Thursday, 30 May 2013

The numbers station

It was cold in the car; Edward refused to let him turn the heater on in case it drained the battery.  Martin rubbed his gloved hands together and pushed himself further back into the passenger seat, trying to get warm.  His coat was supposedly rated for Arctic conditions but he was rapidly losing faith.  His ears hurt, both the tips from the cold and the insides from the after-effects of listening to Odnose-B.  Next to him, dressed in a parka that Martin had laughed at when he first saw it, wearing thin leather gloves and a pained expression, was Edward Demarche.
Edward was nominally in charge of this situation, but both he and Martin knew that Martin had much more practical experience, while Edward was essentially a theorist who felt like getting his hands dirty now and then.  Even so, Edward had insisted on picking out the rental car, and had gone for something so nondescript that it wasn’t a reliable starter and had dodgy tracking.  Martin, who would have picked something newer, smaller, and more corporate had held his tongue and waited to see what would happen.  What had happened was that they’d driven to this building and then sat outside it, in sub-zero temperatures, for over ninety minutes.
“Where did you get that coat?” asked Edward.  His breath produced a rapidly dispersing white cloud in the air.
“High street,” replied Martin.  It had been a couple of days ago and he’d gone into the first outdoors-and-camping store that he’d seen and asked for a coat for cold conditions.
“Huh.  They never sell anything that really keeps the cold out.  You should go to army surplus.  If your soldiers freeze they can’t fight.  The army gets it right.”  This was the longest speech Edward had made since Martin had met him, and he waited to see if he’d continue.  When he didn’t the silence dragged out further and further.
“Movement,” said Edward, his head flicking to the side like a startled bird.
“Third-floor, daughter of the couple in 18,” said Martin, whose head didn’t move.  “Should be going off to see her school-friends at this time.”
Edward shot him a glance, clearly annoyed by Martin’s casual know-it-all attitude.  “She’s carrying a bag,” he said.
“Most likely a change of clothes; she tells her parents that she’s studying and then she goes out with her friends.  To lots of places.”
“You read the background material then.”  It wasn’t a question, just a blunt statement.  Martin nodded still not looking over.  He seemed entranced by the end of the street.  “You wrote it,” he said.
They waited another twenty minutes before a short man wearing a trenchcoat and an oversized fedora left the building.  Edward sat up and leaned forward immediately.
“Good to go!” he said hoarsely.
“Not yet,” said Martin, tapping a tooth with one of his fingers and listening to the slightly hollow sound it made.  “Give him a chance to remember he’s forgotten something and come back.”
“That doesn’t happen,” said Edward, frowning.
“More than you’d think,” said Martin.
Only after another five minutes had passed did Martin agree to leave the car.  He and Edward checked the street and then crossed to the building.  The front doors weren’t locked, and led into a lobby with a set of wooden postboxes, each numbered in brass, and a single pass-card controlled elevator.  Edward produced a pass-card from his pocket, and called the lift.  When it arrived it also needed the card before any of the floor buttons would light up.
“Third floor, second door on the right,” said Edward as the lift ascended.
“Do we have a key?”
“As in, do we have any?”
“As in, are we expecting any?”
“Not exactly,” said Edward.  “There’s been no evidence that he has to disarm anything when he comes back.”
“Hah.”  Martin said nothing else until they were stood outside the apartment door: number 13.  Edward produced a key, but Martin held up a hand and listened at the door first.  After a moment he produced a slim rod and pushed it into the lock.  When he was satisfied the lock wasn’t booby trapped he pressed his ear against that and listened again.  His whole head throbbed.
“Voices,” he said.  “Definitely someone talking in there, maybe two or three.”
“You’ve got a gun.”  Not a question, just a flat statement.  Martin stared at him.
“Yes, but we don’t want a shoot-out.  The gun’s insurance, a way of making sure we can get our own way.  We don’t want everyone firing and bringing in the neighbours and police.”
“Then why bring it at all?”
“In case.”  Martin felt the Edward’s reluctance to talk was rubbing off on him.  “What are we expecting in here?  Apart from the guys having a chat?”
“Books,” said Edward.  “Important books.”  He slipped the key in the lock and turned it before Martin could say anything, and then flung the door open.  Straight in front of them was a spacious living room, with a small desk set up in the middle of it.  Sat at the desk, manacled at the wrists and ankles was a young-girl with rat’s-tailed hair and blood from old nosebleeds crusted around her nostrils and across her face.  In front of her was a microphone and a notebook, and with sudden shock Martin realised that what he was hearing wasn’t conversation at all, but numbers being recited in Odnose-B.  The entire room seemed to swim before his eyes, and he collapsed, falling to his knees and then forwards onto his face.  He was dimly aware that Edward was doing something, but the words were ringing in his head and drowning out all conscious thought.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Railway meeting

Manguy paused as he entered the train carriage.  He’d been in a hurry as he needed to be almost late for the train, but not so late that he actually missed it, in order to be sure that the others all realised that he was very busy and very important.  So he’d had his driver drive around the station sixteen times, irritating both the legitimate traffic, the taxi queue, and the little men whose job it was to run up to cars and help the occupants get out with all of their luggage.  When he’d finally pulled up, his phone affixed to his ear listening to a conference call between Margoyle (in her role as Head of Soft Furnishing and Cushioned Power) and a major manufacturer of industrial chemicals who were seeking new ways to dispose of waste products they’d all pointedly ignored him and left him to manage his own luggage out of the car.
Even that wasn’t going to make him dangerously late, but then he discovered that he was actually in a queue of people all of whom worked for Data Analytic Marketetic Normalisations, all of whom had been thinking the same way that he was.  None of whom were due on the train that he was now going to be late for.  With some careful nudging, a sharp elbow, and in one case a quiet word about the inadvisability of not letting him go first, he’d managed to get through the gates with three minutes to spare, and so he’d not paid much attention to the train as he boarded it.  Now in the carriage though, his jaw dropped, albeit minutely.
The carriage had a panoramic view; the entire two walls of the carriage seemed to be windows.  They reached down as far as the floor and terminated perhaps only an inch before the curve of the ceiling started.  The carpet was moss green, and the chairs were green and brown, looking vaguely organic and tree-like.  The whole effect was like walking into a secret garden in the station, and right on cue he smelled honeysuckle.  He dismissed it as being piped through the air-conditioning, and stored his luggage in the rack by the door, taking the opportunity to marvel at the window-wall again.  He longed to reach out and touch it, find out how solid it really felt.
“Manguy,” said Jeremy Diseased-Rat with a broad smile.  He was sitting at the far end of the carriage, and his chair had swivelled to face the others.  Although the carriage could probably have seated thirty people with the usual density of seating, here there were only twelve chairs, each slightly apart from one another, offering a degree of privacy he expected on first-class aeroplane flights.  “You’re very nearly late.  You know I wouldn’t have had the train held for you.”
“I was overseeing the Stockholm problem,” he said, checking out who else were in seats here.  Jeronica, obviously, and there was Stephanotte next to her.  Daresh was flicking disinterestedly through the train company’s glossy magazine, and the other five people he half-recognised but dismissed as being drones.
“Margoyle is managing that,” said Jeronica.  She was semi-reclined, the seats had footrests it would seem.  “She was in conference with them this afternoon.”
“As was I,” said Manguy, now on his guard.  This felt like a set-up.  “I was delayed leaving my car as I wanted to make sure that the call concluded satisfactorily.”
“Dangerous,” said Jeremy.  “You never know when there’s going to be an expected queue, or an exploded suitcase to hold you up.”
Ah, definitely a set-up then, thought Manguy.  This is why there were so many Data Analytics Marketetic Normalisations people at the gate.  “Fortunately I’m here,” he said.  The train started moving without even a slight jerk.  “Are we missing anyone?”
“No,” said Jeremy.  “This is all of us.  And we are on this train as it’s firstly something that we’ve been indirectly sponsoring for the last three years and I wanted us to see what the future of high-speed trains is going to be, and secondly because this is the only way I can sure that no-one is tampering with the atmosphere, the environment, or the food supplies.  None of which I disapprove of, by the way, but I need to be away from those distractions.
Gentlemen and Ladies, we are gathered here today to conduct your annual reviews.  This will be a competitive process and you will need to earn the willingness of your peers to support you, if not actually coerce them.  There are pay-rises available for only four of you, and a single promotion opportunity.  I do hope you’re all feeling at the top of your game!”

Sunday, 26 May 2013


Marguerite shuddered at Abigail’s words, but she nevertheless sat back in her seat.  She tried to relax, but she was too nervous, and though she forced her shoulders back and tucked her stomach in she looked like she was trying to do yoga in the seat rather than relaxing into a trance-state.  That didn’t stop the trance-state from stealing over her as she opened her mind to it though, and in moments her eyes were open, unblinking, and staring off into a distance that only she could see.
“The Ambassador,” said Abigail, quietly but firmly, aware that Marguerite’s mind could wander in these states.  “Where is the Ambassador?”
In Marguerite’s vision coloured motes swam and danced against a grey background that she instinctively identified not as a colour itself, but as the absence of colour.  She began to hear a high-pitched piping like a flute or a recorder, and then everything seemed to swirl around faster and faster.  From somewhere far off she thought she heard a name, the Ambassador, and with that thought the coloured mote began to fuse together and form a coherent picture.
A short man, squat, with a braced leg appeared in the centre, and she knew without knowing how that this must be the Ambassador.  When he turned to someone he was standing near and smiled she could see his face, and his smile was amazing, it was as though he was smiling at her and only her, telling her how wonderful she was.  She wanted to listen to him, to hear what he was saying and help him out.
The picture broadened and she could see a path of broken pieces of stone laid out across long grass like stepping stones leading to a single-storey building.  The building was built from brick and had no windows, though she could see the junction box for the electricity supply.  It was protected by a wire mesh box that had two padlocks on it and the cables disappeared into the ground.  The Ambassador had turned his face and that amazing smile away from her now and she could think about other things more easily again.  There were people around him, but they were shadowy and indistinct because none of them were as important as him.  There was another shadow though that was important, that was somehow part of the Ambassador, but that was trying to avoid her seeing it.  When she looked for it it slid away, hiding round the other side of the Ambassador every time.
The Ambassador and his party reached the building, and one of the shadows around him stepped forward and solidified.  They were holding a bunch of keys, and Marguerite saw now that the door to the building was padlocked and had two sturdy-looking locks of its own.  The woman holding the bunch of keys had a flushed face and three moles on the side of her neck.  Her hair was brush-cut as though she was military, and black with little white hairs flecking it here and there.  A name appeared momentarily, overlaid on her in a little box, identifying her as Wilhelmina Brabanta, and then it changed to just Billi.  She unlocked the padlock and set it aside, then unlocked the other two locks and opened the door.  The door seemed heavy, as she pulled it open the muscles on her arms stood out and it moved ponderously slowly.  It was dark inside the building and Marguerite saw nothing at first, but then on another level altogether she saw the radiant energy boiling out of the door, washing over everyone who stood in front of it like a wave crashing down on a beach.  They seemed oblivious to it, its power and its danger, and started to go inside, but the shadow that was part of the Ambassador was revealed by it, glowing and growing as it basked.  Marguerite could see a hundred eyes and as many teeth on a lumpy, bag-like body that extruded tiny, fine spikes that attached it all over to the Ambassador, and then its eyes lit on her.
She started screaming.
When Marguerite started screaming Abigail slapped her face.  For a moment it looked like she’d have to slap her again, and then her eyes refocused.  Her mouth stayed open, and Abigail wondered for a disconcerting moment if Marguerite was no longer screaming here, but in whatever place her trance had taken her to.  Then, slowly, her mouth closed and tears appeared, shining at the corner of her eyes.
“Where is the Ambassador?”
“He’s at an icehouse,” said Marguerite, her voice shaky.  “With someone called Billi.  Billi Brabanta.”
“Sergeant Brabanta,” said Abigail as though correcting a mistake.  “An icehouse?”  Marguerite nodded.  “Hmm.  Tell me everything you saw.”

Friday, 24 May 2013

Letters and Words

The first thing that fell out was a packet of smokes and a lighter.  I picked them up quickly as I knew what Boy Blue smoked; sure enough when I opened the packet to check they were very fragrant cigarettes and all hand-rolled.  Very neatly too.  When Blue wants to do a job he takes his time and does it well, and that’s probably the only reason he can still get jobs in this town as an actual musician.  I’d heard him him play in a couple of clubs, usually when I was waiting to be thrown out, but once when I was aiming to get someone else thrown out, and he definitely improved the music.  Then I heard him play one night in his little bedsit by himself and if I’d still been able to cry, I would have.  I put the ciggies and the lighter in my inside pocket, with the idea that I might return them to him if I found him alive at the end of all this.  Then I paused for a moment and wondered why they were in the bedleg, which clearly wasn’t something he’d have been going in and out of every night.  I shook the leg a little more gingerly this time to find out what else was in there.
I had to put my fingers inside in the end to pull out the papers that were stopping it up, and Tom, the barman, couldn’t resist a cheap comment.  The guy sat to my left, who was still fulminating to himself decided that he’d had enough of perverts like me at that point and lumbered off his stool in search of somewhere else to stand or sit in the bar.  I barely even watched him go, knowing perfectly well that a bar that was happy to have me as a patron was going to have far worse than me to sit next to.  I just stretched out a little and occupied both stools, propping the bed-leg against the bar on the other one.
“What’ve you got there anyway, Mac?” asked Tom.  There were plenty of people trying to catch his eye, waving money, credit-cards and assorted numbers of fingers, but he still stopped by me and looked at the papers.
“Can’t say I know yet,” I said.  “I’ll have to learn how to read first.”
He closed his mouth, his words having been stolen from him, and then gestured at my untouched glass.  “Another drink, Mac?”
I tipped the drink down my throat and laid the glass in front of me.  “You’re a gent, Tom.”
“And you’re the scum of the earth, Mac.”
The first page I turned over startled me.  It was headed paper, and right at the top in an overly fussy typeface was From the desk of Miss Belle Peep, Proprietress of City Farm.  Underneath that was an address, phone and fax numbers, email address and then an eight digit number that went unexplained.  I checked the address, and it definitely wasn’t where I thought the farm was, at least not the one she’d inherited from her father.  I made a mental note; that needed checking out.  The rest of the page was taken up with a short letter discussing the purchase of seventeen sheep, though as I read it I felt as though I was missing something.  There were plenty of technical-sounding and looking references, but something about the letter as a whole didn’t gel with me.  Possibly because Boy Blue was hiding it and it simply didn’t look incriminating.
The second page was just a pornographic picture and I was about to offer it round the bar for the best offer when I looked more closely as the face and almost fell off my stool.
“Dirty pictures, Mac?” Tom placed my drink down and leaned over to get a better look.  “Is that really your kind of….”  He tailed off, and frowned.  Then he turned the picture the other way up, and then he stared at me.  “Isn’t that…?”
“Natasha Monkeybutt’s face,” I said.  “Yes.  The question is though, is the rest of it her?”
“You sure you want to be walking around with that, Mac?”
“You want to pin it up on your wall, Tom?”
He recoiled and wandered off to serve some other desperately thirsty customer, and I rolled the picture up and put it back in the bedleg.  That was lit dynamite as far as I was concerned, and I wondered what the hell Boy Blue had been doing with it.
That left one more; a scruffy, torn-covered notebook.  I opened it and learned inside a couple of paragraphs that this was Boy Blue’s diary.  Doubtless there’d be an explanation for the picture in here, but his handwriting was atrocious and the bar was far too noisy (and nosy) to sit here and try and puzzle it out.  I’d take this one back to the morgue.
“Showtime, Mac,” said Tom as the lights dimmed and Gaby was spotlighted on the tiny stage.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Teddybear pack

“Where are we going to go though?”  David’s words were, Isabella thought, the most intelligent thing he’d said since they’d rappelled down the rope into Lezsátor’s Cave.  It was just a shame that she really didn’t have an answer to that just yet.  She looked around; beyond the stand of trees the fields were still in black and white, and there seemed to be nothing between them and the horizon.  At least that meant that there were no teddybear packs in front of them close enough to have to worry about for the moment, but equally she wasn’t happy about being effectively trapped in a desaturated zone either.  She wondered briefly about going back and returning to the cave where they’d entered this whole mess, but she knew that she’d have the devil’s own time of getting David to climb the rope with his fear of spiders, and, having seen the guards back on the human side, she wasn’t sure that they just hadn’t been lucky to get in as far as they had without being seen.  She looked at the horizon and then back at the trees.
“That way,” she said.  “Keep the trees at our back so we don’t start wandering off into circles.  If you see anything, tell me.  Don’t assume that I’ve seen it too.”
David scanned the horizon as well now.  “You make it sound scary,” he said.  “I saw the dead… body too, you know.  Don’t you think I’m taking this seriously?”
“I’m not making any assumptions,” said Isabella.  “And I’m telling you not to make any either.”
They walked on in silence, with Isabella walking as fast as she dared and David lagging behind her a little.  When she looked back once, to check that the trees were still behind her and that David was keeping up he looked as though he was going to say something, but then he looked at her face – grim, determined – and appeared to change his mind.
Every five minutes, which was sooner than she knew she should be doing this, but she found it too hard to not know, she would take the Kris from its sheath and see if there were any doors nearby.  Most of the time there weren’t, but then the blade caught on something and twisted slightly, and she cut deeper and peered through.  Absolute darkness greeted her on the other side and she wasted no time in closing it up again.  Whether it was a natural cave in the rock with no outlets or a guarded cave in the Leszátor’s cave complex, it wasn’t what she wanted right now.
They’d walked nearly another five minutes when David suddenly pointed off to their left and called out.
“Colour!”  Isabella squinted, trying to decide if he was right or not, and after a few seconds thought that it did indeed look like green was creeping back into the world.  She nodded and turned slightly so that their way forward would take them into the colour zone.  Just as the grass genuinely became green again under their black-and-white feet she heard a whooping noise in the distance.  She froze, and David stumbled as he tried to avoid colliding with her.  She put an arm out to help him, and he waved it away.
“Listen,” she said.  “That’s the hunt.”
“What hunt?”
“Teddybears hunt in packs, and that the noise they use to tell other packs where they are.  It might tell them where they’re going too, it’s not like anyone’s studied it much.”
“So there’s a pack nearby?”
“At least one,” said Isabella.  “There might be two and one’s just warning the other one off.”
“How do we tell?”
“I really hope we don’t.”
“Too late.”  David pointed.  As she turned there was a streak of colour and a sudden movement, and she saw a teddy-bear about eighty metres away racing across the field to a hillock that would provide it with cover.
“Oh holy crap,” she said, looking around them.  Now that colour was returning the landscape was losing its flatness as well, but the trees were still in the distance, and now the lumps and bumps were just many places that could be concealing a teddybear.
“Can we go back through to the other side?”  David sounded hopeful.
“I doubt it,” said Isabella, “I really do.”

Monday, 20 May 2013

Rawberry Horecake

Desserts are tricky things.  Too often I find them relegated to the end of the menu, somewhere to dump them out of sight and out of mind because the chef would far rather be doing something interesting with the starters or exotic with the mains.  The dessert comes as an afterthought, and might as well be tipped out of a tin, microwaved until it smokes and then submerged in industrial custard.  That said, I do remember one restaurant where the chef was far more interested in doing the wait-staff than the food.  That was a long, hungry evening listening to ecstatic screams that only served to let me know that the chef was actually good at things he turned his mind to.  But mostly, I avoid the desserts or order them only because the Blonde is on a diet and wants to look longingly at the food before refusing to eat any of it and sulking about it in the cab on the way home.
“There’s a dessert restaurant you’ve not reviewed yet,” said my editor, waving a copy of some free newspaper at me.  “They’ve reviewed it in here, and I’m fed up with them scooping us!”
“They only appear to be scooping us because you use their restaurant pages to decide what to send me to review next,” I riposted.  “You’ve completely ignored my review of Porkgasm and it’s been three weeks now.  You’ve also ignored my review of Arabetty, and there are no other restaurants in London serving Raven on the menu.”
“Who wants to eat raven?  People like desserts.  You like desserts.  Go and review this place.”
“I don’t like desserts,” I said with feeling.  So much so that I had to spit in the wastebin to get the memory of the taste of industrial custard out of my mouth.
“Don’t spit in the bins, people copy you and then the cleaners complain that everything’s soggy.”
“Why do the cleaners care?” I asked, puzzled suddenly.  “What are they doing with the rubbish that they care if it’s soggy or not?”
“I don’t know,” she said waving the free paper at me.  “Desserts!”
“I don’t like them,” I said.  “I think I told you that already.”
“Why not?  Who doesn’t like something sweet to finish a meal with?  Like, Bombe Chocolat with gianduja sauce and Nutella noisettes, for example.”
I thought about that for a moment.   “That would make even an Oompa Loompa sick,” I said.  “And anyway, most desserts come served with industrial custard.”  I spat again.
“Don’t spit,” said my editor reflexively.  “What’s industrial custard?  Is it like custard powder?”
“No,” I said.  “No, custard powder as least would be reconstituted custard, and for all his other faults, Mr. Bird managed to put together pretty much the right ingredients for custard.  Industrial custard is vat grown from genetically modified bacteria that basically just float on top of the custard eating slime, sunbathing, and pumping out custard.  It’s as cheap as you can get, you just buy a vat and top it up with the right kind of nutrient slime every week.  Then you turn a spigot at the bottom and out runs your custard ready for reheating and pouring over your microwaved desserts.”
“That sounds horrible,” said my editor.  A sub-editor walked past her and spat in her bin.
“No spitting!  See what you’ve done now!”  She glared at me.
“Fine, I’ll go review your restaurant,” I said.  Leaving the office seemed like a good idea all of a sudden.
The restaurant called itself Just Desserts and I tried very hard to smile at the sign, but unlike the middle-aged matrons waddling in in front of me I couldn’t find such an obvious pun funny.  I waited while the maître’d seated them at a round table, politely deflecting their comments about his marital status, their attempts to show him photographs of their offspring, and the occasional sly hand attempting to pinch his bottom; then he approached me.
“Table for one?” he asked, his voice sepulchrally deep.  I half-smiled and nodded.  I pointed to a two-seater table in the middle back of the room.  “That one would be nice,” I said.
“That’s our Valentine’s table,” said the maître’d.  “How about I seat you outside?”  It was single-digit temperature even sat out of the wind, so I demurred.  “Very well,” he sighed.  “Try and look romantic while you’re sat there please.  If anyone asks, your date went to the toilet half-an-hour ago and you’re still waiting.”
I refrained from comment, just in case he still thought he could make good on seating me outside and sat down to look at the menu and the dining room.  The dining room appeared to have been done a new designer who hadn’t yet learned how to tone their urges down a bit.  The seats were opulent and deeply cushioned, and I sank at least three inches into my chair.  The table was solid mahogany, mostly concealed by the pristine white linen tablecloth, and the napkins were so heavily starched I could have shaved with the creases.  The room had a high ceiling, in the corners of which plaster cherubs were floating and molesting grapes.  There were only a few other customers, the largest table being that of the matrons who were now being noisy and getting drunk on Eiswein.  I looked at the menu.
Rawberry Horecake read the first item, so I stopped and read it again.  I read it a third time, and then raised a hand.  A waiter appeared as though I’d announced my intention to leave without paying.
“What’s this?” I said, pointing.
“Rawberry Horecake,” said the waiter.  “Should I read the rest of the menu to you too, Sir?”
“Thank-you, I can read,” I said.  “I just can’t guess what that’s a typo for.”
“It’s not a typo, Sir,” said the waiter.  “That’s the name of the dish.”
“Then what on earth is it?” I asked.
“Have you heard of Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm?” asked the waiter, and I nodded, only to regret it when he finished talking ten minutes later.
“I’ll take one to go, thank-you,” I said.  I’d leave the dessert on my editor’s desk and hopefully discourage her from any more mad notions of sending to review these places.  Suddenly the industrial custard didn’t seem so bad after all.  I licked my lips.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The constant moment

Each one was a constant moment, a frozen instant in time.  They were laid out like an exhibition in a gallery even though it was technically a room in Ms. Blunt’s laboratory.  And what no-one told you was that if you tried to touch one of these moments, or you accidentally brushed against it, or someone jokingly pushed into it, then you fell into the moment itself, and were held there, an invisible observer of what was happening until someone on the outside pulled you out.  Usually it was Ms. Blunt herself who pulled you out, and gave you a little lecture, admonishing you for your insensitivity to what was on display.  Then afterwards you were intercepted by a quiet little man who seemed innocuous until you tried to push past him, when he took your elbow in a grip like steel and escorted you off to another room whether you wanted to help him or not.  This room contained someone else, and it varied from day to day, week to week.  It also contained a comfortable leather chair with strong leather straps, and you weren’t allowed out of that chair until whoever was in the room with you was satisfied that you’d told them all about the constant moment.
“So you were in moment 930-C this time?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t see what it was called.  Someone just pushed me into the room, and when I tried to get out I was thrown–“
“There was no-one with you.  We have the security camera footage, it clearly shows you walking into the room, looking around the exhibits and then stepping into 930-C.”
“You don’t! You can’t have, because it didn’t happen!”
“We have.  You’ll be shown it before you leave.”
“…damn you, why are you doing this to me?  It’s persecution, you keep pushing me into these moments, these other times.  Why can’t you pick–“
“Describe moment 930-C to me.”
“Why can’t you pick on someone else for a change?”
“Describe moment 930-C to me.  Please.”
“We’ve been here before, haven’t we?”
Haven’t we?
“So will you describe moment 930-C to me?  Or do I need to persuade you?  Again.”
“There’s the ringing of a bell when you enter, it’s quite loud and… harsh, I suppose.  It’s a get-out-of-the-way bell, not a church bell or anything like that.  It’s a definite move-move sound.  There’s a smell like, I don’t know, an animal, something big maybe, sweaty.  What?  Yes, it could be a horse, I’ve never sniffed one of those.  There’s that, there’s the bell, and then there’s the heartrate.  Your heartrate just shoots up and you start panting for breath and sweat springs out on your head.  It was like I’d been running in a race or something.  I felt kind of terrified, but I didn’t know what I was terrified of.  There was screaming, off to my left I think.  Maybe in front of me too.  High-pitched, more like women than men I think.  Men tend to bellow when they scream don’t they?  Well I don’t know, I don’t scream.
That’s when I started looking around, and I realised that there’s this big tram-like vehicle and its bearing down on me.  It’s too close, I can’t get around it from where I am, and it’s not slowing down.  I remember looking down at the ground, wondering if there was enough room for me to lie down and have it just go over me and there wasn’t, there was this big decorative panel all the way around that would catch me up like a cow-catcher and push me along.
The bell keeps ringing the whole time you’re in there though, it’s incessant and it gave me a headache after a bit.  Then the headache pounds in time with the bells rings– What?  Oh ok, the pealing of the bells, but it doesn’t sound anything like a church bell you know?  It sounds more electric than that.  Bells can’t really buzz, can they?  Oh fine, you write whatever you want.  It’ll be just like your camera footage of me volunteering for your little experiment.
The bus thing, the vehicle, it gets closer while you’re in there.  Everytime I looked at it it had inched closer.  Not by much, but every time a little further.  It’s really scary, because you can’t move.  The people around are moving too, equally slowly.  They’re getting out of the way, it’s like they know what’s going to happen too. I don’t know, there’s an air of… is sacrifice too weird a word?  It’s like it’s deliberate but no-one asked me if I wanted to take part.”
“I would recommend that we close 930-C down for the moment.  We can reopen it later when the constant moments are better understood.  He definitely saw movement within the moment this time, and that can’t be called constant, can it?”
“We’ll think about it.  Write your recommendation up and submit it to Sheila, she’s back from holiday now.  Next, when do you think he’ll be ready for moment 940-A?”

Thursday, 16 May 2013

The frog prince

“I wish to sue!”
“I wish I were Sue, too,” I said.  We looked at one another, our gazes holding like water in a sieve and both asked, “What?” at the same time.  She spoke louder than me, so I guessed I had to answer first.
“Sue’s just been promoted to Principal Investigator here at Märchen Dice,” I said.  “I wish I’d been promoted.  The extra money and two weeks holiday would suit me just fine right now.”
“Oh.”  She looked a little bit taken aback, so I took the opportunity to look her over.  She was tall but she was wearing heels so it was hard to gauge her real height.  Her shoes were bright red like Dorothy’s from the Wizard of Oz, and it looked like she’d stepped in something messy too.  Her stockings were black, sheer nylons that caressed her calves and eventually disappeared under her skirt, which was midnight blue.
“Are you finished?” she said, and I looked up.  She looked disapproving.
“Sure,” I said.  “Are you?”
“I’ve not started.  I wish to sue, as I’ve already told you.”
“I’m not a lawyer,” I said.  “I know a few though.  You need a reference?”
“Hardly!  I know you’re not a lawyer, but I need evidence before I can sue, and you people do that kind of thing, don’t you?  Collect evidence, stalk victims and suggest strongly to people that they should be careful what they say and do?”
“That’s a way of describing it,” I said nodding my head.  Sue wouldn’t approve, but I’ve used various methods to get data that she wouldn’t approve of.  That might be, in part, why she got the promotion and I got to sit at my desk on a Friday afternoon wishing I could go home already.  “Who do you need information on, and what have they done?”
“He’s a frog,” she said.  I rocked my chair back on just two legs, grabbed the edge of the desk for support, and tried to look cool.
“Frogs aren’t easy to sue.  Mostly on account of them not being human in any sense, so not something that you can bring a request for justice against.”
“Hah, he said you’d say that!”
Now she really had my attention.  I lowered the chair back down to the ground and looked her in her eyes.  It turned out that they were brown; I’d been expecting sea-green or electric blue.  I wondered for a moment if she wore contacts, and then wondered why anyone would pick brown as the new colour for their eyes.  You might as well pick ‘mud’ as the new colour for your skin and ‘zombie’ as your new lifestyle choice.
“This is a talking frog?” I asked.
“Well yes, duh!” she snapped back.  I smiled a little.  I’ve been tracking reports of a talking frog for over three years now and have a half-empty file on them.  Or it.  I’ve never been able to find out if there’s just one, or if there’s a gang of them.
“I’ll take the case,” I said.  “Tell me more about this talking frog.”
“Well, he’s a were-frog,” she said.  She was giving me a look that said she thought I was acting suspiciously, but the tone of her voice said that she was pleased that someone was actually listening to her instead of laughing and sending her to the Bethlehem Hospital for the Curably Insane.  “He claims to be a Prince, which is where the law-suit comes in, and he claims that a kiss will transform him from a frog to a man.  As a Prince, he says, he’s heir to a small Kingdom north of The Wall and he’s willing to marry the woman who can turn him back into a man.”
“Sounds reasonable,” I said, while thinking it sounded insane.  Then again, if a frog started talking to me I’d probably listen to it, if only to find out what form the madness was taking.
“Yes well.  What he didn’t say was that a second kiss would turn him back into a bloody frog again!  I want him sued on false pretences, or illicit marketing, or breach of the Sale of Goods Act (1974)!”
“Could be tough,” I said, slightly surprised at what she wanted.  “If he didn’t say that the change was permanent it could be held to be a case of caveat emptor–“
“I thought I was hiring you to work for me?”
“–which we’ll have to make sure he can’t rely on in court,” I finished.  Sue might have been proud of me if she’d heard me at that point.  Though she’d probably have chucked both me and the frog-kissing woman on grounds of curable insanity.  “Do you know the whereabouts of this frog?”
“Oh yes,” she said, and her lips twisted into a thin, mean smile.  She opened her handbag and produced a sealed glass jar with a dead-looking frog inside.  “I made sure he couldn’t get away!”
“Airholes?  Airholes!” I yelled.  She frowned and looked annoyed, so I snatched the jar from her and struggled with the lid.  It wouldn’t turn.
“Don’t you go letting him out!” she screamed, coming to her feet and towering over my desk.  She wobbled in her high heels.
“He needs air or he’ll die,” I said, thrusting the jar back at her.  “Open it!”
She looked at me, then looked at the jar, and then the rosy rays of comprehension dawned across her face.  She twisted the lid with enough force to make my eyes water, and the lid popped audibly open.  The frog in the jar stirred just a little.
“I’ll put some holes in the lid, you give it mouth-to-mouth,” I said.
“No,” she said.
“Why not?  You’ve kissed him before.”
“Because when I kiss him he’ll turn into a man, and then he’ll be even shorter of oxygen.  You’ll have to kiss him.”
“He said the kiss thing only worked with women.”
I sighed.  It was clearly going to be a long afternoon after all.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

There has been a problem

“You’ve seen Belladonna?”  Dr. Rosendieb leaned forward in his chair, steepling his hands in front of his lips.  His eyes were wide and he looked slightly maddened.  “Our Lady of…?”
“Seen her, spoken to her, and regretted it every time,” said Phlebitis.  “She’s marginally better company than Madame Sosotris, but most of the time you wouldn’t be able to tell.”
“But Belladonna isn’t real,” said Dr. Rosendieb.  “All of the best authors – Crackell, Swithburn, Malakine – agree on this.  She’s not real, she’s an archetype.  There’s an element of the sea god in her, a shadow of Poseidon on her soul maybe, but she’s just a figment of the imagination of sailors starved or dehydrated at sea.  A salt-dream, if you will.”
Phlebitis crossed his legs, resting one ankle on the other knee.  It wasn’t a comfortable position, but no position in this plastic chair bolted to the floor was comfortable.  He looked Dr. Rosendieb in the eye, wishing that the man would blink occasionally, and then wondering where his first mate was.  The Doctor had ordered him brought here twenty minutes ago.
“She’s not a dream of any kind,” he said.  “She’s not exactly real, I’ll give you that.  She manifests herself through other people, but you have no doubt when you’re in her presence.  She’s unmistakeable.  And anyway, you’re here asking me about Paysmort which most people think is a fiction, listening to me tell you about the Unreal City which parents tell their children to scare them before bedtime, and you’re complaining that Belladonna isn’t real?”
Dr. Rosendieb lowered his hands and had the grace to look a little discomforted.  His eyes stopped bulging so much, and he blinked much to Phlebitis’s relief.  Then he rubbed his eyes with his knuckles, taking several seconds over it.  When he opened them and saw Phlebitis watching him, he shrugged.
“They felt gritty,” he said.  “Dry, somehow.  Yes, ok, I get that you’re telling me ten fantastic things before breakfast, but there are other sources that corroborate the Unreal City, the Lilies from the Dead Land and other things you’ve said.  Everyone says that Belladonna isn’t real.”
“Except the man who’s actually been to all those places,” said Phlebitis.  “That should count for something.”
“Maybe….”  It was clear that Dr. Rosendieb wasn’t about to give in easily.
“Where’s my first mate?”  Phlebitis decided that he’d waited long enough.  “I’ve told you quite a lot now, and I was promised the return of my first mate.”
“I don’t know.”  Dr. Rosendieb pushed a button on an intercom on his desk, a squat little box that could be locked inside the desk when he was interviewing dangerous patients.  The box squawked, and he spoke briefly to someone called Matthieu.  The box squawked in response, but Phlebitis couldn’t make out enough of the words to understand what was being said.  He avoided looking around the room, which seemed intended to make any madman’s condition worse, and to make any sane person think that they were actually mad.
“There seems to be a problem,” said Rosendieb, turning the intercom off.  “Would you like to come with me?”
“No,” said Phlebitis, “but I’d like staying here by myself less.  Where are we going?”
“To see your first mate,” said Rosendieb.  “It seems that he’s refusing to leave his room.”
The corridors of the Tiergarten were empty.  They were tiled with clean white tiles, and the walls were painted a bilious shade of green that was somehow both monotonous and calming.  After his initial repulsion for a corridor and a half Phlebitis found himself quite pleased to each new uniform corridor, and found himself getting annoyed when a door appeared in the middle of a wall, disrupting the clear, blank expanse of wall.  When they actually stopped in front of a door he felt irrationally angry for several seconds, and then he realised that Rosendieb was watching him.
“What is that?” he said, gesturing with both hands, trying to indicate everything that they’d just walked through.
“Institutional psychology,” said Dr. Rosendieb.  “It’s a subtle neurological effect that tries to get the patient to co-operate in their captivity.  If it’s bothering you, put your fingers in your ears.  There’s a very high-pitched tone transmitted through all of the corridors that increases suggestibility in listeners.  You get it at a lot of rallies, too.
Your first mate is in here.  Matthieu thinks that he might be better suited to staying here.”
Dr. Rosendieb unlocked a small viewing panel in the door, which hinged downwards.  Phlebitis stepped forwards and looked into a small cell with a jungle mural painted on all the walls that he could see.  The bed was a flat slab of metal attached by one long side to the wall.  There was a pillow and a blanket, and under the bed was a clay pot that he suspected was a chamber pot.  A pair of shoes had been stuffed under the pillow.  The room appeared empty.
Phlebitis stepped back and gestured to the viewport.  “I don’t see anyone in there,” he said.
“What?”  Dr. Rosendieb looked confused, and peered in.  “I’m sure he is AAARGGH!” he said, his words suddenly transforming into a scream.  He staggered back from the door, white-faced and one hand patting his chest.  Phlebitis saw a pair of wild eyes staring out of the hatch and then they moved backwards to reveal more of a face.  He waved once, and mimed putting his fingers in his ears.
“Are you alright, Doctor?” he asked.  Dr. Rosendieb shook his head first, then bent over slightly, putting his hands on his knees, and sucked in a huge breath.  As it came out again, he managed,
“Just.  That was a bit of a shock.”
“Yes,” agreed Phlebitis.  “Can I have my first mate back now?”
“He won’t… he won’t leave the cell,” said Rosendieb.
“Cell?”  Phlebitis’s voice was perfectly innocent, but conveyed an impression of cold, unbending steel beneath his words.
“Room,” said the doctor.  “Of course I meant room.  Look, he won’t come out.”
“May I try?”
Dr. Rosendieb handed over a bunch of keys, one key singled out, wordlessly, and Phlebitis opened the door.  His first mate, utterly naked, walked out with his fingers in his ears, and waggled his eyebrows at Phlebitis.
“I’m sure we’re free to leave, aren’t we, doctor?” said Phlebitis.
“Goddammit,” was all Rosendieb managed to spit out before they were out of earshot.

Sunday, 12 May 2013


The Canteen was a huge building whose ground floor was given over to the feeding and watering of the students of Gorillamumps, the premier school for the supernatural in the country.  Of course there were other, lesser, schools that liked to bill themselves as schools of wizardry or magic academies or sorcerous colleges, but in all of them death was only seen as an occasional problem, perhaps when a lesson got a bit out of control or a teacher was unfortunately possessed.  At Gorillamumps death was considered a criterion of admission and possession an occupational hazard.  If you couldn’t handle a minor possession every few months then you probably weren’t fit to study at Gorillamumps, and many of the students and faculty had either conquered death at least once or at least considered him the kind of old friend you invite in for a sherry and cigar before tossing a coin to see who got a piece of whom.
The ground floor of the Canteen was called the Refectory and both Lunch and High Tea were served there.  Usually there would be about eight hundred students in attendance over a period of three hours, and they would be divided among four halls capable of seating about a hundred people each.  The first floor was Breakfast and Banqueting and served a meaty buffet in the morning and hosted parties and banquets of all kinds in the evenings.  The floor above that was the cocktail reception lounge that students were generally disinvited from, and the top floor and the basement were the actual kitchens themselves.
Jermander folded his cloak tidily around him, aware that it made him look skinny and malnourished with his pale skin, his jet black hair and his sunken, reddish eyes.  However, he was a vampire and he had a certain amount of reputation to keep up.  Compared with the young mummies who were gathered in a little clique of tatty bandages and dusty clouds near him, and the Dread Young of Shub-Niggurath who were literally indescribably horrible to look at he was exceptionally presentable.  The Canteen was full to bursting.  All the tables had been moved to the side and the chairs stacked outside in the quad to make room for the gathering, and at a guess he thought that there were nearly two thousand people crowded in there.  There were still more outside; some sitting on chairs that they’d unstacked and others looming, lurking, floating or shadowing as was their particular demeanour.  It was Beltane Eve, and they were all gathered to receive a piece of Beltane cake and see who who receive the Beltane Carline.
There was a murmur as something moved near the staircase, but it turned out to just be a dislodged Right-aligned Ancient of MuMu tumbling in slow motion.  Jermander sighed quietly and relaxed a little.  He was here more because it was an ancient ceremony and part of the school’s tradition than because he wanted to be.  Four days earlier they’d had the equally ancient and venerable festival of Belting, where the older students spent the day attempting to catch the younger students and beat the crap out of them.  Jermander had planned to spend the day hanging out with the Labouring Zombies as they were slow and tended to go to pieces when chased, but they’d given him the slip around lunchtime and he’d suddenly found himself surrounded by a small mob carrying pitchforks and burning torches and his ancestral fears had paralysed for just too long.  He winced a little as he relaxed too much and his bruises started aching again.
Another murmur, and this swelled suddenly into cheers as the Butler led a procession of cooks down the stairs, each bearing aloft a Beltane cake, iced in white and yellow, to present to the gathered throng.    The Butler was in all his desaturated glory, the black-and-white of his shirt and suit pulling the colour from everything around him and making the whole world seem a tiny bit flat and two-dimensional.  His grey skin was almost like a rip in reality, and his eyes glittered like very pure diamonds caught in the glare of burning thermite.  He led the cooks through a widening gap in the throng, and came to a halt in the dead centre of Jermander’s room.
“The Beltane cakes!” he proclaimed, his voice bouncing off the ceiling and descending on the crowd.  “First come, first served!”
There was a surge as the students and faculty alike pushed forward, each eager to receive a slice of Beltane cake.  Jermander, not actually pushing himself, was nonetheless pushed forward by the people around him, and he could hear eager panting and yelping, the gasping rasps of the young mummies’ excitement, and the ultrasonic scream of the undines.  For a moment it was all a little too much and he felt his teeth lengthen in his jaw and his nails harden and start to grow as well.  Then suddenly he was in front of a cook and he forced himself back to a more human state.  The cook silently thrust a piece of cake at him, skewered on the end of a thin, lethal-looking boning knife, and he pulled it free.  Then he was jostled aside and, like a cork bobbing on the waves, gently ejected from the Canteen and outside.  There he took a moment to look around and saw Banx, a Left-aligned Ancient of MuMu who was in his Religious Studies class, standing with a couple of her house-mates.  He sauntered over, and noticed that they all had pieces of cake too.
“Any luck?” he said casually, and received a deathly stare from a green-eyes Ancient of MuMu who was pulling her cake apart between fingers as long as his forearm without apparently eating any of it.
“It’s not lucky to find the Beltane Carline, Jern,” said Banx.  She lifted her piece of cake to her ear and shook it thoughtfully.  “Quite the opposite, really.”
“What do you mean?”  Suddenly the piece of cake in his hand seemed surprisingly heavy.
“Well, whoever gets the Carline gets set on fire, don’t they?  To appease Bel the sun-god, and beseech him to rise in the morning.”
“We don’t have much truck with sun gods,” said Jermander.  “Vampires and sunlight don’t always mix that well.”
“He’s also a fire god,” said Banx.  She poked a long finger through the middle of her cake and licked it when it came out of the other side.
“Nuh-uh, we have less interest in fire gods,” said Jermander.  “Does he do anything like darkness, prayers for the desperate, animating cold bone in the tomb or preserving flesh from corruption?”
“Pretty much just a burning god,” said Banx.  “Jer, why have you taken a slice of cake then?  If you get the Carline it’ll kill you.  We will set you on fire.”
“Not you, Banx,” said Jermander, but there was worry in his voice.  “We’re friends, right?”
“Classmates,” said Banx, “and yes, we would.  It’s important that Bel is appeased.  It brings the summer back, and it’s not like the ordinary humans do much of it any more.  The best they do is pretend.”
The green-eyed Ancient made a noise like a harp gently destringing itself, and Banx nodded.  “Well, some of them do it right, but only if they’re not caught by other humans.  It’s only really placed like Gorillamumps that still get it right, and that’s important these days.”
“Crap,” said Jermander with feeling.  “Swap you?”  He held his cake out.
“Hah,” said Banx.  “You already know that I haven’t got the Carline though.”
“You’ve poked the cake a bit, but it could still be hiding in there,” said Jermander.  “Why aren’t you eating it anyway?”
“Allergic to eggs,” said Banx.  “Oh, look!”
On the other side of the quadrangle there was a sudden cry and then a young mummy leapt for the wall and tried to climb the side of the building.  Its bandaged hands gave it no purchase on the old stones though, and it fell back, only to be seized promptly by the crowd.  A moment later and there was a whumph and then a growing empty circle around a young mummy set on fire and burning like a pitch torch.
“They found the Carline,” said Banx.  “I wonder if there was only one this year?”

Friday, 10 May 2013

Everything in black and white

“How far are we walking?”  David was finally following her, though definitely slowing her down.  Isabella was used to moving quickly through the Teddybear land, wary and watchful because of the very real danger that a pack would appear and move in for the kill.  It was possible that with two of them together the Teddybears might hold off, but if they were a large enough pack she rather doubted that.
“Far enough,” she said.  “I don’t know, David, until we find a door that will let us back into our own world safely.  Almost certainly back to the cave system though, I doubt we’ll be lucky enough to find a door to anywhere outside it.”
“Who are ‘we’?”
“Keep up, David, please.”  Isabella noticed that he’d stopped again, and she looked back over her shoulder without slowing down.  “It is at least as dangerous here as back in that cave.  Possibly more so, as the people in that cave might worry about someone knowing that we were in there.”
“You said we back when you came out of the house.  Who are ‘we’?  Are there lots of you coming here?”  He had started moving again, but he was only walking.  Sighing to herself, Isabella slipped the knife from her belt and passed it through the air in front of her, feeling for the catch of a nearby doorway.
“Not lots, no.  You can only get here if you own a Brinchev Kris or are with someone who owns one, and Brinchev, to date, has made seven of them.  So there’s on the order of seven of us that come here.  Why, David?”  She thought she caught something for a moment, but whatever it might have been, it was gone when she moved the blade back again.  She moved on, holding the knife in front of her.
“Oh.  I just thought… you killed that Teddybear back there, didn’t you?  The one that was all slumped over.”
“The only one we’ve seen so far?  Yes, David, I killed it.  I’m sorry you found out.”
“But you’re not sorry you killed it?”
“No.  I know what they’re like, and I know what it would have done.  You have no clue, and no idea, and I really hope, for your sake, that you never find out either.”
“And if I don’t believe you?”
“That’s your choice, David.  Damn it, why are there no doors here?”  She kept moving, noting that the fields seemed darker here, as though there was less light.  She began to suspect that she was moving adjacent now to solid rock inside the mountain that housed Leszátor’s Cave, and stopped to scan the horizon.
“What?  Are you looking for something else to murder?”  David stumbled over the dried, rough ground of the field as he caught her up.
“Why would I need to when I have you here?”  She looked at him, not smiling, and was pleased to see a look of shock on his face.  “Where does it look lightest to you?”
“Would you really kill me?”
“Try me.  Where does it look lightest to you?”  She put the knife back in her belt, but his eyes watched her the whole time.
He looked around, and then looked around again, more carefully.  Then he pointed.  “Over there, where those trees are.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought too.  Damn.  Can you run?”
“Of course!”  He was offended.
“Good, because you’re walking far too slowly.  Come on, we need to get to those trees and quickly.”
They ran across the field, Isabella leading the way and David going slowly at first and then speeding up as he found an old furrow about as wide as his feet that he could run in.  Above them the white clouds drifted aimlessly across the grey sky, and little black shapes wheeled here and there, birds too high up to see clearly.  The grass, mostly blacks and greys, swayed as they passed, and now and then there was a chirrup of a cricket.  Otherwise, the field was oddly silent.
As they reached the trees Isabella slowed, and then stopped altogether.  When David caught her up she was looking at something on the ground in front of her, and he looked over her shoulder.  Then he turned away and threw up.
“This is bad,” said Isabella.  “This is very bad.”  She pulled the knife back from her belt, and swept the air in front of her.  The blade caught on something almost immediately, and she hissed breath through her teeth.  Then, very carefully, she delicately cut through the air and peered into what was beyond.
There was a cave, some kind of grotto she thought.  There were large white and grey crystals on the walls, splashed with red, and the rock around it was brown with old blood.  Bodies were scattered on the floor, throats cut, wrists and ankles slashed.  There was an opening in one wall, and a woman in a uniform standing there holding a gun.  She looked like a guard, though Isabella couldn’t see anything that she might be guarding.  She let the rip in the fabric of space close.
At her feet was one of those bodies; a young girl, barefoot and baresleeved, her wrists and ankles slashed.  Her throat might have been cut too, but the teddybears had clearly got to her already and the flesh from her skull had been eaten away – she could see the tooth-marks on the bones – leaving just the hair on the head behind.  She didn’t need to pick the skull up to know that it would have been broken into underneath to get at the soft tissues inside.
“We need to keep moving,” she said.  David was squatting down still, retching into the grass.  A thin string of spittle ran from one corner of his mouth.  “I don’t know how they got this body through, but it’s been found already.  They may be watching to see if anymore… food comes through, and we’d definitely fit the bill.”
“Of fare,” said David with a bitter little laugh.  “How do you know she wasn’t put through like this?”
Isabella paused.  “I don’t,” she admitted.  “But I have seen the results of teddybear eating before and it looked like this.  It’s a reasonable assumption.”
“Oh you’re just full of answers, aren’t you?  Except you haven’t got me to where you promised me you would, have you?”
“Stand up, and come on,” she ordered, trying to ignore his words.  “We still need to get out of here.”

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

William Sewell

There was absolute silence for a moment; even the owls fell silent and the wind stilled.  Then there was the soft tread of a shod foot on grass, and a young man walked into the circle of light cast by the candle.  He had floppy dark hair that fell over one eye, but his other eye was glinting and mischievous even in the candle-light.  He was wearing a white shirt, unbuttoned at the neck, and a soft red jacket that might have been velvet and was definitely too thin for the chill night air.  He showed no sign of the cold, and it was only when he turned his head to look at both of them that Janet saw the bullet hole behind his ear.
“Who commands me?” asked the young man in a voice that was both quiet and chilling to listen to.  Janet shivered, feeling as though cold fingers were walking along her spine, and her legs and arms felt unnaturally heavy.  “I am William Sewell, and I am here.  But I ask, why am I here?”
The séantist pointed a dirty finger as Janet.  “She bids you come, she would question you,” he said, his voice still firm and resonant.  “She would hear a dead man’s answer.”
“And who are you, chick?”  The man had an Irish accent she realised, but it was mostly hidden under a learned pronunciation.
“I am Janet O’Steen,” she said, lifting her head and jutting her chin forward.  “I am–“
“Ireland’s foremost logodisciplinarian,” said William, and there was a hint of admiration in his voice.  He smiled, his teeth dazzlingly white.  “I have heard of you, of course.  I am flattered that you would ask to speak with me, though this is hardly the way I would have chosen to meet you.”
“You shot yourself,” said Janet.  “It’s not like you didn’t have a choice now.”
The séantist started coughing violently, doubling up as his did so, and Janet shot him an annoyed look that he missed.  William Sewell looked a tiny bit taken aback and brushed the hair away from his face.  When he did so it revealed that his other eye was missing, all that was left was the dark socket and skin patterned as though with sooty ivy.
“I rather believe I did not have a choice,” he said, and Janet cut him off with a snort.
“Of course you had a choice,” she said.  “You had a fiancée and a brother, for all he’d run off with the fairies, and you had a wee addiction to laudanum, which I found is nothing but wine and painkillers.  You could have put the drink down, picked the pen up, and written some more.  The reviews of your poetry were getting hysterical at that point, your public would have bought any old crap you’d written.  You could have sold your shopping list for all the taste and discernment they were showing!”
“I did used to write them in hexameter,” said William nodding.  “But the addiction was a real and terrible thin–“
“It was a painkiller addiction,” snapped Janet.  “Good lord, these days everybody and his mistress has had at least two by the time they’re thirty, and there’s clinics to sort you out and send you back into the real world with a certificate to say you’re a bona fide celebrity now.  You were already a celebrity, all you had to do was put the cup down and write!”
“There were no clinics in my day!”  William was shouting now, both hands on his hips, and his hair was being mussed by a wind that neither Janet nor the séantist could feel.  “I was desperate and I was exhausted!  I didn’t want to be there anymore!”
“So you ran away and left your poor fiancée to rot in that house on the high fell, until your brother came home and married her out of sympathy.”
“What is your question, woman?  Have you summoned me here simply to berate me for the choices I made in my life, a life that is now over by fifty years, I might add?”  Out of the corner of her eye Janet could see the séantist nodding, while holding his hands over his mouth.  She suspected that his earlier coughing fit might now have been just covering up laughter.  She put her own hands on her hips, and stared William Sewell directly in his eye-socket.  Something white, it might have been a maggot, moved inside it.
“Before you died,” she said, “ you wrote a last manuscript, a suite of poems that described your feelings and why you made those choices.  That manuscript was posted to your fiancée who showed them to your brother and to a couple of other people, mostly low-class men that she was sleeping with for money, and then she put it somewhere safe.  So safe that no-one’s found it since.  I want to know where that manuscript is now.”
“Why don’t you summon my fiancée and ask her?”  William stared back at Janet, determined not to lose the staring contest.
“She did,” said the séantist suddenly, his voice still deep and resonant.  “And your brother.  And then your father, to complain about your brother.”
“You’ve spoken to daddy?” William looked suddenly uncomfortable.  “What kind of woman are you?”
“Determined,” said Janet quickly, getting in before the séantist.  He looked slightly crestfallen.  “So where’s the manuscript?”
“Why was poor Clarissa sleeping with low-class men for money when she was married to my brother?” William looked as though he was only just hearing what Janet had said for the first time.
“He ran straight back off with the fairies,” said Janet.  “He only married her so that the family name wouldn’t be tainted by your killing yourself.”
“But what he was doing was–“
“Aye,” said Janet.  “But that was less shameful, at least in his eyes.  The manuscript, ghost.  Where is it?”
“If I tell you, it cannot be published like it is.  It must be edited first.”
“Of course!  I’m not releasing the unedited version, that wouldn’t make me any money.  I will edit them myself.  You were always sloppy with your metre anyway, and I wouldn’t want to be associated with anyone who tried to make brougham and croon rhyme.”
“You have a wicked tongue in you head, chick.”  William shook his own head.  “Well then, I shall tell you, and you shall promise never to summon me back from the dead again.”
“Fine,” said Janet.  “Hanging around graveyards in the middle of the night isn’t my cup of tea anyway.  Tell me.”

Monday, 6 May 2013

The low form

Cecily picked up the piece of paper using a pair of tweezers, and shook it at Martin.  “Where did you get this?  Exactly?”  She laid it down on her desk again, a large wooden bench with a laptop at one end and a set of labelled petri dishes pushed to the back.  This was her laboratory, which she shared with five other scientists, none of whom had fewer than two Ph.Ds.  Martin, perched on an uncomfortable lab stood, swallowed hard and looked at her.  His hearing was still a little fuzzy and his ears ached in any temperature below 25C.  He was carrying a pair of ear-warmers in his hands, having taken them off when he came into the lab.
“The Tailor put it in front of me after he turned the radio on,” he said.  The memories were hazy as though someone had spilled acid over them and they’d been partly eaten away.  He could remember the Tailor turning the radio on, and then the next thing he remembered was a smile full of yellowed teeth and the piece of paper.  Then there was a kind of greyness when he knew he was there and hurting, and after that there were people around him again, talking to him in ways that didn’t make him want to curl up and die.  He remembered flashing lights, but he couldn’t remember if there’d been an ambulance or not.  He remembered a fast, bumpy journey while he was lying down, but not where he’d been while he was lying.  His first memories that felt like his again were of waking up in a narrow, hard bed with pristine white sheets and seeing a middle-aged woman with curlers in her hair sat at the end of the bed, watching him.
“Did he say anything to you about it?”
“I couldn’t hear him, the radio was on,” said Martin.  He shuddered; he could remember the first words, if that was really the right word to describe the noise, that had come out of the radio, and he really wished he couldn’t.  No-one should have to vomit a language out of their throat to get rid of it.
“Before he turned the radio on, did he say anything to you about this paper?  About Odnose B?”
Martin flinched so hard he fell off the stool and landed on the floor; the stool caught in his legs as he fell and ended up on top of him.  Cecily raised an eyebrow, and waited to him to untangle himself and get back up.
“You can stand if you wish,” she said.  Martin shook his head, and sat back on the stool, positioning it so he could lean on one arm on her bench.  She frowned but said nothing.
“He said… he said something about the intent of the number station,” he said.  “He said… he said I should ask what the intent of the numbers station was.  I think.  The memories are, I don’t know how to describe it.  Like when you drop a mirror.”
“Crazed,” said Cecily nodding.  “Yes, Odnose B does very strange things to the mind.  It wouldn’t be surprising if your memories were all hazed and cracked like a mirror really.  The agents say you were in there with the radio on for at least six minutes.”
“Was it that short?”  Martin looked astonished when Cecily laughed.  It was a modest chuckle at first that turned into a full roar of laughter as she saw his expression.
“Didn’t anyone–?  Really?  Oh.  Well, in our animal experiments the rabbits and mice die after about 90 seconds, and the primates don’t do a whole lot better.  We’re trying to get hold of a gorilla but it’s not easy.  It might be easier now we can show that human subjects have lasted six minutes without death though.  Six minutes of Odnose B is a fairly accurate description of eternity as I understand it.
Look Martin, did you read this note?  Do you know who wrote it?  It says here that there are high and low forms of Odnose B and that what you were listening to is the low form, and that’s why you’re here.  I really, really want to know everything you know about this note.”
Martin swallowed.  “Look, I think the Tailor wrote it, and I can remember a smile, it might have been his.  I don’t know anything else about it though, he just put the note in front of me and I had to really concentrate to try and read it.”
“The agents said it was clenched so tightly in your hands that they had to give you a muscle relaxant to get it away from you,” said Cecily.  “It sounds like you knew it was important at least; did the Tailor say anything to make you realise that?”
“I don’t think so,” said Martin.  He blinked, his eyes slightly unfocused.  “No, he didn’t say anything about the note being important.  I think he just left.”
“No-one saw him leave the building, Martin.  We don’t know where he went, or how he got out.”
“But we had it surrounded!”
Cecily said nothing, but put the note into a little plastic sleeve using her tweezers.
“We’ve suspected that there’s something odd about Odnose B for a while,” she said.  “The texts we have disagree in places where we think we understand what’s being said, and there are substitutions that aren’t regular or maintained.  If there really are two forms of the language, then that might help us work out which is which.  But, and it’s big but for us, why are there two forms?”
“Two different kinds of speakers?” said Martin.  “I dunno, posh people talking and common people?”
“Speaking a language that kills the speakers and the people who hear it?”
Martin stared at her.
“We can’t even figure out how this language developed,” said Cecily.  “Or rather, our answers so far are almost as disturbing as the wretched language itself.”

Saturday, 4 May 2013


When Rufus found the old torch bracket on the wall and lit the torch in there they’d all reacted.  Angelica had stepped backwards with a hissing intake of breath, and had stepped heavily on Rufus’s instep.  He’d shouted, then tried to stifle it as quickly as possible.  Darwin had twitched, accidentally loosing the arrow he’d had nocked in his bow for the last twenty minutes, and it disappeared in the gloom and clattered against something solid.  And Missy, who’d been using hereditary infra-vision to check for hot-spots in the darkness ahead, groaned softly as the sudden heat-source wiped her vision out completely and blinded her for several seconds.  Which was why, when the first animated skeleton loomed from the darkness, its bony feet scratching against the floor like rats running around and a cloud of bone dust puffing out from a jaw bone that flapped as it moved, she had no clue and didn’t move at all.
The skeleton reached for her, an amber glow at its bone-hinges holding it in a roughly human shape and letting it act as it had when it was alive.  The ends of its finger-bones glinted suddenly and then steel blades slid out, stopping after three inches, a mere two inches from Missy’s face.  Its skull spun abruptly round through a full circle and deep in its eye sockets the amber glow seemed to intensify as though it had found a purpose.
“Do something!” yelled Darwin.  He had dropped his bow and was wrestling with the strap on his scabbard, trying to get a dagger free.  The quiver on his shoulder was rattling as the arrows in there were bounced around by the panicked ferocity of his actions.  “She can’t see!”
“It’s hardly a cause for panic,” said Missy calmly.  “It’ll come back in a few minutes, if we can just wait here a little I’ll be fine again.  I wish you’d warned me, Rufus.”
She turned her head to face the wall, thinking that Rufus was in that direction, and the skeleton’s blade fingers sliced through the air where her cheek had been a moment earlier.  It took a step closer so that she was now completely in range.
Rufus, his fingers shaking, pulled a range of brass amulets out from around his neck where he wore them each on a separate leather thong.  There were about thirty, hopeless tied together and tangled with one another, and tried to sort through them.
“Do you think it’s Christian?” he said, turning over a dirty coin with a picture of a benevolent long-haired man holding his hands out on it.
“Lethal, I should think!” yelled Darwin.  “Why you don’t ask it?”
Angelica finally moved, lowering her hand from her mouth.  She stepped forward, raising her shield arm and pulled Missy away from the skeleton and in towards her.  Missy stumbled, having had no warning, and fell against Angelica, but the difference in size – Missy was fragile and elfin, while Angelica was more muscular than a barbarian warrior fresh out of the mountain battle-camps – meant that Angelica barely noticed.  The skeleton’s fingers rasped across the surface of a the shield, a beaten thin metal plate bound to a cured animal hide stretched over a wooden frame.  Angelica made sure that Missy had her footing back, and then body-checked the skeleton. The shield slammed into it with Angelica’s full weight behind it, and it went over backwards, clattering to the floor.  The dull amber glow was the only thing she could see in the gloom, but the fact that it was persisting told her that the skeleton hadn’t been inactivated yet.
“Nice one!” yelled Darwin finally pulling his dagger free.  He bit his lip and sliced down his left fore-arm with it, raising a thin line of blood.  The blood seemed to run away from his arm, away from gravity, and onto the blade of the dagger which glistened oilily, darker than before.  There was something hypnotic about the blade now, and Darwin closed his eyes to make looking away from it easier.
There was a rattling, scrabbling sound like hundreds of rats.
“What’s going on?” Missy sounded uncertain now, and she was feeling around her for a wall or something solid to grab.  “What’s that noise?  Why did you grab me?”
“Skeleton,” said Rufus, still sorting through his amulets.  Somewhere in the pile he was sure he was seeing a flicker of blue-white light.  “Angie’s got it though,”
“I’ve knocked it over,” said Angelica.  “It’s getting back up.”
“Oh,” said Missy.  “Oh, well give me a moment, if I can just get my vision back….”
“I don’t think we have a moment,” said Angelica.  She took a half-step back, bracing herself.  The skeleton lumbered into the torchlit circle again.  It swung at her with its blade fingers, which she easily blocked with her shield, and then she realised that its other hand was now swinging in from the other side and was carrying a morning star, a spiked ball on a chain attached to a wooden handle.  She cursed and ducked, forcing her shield down and forward to stop the skeleton from freeing its first arm before she had time to recover.
“OK, I think I’ve got one,” said Rufus.  “I think it must have Za’atavin in life.”  He tugged at an amulet over which tiny blue-white sparks were crawling and its thong simply tightened the knot.  “Damnit!”
There was a sudden movement and the skeleton halted.  The morning star, still swinging under momentum, bounced off the back of the shield, doing no damage.  Missy looked up, just in time to see the amber glow fade away and the bones blew apart with a soft, quiet bang like a paper-bag being popped.  Pieces of bone the size of finger bones rained down on all four of them.
“Got it,” said Darwin appearing just behind where the skeleton had been standing.  The dagger in his hand seemed blacker than the darkness behind them.  “All held together with magic.”
“Well yes,” said Missy, looking toward his voice but still blind.  “It’s not like they get up and wander around without magic, is it?”