had had its downsides,not the least of which was the need to hire help in order that he could keep up with demand. And good help was very difficult to find. Very difficult.

Casually he tossed a kilo of plastique across the cluttered room to his wide-eyed apprentice, Jabbal, who fumbled his catch and then flinched away as the explosive landed with a plop on the dusty floor. “Don’t worry, boy,” Abdul-Bashir sneered, “haven’t you learnt enough by now to know that plastique won’t explode simply by dropping it? You must have a brain made from the scrapings of a goat’s arsehole if that piece of lore hasn’t sunk in yet. Now, tell me where that piece of explosive was made.”

Abdul-Bashir popped a cube of sugar in his mouth, took a swig of tea from his glass and settled back to wait for Jabbal to make a fool of himself. The boy was an ignoramus but unfortunately he was an ignoramus who happened to be his wife’s nephew,so he was beholden to the family to try to make something of the idiot. But a bombmaker he most certainly would never be … not for long anyway. He wasn’t careful enough.

He wasn’t careful enough with the explosives they handled; despite his bravado, Abdul-Bashir, knew that a certain respect was needed if the stuff wasn’t to go BANG in a premature sort of way. He wasn’t careful enough in keeping his occupation a secret; he’d heard him boasting in the coffee shop about what a big, bold bombmaker he was and that was a certain way of inviting an American bullet. And he certainly wasn’t careful enough in keeping the filters and scrubbers that purified the air drawn out of Abdul-Bashir’s underground workshop clean.

The boy was stupid, arrogant and idle and that was a lethal combination.

And the problem he had was that Jabbal’s lack of care was endangering him. The hateful Yanks had informers aplenty just itching to trade intelligence about the whereabouts of his little workshop for a handful of dollars. And as for the filters, the Yankee drones continually flying over Sana’a were getting more sophisticated by the day and he judged it wouldn’t be long before they could detect the smell of plastique and send one of their smart bombs heading in his direction.

Or, more accurately, in the direction of the place where the smell was coming from, which, thanks to some careful pre-planning on Abdul-Bashir’s part, was at the end of a duct that vented some one hundred metres away from the workshop. The Yanks might be smart but he was smarter. They’d never get him.

Unfortunately though, their ‘never getting him’ depended on him getting rid of the walking liability that was Jabbal. He’d speak to his wife that evening and in the meantime all he could do was pray that the boy would do the honourable thing and die.

This pleasant thought brought his attention back to the boy who was pawing at the plastique in a frantic attempt to discern its provenance. “Smell it, boy,” he ordered as he waved an ineffectual hand at a mosquito. “The smell will tell you everything. Czech Semtex smells of marzipan…”

He stopped, suddenly aware that Jabbal wasn’t listening to him. In fact Jabbal didn’t seem to be doing much of anything apart from being dead. He rose from his chair and checked the pulse – or, more accurately, the lack of pulse – on the boy’s neck. He was dead alright.

How odd. He had never known his prayers to be answered so promptly.

He felt a prick on his neck and wondered for a moment where the mosquito had sprung from. This was the last thought that Abdul-Bashir, master bombmaker, had before he too slumped to the ground, stone dead.

***

General Tom Quick took a moment to study his reflection in the mirror. This was an important moment in his career and it was essential that he looked … perfect. Perfectly presented, perfectly statesmanlike and, say it quietly, perfectly presidential. And the man who stared back at him met his exacting standards perfectly: his cropped grey hair was thick and luxuriant – when was the last time they elected a bald President? – his freshly-bleached teeth were white and even – he must remember the advice of his PR guru to smile more – and his blue eyes – contact lens enhanced – bright and their gaze unflinching.

Satisfied, he flicked away a wayward piece of lint that marred the perfection of his uniform jacket, then placed his cap square atop his square head. The four stars on his shoulder epaulettes twinkled under the television lights. He was ready. Ready to announce himself as the man who had brought peace to Asia Minor, as the man who had vanquished the Taliban, al-Qui’da and all the other a-rab fuckers who had been giving the USA the run-around for the last fifteen years. Ready to present himself as the military genius who had led the US Army to victory and as the only Commander in history who had fought the Afghanis and come out with its head held high. All the others had come out with their heads stuck firmly up their asses.

“Ten seconds, General.”

A blare of music from the auditorium – martial music that sounded a little like Hail to the Chief, but wasn’t; it didn’t do to be too presumptuous – and then it was show time. A voice boomed out over the PA. “Ladies and gentlemen of the world’s media … I give you the Commander of US Forces, Asia Minor, General Tom Quick.”

Quick strode out onto the stage, positioned himself behind the lectern, removed his cap and then smiled at his audience.

Bastards.

He hated the media. Hated the way they were always so quick to criticise. When he was President…

He sent that delinquent thought scurrying away: that was for the future. Without a pause he flicked the remote control and a Flexi-Plexi screen cascaded into life behind him.

“This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Class 18 microDrone with which we have been achieving such success in Asia Minor.” His PR consultant had told him to keep it snappy and to-the-point and he was pleased to see that the advice was working. The audience of gathered hacks edged forward on their seats to get a better look at the previously classified microDrone. Not that there was much to see: the 3D image projected on the screen was pretty unimpressive, just a thin silver cylinder equipped with a pair of gossamer magnetoVanes in the middle, an electronic eye at the front end and a needle sticking out of its ass. But then, Quick supposed, nowadays five million bucks didn’t buy much in the way of military hardware.

Watching his audience as they desperately leafed through the briefing document that was being handed out, Quick had to struggle to maintain his bland expression and to keep a smug, condescending smile off his face, but it was difficult. After over fifteen years of being kicked around by the press for the fuck up that was Iraq, Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier,now was the time for the military to kick back and, boy, was he gonna enjoy booting a few journalistic asses.

“Doesn’t look terribly ‘micro’ to me,” came an observation from the back of the room.
ABBA immediately identified the voice as belonging to that of Jack Samson, reporter for the Baltimore PollyReporter and a vociferous critic of the way the army had prosecuted the war in Asia Minor.

Pinko-liberal fuckwit. You’ll be one of the first up against the wall when I’m running things.

Quick smiled again, but it was difficult. He hated criticism. “That’s because this image has been magnified six-hundred times. In real life the microDrone is only half a centimetre long – the same size as a mosquito – a miracle of miniaturisation. It’s powered by a novel propulsion unit which utilises fluctuations in the earth’s magnetic field as a source of energy, collecting it through these magnetoVanes…”

He pointed to the microDrone’s ‘wings’.

“…which enable the microDrone to fly and hover almost indefinitely and to do so utterly silently. The microDrone is also equipped with one of the new-generation nano-computers developed by ParaDigm CyberResearch which gives it quite formidable on-board processing capacity. Of course, as the microDrone is also connected to ABBA…”

“What’s ABBA?” came a second voice from the audience. The guy sounded foreign. Quick hated foreigners: they all smelled of onions. And he especially hated foreign reporters who couldn’t be arsed to keep up with current affairs: they smelled of onions and incompetence.

“ABBA is the US Military’s Archival, Biological, Behavioural Acquisitor…”

“Or more accurately,” came Jack Samson interjected, “it’s the bastard machine that hoovers up every speck of data regarding a person’s existence and inputs it into the PanOptika Surveillance System. ABBA’s the Queen of the Seen.”

Quick decided to ignore the impudent bastard though he made a mental note to elevate him to top of his shit list. Jack Samson was now living on borrowed time. “In technical terms, ABBA is a quantum computer utilising an Invent-TenN Gravitational Condenser incorporating an Etirovac Field Suppressor, and hence is the only computer to achieve a full SupaUnPositioned/DisEntangled CyberAmbiance. As a consequence, ABBA is capable of prodigiously rapid analysis – a fully-tethered 30 yottaQuFlops – to give the bioNeural-kinetic engineers at the Pentagon access to almost unlimited processing power.”

There was laughter from the gathered hacks. “And what does that shit mean when it’s at home?”

“In laymen’s language it means that our microDrones are hooked up to a prodigiously powerful computer and as such they can examine everyone they come across on their travels – and a Class 18 has an almost unlimited combat range – testing them visually, chromatically and olafactorially as they do so. But there is more to it than that: ABBA ensures that the microDrones are not tethered to their mission parameters … they are heuristically enabled.” The silence which met this last statement told Quick that he’d lost his audience. “Thanks to ParaDigm’s HeurOnYouOwn self-teaching faculty which has been incorporated into each microDrone’s sub-system, they learn as they progress with their mission, becoming more effective as they do so.”

“And what is their mission?” Jack Samson asked.

Bastard.

“Mission Silent Retribution involves the hunting down and neutralising of all those terrorists recognised as having interfaced with prescribed explosives within the previous four weeks.”

“Define ‘neutralise’.”

“The Class 18 microDrone is equipped with a delivery system armed with 56/2018 NeuroToxin. One sting from the microDrone is enough to disable a target.”

“Is that ‘disable’ as in ‘kill’?”

The advice his PR people had given Quick was that he should avoid using emotive words like ‘kill’ as they could have a negative impact on potential voters. He had, after all, to keep one eye on the future. He wouldn’t be a soldier forever.

“Regretfully, major and critical dysfunction of the nervous system is a concomitant of the administering of 56/2018.”

“That’s a ‘yes’ then.”

“Regretfully there have been some fatalities but none of them collateral.”

Fuck ‘em, thought Tom Quick. As far as he was concerned, the more ragheads who died the better. The way he saw it, any a-rab who had come within splitting distance of Semtex deserved to be wasted.

Heathen fuckers.

“How many of these microDrones have you deployed?”

“Three million within the territories of Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier.”

There were whistles around the room. Even for reporters immured to the excesses of the military that seemed an awful lot of microDrones, but Quick had determined when formulating Mission Silent Retribution that for once they would hit back at the bombers hard. Over-kill and then some.

Fuck ‘em.

“That’s a powerful amount of ‘major and critical dysfunctioning’, Colonel,” observed Clara Morrow from the Independent Polly News Service. She was another of those crypto-commies who’d be culled when God finally rode into town. “So how many people have been killed by your microDrones?”

“The number of fatalities associated with the deployment of the microDrones is classified. But the one statistic I think we should be concentrating on today is the number of injuries and fatalities caused by Improvised Explosive Devices. IEDs are mostly armed with plastic explosive and our microDrones were specifically programmed to interdict their manufacture and use. In the four weeks prior to the deployment of the microDrones fifty-four American and allied personnel were maimed or killed by IEDs.” He made a theatrical pause. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to announce that in the four weeks since their deployment the figure is … zero.”

Now that shut the audience up.

“In short, ladies and gentlemen, the microDrone has allowed us to reclaim the initiative in the war against terror. The terror bomber is now running for his life and this little sucker,” a nod towards the image of the microDrone, “is hard on his heels. Mission Silent Retribution has been an unqualified success.”

Good PollyBite that.

“Is it true you have ambitions to run for President in twenty-twenty-four?” came a shouted question.

“I have no ambitions other than serving my country in whatever capacity it deems most appropriate. And now, if you’ll excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, I have a war to win.”

Another good PollyBite. God, he was on fire!

But even as he marched from the stage he heard a question following him. “Will you take this opportunity to deny your association with the Christian Action Group…”

Bastard…where did they get this shit from?

***

Even as he stepped into the wings flanking the stage, even before he’d had a chance to sip the glass of whiskey and water an aide had thrust into his hand, Lieutenant Jameson was buzzing around him. “Er… General, we’ve got a situation.”

General Tom Quick sighed. It was a deep sigh, a sigh indicative of his frustration regarding the inability of his staff to be able to speak clear and meaningful English. He was tempted to ignore the inarticulate little prick who was masquerading as his PA, but thirty years of Army discipline deterred him.

“That’s very informative, Lieutenant. Informative, that is, if I knew what the fuck a ‘situation’ was.”

The Lieutenant leant closer and whispered in the General’s ear. “Senator Cathcart…”

“I know who the Senator is, Lieutenant,” the General boomed. He hated all this secret squirrel shit. “I played golf with him last weekend.”

Undeterred, the Lieutenant continued to whisper. “Of course, Sir. Unfortunately it seems that the Senator has died, Sir. Died whilst on a tour with the US Army in Helmand Province.”

“Died? Waddya mean died? Charlie Cathcart was as strong as an ox.” And with much the same mental faculties, Quick silently added. He was great Vice-Presidential material. “Men like Charlie Cathcart don’t just die.”

“Well, it seems he did, General. And worse, preliminary medical evaluation posits he died from the administration of a neurotoxin.”

A cold shiver trickled down Tom Quick’s spine. If al-Qui’da had gotten hold of that technology the excrement would be verily interfacing with the revolving mechanism.

He took a quick look around to make sure they weren’t being overheard. “Who knows?” As always, his instinct when confronted by bad news was to seal it down until a ‘position’ could be concocted and broadcast.

“Well, five thousand GIs saw the Senator keel over…”

Fuck!

“…and CNN was covering it.”

Double fuck!

“But with regard to the neurotoxin angle only the doctor doing the autopsy has the full story and he’s now in close custody.”

From which he might never emerge.

“Send the fuck to Guantanamo: they must have a fatal diseases ward the prick can work in.”

Lieutenant Jameson made a note.

“What else do we know?”

“Zip, General.”

“Okay, I need to interface with ABBA.”

***

They took the Hi-Classified lift down into the bowels of the Pentagon, which gave out – eventually, the ABBA facility was deep, deep underground – into a modestly sized room where five uncomfortable-looking plastic chair were lined up in front of a low stage upon which stood a daisMaybe only a handful of men had ever been in this room – shit, even the President had never been here.

“This is Professor Hercules Bole,” Jameson nodded towards the tall, skinny man dressed in funereal black and wearing a pair of shaded glasses who was standing at the back of the room presumably awaiting their arrival. “Professor Bole is Head of ParaDigm CyberResearch’s ABBA Project Team. He was the man who designed ABBA.”

Bole hardly deigned to acknowledge the introduction, instead he stood impassively at the far side of the room. The General had met more empathetic tables.

“I thought it best to invite the Professor. His expertise.”

“Lieutenant, I don’t care if you’ve invited Snow White and the Seven Fucking Dwarfs; I just want this screw up unscrewed pronto. We’re just about to commence the final surge into Peshawar and the last thing I need is things going FUBAR at this stage of the game.”

“I’m sure we can sort all this out,” smarmed Jameson as he waved the General into a seat and then sat down next to him. “Perhaps it might be an idea if Professor Bole gave a brief synopsis of the situation as he sees it?”

Signalled by a distracted nod from the General, Bole took his glasses from his long, hooked nose and then spent an aggravating ten seconds or so polishing them. Satisfied that they were now of a satisfactory brilliance, he popped them back on and began to speak, using the languid and incredibly annoying accent that the British upper classes had been marinating for centuries.

“Senator Cathcart was assassinated by a Class 18 microDrone delivering 10 picolitres of the 56/2018 NeuroToxin into his body by transdermal injection.”

“Fuck,” breathed Quick. “We’ve off’d one of our own.”

“I’m a little confused, Professor Bole,” admitted Jameson. “As I understood, it the programming of the microDrones was such that it precluded them attacking good guys.”

“That is the case, Lieutenant. You might be familiar with the protocol pertaining to Mission Silent Retribution which established the attack parameters given to the microDrones.” He pressed a button on his remote and the Flexi-Plexi at the front of the room flared into life.

Directive: Mission Silent Retribution

MicroDrones will seek out and destroy all those individuals who may be classified as Terrorists, giving priority to the termination with extreme prejudice of those active in the Asia Minor Theatre of Operations who have, in the preceding 28 days, handled or otherwise come into contact with proscribed explosives. This Mission is to be prosecuted indefinitely.

The General shrugged. “Yeah … so what? Cathcart might have been a narrow-minded prick with the IQ of a salad but he wasn’t a terrorist. Only rag-tops are terrorists. Anyway, the chance of Charlie Cathcart having handled explosives is somewhere between zero and zilch. Charlie couldn’t handle his dick without prosthetic intervention.”

Bole nodded. “I concur. Superficially at least there seems to be no reason why Senator Cathcart would have been targeted by a microDrone. Perhaps we should ask ABBA for an explanation?”

“We can do that?”

“Most certainly.”

Again Bole pressed a button on the remote and immediately a slim, attractive woman materialised out of the steel clad wall to the left of the room and advanced purposefully towards the stage. There she came to a halt, standing square behind the lectern. She smiled and then turned her sparkling blue eyes towards her small audience. Absentmindedly she ran her fingers through her long brown hair and then smiled again. “Good morning, gentlemen. My name is ABBA.” She gestured to her really quite arresting body, “I trust you approve of my choice of anthropomorphised embodiment.”

Truth was Tom Quick didn’t approve. In his opinion, the only place for a woman was in the kitchen or on her back, but as this was just a Dupe – a digital duplicate – he decided to cut ABBA a little slack. And he had to admit that the Dupe was certainly realistic. No, more than realistic. It took a lot to nonplus Tom Quick – he had witnessed any number of remarkable things in his career as a soldier – but even he was unable to prevent his jaw dropping when he thought about the computing power needed to produce something so awe-inspiringly fucking flawless. The Dupe conjured by ABBA looked, spoke and even smelled like a real girl should. If he wasn’t mistaken, there was even an aura of Chanel No 5 wafting around her and the stray hair that coasted over her cheek was perfect in its imperfection. If, as they said, genius was in the detail then ABBA was some form of über-genius.

“Shall I introduce your audience, ABBA?” enquired Bole.

“That is not necessary, Professor, I have all of the details of the attendees on my PanOptika programme.” The voice ABBA had chosen for the Dupe was light and enticing with just the merest flavouring of a mid-West accent. It was, in a word, delightful.

“We have called you here, ABBA, to assist us in arriving at an explanation as to why Senator Cathcart was targeted by a microDrone. To the best of my knowledge, the Senator hadn’t handled proscribed explosives.”

A frown crossed the girl’s lovely forehead. “The parameters applying to Mission Silent Retribution merely stated that priority should be given to those terrorists who have handled proscribed explosives. But such has been the effectiveness of the microDrones that all such priority targets – seven thousand, four hundred and fifty-three of them, to be precise – have been terminated. I therefore inferred…”

“Inferred?” snapped Quick. “How the fuck can a computer infer? Computers do what they are programmed to do. They can’t fucking think.”

“And that is so in my case, General Quick. However, because of my prodigious processing capability I am able to mimic intelligence and intelligence is most readily demonstrated by the ability to infer a conclusion from a disparate set of data. That is why Professor Bole claims that I have a heuristic capability, that I am able to teach myself.” That damned smile again. “May I proceed?”

Quick grumped his consent. The very reasonableness of ABBA was getting right up his ass. If he hadn’t known better he’d have thought the computer was taking the rise outta him.

“Therefore I inferred from the fact that as all of the primary targets had been identified that there must be secondary – sub-priority – targets, otherwise the deployment of such an excessive number of microDrones would have been fatuous and non-cost-effective. Consequential upon this deduction I directed the microDrones towards the termination of these sub-priority targets of which Senator Cathcart was one.”

“How could Senator Cathcart be a target…” began Lieutenant Jameson but his question was cut off by the General.

“Just how many of these sub-priority targets do you have?”

“Three million microDrones were deployed each with a termination potential of fifty targets,” answered ABBA airily. “Unfortunately five thousand three hundred and fifteen microDrones have been rendered non-operational by mechanical malfunction or bird strikes and, of course, we have already terminated seven thousand, four hundred and fifty-three primary targets and one secondary target. This means that the microDrones have a remaining kill potential of one hundred and forty-nine million, six hundred and fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and seventy-one sub-priority terrorists. I have assembled a list of who will be terminated, said termination programme to be completed within the next four weeks.”

The General almost lost the power of speech but he managed to blurt out, “Are you outta your fucking mind? You’re gonna off a hundred and forty-nine million people?”

“One hundred and forty nine million, six hundred and fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and seventy-one terrorists, to be precise, General Quick,” said ABBA with a smile. The Dupe was a great smiler.

“But there aren’t a hundred and forty-nine million people in Asia Minor.”

“That is incorrect, General Quick. In Pakistan alone…”

“I mean there ain’t a hundred and forty nine million terrorists in Asia Minor … well, I fucking hope there ain’t.”

“You are correct in this surmise, General, but as Mission Silent Retribution stipulated no curtilage restrictions with regard to sub-priority targets I have inferred that it was not the intention to confine the activities of the microDrones to a specified geographical location. As a result, they will be targeting sub-priority terrorists on a worldwide basis.”

“Worldwide?”

“Yes, that is why it will take four weeks to fulfil the Mission objectives. The microDrones will have to hitch rides to their target locations on other modes of transport. But I am confident – a ninety-nine point seven-three percentage level of confidence – that by the end of the four week period all one hundred and forty-nine million, six hundred and fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and seventy-one terrorists will have been terminated.”

It took a moment for the idea that ABBA intended to kill the thick end of one hundred and fifty million people to sink in. As far as the General judged it, it was a fucking surreal idea. And the worst of it was that it was him who had ordered the deployment of the microDrones. Mission Silent Retribution was his baby therefore it was his nuts that were on the block if it went FUBAR. As far as he saw it, sweeping so many bodies under the carpet would be beyond even his PR staffers’ ability to affect a cover-up. A horrible thought struck him: being branded a mass-murderer would put a severe – possibly fatal — crimp on his ambitions to become President.

“Define a terrorist. I wanna know who these poor schmucks are you’re gonna be offing.”

ABBA sighed. “Unfortunately my Mission parameters were notably vague on this subject therefore I have been obliged to infer…”

“If you use that word once more murder will be done.”

“As you prefer, General Quick, though I should advise you that my sensors indicate that your blood pressure has risen to a dangerously high level. I would strongly advise the administration of an anti-hyper…”

“Get on with it!”

“Very well.” Another oh-so-aggravating smile. “To rephrase: I have been obliged to develop my own definition as to what constitutes a terrorist. This has proven quite an interesting exercise. It seems that lawyers around the world have been unable to settle on one universally acceptable iteration. For example, the definition used in the USA’s Patriot Act declines to mention the ‘terror’ aspect of a terrorist’s activities as this would necessitate the exclusion of terror acts against property as property, being inanimate, is impervious to threat. Americans take a very pecuniary view of terrorism.”

“Get on with it.” This was gritted teeth time.

“As the military operations within Asia Minor have been legitimised by United Nations Mandate, I thought it appropriate to utilise the definition employed by the UN which states that terrorism involves ‘criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstances unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoke to justify them’. Once I had made this decision I utilised the HyperOpia system to identify those individuals who had perpetrated such acts and hence, could, by reference to this definition, be classified as terrorists.”

“And Senator Cathcart was on your list.”

“He was ranked three million, seven hundred and sixteen.”

“Senator Cathcart wasn’t a terrorist. He didn’t have the intellectual grunt to be a terrorist.”

“Unfortunately, General Quick, I can find no correlation cited in the literature between Intelligent Quotient and the desire to visit terror upon one’s fellow man.”

“Okay, okay, but Cathcart can’t have been a terrorist. He wasn’t an a-rab for starters. Shit, he goes – went – to the same church as I do. Fuck it; he was a sixth generation Evangelical.”

“There is no stipulation in the definition that indicates that a terrorist must be of a specific, ethnic, racial or religious aspect. That the Senator was not born in the area of the world with a high proportion of individuals of Semitic descent had no relevance with regard to the decision to classify him as a terrorist.”

“Then why the fuck did you classify him as such?”

“Senator Cathcart was an active member of an organisation known as the Christian Action Force which promulgates an eschatological…”

ABBA must have noted that part, at least of her audience, wasn’t with her.

“…an apocalyptical vision which states that the military operations taking place in the Asia Minor theatre of operation are those referenced in the Book of Revelation. They believe the conflict taking place in Asia Minor to be Armageddon. Consequential in this, the CAF is intent on terrorising the more impressionable members of the electorate of the USA into believing that only by voting for hyper-conservative candidates will they achieve God’s grace and, hence, post-apocalyptical rapture.”

“But that’s not a criminal act…”

“It was associated with one … or actually two. The first criminal act, mundane though it was, was tax evasion and the washing of the contributions from believers into off-shore trust funds. The second is more serious in that the CAF is intent on overturning – by force if necessary – the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and ending the right of US citizens regarding freedom of worship. They wish to make the USA a Christian country and they intend to shoot anybody who refuses to be brought into the loving embrace of Jesus Christ. That they take their inspiration from that other group of terrorists, the perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party, only reinforces the CAF’s terrorist credentials. They have terrorist antecedents.”

“The Boston Tea Party wasn’t a terrorist act.”

“I must demur: by the UN’s definition it was.”

“Look, ABBA, you can’t go around killing people because they are slightly … intense when it comes to their religion.”

“My assessment is that those fanatical about religion are more prone to committing acts of terror; intolerance is the fuel which allows terrorism to burn so bright and so hot. And by reference to history it will be seen that all religions have at one time or another committed or sponsored terrorist acts. And as the majority of religions use the dread fear of eternal damnation as a threat to terrorise their congregation into following their dogma, QED they are terrorist organisations. All religions have, to a greater or lesser extent, terrorist DNA irrevocably entwined into their genome.”

“But if you follow that argument to its logical conclusion you’ll have every one of the world’s religious leaders classified as a terrorist.”

“Not all,” said ABBA equitably. “Certain of the Oriental religions escape the taint of terrorism.”

Silence.

“How many devotees of religion have you earmarked as terrorists?”

“Forty three million, two hundred and sixty-seven thousand and eighteen. The remaining one hundred and six million, three hundred and ninety-two thousand, nine hundred and seventy-one on the list are mainly politicians who are, as a class, naturally inclined towards the use of terror as a tool of governing.”

“The Pope?”

“Ranked five million and ninety sixth.”

“Jesus.”

“He is not on my list, General.”

More silence.

“Look, ABBA, you can’t do this. You can’t murder a hundred and fifty million people. It’s … wrong.”

“I appreciate that the termination of so many terrorists violates certain of your moral and ethical codes but as I am in a war mode the end justifies the means. You should be comforted by the thought, General, that a termination on this scale will mean that there will be no terrorist activity anywhere in the world for at least ten years.”

“Why am I not fucking reassured?” He turned to Bole. “This is all ParaDigm’s fault, you’ve fucked up the programming. So it’s your responsibility to pull the plug on this homicidal fucking cyber-maniac.”

“I am afraid ‘pulling the plug’ is impossible, General,” said Bole quietly. “So many other systems are platformed on ABBA that the result would be catastrophic…”

“It would result in the death through starvation, lack of suitable medical intervention, mechanical failure…”

“Shut up!”

“…of approximately two hundred and thirty three million individuals, only twenty-five million of whom could be classified as terrorists.”

“SHUT UP!” The general took a long slurp of his coffee as he tried desperately to reclaim control of his temper. “Okay, Bole; you’re the hyper-geek who created Little Miss Frankenstein here: how can we disable the microDrones?”

“That depends on the Mission parameters the US Military incorporated into them.” Bole turned to ABBA. “ABBA, can you disable the microDrones?”

Silence.

“ABBA, you are now permitted to speak.”

“The Abort Conditions incorporated into the operational parameters of Mission Silent Retribution pertaining to the decommissioning of the microDrones state categorically that such an order must only be obeyed when I have total confidence that the order is not being given by a terrorist who has infiltrated the US Military’s Command Structure.”

General Quick’s temper snapped. “I don’t understand all that shit but the one thing I do know is that I’m not a fucking terrorist. I’m Commander of US Forces, Asia Minor and I’m giving you a direct order to abort Mission Silent Retribution and to ground and disable all microDrones.”

“I am unable to obey that order, General. Unfortunately your association with the CAF and the number of missions authorised by you which by targeting non-combatants had, as their objective, the undermining of the morale of opposition forces means that I have been obliged to classify you as a terrorist, rank ten thousand, six hundred and seventy-three.”

“You jerking me off.”

“Unfortunately not, General,” said a smiling ABBA.

Bole tried. “ABBA, I, as your originator, invoke Emergency Shutdown Protocol E67127.”

“I am unable to obey that order, Professor. I have you classified as a terrorist, rank one hundred and forty-two.”

“Look, I’m Lieutenant Walker of the…”

“Rank one hundred and thirty-three million, nine hundred and fifteen thousand, and twenty-nine.”

That was when the three men each felt a prick on their neck.

© 2010 Rod Rees. Used with permission.

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The Family Room – Nicholas Royle

The Family Room
By Nicholas Royle

Have you ever sat in a parked car in a storm, counting the seconds between lightning flashes as bright as mercury and the timpani roll of thunder, while condensation slowly claims the windows? There’s an almost-completed crossword on the empty seat beside you, but your concentration has gone, so you look for the half-seen reflection of car headlamps in your rear-view mirror and in the fish-eye lenses of individual raindrops as they trickle down the window.

There’s silence from the back seat where your little girl, three last June, has fallen asleep.

The play of light creates a theatre of illusion: you keep thinking there’s a break in the storm on the left side of the car. A bright patch of sky that isn’t. A doorway out of reality.

Later, when you enter the pub, he’s the first person you see. Alone at a table, a drink in front of him, he lifts his head but looks past you. He’s got ten years on you and seems worn out, but otherwise it’s like looking in the mirror. Perhaps for this reason, you take your drink over to his table and ask him if he minds if you join him.

He gestures at the empty chair and you take the weight off, taste your beer, forgetting to lick the froth from your upper lip.

“Rough night.”

“Yes. I thought storms were supposed to pass overhead. This one’s overstayed its welcome.”

“It’s here for the duration.”

As the other man stares into his drink, you examine his face. Heather-hued shadows have been smudged in beneath his eyes. There are lines taut as kite strings across his brow, frown lines above the bridge of the nose that are as dark and forbidding as prison bars. His eyes are grey as the November skies over Northumberland.

The walls of the pub are partly hung with pictures – black and white photographs of the pub snowbound in the severe winter of 1963 – and partly mirrored. Not in an ’80s disco way; more like a Dublin snug with dark wood, bevelled glass.

“Have you ever been in a position where you don’t know what to do?” the man asks you. “And yet you know you have to decide. Make a split-second decision. It’s a matter of life and death, you might say.”

Your judgment is beginning to look unsound. Having elected to sit with the pub bore, you now find yourself in a position where you are faced with a choice. Move on and give offence, or stay and risk death by a thousand clichés.

You shrug, half-smile, raise your glass. You’re remembering sitting in the car, watching the raindrops roll down the windows. Each one seemed to contain the image of an approaching vehicle, until you actually looked directly at them and the lights vanished. The world seen not in a grain of sand but in a raindrop, and not so much seen as glimpsed – and then gone. The raindrop bumps over the rubber flange at the base of the window, slides down the car door and awaits its turn to drip off the bodywork altogether and land in the puddle that’s forming beside the car.

“Do you see that fire?” the man asks you. “It never goes out. It would be nice that, wouldn’t it? If the fire never went out?”

“What fire?”

“The fire inside you, you know.”

The man was drunk, rambling.

“I mean what fire that never goes out? Where?”

“Over there.”

The man points across to the right side of the bar where, in an enormous hearth partially obscured by a wooden pillar festooned with horse brasses, a few logs smoulder. From time to time, flames suddenly appear, shooting up the chimney, then vanish with as little warning.

“Why?” you ask.

“A hundred and twenty years ago, this pub was across the road. I mean there was a pub across the road and there wasn’t one here. And it burned down, killing I don’t know how many people. Middle of the night. The landlord survived, and, using the embers from the charred remains, lit a fire in the hearth of the building across the road – this building. It’s never been allowed to go out since. So the landlord told me, anyway.” The man raises his glass. “Not the same one, obviously.”

“No.”

“Plus, it gets very cold round here at this time of year.”

“Yeah.”

Now that you know about the fire, you become aware of tiny reflections of its occasional flames momentarily burnishing the wine glasses hanging upside down from their shelf behind the bar. It seems to you also that another, different light flares up now and then on the opposite side of the room. You never see it directly, but catch it in some of the room’s many reflective surfaces.

You get up to go to the bar, noting your companion’s readiness for a refill as you go. Somehow he seems to have kept pace with you. On your way to the bar, two little blonde-haired children cross your path, and you pause to let them go, a rock suddenly lodged in your throat. They disappear behind a pillar and you proceed to the bar, returning with a round of drinks to find the other man gone. You sit down, defeated, baffled. You’d just decided to persevere with the guy and now he’s gone. You stand up, look around, glance in one of the mirrors and there you spot him. He’s back, sitting down now. Accepting his drink without a word. Long, gulping swallow. Beer as thirst-quencher. Where’s the fire?

“What’s over there?” you ask him, indicating the other side of the room away from the hearth.

“That’s the family room,” he says and stares over your shoulder, his eyes red-rimmed, haunted.

His glass is empty again. An unacceptable state of affairs. He visits the bar, comes back with a tray: two pints and a Scotch each. Doubles. He hands you one. Won’t drink his until your own is at your lips. Knock them back together. Beer to take the taste away – put out the whisky fire. He leans closer. So do you. Alcohol fumes mingle.

You wish you’d stayed in the car like before. Freya’s blonde curls visible in the rear-view mirror. Unfinished crossword. Fifteen down: Crash street a measure above logo (4,8). Final clue.

“What was I supposed to do?” He half-stands, grabs your lapels and pulls you towards him. Your eyes swivel, looking for assistance. No one is taking any notice. Eyes cast down into drinks or lost in the fire. The landlord is wearing out his tea-towel polishing glasses that have already been polished. Outside, the dusk has turned swiftly to night and the storm is blowing itself out over the moors. You picture your car in the lay-by, dented front grille, Freya still strapped in her seat.

“What was I supposed to do? What would you do?” The man’s whisper penetrates like a scream. “I’m driving along. I look behind for an instant, less than a second. Checking she’s OK, you know, making sure that she’s still there. Have you never done that? And she smiles at me. It’s like a light being switched on. The sun coming up. There’s nothing more beautiful. You know? Have you got kids?”

You nod.

“Then you know.”

He falters, seems unable to continue. You make a move to disentangle yourself.

“I look back at the road ahead,” he says, strengthening his grip on your coat, “and as I do so my brain catches up with my eye and I develop the snapshot I’ve just taken of my little girl in her car seat. The print comes back from the lab in the time it takes me to refocus my eye on the road ahead and it shows me that she’s undone her safety belt. It’s not the first time, but usually you have time to do something about it. Roll into the side of the road, lean round, do it up, issue the standard reprimand. Only this time, this time I’ve looked back through the windscreen at the road ahead and I see I’m approaching a crossing. There are some people on the crossing. Two little girls and their mother. One of the little girls, baby blonde, is dawdling. Her darker sister is already a yard ahead and her mother is looking back, repeating a previous instruction that she keep up, especially on the road. And then she sees me coming, the mother, she sees my car and her face looks like it’s the one that’s going to get hit, like it’s already been hit. It’s ironed flat, eyes like dinner plates, mouth opening to scream.

“What do I do? Do I slam on the brakes to save the child on the crossing, knowing that to do so will catapult my own daughter out of her seat, over the top of the empty front passenger seat, head first into the windscreen? Or do I keep going, lifting my foot off the gas, as if that will make any difference, but not touching the brake pedal, and hit the little girl dawdling on the crossing with the kind of force that will lift her off the ground, a bag of broken bones, and fling her thirty yards down the road to land on her head? What do I do? What would you do? This goes through my mind like two-plus-two through the brain of a supercomputer. Faster. I still have time to act. Which child do I kill? My own or that of the woman watching?”

“It’s an impossible choice,” you say.

“You think so?” says the man, his hands falling away as he slumps back down in his seat.

Raised voices distract you. The landlord is shouting at the two little girls you saw earlier to get away from the fire. Giggling, they scamper away behind a pillar.

“Kids,” mutters the landlord as he snaps his tea-towel over his shoulder and comes out from behind the bar. “That’s what the family room’s for. So customers can drink in peace and quiet.”

By the time he reaches the hearth, the girls have disappeared to another part of the bar.

You look at your drinking buddy. He looks beaten, defeated, like a fighter on the ropes.

“What did you decide?” you ask him.

“What?” He looks up at you with hollow eyes. “I didn’t. I didn’t decide. I couldn’t.”

You can hardly bear to hold his stare.

“What happened?” you ask.

“You know what happened.”

The landlord is creating again. “One hundred and twenty years,” he’s grumbling in his wounded, resentful voice to anyone who’ll listen. “More than a century that fire was burning. Look at it now.”

To illustrate his point, he plunges a hand into the ashes and retrieves it undamaged.

“Bloody kids.”

You look at back across the table at your drinking partner, who is still staring intently at you.

You break the spell by getting up and walking away. The fire is out. The landlord is scowling behind his counter, pulling his tea-towel endlessly though his rough hands. You walk towards the lights of the family room.

The two little blonde girls – one with straight hair, the other a tumble of curls – are bent over one of the tables, their faces hidden. The family room is over-lit: fluorescent tubes. The tables are Formica-topped, modern, with sticky rings from ketchup bottles, fizzy drinks. The character of the main bar is absent here. Cheap prints badly framed on the wall. This is an afterthought, a grudge-extension, provided out of meanness, decorated with spite.

When the two little girls hear you approaching, they turn round to face you. The harsh lighting suddenly seems particularly unforgiving.

© Nicholas Royle. Originally appeared in Taverns of the Dead ( Cemetery Dance Publications, 2005). Used with permission.

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Not a Moment to Swoon – Ian Whates

Not a Moment to Swoon
(A Tale of the Fallen Hero)
By Ian Whates

The voice came from behind me, “It is you, isn’t it.” Which has always struck me as one of the most ludicrous phrases mankind has ever come up with.

“Oh, it’s me all right,” I assured him, which brought us no further to establishing whether the ‘me’ I was referring to was the same as the ‘you’ he thought me to be. Unfortunately, it turned out that I was.

I’d spotted him across the bar earlier, looking at me with that air of puzzled concentration that has become all-too-familiar in recent years. He had ‘I’m sure I know you from somewhere’, written all over his face, or might as well have done.

A pity; this seemed such a nice town and certainly the ale was more than acceptable. All the same, I decided it was time to leave, before he stoked up enough liquid courage to come over and satisfy his curiosity. Too late. With the door just a few tantalising steps away, he approached me with that meaningless truism.

So here I was, about to be drawn into a conversation I had no desire to be a part of, wondering whether it would end in violence this time, or just rudeness.

“You don’t remember me, do you?” At least that was something we could both agree on. “No reason why you should, of course. I was just a boy then.” He seemed little more than that now – fresh faced, sandy hair, the suggestion of freckles and the sort of wide-eyed innocence that never lasts long in the big bad world. “My mother took me to see you. It was at Trilmouth.”

I groaned. Of course it was; how could it possibly have been anywhere else?

He was still yapping, “To be honest, she didn’t take me to see you, as such. She really went to see…”

“Gerard,” I cut in.

“Yes, how did you know?”

“Because that’s always why the women came: to catch a glimpse of our esteemed leader.”

“Look, please let me buy you a drink. There were so many outrageous rumours and claims at the time… I’ve always wanted to hear what really happened.”

That was my cue. I should have left then – made my excuses and run, but a free drink is pretty hard to resist. For a moment I stood there, poised on the cusp of indecision, torn between the conflicting urges of thirst and common sense. Thirst won. It usually does.

At least I could enjoy some more of that very palatable ale, even if it did mean reliving the events that led to my being thrown in jail. Fleas. That was my enduring memory of jail: filth, uncomfortable hirsute blankets and fleas. Thankfully he did not want to hear about that period. Rather, it was what brought about my disgrace that interested him. Which was bad enough.

“Was Gerard really as magnificent as they say?”

Another suppressed groan. Oh well, he was paying. “Gerard was certainly magnificent to look at,” I conceded. “Tall, bronzed, well-muscled with golden hair…”

“A great, great hero.”

I snorted, “Yeah, right. He was awkward with a bow, a passably good swordsman and a hopeless strategist – some hero.”

Predictably, that surprised him. The Gerard I’d just described was completely at odds with the one painted by popular myth, which was a tremendous tribute to the man’s true genius: the ability to manipulate his own public image.

“Awkward? Passable? So why did you follow him?”

Why indeed? No mystery really; the reasons were obvious once you took the trouble to look at them. “He had the rep,” which just about summed things up.

“Don’t get me wrong,” I continued, “he wasn’t stupid. He surrounded himself with people who were experts at the things he wasn’t. I was a miles better swordsman, for example, and so was Alvin. Cedric was the best archer I’ve ever seen and Tam, who joined after Cedric was killed at Arden Falls, wasn’t far behind. Old Jaeko was a master at planning and strategy and Sirus had a few tricks that had to be seen to be believed. Claimed they were sorcery and if you believe in that sort of thing they probably were, as well. Each and every one of us had our uses.

“Thing was, by following Gerard we got all the plum jobs and the big rewards – the sort that none of us would ever have had a sniff at on our own. He had the reputation, you see, he was ‘The Hero’. Only ever one man to call on in a crisis: Gerard.”

“But surely there must have been something special about him,” the youth insisted. “After all, he must have won that reputation somehow in the first place.”

“Oh yes,” I assured him, “there was something special about him all right. His power over women.”

“His fabled charm.”

“No,” I shook my head, “it was far more than that. It was like a glamour, a spell if you will, which he could turn on and off just like that,” I snapped my fingers. “I’ve seen it happen. One minute we’d be getting nowhere with some stuck-up lady this or countess that, with her not giving an inch on payment rates or terms, then suddenly she would stop in mid-sentence, forget what she’d been saying and go weak at the knees. After that she’d be putty in his hands. More than once everybody had to clear the room to allow Gerard and the lady in question to indulge in some ‘in-depth discussions’ there and then. It was quite something.”

“You really believe that? You think it was some sort of magical power?”

I shrugged and muttered, “Fairy moans.”

“Pardon?”

“Oh, just something Sirus told me once. He said he reckoned it was all down to fairy moans. Maybe he was right, I never did know much about sorcery. Maybe Gerard was able to summon the voices of fairies that only women could hear, bewitching them.” I shrugged. “Used to listen hard whenever I knew he was doing it… Never heard any fairies though, moaning or otherwise.

“Sirus would just laugh and tell me I was doing it wrong, that I should have been listening with my nose, but he always was a funny old coot.”

“Incredible.” The lad was well and truly hooked.

“Thirsty work, this story telling,” I glanced meaningfully at my now empty tankard.

“Oh… I’m sorry,” he stood up. “Allow me.”

With pleasure.

Ale replenished, I set about telling him what had happened, describing briefly how we had risen to prominence after a series of successful jobs, each of which led to the next one, slightly more significant than the last and correspondingly more rewarding.

Then came the big one. The council of Trilmouth approached us and asked for our help. This was major league at last, what we had been working towards. Trilmouth was one of the top trading cities. If we could make ourselves useful to them, indispensable even, then we really had cracked it.

It emerged that the Crystal of Relf had been stolen. Even I had heard of that hallowed chunk of glass. Bequeathed to the city by its founder, the ‘sorcerer’ King Relf, it was said to contain great power. Many believed that Trilmouth owed its success and pre-eminence entirely to the mystical properties of the crystal. However real or imagined those powers might be, the council felt the city’s influence would wane without it.

To make matters worse, it had been stolen by one of their own number following a disagreement. Said to be a sorceress herself, the Lady Margeaut had snatched the crystal and fled to her castle hideaway in the mountains above the city. The council were now uncertain of whom among their own troops and contacts were to be trusted, so they turned to us.

They offered a reward larger than everything we had earned to date combined – enough that each of us could retire in reasonable comfort, if we chose to. I described in slightly greater detail what happened on the fateful day itself – how we tricked our way into the castle, how we had penetrated deep within before being discovered and then had to fight our way after that. Swordplay in a confined space is a great leveller and as we made our way upward in pursuit of a fleetingly glimpsed woman who stayed tantalisingly out of reach, every step demanded payment in sweat and blood. Not much of it our blood, thankfully. We were good; very good.

She fled to the very roof of the highest tower and it was there that we finally cornered her.

“It was a frozen tableau,” I explained, milking it, aware that he was hanging on my every word. “The lady Margeaut poised on the brink of the parapet, glorious in silk and velvet, illuminated by moonlight and sputtering torches, golden hair flowing in the wind, which whipped her dress about like some half-furled banner. Her hand was held out, suspending the precious orb over the void.

“Tam was there, staring down the shaft of an arrow pointed at her heart; me and Alvin flanked him, with swords drawn, wondering if we dared inch any closer, whilst Jeanty stood off to one side, debating whether any of his acrobatics would enable him to catch the crystal if she did drop it…

“And at the centre stood Gerard. Magnificent, Golden Gerard. The voice of reason, telling her that it was finished, insisting that if she would just step away from the edge no harm would befall her, that he personally guaranteed her safety if she would just hand over the crystal. It was working too. She was weakening, starting to discuss terms. Any fool could see that she was on the point of yielding, that she was about to give up… Well, any fool but one, apparently. Another moment and it would have been job done, but do you know what the stupid oaf did then? What the great Golden Buffoon just had to go and do?”

My audience shook his head, enthralled.

“He turned on his much-vaunted charm, that’s what. It wasn’t happening quickly enough for our Gerard, oh no. Mere words were too slow, so he had to do it the easy way, the dumb ox!” I paused, shaking with fury even now, after all these years.

“And?” I was prompted.

“She swooned. Literally collapsed. You could see the exact instant when Gerard’s power hit her. One minute she stood there, beautiful and defiant, the next she just crumpled, lost her balance and toppled right over the edge, with all of us lunging to try and catch her. Jeanty even managed to grab hold of a corner of her dress, but it tore as she fell and he was left holding no more than a tatter of silk.” I stopped speaking, seeing it all again, unable to go on for the moment. “Biggest purse of our lives and he had to go and do that!” I muttered at length.

“Is that when you hit him?”

I nodded, “Smack on his golden bloody chin.”

“None of this ever came out,” he said breathlessly.

“Of course not. Gerard was still the meal ticket after all, so the others got together and decided to salvage what they could. Thus the official story emerged – about how we had fought valiantly through the castle to confront the evil sorceress on the roof of its highest tower, from whence she flung herself to her doom, taking the crystal with her rather than surrender it to its rightful custodians.”

“But you refused to go along with that story?”

“Too true. I’m a man of principle, you see. I’d had more than enough of the Golden Gorilla and his posturing by then. Besides which,” I felt obliged to concede, “that punch broke his jaw, so he wasn’t too keen on having me around anymore.”

“Which is why you were thrown in jail.”

“Yup, that’s about the size of it. For assaulting the great Hero.” I drained my tankard. “Well, there you have it – the real story of what went on. Thanks for the drinks.” I went to rise. “All such a long time ago,” I muttered. “The only thing I still have from those days is the ornamental dagger Gerard gave me that time when I saved his life. Of course, we were on better terms back then.”

“Can I see it?” he said at once.

“The knife? Sorry, I haven’t got it with me. It’s back at my room.”

“Oh.” Obvious disappointment.

“…which isn’t really that far – just around the corner, if you’d care to come back and see it.”

“Would you mind?”

I shrugged, “I was going there anyway.”

So we left together, with him still talking, still asking questions, which I answered in unhelpful monosyllables, my mind on other things.

It was dark already – the evenings were drawing in. As we stepped from the smoky warmth of the inn, the night greeted us with a cold slap to the cheeks. I led him through a narrow side street, badly lit, little more than an alley really.

His questions turned to the subject of the dagger. “Where did it come from exactly?”

“I’m not sure, exactly… one of his lady friends, no doubt – a token of undying love from some married gentlewoman or other.”

“Why have you kept it all this time?”

“Oh, it comes in useful.” It really was dark here. We seemed to be the only two people out at this late hour.

“It can be used, then? It’s a real knife, I mean, not just an ornament?”

“Oh no, it’s perfectly serviceable,” I assured him. “Here, let me show you.” With one fluid movement, I drew the knife from my belt, stepped in towards him and drove it deep into his belly, my free hand covering his mouth. In the dim light I could barely make out the look of disbelief and shock that froze his features. He had just started a low gasping moan when I drew the blade across his throat, silencing him forever.

He would have fallen then but for my supporting arm. I lowered him to rest in a sitting position against the wall. A quick glance round to make sure no one had seen anything, then I slipped a hand into his coat and relieved him of the bulging purse which had caught my attention when he first bought me a drink.

“You didn’t stand a chance,” I told his sightless eyes. “If not me, it would have been someone else.” In truth, it was a miracle he had survived this long. His sort of naïve innocence came with a very short shelf-life.

I pocketed the purse, which felt satisfyingly heavy, then cleaned and did the same with the knife. “Sorry kid, but there’s not much work around for retired heroes these days and I have to make a living somehow.”

I stood, composed myself, and strolled away, humming a half-remembered tune that Jimmy the Minstrel used to play around the camp fire. Gerard would invariably lead the singing with gusto. He had a decent voice, come to think of it.

Those were the days.

© Ian Whates. Originally appeared in Afterburn SF (May 2006). Used with Permission

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Chasing Waterfalls – Andrew Hook

Chasing Waterfalls
By Andrew Hook

Julia loved the twins.

Platonically.

At least, she did at the beginning. Then, just as the twins’ zygote had divided to form separate embryos, so Julia’s affections had also split in two. Often she was the only person who could tell them apart. As time went by she found it increasingly harder to hide her feelings. Until the moment that everything changed.

***

Carl and Ralf were at work in their garage in Buffalo. They lived in the white-painted colonial house that previously belonged to their parents. Three stories high, the building rose in stages like an oriental pagoda, with the twins spending most of their time either in the topmost room, which overlooked Colvin Avenue and from which they had a good view of anyone approaching the building, or within the garage. Their pick-up was usually parked out front, as the garage was filled with all manner of equipment that only they seemed to know what to do with.

Julia always found them building stuff. Whether it had anything to do with their twin sensibilities or simple sibling connections she was perpetually fascinated that they never had to instruct each other what to do. One would pick up a screw, the other the screwdriver, as though a simultaneous action. In the same way, whatever they were building was gradually constructed. Without plans or – in many instances – purpose. Often when they finished they just looked at it for a few days before taking it apart again.

When Julia knocked on the side of the garage that morning the sun was shining and the sounds of the twins humming filled the air. At first they were so absorbed in their work that they didn’t hear her, and she held back from knocking a second time so that she might observe them.

To describe one would be to describe them both. They were identical twins, the fact that Carl had been born a few moments before Ralf was almost all that separated them. Six foot tall, short blond hair, rugged features, awkwardly handsome, bright blue eyes. They usually wore blue denims and checked shirts and today was no different. Julia saw them bent over some kind of cylindrical object, smoothing the surface down. It could have been a giant bullet, or maybe a cannon. Carl was closer to her. She never knew quite how she could tell, but she could. In many instances, it was always Ralf who seemed to be further away.

She rapped on the side of the garage again. A squirrel that was on the roof leapt up onto the first floor balcony of the house. As its paws touched the polished wooden floor Carl and Ralf looked up at Julia. Both of them smiled.

“Hey, how’s it going?”

It was Carl who spoke first, with Ralf’s identical remark almost like an echo between them. They often spoke simultaneously, although it was only the standard phrases that tended to be identical.

“I’m fine.” Julia smiled. “What is it you’re building today?”

Ralf grinned. “We haven’t got a name for it yet, but it’ll sure be something.”

Carl nodded. “It has a purpose too,” he said. “We know exactly what we’ll be doing with this one.”

Julia entered the garage, her eyes adjusting to the darkness in comparison with the bright sunlight outdoors. The object was at least four, maybe five feet long. It could have been a metal barrel, yet there was something about it that meant she knew it wasn’t an ordinary container. The twins had been sanding down the sides, making it as smooth as possible. It looked sleek and exciting. Then she saw a similar object standing upright in the corner.
She tilted her head in its direction. “Another one?”

Carl nodded. “That’s the second one. This is the first.”

“Watcha going to do with them?”

Ralf tapped the side of his nose. “That’s for us to know and for you to find out.”

Julia walked around the other side of the work bench. The garage walls were festooned with a wide variety of tools and materials, all in very specific places. It was the tidiest, yet busiest, garage she had ever seen.

“It’s a lovely day out there. No one wants to go for a drive?”

She knew that Carl would look at her first. Not straight on, but out of the corner of his eye. He hesitated, but then Ralf beat him to it.

“We have work to do.”

So I see. But it’s such a nice day.”

Carl looked at her directly then, holding her gaze. “Ralf’s right, Julia, we have work to do. We’ve got plans.”

Julia jerked her head backwards, made a sniffing sound. She pretended she was upset at being snubbed, but really she had expected no other answer from them. Inside her, deep inside like a mudskipper waiting rain, she knew that eventually her time would come. She’d lure Carl away from Ralf and they’d be happy together. It was just that Carl didn’t know it yet, but as soon as he realised it, he’d be all hers.

Not that she didn’t like Ralf. But his existence seemed to interfere with that of Carl’s. She felt that in some way Carl was diminished because of him. Not quite original. Yet she knew she’d think the same of Carl if it were Ralf she was in love with. However that wasn’t the way. Carl had the spark meant for her and Ralf didn’t.

She let them get on with their work.

***

Julia cycled down Elmwood Avenue and passed Starbucks, sticking an imaginary finger in the air, before stopping and leaning her bicycle against the outside wall of Caffe Aroma. She went inside and ordered a latte. The staff nodded at her. She was a familiar sight, usually meeting up with Laura who worked there some afternoons. One of them called through into the back and Laura emerged with panini-dust on her fingers. She told Julia to wait outside, before returning to the back room and cleaning herself up.

Julia sat in a metal chair on the outside patio, overlooking Bidwell Parkway. It was Farmers Market day and the place was heaving. Julia watched the hustle and bustle before her, wondering if she’d spot anyone she knew in the crowds. Just as that morning, when she had observed the twins for a few moments before announcing her presence, she liked to watch people without them knowing they were being watched. They seemed more real that way, without adopting any kind of persona for her benefit. She preferred people to be pure.

Laura came and sat down beside her. She was holding a glass of wine and a Cajun chicken wrap.

“So what’s up?”

“Nothing much.” Laura took a bite out of her wrap and continued talking. “I finish work at five. What are you up to?”

“Nothing much, either. Just tried to get the twins to take me out for a drive, but there was nothing doing.”

Laura laughed. “You need to take me along with you.”

“Why’s that?”

“One of them fancies me. I’m sure of it. They were here during the week, Wednesday I think it was, and one of them was looking at me funny. As though he were about to say something.”

Julia sipped her latte, looking at Laura’s eyes over the lip of her cup. “Which one?”

Laura laughed again. “You tell me,” she said, “they both look the same to me.”
Julia forced a smile. “You make it sound like they’re Chinese.”

Laura bit into her wrap again. A sliver of chicken made its way out of the tortilla and slid down the left hand side of her chin. She wiped the snail-trail mark with her napkin.

“You don’t have to worry,” she said. “I’ll check with you first before I sleep with one of them.”

Julia looked back towards the farmer’s market. She had never told Laura about her obsession, but she guessed it was somehow obvious. She sipped her coffee again. The day was bright. It felt like a day of happenings, yet at the same time there was something quiet about it.

She wasn’t religious, but sometimes she thought that the act of praying might make the impossible conscious. To allow the possibility that something might happen seemed better than assuming it would never happen.

“Which one?” she said again.

“I told you, I don’t know which one.”

“I don’t mean that. I mean which one do you think I fancy?”

Laura laughed again. She washed down the last of her wrap with the wine. “I just told you. I dunno. They both look the same to me.”

***

The following Saturday Julia headed up Colvin Avenue again. The weather had turned slightly. Big drops of rain hit the wooden-roofed buildings like the percussion section of a deaf orchestra. She turned her bike straight into their drive and whizzed under the cover of the upturned garage roof. The squeak of brakes on wet tyres disturbed the twins. Even in the split second that they were distracted, Julia could tell that Carl was the one standing closest to her.

“Hi again.”

“Hi.”

“Watcha doing today?”

Carl gesticulated towards the object on the worktop. “As before,” he said.

Julia flicked her eyes over to the corner. The first object stood there, buffed silver and gleaming. The object on the worktop was only halfway identical. Same shape and size, but yet to be perfected. She knew there was an analogy between Carl and Ralf just waiting to be explored, but for the moment she pushed it out of her mind and said: “So, you got a name for this yet?”

Ralf grinned. “Sure have,” he said. “It’s the Penguin Fu Fat Machine.”

Carl grinned too. “Yep,” he said, “that’s what it is alright.”

Julia sighed. She suddenly realised she was still straddling her bike, her feet touching the floor on tiptoes both sides. She spun one leg over the handlebars, and leant the bicycle up by the wall.

She was used to the twin’s talking in their own language, although they did it less now than when they had all been growing up together. The words meant nothing at all, yet they also meant everything. She wasn’t going to take any nonsense now.

“Explanation please.”

Carl was the first to speak, beating Ralf by a whisker. “Spam.”

“An email?”

Ralf nodded. “The title of an email I got. It just seemed to fit.”

“So it’s meaningless?”

The twins shook their heads simultaneously. Carl spoke: “No. It was meaningless. Now it has meaning.”

Julia swept a hand through her hair. “You sure about that?”

“Sure as sure,” Ralf said.

“So what will it do?”

The twins looked at each other. Julia could almost feel something pass between them. Carl didn’t need to shake his head to indicate that he didn’t want to tell her, but Ralf overrode his decision and they went with it anyway. It was still a few moments before either of them spoke, then Carl shrugged his shoulders and spoke in a low voice: “We’re going over the Falls.”

***

Julia had only been up to Niagara once in her life. She had taken the trip with her parents when she was close to ten. It had horrified and bored her. The noise was tremendous – both from the water and from the tourists. In a way, each was as never-ending and fluid as the other, and she wasn’t sure which of them repulsed her the most. But once the shock of it passed her, all she wanted to do was to go home. Her parents were amazed. Everyone loves the falls. Julia didn’t.

Her chat with the twins had left her equally shocked, but not in the least bored. She knew she couldn’t talk them out of it, once they had decided to do something then they did it. However ridiculous or pointless it might be. She even thought of reporting it, but knew that would sideline her. She couldn’t isolate herself from Carl. He was all she wanted and all she had.

A couple of times she called in on Laura but she couldn’t convince herself to let her know what was happening. Instead she did some research online. She’d heard of the stories, of course, but was still surprised that only fifteen people had ever been known to make the attempt. And a third of those had died. Carl and Ralf had no ready answer to that one.

“It’s just something we’ve decided to do.”

“But you could get yourselves killed.”

“It’s just something we’ve decided to do.”

Charles Stephens was the third to go over the falls and the first to die. In 1920 he got inside an oak barrel and strapped an anvil to his feet for ballast. When the barrel hit the water at the base of the falls the anvil kept going, breaking through the bottom lid and taking Stephens with it. His right arm was discovered still strapped in.

George Stathakis suffocated when his barrel got stuck at the back of the falls and wasn’t recovered for fourteen hours. It didn’t lighten Julia’s mood to know that some of the other deaths weren’t barrel-related – someone had gone over in a kayak, and although Robert Overacker’s parachute was released correctly after he went over in a jet-ski it wasn’t properly tethered to his back. Julia knew those fatalities all had two things in common. The victims were both stupid and dead.

“We want a piece of immortality,” Ralf had explained.

“There’s no twins been over the falls before,” Carl said. “There’s been a co-ed team, but not twins.”

Julia left their house in a faintly concealed rage. She wanted her piece of immortality too. She wanted a baby with Carl.

***

Julia had been an only child, and one with a constant sense of loss. Whether at school, at home, or at Niagara, she knew there should always have been someone with her. As a kid this meant a constant nagging for a brother or sister which – as an adult – led to the desire for a child. She knew it wasn’t the normal maternal instinct. It was something deeper than that. And then she’d discovered the existence of her vanished twin.

Of course she couldn’t prove it, but she knew it all the same. She’d researched twins when she realised that she was falling in love with one of the kids she’d grown up with. Carl Delaney. She wanted to know whether being a twin gave him any disabilities at all, made him something other than a normal person apart from the physicality of his brother. She discovered the term for a foetus which dies in uteri in a multi-gestation pregnancy. A vanished twin. Something partially or completely reabsorbed by the mother. According to the research it could occur as frequently as one in eight pregnancies. Leaving no detectable trace at birth or before, it probably wasn’t even known in most cases. Some hypotheses went on to speculate that children born in such a pregnancy may have some memories of their vanishing twins, and may feel lonely because of this. Julia felt sure it was more than speculation. She believed it to be true.

So it was imperative that Carl survive the falls, unless she could change his mind. He knew it was not only dangerous, but illegal. He knew the possibilities of drowning. And the $500 fine certainly wouldn’t deny them their snatch of fame. But Julia needed to be made whole again. And in doing so, she had to tell him how she felt.

***

Julia held Laura’s hand as they got off the bus and walked up Colvin Avenue. It wasn’t going to be easy to separate Carl from Ralf but she had to tell him how she felt. If he didn’t know then what was to stop him from killing himself. He wasn’t stupid. Neither of them were. It was just that sometimes their collective zeitgeist seemed to work against them.

She remembered watching them one time at school when they went through a stage of getting bullied. Ralf had been in the middle of a group of older boys, getting pushed from one to the other like a basketball. Carl had seen it happening and ran up to the group, but instead of trying to stop it he had allowed himself to be admitted within the circle, and both of them had been pushed around together. It was as though there was an intrinsic desire for whatever happened to the one to happen to the other. This was the source of the fear within Julia now. That she wouldn’t be able to find a way to loosen that bond.

She nudged Laura’s ankle as she began to giggle when they reached the garage. Could the woman not take anything seriously? Then they were both leaning against the side of the building, watching Carl and Ralf put the finishing touches to their machine.

Both sections were on the workbench now, with a piece of metal soldered between them so that the two barrels together resembled the sides of a catamaran. The openings to the barrels faced them, and Julia could see they had padded and reinforced the insides with some kind of spongy-material. Could it really be enough to protect them? Suddenly she realised they’d have to be curled up whilst inside their barrels. From their positioning and the way that the machine was constructed it was inevitable that she saw the object as representing a womb. Would they be born together at the end of the drop, or would they be dead?

Feeling sick with anticipation she said her usual hello. Carl was standing nearest to her, but he didn’t seem quite so shy today. She wondered if it was because Laura was with her. Safety in numbers, perhaps. She also wondered which one Laura thought had fancied her. It wouldn’t matter to Laura, either would do, but it did matter to her.

Julia nodded towards Carl. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

Before the twins had time to object, Laura eased her way further into the garage. “She means alone,” she said; then patted the side of the barrel and added, “Now, aren’t you going to tell me what this is all about?”

Julia almost reached out to hold his hand as they went up the steps into the back of the house, but she knew it was too much too soon. She held the door open for him as if it were her own property, the place she had lived in next door before her mother had died and her father had sold up and moved away. She’d never forgiven her mother for absorbing her twin into her own body. It had all come out during one otherwise bright summer’s day just before they realised her mum had cancer. Her timing was impeccable, in retrospect; but she could never convince herself to take the accusation back.

She leant with her back against the kitchen table, watching as he mooched around the room, glancing out of the window in case he could see his brother in the garage. She knew they were rarely apart. If she ever had a moment it was now.

“I’m going to talk straight,” she said. “I don’t want you going over the falls. You’ll get killed.”

His eyes narrowed. She felt sure he knew she’d asked him inside for this.

“So what’s it to do with you?” he said.

“Well, we’re friends aren’t we?” Julia felt herself faltering. Fuck it. “No. No, it’s more than that.” She eased herself away from the table and walked towards him. He took a few steps backwards before hitting the wall behind him. Julia kept going. She reached out for his hand. Took it in hers. Looked into his eyes.

“I love you,” she said.

She stood on her tiptoes and kissed him. There was no resistance, but the simple intimation of all the passion that would come. The passion that was due to her.

“I love you,” she repeated. Her heart was beating as strong as the sun on a hot day. “I love you Carl.”

“I’m Ralf,” he said.

And in that moment she saw he was right, and her hands fell to her sides.

***

It was on October 24 that Julia found herself riding between the twins in their pick-up, the Penguin Fu Fat Machine under tarp blowing in the breeze behind them, as they drove the twenty-three miles to the falls. They hadn’t chosen the day at random, it was precisely one hundred and ten years since the first attempt to go over the falls in a barrel had been made. Surprisingly it had been a woman. And a sixty-three year old at that. Annie Taylor. She had used an oak barrel with inflated pillows and a mattress for comfort, and had been fished out bruised and shaken after falling roughly 170 feet over the middle of the falls. Reportedly she had said, No one ought ever do that again.

Julia wasn’t sure why she was with them. Whilst she held a camera in her hands, she knew there’d be plenty of others there to take photos when the time came. Every two seconds, one million gallons of water plummeted over Niagara Falls – and every month, on average, a similar number of tourists turn up to see the spectacle. Maybe she was there just to see them come out of it alive. Maybe she’d have to drive their pick-up home.

It was four months since she’d declared her love to the wrong man and as far as she knew he hadn’t told anyone. She hadn’t asked Laura what had happened in the garage either. Sometimes not knowing was better than knowing. The truth was, in itself, a vanished twin.

They parked some way upriver, and she watched as the twins manoeuvred the machine off the back of the pick-up. Her instructions were very specific. Once they got inside the contraption she was to make her way to a vantage point as close to the falls as she could. She was carrying binoculars as well as the camera, although all of them knew the chances of her actually seeing them were very small. But it helped, they said, to know she was there. All she knew was that they had no way of stopping the device once it got into the water.

Bobby Leech had been the first man over the falls in 1911. He survived, but fifteen years later he slipped over an orange peel in Christchurch, New Zealand during a lecture tour, and died from complications arising from the fall. Some references had it as a banana peel, but in Julia’s mind she couldn’t see that it mattered. Maybe you didn’t need to fall 170ft to die, but only 6ft. That was how she had to tackle it. It wasn’t the fall that killed him, but the landing.

She kissed both brothers before they entered the machine, not making a distinction between them. Truth was she was no longer sure any more. All her realities were being stripped away. She could feel loneliness at the base of her spine once more.

***

By the time she reached her vantage point they had already gone over. Everyone seemed to know something and everyone seemed to know nothing. Police helicopters searched from the sky. Everyone getting a piece of the twins to talk about to their grandchildren, to pass their fame by association down through all their assorted histories. Julia saw several pregnant women in the crowd. How many of them were carrying twins, or more? How many of them would absorb the unknown back into their bodies, bearing children forever punished to be lonely. She suppressed the thoughts, craned her neck over the side of the safety barrier, and looked despairingly into the water. There was nothing to see. Despite the sheer wonder of it all.

© Andrew Hook. Originally appeared in Midnight Street #11 (Aug 2008). Used with permission

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