Thursday, 30 August 2012


The data taken from the biotank readouts consisted of eighteen different measurements, and Dan rapidly saw that it was going to be easiest to assemble them into a data-cube and then slice through it in various directions to assess what patterns there were, and what data wasn’t conforming.  He transferred the data from Dr. Lesjes’s tablet to his own, backing up a copy on the lab’s local computer as part of standard process.  He was just about to turn the lab computer off again when he noticed that a decision box had appeared and overlaid part of the screen.
“Copy data to cloud?” he read out loud.  Strange, he thought, surely backing all the data up to the cloud – the information dense computing structure that laced its way through the entire star-freighter – was also standard process?  He reached out and tapped the Enter key almost automatically, and then noticed that the highlighted option had been Cancel.  The decision box disappeared, leaving the backed-up data visible on the screen.  He cursed softly under his breath and studied the screen, looking for the menu that would allow him to upload the data to the cloud for safe-storage, but before he’d covered more than a quarter of the screen (did Dr. Lesjes store everything on the desktop?) the door to the lab chimed, telling him that someone was requesting entry.
Surprised again, he called out “Enter,” looking over at the doors.
“Voice control is not active,” said a greasily smooth voice, too polished and enunciated to be human.
“What?” Dan looked up and around him, as most people did when addressed by the disembodied voice of the ship systems, and then felt a little foolish.  There was no response, and the entry chime sounded again.  He walked over to the door to the lab and pressed the door release pad.  There was a responsiveness to it that made him wonder if it was actually a mechanical switch instead of a touch-pad.  The door opened, and three men in maintenance uniforms stepped through.
“Please identify yourself,” said the first man holding out a tablet.  He was taller than Dan, and taller than the other members of his team, with hair that was greying at the temples and eyes that looked as though they’d frosted over.  His uniform, midnight blue with the maintenance logo sewn on both shoulders and the midriff, across the bellybutton, was tight-fitting, and after a moment Dan realised that the elasticated cuffs meant it was a pressure-suit, intended to keep its wearer alive for minutes in the event of a sudden pressure leak.  There was no sign of the helmet that would complete the suit, and Dan wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad thing.  He looked at the tablet, and laid his palm flat on it, inside the lines drawn on the screen.  The tablet chirped almost immediately, and as he lifted his hand off the man was already pulling the tablet back and reading the instructions on the screen.
“Sticking door in Lab-EST?” he said.  His voice rose slightly at the end of the sentence, but Dan wasn’t completely certain it was a question.
“Yes,” he said.  “Er, who are you?”
“Maintenance,” grunted one of the guys behind the grey-templed man.  “What more do you need to know?  We fix your door, fast as a supernova.”
“I can’t really call you maintenance,” said Dan feeling awkward now.  “That seems a bit impersonal.”
“You can call me Malik,” said the grey-templed man, turning his head slightly towards Dan.  His eyes seemed almost to be hiding behind the curtain of frost, but they didn’t look directly at him, or even indicate that they were focusing.  “Otherwise we’re just the maintenance team.  Where’s your door?”
“It’s on the tablet, boss,” said the third man, who’d not yet spoken.
“Nope,” said Malik.  “This is Lab-EST.  We make no assumptions, and we go nowhere without authorisation.  Not if you want to leave in one piece.  This man here,” he pointed at Dan, “will show us where the door is, and will show us out again.”
“Right,” said Dan, wonderingly.  “It’s this way, just over here in fact.”   He pointed himself, and then realised that he’d gestured so vaguely that he might have been pointing into the corner.  “Er, just follow me.”
The maintenance men, led by Malik, did exactly that, walking behind him in single file, stopping as soon as he did, and generally acting like they expected the whole room to explode at any second.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Calling Facilities

Left alone in the lab Dan looked at the tablet.  Dr. Lesjes – she’d invited him to call her Anna a couple of times, but he always slipped back to Dr. Lesjes, even in the privacy of his own thoughts – had filled in nearly all of the data fields.  He counted three left to do, starting with number 28.  He looked over the biotank he was in front of and finally spotted the number 27 stencilled on it in letters tens of centimetres high.
“How could I have missed that?” he said quietly to himself, and noticed how his voice echoed in the quiet lab.  He pressed his lips together, answering the question only in his mind: he’d been looking for a much smaller number less obviously located.  He walked on to what he hoped was the next biotank and found that it had the number 26 stencilled on the side, so he walked back the other way to number 28.  Then he fussed with it for a minute while he worked out where the data readouts were hidden and how to slide the panel out to see them.  After all that he was pleasantly surprised to find that the stylus worked first time on the tablet with no extra little puzzles or tricks to work through.  He tried peering into the tank, but the shadows in there were confusing and kept moving, so he decided to wait for Dr. Lesjes to explain what he was looking at and what he was looking for.
Now that he understood the task the other two biotanks were quick to finish off, and he left the lab quickly, his feet ringing the steel floor panels in his haste.  The door he’d struggled with to enter the lab was another struggle to leave again, and then on the other side he found that it wouldn’t close properly either.  With no way to gain enough leverage to force the smooth, polished metal of the doors together he was forced to leave a five centimetre gap there, something that would have worried him a lot less before he knew that they were growing Empirical Storm Troopers in the other lab.  That thought galvanized him back to his desk, where he put through a call to Facilities and Maintenance.  A bored-sounding voice answered after two rings: “Facilities.  Make it quick.”
“Uh, I contacted you about a sticking door in our lab,” said Dan, feeling as though he were interrupting something.  “Uh, a couple of times, I think.”
There was a pause and the rattle of a keyboard, and then, “Yes.  Priority 146.  Expect it done in about six weeks, unless anything else urgent comes up in that time.”
“Uh,” said Dan quickly.  He wished briefly that he sounded more elegant, more in control.  “Uh, actually it’s in Lab-EST?”  He tried not to make it sound like a question, but the words slipped out on an ascending tone anyway.
“Why the hell didn’t you say so before?”  The voice on the other end was suddenly waspish and angry.  There was another rattle of the keyboard.  “Priority level raised.  There will be an engineering team out to you within the half-hour, ship.  If they do not arrive in that time you are to contact me again; ask for Chris personally and I will find out what the delay is.”
“Thank-you,” said Dan, a little bewildered at the sudden and complete change of attitude.
“And next time,” said Chris, emphasizing the word next, “please state the nature of the fault clearly.  We’re not mind-readers, you know.”  The call cut-off, but the display showed a 30 minute countdown.
“Right,” said Dan, still bewildered.  “Why is Lab-EST so important?”  Well, he knew part of the reason: they were growing Empirical Storm Troopers in there, but that didn’t tell him why he could get Facilities and Maintenance to drop their pretence that they’d do anything about his problem and actually resolve it by dropping Lab-EST into the conversation.
“I hope you’re having fun, tonight, Dr. Lesjes,” he said under his breath.  “Because tomorrow I really need some answers about what we’re doing here.”
He looked down at his desk, wondering what to do next, and saw her tablet lying in front of him.  Right.  Analyse the data from the biotanks and write a preliminary report on it.

Monday, 27 August 2012


The lab was quiet except for the occasional gurgle as blue fluid was exchanged in the biotanks.  There were a total of thirty biotanks, upright cylinders made of treated titanium with a quarter-panel of toughened glass so that visual inspection of their contents could be carried out.  The titanium was treated to prevent the build-up of biofilms, and a further five biotanks were currently empty, being re-treated.  Low-powered lights were set into the top cap of the biotanks, weakly illuminating the fluid and its contents, and casting odd shadows across the floor of the lab.  Unlike the other labs in this end of the starfreighter the ceiling lights in here, harsh fluorescent tubes capable of producing a blinding white light and irradiative UV-rays, were turned off and recessed, filtered LEDs produced something closer to moonglow.
Dr. Anna Lesjes walked from one occupied biotank to the next, her pace slow and even.  At each tank she paused, checking the contents by sight and then sliding back a titanium plate to reveal a set of digital displays and readouts.  She carried a clipboard-like tablet, with a pen-like stylus attached to one corner by a long, flexible cord, and she copied down the values from the displays before closing up the panel and moving on the next.  She was wearing a white lab-coat with the Cobaxia logo emblazoned on both breast pockets, but underneath the lab coat she was wearing a short black dress that was a little too tight for comfort, sheer black stockings and high-heeled shoes.  She had reached the twenty-fifth tank before a door at the far end of the lab shuddered and tried to open.  It stopped, closed up, and tried again, getting a little further this time.  A hand, golden skin and hairy, seized the side of the one of the halves of the door and pushed.  She turned and watched now, a faint smile playing across her lips, as the door sighed and groaned and eventually gave in and opened enough to let a man through.
“Dr. Lesjes!” called the man, his voice booming through the quiet lab and drowning out the latest gurgle.  He looked a little startled, and spoke next instead of shouting.  “How long has that door been like that?”
He was a little shorter than her – most of the men on the starfreighter were shorter than her – but if she hadn’t been wearing high heels they’d have been about the same height.  He had dark hair in a widow’s peak that was definitely starting to recede, and a lined face that made him look about fifteen years older than she knew he was.  His eyes twinkled pretty much all the time, and his lips were constantly curving into a mischievous, boyish smile.
“Dan,” she said, her voice warm but containing a little bit of control.  He was her junior after all.  “As I’ve told you at least three times, that door’s been broken for over eighteen days now.  I keep telling you to contact maintenance about it.”
“I did contact maintenance,” he said, crossing the lab to join her in front of the biotanks.  “Every time you told me to.  They keep telling me that we’re low priority and there are more urgent things on their list to do.  I tried raising that the last time, and they just told me that airlocks are priority over everything else and I would just have to wait.”
Anna closed up the panel on this biotank, and moved on to the next.  Dan followed her.
“What department did you say we were?” she asked, sliding open the readout panel and starting to copy the data onto her tablet.
“Research and Development, Military I,” he said.  He sounded a little puzzled.  “Why should that make a difference?”
“You told them the wrong thing,” said Anna.  The data on the readout was all within normal parameters, but she added a star next to it on the tablet anyway.  Some of the figures were a little higher than she was expecting.  She checked the biotank number: 26.  “You should have told them that it was Lab-EST.”
“I’ve seen that written on some things,” said Dan.  “I don’t know what it means though.”
“Then ask!”  Anna turned to face him, her eyes bright and annoyed.  She pursed her lips.  “You’re my assistant, Dan, and you can’t assist me if you don’t know everything!  Ask when you see something you don’t understand, because by the time you need to know, I might not be here!”
Dan’s face creased a little with shock, and his mouth dropped a little before he controlled himself and closed it again.
“Where are you going?” he said, his voice sounding astonishingly quiet suddenly.
“Nowhere.  No you idiot, I’m not leaving or dying, or any such thing.  But this is a dangerous job and you can’t just assume that you’ll get an education before you’re required to use it.  This isn’t a school, and you’re not going to get things just put in front of you for you to absorb at your own rate.”
He was quiet now, thinking about what she’d just said, and she took the opportunity to move on to the next tank.  Four more and she could hand the data over to Dan for the evening, he could process it, and she could go and attend this ridiculous cocktail party she was all dressed up for.
“What’s Lab-EST mean, please?” he said, and she was pleased that he’d decided to listen and not argue.
“EST are the Empirical Storm Troopers,” she said, peering into the tank.  Something in the shadows caught her eye, but before she could identify what it was a clatter on the floor behind her made her turn her head.  Dan was bending down picking up his tablet.
“We look after the Empirical Storm Troopers?” he said.  “But they’re like… they’re the elite….”
“Yes,” said Anna.  “And since you’ve apparently not realised it, we don’t look after them.  We grow them.  That’s what’s going on in these biotanks right here, and what the data I’m gathering is for.  They’ll be grown in another thirty-five hours, and then–“ she stopped there.  Dan clearly needed to understand a lot more about the job, and it would be better to get that understanding in place before she told him what the ESTs had been grown for this time.
“We grow them?”
“Yes.  Look, Dan, this is not the right time for this conversation.  Make sure you’re here tomorrow at 12ship and we’ll find out what else you don’t already know.”  She looked back at the biotank, but the shadows seemed normal now.  She supposed it must have been a trick of the difficult lighting, and copied down the numbers from the readouts.  Her wrist-assist chimed, telling her she had ten minutes before the cocktail party started.
“Right,” she said.  “There are three biotanks left, you can do them Dan.”  I’ll do the visual tomorrow with you, so you know what you’re looking for, but for now you just copy down the data here and take it and the rest for initial processing.  Got that?”  She passed him her tablet, then took it back from him and tapped in a override password to allow him read-and-write access to the biotank data.  She handed it over once more, and shrugged out of her lab-coat. 
“Have fun,” he said, noting her dress and smiling warmly.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

The talking cure

Dr. Fraud sat down in his wheely desk chair, and bounced up and down on it a couple of time.  The hydraulic lift in it was leaking very slowly, so each bounce forced the chair a little bit lower.  After five bounces he had the chair back down at the right height, and was wondering how it managed to creep up to its top height every evening after he went home.  He looked at his desk, checking that everything there was where he left it, and it was.  So it clearly wasn't anything too untoward going on.  He decided to make sure that he locked his office when he left this evening.
There were two large packages in his in-tray, both brown-beige boxes with Amazon stamped in large letters all over them.  He stood up again, and his chair whooshed up behind him to its full height.  Oblivious to this, he picked the first box up, grunting slightly with the effort, and scrutinised the address label carefully.  After a moment of squinting and trying to move the heavy box the right distance to his face he put it down again and got his glasses out of his breast pocket.  With them perched on his nose he could easily read the label and check that the package was addressed to him.  There had been an awkward incident a month early where his secretary had ordered something from a company called Amazonia and it had been put in his in-tray by accident.  She had come in while he was holding up lingerie-for-the-larger-lady in mild horror, wondering which of his patients had slipped their restraining order this time, dropped his tea on the carpet and screamed a thin, high-pitched whistle of a scream like a suicidal kettle at full-boil.  At this memory he looked up and checked the carpet near the door: yes, he could still see the wretched stain.
He tried to sit down again, and discovered that the chair was too high.  As he bounced it down to the proper height he wondered if there was someone hiding in his office.  Surely that was a mad thought though, wasn't it?  Shouldn't his patients be making wild accusations like that while he reassured them that they were just mental?  Wait, not mental.  Dr. Horncrumb had been quite explicit that they were to use only those definitions of mental health prescribed by the BMA, and not the ones Dr. Fraud was trying to popularise through his own book.
Behind the egg-timer that he used to track the progress of his meetings was a grapefruit knife that he'd repurposed as a letter-opener.  Technically he shouldn't have it in the office at all as it allowed a dement – that would be a patient whose view of the world differed significantly from other peoples – access to a weapon, but in his experiences the worst patients brought their own weapons with them anyway.  He sliced through the tape and glue holding the box together, and peeled it open to reveal three heavy books.  Each one appeared to be leather-bound, and there was a vaguely musty smell around the whole box.
"Madeleine Strum is here to see you, Doctor," said the intercom on his desk.  His secretary's voice was soft and sensual and she did specialist phone-line work in the evenings.  He pressed the button on the intercom and replied,
"Five minutes, please."
His secretary would undoubtedly assure Miss Strum that the doctor was locating her case-notes and reviewing their previous session before he had to start charging her, but in truth his computer was still playing up and he would once again be encouraging her to talk until her narcolepsy kicked in and then having her removed from the building by security.  He suspected this was making her abandonment issues worse but he was having a hard time caring about her.
He picked up the first book and carefully wiped dust off the dust-jacket.  Was that ironic?  English wasn't his first language, and certain concepts seemed to be too hard to describe.  The English seemed to think that ironic was obvious, but he'd never been able to work out what they meant by it.
The title wasn't on the front cover, but on the spine, which also required the dust to be cleaned away from it.  In faded gold lettering it read "Unausprechlichen Kulten", and the author's name, in much smaller, non-gold text was "Von Juntz".  Dr. Fraud sucked his breath in over his teeth, making a whistling sound.  He hadn't ordered this book, and he was positive that Amazon wouldn't retail it even if they could find a source for it.  Who had sent it to him, and how had they known...?
There was an invoice in the box, under the other two books, but it wasn't written in an alphabet that he recognised.  He wasn't even sure which of the characters were supposed to be numerals, and looking at it for more than five seconds gave him the beginnings of a headache.  With a growing, and darkening, suspicion, he checked the titles of the other books: "Cryptozoonomicon" was not on a forbidden list at least, but was certainly hard to locate, and "Glossolalgia", while probably the key to understanding the invoice, was supposed to have had all its extant copies burned.
"Madeleine Strum is here, Doctor," said the intercom again, with just a whisker of impatient in the voice.  Dr. Fraud sighed, and instructed his secretary to send her in.  The books would just have to wait until later....
"Madeleine," he said, standing up to greet her.  Behind him, his seat whooshed up to its full height again.  "Madeleine, I'd like to try something a little different today.  I'd like you to read the first couple of pages of this book out loud to me."  He handed her Glossolalgia.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Printing revolution

The machine printed 3d-weaponry.  You put the plans in at the thin end, and then it whirred into life.  Two arms whisked backwards and forwards, one racing across the full width of the plate, and the other edging along the length controlling where the first arm was depositing.  Over a period of about twenty minutes the weapon would be built up from the ground upwards, all manufactured from the deposition material.  When the arms slid back into their housing, a steel-grey box with the twisty dials, little LEDs and tiny, almost-hidden buttons, the protective cover would retract back like the roof of a convertible.  A puff of white vapour burst out of the top, and Tim's hand pressed warningly across my chest, stopping me from reaching for the weapon.
"Wait for it to disperse," he said.  "It's not exactly toxic, but you'd be coughing for a few days.  It'll kind of set inside your lungs, and it's not easy to break-down."
"Why do you use it then?" I said.  I was more interested in the gun on the plate; it was china-white and perfectly smooth.  Even its edges had a slightly blurred look to them as though it had been melted briefly once.
"Because it's the best material for the job," said Tim.  He went on to tell me about its tensile strength, its heat conductance and other technical aspects, but his hand had dropped by then and I was studying the gun.
It was slightly lighter than I'd expected, and slightly light for its size overall.  I picked it up, noting that it was very slightly warm, perhaps a fraction or two about body temperature.  As if it had actually hatched from an egg, or something organic like that, which fitted rather well with the slight blurring of edges I'd exepected to be sharp.  It was like the gun had been born.  Its grip was a perfect fit for my hand, and as I curled my fingers around the stock the grooves were in exactly the right place.  It felt comfortable instantly, and if I moved my hand a little, the gun seemed to fall back into the right place with barely any effort at all.  I checked the magazine: it needed a little tug to pull it free, and there was a soft cracking sound and another puff of dust when I did so.
"It can't be laid down as a completely separate piece," said Tim, noticing the puzzled look on my face.  "So it's actually built as part of the gun, just with very thin joining edges that break when you try and pull it free.  It'll slide in really easily now."  I checked, and he was right.
"Ammunition?" I said, disappointed to find that the magazine was empty.
"You buy your own," said Tim  "Like I told you, if anyone asks me about this it makes replicas, not real weapons."
"Could you print ammunition?  Like you did the gun?"
Tim shrugged.  "I don't know that we've got the right materials for that," he said.  "You want different characteristics for a bullet or a missile really.  I rather suspect that printing bullets would produce something too fragile to be fired, so you'd end up with the bullet exploding in the gun."
"Booby-traps, then?"
"Not from me," he said, his face serious now.  "You buy your own, kiddo."
I looked at his machine, the one that now promised to make our dreams of revolution a possibility.  Printed weapons meant we could get the cash together to get more printers, and print bigger, better weapons.  With no limit on the weapons, and the ease of buying ammunition, we could launch the revolution from several cells at once, rising up around the country and acting swiftly to neutralise the government before they had time to understand what was happening.  The revolution would succeed!
"Tim?" I said, finally realising why the machine looked odd.  "What's that dial? I pointed.
"Number of copies to make," he said, barely glancing.
"So why does it start at 0?"
Tim looked at me, and suddenly his grey eyes seemed unnaturally large and dark.
"Oh, I wish you hadn't noticed that," he said.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Frankie on the slab

The stunning attractive young woman who'd recruited me to be Frankenstein's debugger was called Shirley and spent all of my first lunch break telling me about her celibacy pledge, her objections to sex-for-pleasure, and a number of tropical diseases that did curious things to reproductive systems.  By the time I'd laid my sandwich down, sadly, and admitted to myself that I couldn't eat ham slathered with mustard and grated cheese now, the lunch break was nearly over and Shirley was patting my hand and telling me what a good listener I was.  I forced a smile out, which she seemed happy with, and went to make myself a coffee.  Without milk.  I still had images in my head that were fairly milky that put me off drinking it.
The coffee was rather good without the milk though, so I didn't actually miss it in the end, and the buzz I got from it seemed a little sharper – purer – than before.  I sat back down at the computer, sipped my coffee, and stared at the code.
The code was divided up into several modules, each module running what Belinda, the lead scientist who looked like an older version of Shirley, had identified as a core system.  Initially I'd expected there to me a module for each arm, each leg, etc., and I'd rapidly discovered how wrong that was.  Instead I was looking through the module for the autonomous nervous system, and as I drilled down through it, studying how it split into sub-modules that interacted with one another, I started to realise how much a body does without its owner ever thinking about it.
"Is that the code for breathing?" said a soft voice like fingernails drawn across silk.  I swallowed reflexively and reached for the cup of coffee to cover my confusion.
"Yes," I said, not looking round.  I could feel Belinda leaning over my shoulder, and I was pretty certain that if I turned to look I'd spill the coffee.
"It took us eight days to write that," she said.  "You'd think it would be easy, but the problem is that you can't use finite loop counters.  If you do that you've set a maximum on the number of breaths the body can take, and when it runs out it just stands there, not breathing, slowly asphyxiating.  It's ridiculous, but it happened.  Three times!"  I pictured the body – the man, the monster, the thing on the slab – slowly choking to death because its internal software had run out of the ability to tell it to breath, and to my slight surprise I felt a little sorry for it.  Destined to die because of shoddy programming.
"That's why you're allowing the register to overflow," I said.  "So that you can just come back round and start again from the beginning.  An effective infinite loop that, thanks to this overflow flag here, keeps track of where it is.  It's very clever."
"Thank-you," she said.
"But there's a race condition," I continued.  Now she was silent and so I carried on.  "See over here, in this code for switching back to aerobic..."  I carried on, pointing out how code in three different areas could combine to produce a race condition where all of them wanted to do something but were waiting for the other code to run first.  Like three drivers at a roundabout all waiting for the next one to be the first to enter.
"I see," she said, her voice grating a little.  I got the impression she didn't believe me.  "And if this race condition occurs, what would I expect to see little Frankie do?"
Frankie was what she called the body on the slab.
"Well," I said.  "I don't know any biology, but this would stop the breathing, and this would cause lactic acid build up in whatever muscles were being used, and this last one would cause more of this chemical to be synthesised and released into the bloodstream."
"Headache, breathlessness, and dizziness," said Michael, one of the biologists leaning in over my other shoulder.  He smelled strongly of cigarette smoke.  "And when it falls over, does the race condition persist?"
"Uh...."  I had to trawl through the code looking for the answer while Belinda and Michael talked quietly over my head.  "Uh, it looks like falling over would break the race condition, so... Frankie... would start breathing again."
"Friday afternoon," said Michael promptly.  "Happened three times."
"Three?"  Belinda didn't sound happy.  "Surely this race condition would only happen infrequently."
"Expectation of daily," I said.  "People breathe a lot during twenty-four hours, and that's the key to the condition."
"Bugger," said Belinda.  "Looks like we were right to hire a debugger after all.  So, how do you fix it?"
I stared open-mouthed at her, realising that my duties were increasing exponentially.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Forcing entry

Dr. Roszó placed his hands on the latch of the wooden gate.  The gate blocked off the flag-stoned path that led to the front door of the non-descript terraced house, and the only noteworthy thing about the whole place at the moment was the policeman loitering beside the gate.  Dr. Roszó nodded at him, and tried to open the gate.
For a moment the whole world seemed to blur around him, and, as though very far off, he heard a faint screaming, a woman crying out his birth name over and over again.  Then things returned to normal, the noise disappeared, and he realised that although he was leaning his full weight on the gate, it wasn't moving.
"It's been like that since we found it, Sir," said the policeman.  His voice was deep and gravelly, not quite in keeping with his slightly plump appearance.  Dr. Roszó felt as though the voice belonged to some chiselled 1930's film star with stubble and a hidden life that the public were kept away from.  "Madame Annabel went in, but she came straight out again and wouldn't talk to anyone.  They've taken her back to the station to talk to her."
"Who's talking to her?"  Dr. Roszó looked across the road as he spoke, but couldn't see any sign of his assistant yet.  He looked back at the policeman.  "Have they called Rupert?"
"No-one's told me who's talking to her, Sir, and I don't know who Rupert is."  The policeman stared straight ahead as he spoke.  His eyes were slightly dull, and as he looked at him a thought grew into a certainty in Dr. Roszó's mind.
"Were you at twenty-one Cameron Road two weeks ago?" he said.  "It would have been mid-afternoon, there were three officers turned up in a patrol car when we radioed in."
"Yes Sir," said the policeman.  Dr. Roszó nodded.
"When you get off duty you are to go and talk to Rupert Warning," he said, his voice suddenly sounding colder and harsher.  The light around them darkened a little as though a cloud had chosen that moment to cross the sun.  "Tell him that you remember the toad-priest."
"Yes Sir," repeated the policeman, giving no sign at all that he'd understood the instructions.  Dr. Roszó stood next to, wondering if it was worth reinforcing the suggestion, and was just deciding that it probably wasn't when a lively young voice jerked him from his reverie.
"Sorry I'm a bit late, Doctor, I was eating ice-cream with my friends and they didn't want me to leave."
Dr. Roszó looked round, and there was his assistant, eighteen year-old Adam, grinning cheerfully at his elbow.  Adam was about a foot shorter than Dr. Roszó, had skin pale enough that he was often mistaken for a goth, a shock of black hair that he let grow, and a very European taste in clothes.  Today he was wearing canary-yellow jeans and a carnelian t-shirt with a faded slogan almost unreadable across the chest.
"You're here, and that's what matters," said Dr. Roszó.  "Want to try opening the gate?"
Adam was bright but unmotivated and had shown no interest in either work or study until Dr. Roszó had found him hanging out with friends outside a supermarket.  One of Adam's friends had gone to push Dr. Roszó and the doctor had automatically defended himself, creating a paper-thin barrier of fluxing space-time around himself.  Anything touching it would be pressed thin and sucked through, deposited in a random alternate universe that might, if they were very lucky, support life.  As he'd reflexively thrown the barrier up he'd felt the energy flow between himself and Adam, felt the lad acting as a deep resevoir for the exotic energies he commanded.  Although Adam's friend (not a good one, he'd confided later) had disappeared through an interdimensional rift with no proof of where he'd gone or how, Adam had also felt the connection.  The taste of the power that Dr. Roszó commanded had been enough to pull him along for now, learning about the strange new sciences that people like Dr. Roszó had access to, and seeing them put to use in all the dark ways that humanity seems determined to experiment with.
Adam gave the gate a push, and it didn't move.  He bit his lower lip and tried harder, the muscles on his thin arms standing out as he did so.  The world seemed to blur again, but then righted itself and Adam had moved the gate a mere centimetre.  Dr. Roszó was very impressed.
"Stuck solid," said Adam, shaking his head.  "Shouldn't be possible, that's just wood.  It should snap if was that stuck."
"It's being held," said Dr. Roszó.  "Maintained, if you like.  All I know for the moment is that something terrible happened inside that house, and the occupant is now–"
"Occupant?  Like they're not human?"  Adam was staring at Dr. Roszó with interest now.
"Occupant like I don't know what they are," said Dr. Roszó.  "Someone, possibly something.  But they're maintaining the entire house like this, and we need to know how long it's going to last and what kind of effect it's having on them."
"Like, if they're going to die?"
"Maybe, but more like if they're going to end up not human."
Adam looked a little worried; Madame Annabel and Rupert liked to tell him horror stories of the department's work to keep him a little wound up.
"So what do I do?" he said, his voice letting reluctance creep in to his tone.
"Help me," said Dr. Roszó.
This time when he placed his hands on the gate he felt Adam's reservoir of energy open up, and established a connection between them both, one that fed raw power into Adam and a second that pulled the refined energy back out again.  Then, when he was sure of the pipeline, he pushed on the gate and saw how the black-and-red energies wrapped around it, emanating from the house.  It was now child's play for him to guide the gate through the gaps in the patterns and then free it altogether so that it was free to move once more.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012


They installed the new vending machine in the high school by mistake.
Hervan van den Lufft, the company that delivered the machine produced documentation to prove that they had been hired to deliver to that address.  The documentation was surprisingly lovely; hand-calligraphy on heavy parchment paper, with flowery language worthy of Shakespeare (the local newspaper, the Metropolitan Memo, omitted the literary reference when reporting on the story after the school's Head of English asked who Shakespeare was while reviewing an advance copy), and even illuminated capitals.  An eagle-eyed reader of the Metropolitan Memo pointed out in a letter to the editor that the illuminated capitals appeared to have rather a large number of inebritated and possible drugged young people cavorting and sleeping on the crossbars of the letters but this was ignored by the paper's editors and all copies of the paper were gathered and pulped in a quiet but efficient campaign later that week.  The documentation was all entirely in order, except for the oddity of the sheer luxuriant quality of it.
The manufacturer of the vending machine quickly produced a large number of examples of their standards of dockets and request-fulfilment forms, which were cheaply photocopied with low-toner photocopiers and recycled paper.  Their environmental credentials were high, and it was clear to everybody that they hadn't arranged for the delivery.  It was noted, much later, that they had continued to refill the vending machine for six months after the issue first came to light, but by that point no-one was interested in stirring up the past any more, and the offending vending machine had been removed, so it was allowed to slide into obscurity.
The sixth-form of the school was interrogated by the deputy-head, a fearsome woman that the students spread incessant rumours about.  The one that made it past the Metropolitan Memo's fact-checkers was that she had been a lover and teacher of Pol Pot when she was younger, and had given him ideas.  The sixth-formers appeared to be in rather better health than should have been the case if their rumours were true, and Miss Pyepie never seemed to even pick up the chalk, let alone a bloody soldering iron.  The rumours died quickly, and it was surmised that the students hadn't ordered the vending machine.
Which meant that no-one seemed to know where it had come from, who had ordered it, or where it was supposed to be.  This last fact created the inertia that led to the machine staying put instead of being picked up again and taken back to the manufacturer's warehouse on the ring-road.
The vending machine dispensed medicinal soda.  The notional idea was that these would be installed in hospitals and doctor's surgeries and would speed up certain prescription medicines.  Moreover, a repeat prescription would be unnecessary as the patient could simply pop in when they were passing and pick up a few more cans of Digitali-cola for their heart murmur, or Straight-up, the Viagra fizzy drink.  There was a little concern expressed initially that this would lead to unregulated drug use and people auto-dosing themselves into medical comas.  When the unsubsided cost of each can was revealed though, all such doubts evaporated, and instead questions were asked about how people were expected to pay for such things.
The sixth-form asked no such questions, and found the money for the cans from somewhere.  All the Straight-up would sell out within two days, though no-one was ever seen with a can or would admit to buying it.  More worrying, all the of the Prozacade would sell out just as fast, but people were happy to be seen with three or four cans of it, as though it were somehow a status symbol.  The manufacturers later pointed out to a skeptical judge that if this little accident of location hadn't happened they would probably have never discovered that mixing Prozacade and Red Bull caused the kind of euphoria that's called oxygen narcosis underwater.  Above water, it just made people so happy that they would dance in the traffic, on train-tracks, and occasionally right off the edge of high buildings.
Prozacade now comes in a little plastic package that contains a thin, but strong, strait-jacket just in case.
Parents eventually asked questions, usually only after seeing their can-recycling contributions soar, and the parents of the dead children kept asking questions.  There was much talk and few answers.  Finally, and with very little fanfare indeed the vending machine was taken away again.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Barrage balloon

Her name was Hattie and she was a barrage balloon.  She wasn't an actual barrage balloon that the defense-folks had nicknamed Hattie, she was an actual woman, a little on the pink-and-plump side, and she was an actual barrage balloon.  She had a helium-filled jacket that she put on while it was deflated, and then secured two ropes to it.  One was a short rope that meant she stayed on the ground while the jacket was filled, and the other was a long rope that soon would be her only tether to the earth below.  Once she'd checked both the clips to make sure that they were secure she'd raise her thumbs and the crew would turn on the helium pump and inflate the jacket.  While they were doing that she'd put on her orange helmet and black goggles, check her lipstick in the mirror and make small-talk with the hangar staff.  When the jacket was full and she was blimp-shaped she'd wave a hand farewell to everyone, and unclip the short rope.  Most of the time she would start to rise quite slowly, then speed up as she got clear of the ground and the air could push her around with impunity.  Sometimes it would take a little longer, and she might have to hop and jump a little to get things going.  But always she would ascend into the sky where the planes flew and spend six hours serving as a barrage balloon.
I interviewed her once, curious as to what possessed her to do such a strange and foolhardy thing.  She met me at the station and invited me to join her for coffee in a coffee-shop just opposite.  I smiled and said yes, my hands already shaking from having had to spend twenty minutes on the train without a coffee.  There was a short queue which did nothing for my already short temper, and so I started asking background questions while we waited.
I asked her where she was from, and she smiled coyly and said she didn't know.  A little more probing revealed that she'd been discovered by her parents under a hawthorn tree.  They'd picked her up and taken her in in the hopes of getting a reward, but their reward had only been to see Hattie growing up, reaching seventeen before they died in a seven-caravan pile-up after an avalanche in the Scottish park where they were renting a summer caravan.
"Were they proud of you being a barrage balloon?" I asked, wondering why it was taking so long to make our coffees.
"Oh, I waited till after they were dead," said Hattie.  "It was a close thing in the end."
To my surprise, it turned out that there was an upper age limit on when you could become a barrage balloon: as soon as you were deemed old enough to make your own decisions you were deemed too likely to sue to be employed as a barrage balloon.  Although Hattie seemed oblivious to the implications of her words, I understand her to be circumlocutorily saying that only stupid people became barrage balloons, and they did it by signing a waiver that affirmed they were old enough to take the decision, but too young to understand what it meant.
"Do you see any planes?" I asked, expecting her answer to be no.  Clearly there couldn't be many near here, as she wasn't riddled with bullet holes, or as flat as someone who's hit the ground at terminal velocity.
"Oh yes, all the time," said Hattie.  "I throw things at them."
"You... throw things at them?"  My voice was doing that thing legs do when someone's described as going weak at the knees.
"We take ammunition up with us, in our pockets," said Hattie.  "Small things, but they explode.  They can rip open a cockpit, and then the air-pressure sucks the pilot out like toothpaste when you stamp on the tube."
"But isn't it dangerous?" I said, thus demonstrating that I was just as stupid as Hattie.
"It's for the good of the country," she said, her voice taking on a sing-song quality as though reciting something learned by rote.  "I am privileged to be a barrage balloon."
"Have you been shot at?" I said, trying to recover my poise.
"Lots," said Hattie.  "But they usually miss."
I thought about asking what happened when they didn't miss, but to my credit I managed to keep my mouth shut this time.  "You're very brave," I said, wondering how sincere I sounded.  "Where's my godddamned coffee?"

Sunday, 12 August 2012


The plastic bag popped as he picked it up, showering him in lukewarm water.  His eyes closed reflexively and he gasped as though he'd been dropped into water from a height, and he took two steps back.  Two steps which moved him away from the soft-grey plastic bags but moved him dangerously close to the precariously balanced china plates.  For a moment the entire audience for the exhibition held their breaths, waiting to see if he was about to destroy the most interesting exhibit in the entire Freda Street art-festival.  He stopped.  A foot lifted off the ground, and almost, almost moved backwards.  Then his toes touched the floor again and his foot slid forward and rested down.
The sigh as the audience exhaled at once was like a warm, cabbage-smelling wind that rocked the plates on their tiny, thin stick-like stands.  Madame Delphine, the curator, hurried forwards and took hold of his hand and led him forwards, away from the exhibit.
"What was that?" he said, his hands rubbing his eyes.  His face seemed oddly sticky.
"A raincloud," said Madame Delphine, producing a thin white hand-towel seemingly from nowhere.  She handed it to him, and he noticed that it was hot, as though it had been freshly microwaved.  "You were asked when you came in, not to touch any of the exhibits."
He looked at her: she was short, petite, dark-haired.  She looked like she might be Vietnamese or Laotian, and her eyes were a deep azure.  There were wrinkles around them that suggested age, but the skin of her face was as smooth and perfect as a photoshop.  She was wearing a dress done in black-and-white panels that made him think of a piano keyboard.
"The exhibit specifically says its interactive," he said, rubbing the towel over his face.  "It invites you to pick the bags up."
"The clouds," said Madame Delphine holding out a hand.  He checked it quickly, it looked as smooth and soft as her face.  "They're rainclouds, and yes, they do invite you to touch them.  Then they release their rain on to you, as that one just did.  Think of them as a little trap."
He put the used towel in her hand, and then started, seeing the red smears all over the towel.  His hands went back up to his face.
"What was in those bags?" he said.  His face felt normal and wasn't sticky now.
"I think," said Madame Delphine, her voice as delicate as the fall of a petal, but with emphasis on the word think, "that Geraldinium mixed urine and menstrual blood together for the 'rainwater'."  She waited patiently while he tried not to throw up, and when he was standing mostly upright again she handed him another hot towel.  He scrubbed at his face more vigorously this time, ignoring that it hurt.
"Geraldine?" he said, his voice made indistinct by the towel frantically rubbing over his face.  It kept catching on his day-old stubble and little strands of white cotton drifted free and fell to the floor.
"Geraldinium Holmes."  Madame Delphine sounded genuinely surprised.  "Are you really at this exhibit without knowing who the artist is?"
"Well, that's normal isn't it?" he said.  He checked the towel carefully now he'd finished rubbing his face, scrutinising it for any sign of red.  There were none, but he couldn't stop himself from rubbing all over his face again, just one more time.  "Surely there are only a few art critics and journalists here who actually know the artist before they come in?"
"Not when it's a Geraldinium Holmes exhibit," said Madame Delphine.  Her voice might be as soft as the wind, but when she spoke he was forcibly reminded that the wind could, under the right circumstances, rip up farmhouses and carry them out of Kansas and drop them on wicked witches.  "You are probably the only person in here who has no idea what he's actually looking at.  Or, probably, how much danger he's in."
He stared at her now, the towel falling from his fingers and his eyes so wide he could feel his eyeballs drying out.  "Danger?"
"Mr Whoever-you-are," said Madame Delphine, "if you had taken three steps back instead of two when the raincloud burst on you, you would have knocked the china plates behind you off their precarious little stands.  Not only would that have ruined the Morning Wind exhibit and cost you quite a lot of money, but Geraldinium has perfected the china grenade.  I completely expect those plates to explode and blast the place with china shrapnel.  It's why the screens around the exhibit, though not advertised as such, are blast screens.  You might have been better off not surviving given the value of the exhibition, and the fact that Geraldinium is reported to be selling it to a North African nation."
"I... I had no idea..," he said.  "And my name's Entsted."
"Well Entsted, perhaps I should show you round the rest of the exhibition personally.  I am Madame Delphine.  Would you care for an appetiser?  Cabbage and pork pot-stickers, as requested by Geraldinium personally."
"Thank-you, that sounds nice," he said.  He paused.  "Is there a reason she asked for them?" he said carefully.
"Not that I'm aware of," said Madame Delphine, "and everyone here seems to be enjoying them.  Personally I think she's gone rather heavy on the cabbage, but that may be a matter of personal taste."
"Is she here?"
"Why no," said Madame Delphine looking even more surprised.  "She's at the police station answering questions about animal cruelty.  Something to do with a kitten-press I've been told."

Thursday, 9 August 2012

The James Street Morgue

James Street Morgue was the last thing I wanted to see on the police report.  I checked I'd not misread it, and then I turned back to the front page of the report to see who'd written this one.  Who I was about to shout at until I turned purple and lost my voice, in truth.  The name on the front was Wolfgang Herbst, and my nascent shout died in my throat, turning into a strangled little cough by way of consolation.
My problems here, in order then, were:

  1. James Street Morgue was known to have an occasional issue with necromancers.  To be exact, every time the police delivered a body there that was evidence in a case, the body would get back up again and walk off, and usually refuse to help the police any further with their enquiries.  This meant that we had neither the body nor a witness, and usually ended in us having to bury the paperwork in the unsolved crimes files.
  2. Wolfgang Herbst was the youngest son of the Police Commissioner and was being well protected either by his father, or by the sycophants who surrounded his father and praised his policies.  These policies hadn't seen an improvement in the rates of crime or the solving of crimes in the last three years, but still the papers lauded the photogenic Commissioner who was regularly seen in the Society pages providing pithy little quotes about how well policing was progessing in the city.
  3. This one was a purely personal problem: I had an informant who swore blind that Wolfgang Herbst was a necromancer.
Herbst the necromancer delivering a body to his buddies at the James Street Morgue didn't seem at all far-fetched to me, although I did wonder if he was really bright enough to appear to be making the effort to solve crimes he was involved in committing, and then sabotaging them before the investigation could start getting anywhere.  I'd spoken to the lad a few times, and I'd come away with the impression that he was a couple of bones short of a burial.  I'd also come away with the impression that he was as stubborn as an ox in heat and about as pleasant to spend any time with as said ox.  A couple of discreet inquiries later led me to learn that no-one went out drinking with him after work, and that officer piss-ups were usually arranged without his knowledge.  If he was that unpopular amongst his colleagues, my impressions of his attitude and personality couldn't be too far from the mark.
I tapped my pen on the desk a few times, annoying myself with the noise but unable to stop until I'll completed the little tune, and turned over the pages of the report again.  Was there anything I'd missed? Something that my eyes had drifted past because no-one filled these damn things in right first time?  I forced myself to read every line, including the printed text that described what was supposed to be filled in.  A little over half-way through, my eyeballs started itching, and I knew that I'd read something that was important.  I went back a page and read through it again.
There it was.  That itch again, just as I read the time that the body was delivered to the Morgue.  What was wrong with that?  I looked at it, but it seemed perfectly fine: delivered to the Morgue in person, time of delivery was 20:37.  It looked fine, so I checked for the Morgue receipt to see if that said a different time.  No, the receipt agreed with the report, in fact it looked rather like Wolfgang had copied parts of the receipt in with the spelling errors as well.
I closed the report again, deciding to leave the report for now, and there it was, staring me in the face.  The time of submission of the report, auto-date-stamped when Wolfgang dropped it into my inbox, was 20:52.  If the body had been delivered to the Morgue when he claimed, he couldn't possible have gotten back to the office and written the report in fifteen minutes.  The Morgue was twenty minutes away from the office by fast car with the sirens on.
I looked at the Morgue receipt again, holding up to the light and twisting the paper this way and that.  There were no signs of tampering with it, so it seemed genuine.  Why lie about the time of delivery to the Morgue, and get the Morgue to support the lie?  I rubbed my temples, a headache starting.  Finally I'd got something on Wolfgang, only to have it look suspiciously like there was something much bigger hiding behind the scenes.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012


The wind was blowing dust through the streets again today, just as it has done for the last four weeks.  The bombs stopped falling six days ago, but we don't believe that there's an end to it yet, just that there's a pause, a hiatus.  We're hoping it's not the eye of the storm.
Mother put the washing out to dry anyway.  She calls the wind a simoom, harkening back to another city on another world.  Bombs were falling then, too.  The washing: sheets, sheet-like dresses, long thin sheets that wind around into turbans and wraps hangs on the polythene lines that crisscross the garden like sombre flags and flutter in the wind.  Now and then there's a scritching sound that makes my ears itch, which is just the dust and sand being flung against the cloth.  If we can leave them out for long enough so that they dry properly the dust and sand will mostly just fall off, but if we have to bring them in early they will stick.
The garden is looking quite nice at the moment; the last bombs that fell near us have rearranged the rocks almost artistically, and mother talks now and then about sitting down when the wind drops and painting a picture of them.  There are no plants, and haven't been since the war started.  First we ate the plants, then the rain stopped falling, and then the wind started blowing.  Looking at the garden reminds me that I'm hungry, and I go in to see what is in the cupboard.
We have lots of cupboards, you understand.  We are rich in cupboards and cupboard space.  But we have only enough food to warrant using one of those cupboards, and the bombing destroyed all of the plates and cups except for the little plastic ones that we used to use for the baby.  Mother says that this is fortunate, as it reminds us that we must ration the food carefully until the war is over and there is more again.  She is more optimistic than most.
There is a small sack of rice, there are some dried chili peppers, and there is some jerky.  I tell myself it is beef, because I know it's not come from the relief centre, which means that mother has either made it herself, or traded something for it with one of her friends, and then it could be anything.  It smells a little beefy, and that helps me pretend.  I move the items around in the cupboard, vaguely hoping that they'll be more interesting if I find the right order for them, as all we've eaten for weeks now is rice, unnamed (or unnameable) meat, and the occasional spice.  I remind myself that it is food, but in my dreams I remember what I used to eat, and I wake up hungry.
I realise with a start that today is Tuesday, and that we may go to the relief centre and see what the week's food ration looks like.  A faint flutter of excitement, that there might be something new and different to eat, wakes in my chest.
"Cheese!" announces mother, appearing in the doorway and seeing me looking in the cupboard.  "Maria says that her cheese is ripening and we might be able to have some this week."
Mother shuffles into the kitchen, her hip losing motion and flexibility almost daily now.  I close the cupboard door, and smile.
"How is she making cheese then?  Are we getting milk at last?"  The look on my mother's face tells me that I should unask the question, and so I change the subject, wondering if I'll feel so nauseated when the cheese is in front of me.  I know I won't.  Food is too important to waste, too valuable to be concerned about its provenance.  "Are we going to the relief centre today?"
Mother nods, her hand resting on the back of the unbroken chair, the only survivor of a nearby bomb three months ago.  The other chairs were thrown about the kitchen, and mostly reduced to firewood.  If we only had a use for a fire.
"We'll go now," she says.  We both know that we'll be waiting for hours for the relief centre to open its doors, but that it's better to do that than be near the end of the queue.  "Maria says that yesterday they had sage."
It's only a herb, it's barely food at all, but suddenly I'm salivating.
Then the next bomb drops and the hollow booming thunder of its detonation echoes around the house.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Jasreen and Hegaton

The Eidolon had insectile eyes.  There were fifteen of them, arrayed around her head in two circles, one just below the other.  Some poets had described them as being like a double-tiara, a crowning vision when the doggerel was seriously upon them; other poets had been more sensible and run away screaming.  Some of them had even got away too.  The others had been eaten, for the Eidolon had learned to hunger.
Scientists were more curious.  There were, they opined, entirely the wrong number of eyes.  There should be thirteen or twenty-one, a Fibonacci number.  And two rows of eight and seven were wrong as well, it should be eight and five or eight and thirteen.  The Eidolon declined to comment.
If you ignored her eyes, which it was hard to do, the Eidolon was attractive.  She had a firm, nubile body, and her hips swayed very gently as she walked.  Her hands were golden brown and long-fingered, delicate like a pianist's.  Her feet were petite, and her legs were long enough for an old-fashioned noir-mystery writer to bite through his pencil in electrified frustration.  But, and it was a significant but, her head was mostly eyes.
Jasreen bowed his head and walked backwards.  The Eidolon had lately been reading about medieval courts and had decided that the notion that her subjects should always have her in their sight when they were in her presence appealed to her.  Jasreen could see why, as anyone in her presence was always in her sight.  He'd done some very subtle and not entirely conclusive experiments that made him think that she had no blind spots at all; the cumulative vision overlapped enough that no matter where anything was she could always see it.  With, he noted, the obvious exception of things directly above her head.
He reached the door without incident and then stumbled over the threshhold, which was a treacherous centimetre or two higher than the floors on either side.  He put his hands out to steady himself, catching the doorframe and struggling to override the instinct to look away from the Eidolon and see what he was doing.  He felt his neck begin to turn, but he managed to hold it in check, and backed further through the room until he could sidestep and be out of her sight.
"She grows more human every day," said a voice next to him, and now for a moment he couldn't bring himself to turn his head to see who was talking.  How had medieval courtiers managed this insanity?  Then he freed himself of the mental block and looked to his left.
The antechamber was wooden-panelled and furnished with ornate metal chairs that the Instars made.  The Eidolon had kept the Instars hidden for decades before they were discovered, and exactly what they did and how they made the furniture – or what they made the furniture for – was still unknown.  Most of the people in the antechamber were standing, close to the walls and away from the furniture.  The speaker though, was sat on one of the chairs, looking slightly uncomfortable with one ankle crossed over the opposite knee, but he was smiling beneath a brown, bushy beard.
"How do you mean?" Jasreen recognised the speaker as the Eidolon's Prime Minister, Hegaton Yearnchap.
"She immerses herself in our culture and tries it out, repeatedly.  She never really grasps why we did these things, or what they were intended to achieve, but she tries anyway, and slowly, she becomes human.  It's ridiculous to make you walk backwards like a medieval courtier, because she's far too well protected to be at risk of attack from you, and she doesn't care enough about you to be insulted if you're not awed by her presence.  She makes you walk backwards because it humiliates you and establishes a pecking order that she wants to keep in place.  She's becoming human."
"Is that a good thing?" Jasreen sounded cautious, unsure if these words he was listening to counted as sedition or not.
"No.  She's not human, and she doesn't have human perceptions or powers.  When she acts like she's human, she puts us all at risk."
"Risk from what?"
Hegaton smiled through his beard again and stood up.  Jasreen's eyes were automatically drawn to little pinpricks of blood on Hegaton's suit and neck, the dark red seeming to pulse rhythmically.  He knew that almost no-one else would have spotted any of them, and he tried to push down the sudden hunger that he felt.
"Risk from the Instars," said Hegaton.  "The Eidolon is a known quantity, but her offspring are not.  Why should we risk having her replaced, with something crueler?  Or just more disinterested?"
"The Instars can hardly be found," said Jasreen.  His voice sounded distant in his own ears, and there was an iron taste in his mouth.  His fingers flexed, on both hands, straightening and contracting back into claws.
"That's not true," said Hegaton.  "It's just not common knowledge where they can be found, because they are a danger in their own right.  By the way, I know what you are, you don't have to fight down your urges so firmly."
Jasreen managed a half-smile, but it felt as stiff as a grimace.
"But still," said Hegaton.  "I must go and present myself to her, and see what her regality wants next.  This will be fun, don't you think?"  He walked through the antechamber door into the Eidolon's throne-room, and Jasreen sat down on the floor with a thump, his legs suddenly unwilling to support him.  He saw, and listened.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Playing with a full deck

"Crabbe made them for me."  Madame Sostris sniffed to punctuate her sentence as she shuffled the cards.  They were a new deck; for the first time in a long time it looked like she might actually have a full deck in her hands.  Phlebitis, doomed sailor, tried to look interested.
"Crabbe?" he said, his tone weary and defeated.  Madame Sosotris appeared not to notice.
"He walks the banks of the river," she said.  "You've probably seen him, what with you being a sailor and all."
Phlebitis was indeed a sailor, and made his money by taking cargoes across the Sea of Demons.  One way with frogs that his crew boiled on the voyage, because the people they got the frogs from considered them sacred and would be angry if they knew what was done with the frogs, and the other way with fragile jade statuettes that possibly had curses attached to them.  The curses seemed to stay attached to whoever owned the statuette though, so apart from the odd pang of conscience, Phlebitis managed not to think about it.  Trying to take his ship up a river would be foolhardy.
"Yes," he said.  "Probably.  Does he fall in much?  Perhaps I've even rescued him?"
"I doubt it," said Madame Sosotris.  "His wife did though."
Phlebitis paused and thought about this for a few seconds before replying.  It was clear that this was a deliberate conversational gambit to keep him talking, because he knew that Madame Sostris had an unrequited crush on him, but he was also intrigued as to how she could think this was relevant.  Eventually curiosity won over caution.  "I hope she could swim," he said, going for a fairly neutral comment that didn't commit him to being interested in what she was saying.  Her hands shuffled the cards constantly.
"Yes, but she was run over by a Stinking Barge.  She went under the water and never came back up to the surface."
The Stinking Barges were the city's rubbish-collectors.  They were huge long boats that transported rubbish and sewage downstream to avoid polluting the water that the city depended on for its life.  A few miles outside the city were mountains of ordure and filth that sent out a stench that could make a man want to cut his own nose off his face.  At night, in hot weather, the gases they gave off burned with a pale, shaky blue light that the locals suspected of attracting demons from the sea, and in particularly hot summers they sometimes exploded.  At the base of these mountains men worked, their faces wrapped in cloths soaked in lye, shovelling the filth away into the river, polluting and poisoning the downstream water for thirty miles.  Phlebitis refused to hire men who'd worked on the Stinking Barges because they couldn't get the smell of the refuse off their skin.  He also refused to hire anyone who'd ever been a cultist, anyone who appeared to know what a City Throne was and people who wouldn't drink rum on religious grounds.  So far his crew had been loyal and stable, and he put this competely down to his hiring policies.
"That's sad," he said.  In his experience bodies always came back up unless they were eaten or weighted down first, and his money was on pockets full of rocks.
"Now he collects flotsam from the river," said Madame Sosotris, her hands almost hypnotic.  She was skilled at shuffling the cards, and though few of her clients realised it could prestidigitate any card in the deck to the top almost imperceptibly.  "He hopes to find her in the straw and frayed rope, that her bones might be waiting at the bottom in the mud for the right moment to return to him."
"What's he going to do with the bones when he finds them?"  Phlebitis had a sudden, nightmarish vision of the poor man wiring the bones together and keeping his skeletal wife in his home, presumably a two-room hovel.  Would her keep on display to visitors or in his bed?  Phlebitis shook his head to chase the image away.
"I've never asked," said Madame Sosotris.  "He made this deck of cards though, from things that the river gave up to him.  They're as close to the soul of the city as anything I've ever owned."  She coughed.  "Would you care to cut?"  She held the cards out, and Phlebitis scrutinised them, trying to see if they were bone.  They appeared to be paper, so he reached a hand out and picked a number of cards from the top.
Madame Sosotris bade him lay his cards down, to one side, and turned the top card of the rest of the deck over.
"The strangled Kitten," she said.  "Inverted."  Sure enough, a bedraggled, green-looking kitten took up most of the card, but in the background there was an arm and leg just visible, that might have been human.  The kitten's tongue was hanging out, and its eyes were greyed and hazed.  "Things that people throw away are important to you, and you collect them."
"I'm not sure–" began Phlebitis, but Madame Sosotris glared at him and tapped the card.
"In the background," she said, her finger tapping insistently, "you can see the arm and leg of Belladonna, Our Lady of the Rocks."
Phlebitis fell silent.  His future seemed entwined with Belladonna, who- or what-ever she might be.  He nodded at Madame Sostotris.
"Carry on then," he said.  "Tell me what the mad bitch wants from me now."

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Mystic dinner

Madame Sosotris, whose cold seemed omnipresent, sneezed into her soup.  Splashes of Cream of Asparagus spattered the tablecloth and her dress, neither of which appeared to bother her.  A drip appeared at the end of her reddened nose, and a few seconds fell into her soup.  If she noticed at all, she pretended not to.  Her (somewhat unwilling) dinner companion coughed into his napkin and contemplated rushing to the toilets to throw up.  Eventually, after a prolonged coughing fit that finally had Madame Sosotris looking at him with an appraising eye, he decided not to.
"Did something go down the wrong way?"  Her voice was like nails on a chalkboard, and he reflexively bit his spoon.  His teeth tingled.
"Thank-you for your concern, Madame, but it is a lingering memory of mustard gas," he said, dipping his spoon into his soup and stirring it slowly counter-clockwise.  He found that he'd rather lost his appetite.  Madame Sosotris slurped hers with enthusiasm, the addition of bodily fluids apparently adding to its appeal for her.  "When do we get to the bit where you reveal my future?" he asked, considering the salt and pepper pots on the table in case one of them might make the soup more appetising.
His name was Major John Cadwaller and he'd been a Major for seven days so far.  Much of his promotion amounted to an increase in paperwork and less time to stay fit, or even oversee the troops staying fit, and he was wondering if the promotion was really worth it.  Then his new commanding officer had called him into his office, made him wait in a grim little antechamber with a frozen corpse for thirty minutes, and then given him this task.
Get to Sosotris, his CO had said, barely looking up from the newspaper he thought a report was hiding, and find out what she sees in the future for us.  Don't give me any back-talk about utilising proper info, this is proper info.  You'll see it for yourself when you meet her.  Oh, and try not to breathe too much near her.  She's always ill.
"You're a fast one, aren't you?"  Madame Sosotris laid her spoon down in her soup with a splash and grinned, showing too few teeth and too many gaps.  One or two of the gaps looked a little odd, as though the teeth that had once been there hadn't been quite right somehow.  Major Cadwaller tried not to stare, and so stirred his soup instead.  "We can do it right now, Major, since we've ordered.  The food's not important for the reading, just for the reader."  She cackled, and he frowned at his soup.  He hadn't known that people could actually cackle.  She sounded like an overexcited chicken.
"Don't you need equipment?"  He looked up now, gesturing with his hand and spoon and accidentally showering a nearby diner and his table with Cream of Asparagus soup.  When the diner turned to see who was throwing food at him, the Major tilted his head slightly, indicating Madame Sosotris as the culprit, and didn't feel even a single pang of guilt.
"The future's all around us," said Madame Sosotris.  She laid both her palms flat on the table.  "Most of the trick is recognising where its concentrated and then reading it from there.  That's most accurate.  Otherwise, even a weatherman could give you a decent guess, unless you're asking about the weather of course."  She cackled again, possibly an indication that she thought she'd made a joke.  The Major thought that perhaps she'd laid an egg and, again, didn't feel guilty about such an uncharitable thought.
She closed her eyes, and her knuckles went white.  The Major frowned a little harder; he'd expected a bit more a show from the old fraud.  He waited, but she didn't speak, and didn't move.  Just as he was wondering if she'd fallen asleep her soup trembled, and he looked at that for a moment.  It trembled again.
"Is she going to throw more soup?" asked the diner he'd sprayed with Cream of Aspargus.  Major Cadwaller shrugged, still watching the soup.  Suddenly a bubble formed and burst at the surface witha  loud pop.  Several seconds later there was another, and then another.  Within a minute her soup appeared to be boiling in the dish, and the other diner had turned round fully to face them both, watching the soup as avidly as the Major.  With the two men obviously watching something, a waiter at the wait-station was dispatched by the Mâitre d' to find out what the problem was.
"I see a field of grey," said Madame Sostris, her normally glutinous tones suddenly clear and sharp as the peal of a bell at midnight.  "I see four thousand men and women marching out, all dressed alike and carrying cold steel.  I see a man dressed in curtains standing watching them, and as they pass they all turn to the left and salute.  He salutes them back and a path is chosen.  The future diverges, but the men and women all survive."
Her eyes flicked open, her hands contracted into claws, and her soup stopped boiling.
"Well, I say all survive," she said, conversationally.  "Two of the men get into a fight in a pub in Portsmouth and die a few hours later on the train-tracks, and one of the women dies from complications arising from appendicitis.  It will be all very sad."
Major Cadwaller picked his spoon back up and stirred his soup.  He was pretty sure he knew the events that Madame Sosotris was referring to, and it sounded like the future was going to be very positive.