Monday, 31 March 2008

bees (3)

This is part 3.
See all parts...

A car, dark and oversized, stops outside my house. This time I am expecting it. I watch the man, short with a slightly furtive look that is barely hidden by the good suit and haircut, get out of the car and say something quietly to the man at the wheel. I watch him walk up my short path before I go to the door to let him in.

"Gordon." I say. "Come in."

He smiles, although his eyes betray a reluctant pain. It is hard to know whether it is his usual troubles at home or something altogether larger. Close up I see that he is aging well, a touch of distinguished grey frames his temples and his aging skin seems to be bringing out a nobility that was lacking when we first met.

We go through to the kitchen. The remnants of the tea I had been making earlier sits there, almost cool. I offer to make him a cup but he declines. He wants to get straight to business.

I explain everything that happens and he listens quietly, nodding every now and then or asking for a word of clarification. Finally he blows out a long breath and reaches into his pocket. From it he pulls out a photo. It is blurred and and creased but it is unmistakably the man who has taken my machine.

I simply nod affirmation.

"It's no fault of yours, old man." He tucks the photo away again, neatly. "He used to be one of ours. That's why he knew about you, and the codes to use, although how he got hold of them is another matter."

"He worked for the service?" I ask more for confirmation of my amazement.

"He was a good man, we thought."

There is a knock at the door. Outside it stands the driver of the car, also dark suited and with anonymously handsome features.

"Sir." He calls quietly. "Major Lestrade, a call has come through on the radio. They say he's been spotted, on the road back to London. They are waiting for orders."

Sunday, 23 March 2008


The bus stops at a gaudy sign with a painted picture of a monkey. The Chinese students get off excitedly, their cameras blinking to record everything they see. A line of deep red mountains, barren and scored with hideous black scratches, forms a line along the edge of the road, stretching off towards the west. Sam looks out, interested to see what has got everyone else so excited. The other foreign students look tired and bored, eyes blurred from trying to focus on pocket games or study manuals in the jagged motion of the bus.

“What is it?” Devers asks Sam.

Sam shrugs and gets up, dropping through the doorway into the chill air outside. The driver is already stood there, watching with a casual insolence as he smokes a cigarette.

“Shi shenme difang? Youming ma?” Sam asks.

“Shi.” The driver replies. These are the fire mountains. The place where the Monkey King had one of his trials. Sam remembers the story and looks around. The range seems strangely small compared to how he had imagined it. It does not seem to inspire the fear and awe described in the story of Tripitaka's thirst. Sam is struck by a strange sense of deja vu in the realisation that he is tracing the steps of the novel even if only part-way. Now the Earth seems tamer than it ever has been, ground down under the spreading of human life and its desire to make itself at ease where it can. He shudders and tells himself it is the cold.

The bus shines in the brilliant light when they get on it again. Past the mountains the bus drives on for hours, through the next night and day, until they begin the slow ascent to Tibet. The bus is a copy of the ones used to ferry workers around on Mars and so it is also a part of the training. It is a long, jointed snake of metal, divided into three compartments. Two are living quarters, one of the men and one for the women. The one on the end carried their equipment and scientific instruments. They have to learn to think of it as their refuge.

Half a day into the climb up the winding road they stop at a gully. Instructor Xia blows his whistle and they assemble in a line outside the bus. He speaks first in Chinese and then Sam translates it into English for the others.

“We are now at 1000 metres. Still not so high that you will be feeling the effects of altitude sickness but it is essential that I remind you – if you feel ill effects you must tell me or one of the other masters. More than likely it will be nothing, but we have to be sure. Even people who have been up here many times before can still succumb to altitude sickness. Remember to take your meds, those little machines will keep your lungs working for you. For tonight I want you to rest and enjoy your last beer. There will be no drinking once we are on the top. Anyone found drinking, or even with a stash of alcohol smuggled away somewhere will be immediately expelled. There are no exceptions.”

The serious expression on his face suddenly breaks open into a smile. He reaches into a pocket to pull out a small bottle of baijiu and cracks it open.

“Good luck to all of us.”

He tips a little on the ground and takes a good swig. The students laugh and break up into our natural groups, a few eager ones jumping back on board to get out the supplies they had been hoarding, the rest just taking the chance to stretch their legs.

The next day the bus sets off early. Everyone feeling sore and hungover, headaches grow worse through the day as the altitude increases and all retreat into silence to avoid petty arguments. The bus creaks along a road that is so old its self-repairing nanite cover has been stripped from its pitted surface. Dark patches of concrete are scattered either side where the nanites accumulate in small hollows and against rock. Another day of driving. Eventually they arrive at the training camp.

The camp is situated in the middle of nowhere. There is only the faint dark smear of mountains on the horizon to offer any indication that the world is other than flat, grey and featureless. There is a stench of ozone and acids leaking into the air from rusted and battered equipment. The temperature hovers around zero degrees. If it were not for him being able to breath the air unaided then this is what Mars must be like, he thinks. Silent apart from the sound of the land itself, the sussuration of the wind and the sand sharing ancient secrets.

Sunday, 16 March 2008


The wind drives the rain in sheets against David's body. He winces as the cold stings his face. His legs feels tired with as his trousers quickly soak through to his skin. The path is muddy and slightly treacherous. He pauses frequently to assess the best way forwards. Calculated jumps take him over larger pools of mud and water. Occasionally he detours around them, through heather that catches at his feet. Ahead clouds skim the folding slopes and hide the horizon. His world becomes only what is immediately around him. His grandmother will be furious with him for being out here, especially in this weather, but his fear has faded. His pace quickens.
The path is now lighter, made of sand and rock as it quickly ascends and leaves the mud behind. The damp does not bother him so much. The exertion brings him to relish the feel of the rain. He reaches the peak and the land flattens off. Ahead, he knows, is a plateau that stretches for miles. The level ground is filled with the warp and weft of streams, bracken and heather. Startled, a moor hen suddenly cries out ahead of him and flees deeper into the stunted bushes. He keeps on. He is not far now.
The clouds lift slightly and his view suddenly extends over the whole of the valley. On the peak of a small lip of land the blackened stones stand out against the sky. He runs up to the first of the three and kneels beside it. He pays no attention to the damp cold seeping into his trousers. His hands run over the rough surface of the stone looking for the faint cups and spirals that remain after centuries of weathering. He feels the vibrations pass through his fingers and leans closer to listen. On the edge of his hearing he finds it, the ringing beats of the rain against the rock. A thin membrane between worlds is being shaken by the sound and sings out with an alien song. Beneath the hard surface of the stone another world is bubbling up against ours.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Archery Contest

I am Clan Ion Monkey. My name is Dao Zhou Tong.

The clansmen behind me are silent but I can feel their focus. Their energy is urging and protecting me as I face the straw target ahead. The air in the courtyard is still, untouched by gentle curls of currents stirring over the ruined brick edges of the walls that enclose us. The bow in my hands is taut, the arrow fixed against my thumb. The lacquered wood, curved reflexively in a pattern recalling compound bows reaching back three thousand years, creaks slightly under the pressure. I draw my focus to the target, although it is not so important as the lasers that mark the width of range with a ghost trail of reddened dust at regular intervals.

The sun is weak overhead. A pale touch through thin wisps of cloud. Overhead I hear the gods as them squabble, jostling for the best position to watch my dare to them. When I am ready I draw them bow back just an extra few milimetres and flick my fingers forwards to release the string with an outrush of breath mixed with prayer.

"Ho!" The judge shouts. The speed comes back almost immediately and I know I am the first to see it appear on the board. Everyone else keeps their eyes upwards a little longer, scared of the reaction, but the speed is the only thing of interest to me. "198.5" The judge announces. My clan shouts with joy. I can feel the smile across my face. So close to the limit. So close to meeting the gods' wrath. And yet I escaped. I turn, raising my arms, holding the bow aloft. I sneer at my opponent, at his choice. He had come in at only 175 before. A coward's speed. His clan is silent. We have won. I have won.

An arrow can fly from the bow in excess of 200 kilometres per hour. To do so is to bring the attention of the gods alive in the clouds that extend beyond the edge of the atmosphere and to bring death. That is the challenge. To remain in their eye, to bask in their attention, but to remain alive.

My clan shout and jeer at our silent opponents. They have been shamed. A scuffle breaks out at the corner of my vision but it soon dissipates. Everyone knows the rules. I walk towards the target to pull out the arrow that is firmly embedded through the flag of their clan, Polar Waste. I tuck the arrow away and tear the flag from the pins that held it on to tie it around my head.

"Wait." My opponent has gotten up and walked to the edge of the range, his bow in his hand and an arrow ready. I can see him shaking from where I am. I can only will him not to be so stupid as to try to beat my speed. Not today.

He raises the bow, pointing it towards me. The crowd of clansmen on both sides is silent, whispers of discontent but also appreciation of a show. I cannot show fear but I do not trust myself to speak. I just know that when I meet this guy in hell I am going to give him a bloody good kicking for killing me like this.

He strains at the bow. The point shifts with his fear and anger. I suddenly doubt he would even hit me. I don't see it launch. My eyes are closed. There is a flash of light, a crack of thunder more powerful than any I've heard from nature. I feel myself thrown back against the dummy and we both tumble to the floor. The gods are angry. I roll and try to piece together any evidence of injury. None. I look back through blackening smoke and ugly smells. It is rare for a contest to end in a death.

Then a shadow falls. The flicker of a kite overhead. The fear leaps through all of us and everyone leaps up to run, to flee before the police, or worse, get here to punish us. I laugh. I run too.

As soon as I can I get under cover. I crash through the cracked wooden boards protecting the entrance of an abandoned office. Inside is littered with debris of broken desks and faded pipe. Wong has tracked me, loyal and accurate, amongst the crowd while carrying the case for the bow and its arrows. No matter how fast we are there is no way we can go unnoticed while carrying the bow. He is shorter than I am, and fatter, a perfect guard with the bright badge of our monkey spinning around its atomic system emblazoned on his chest and the short, broad dagger tucked with a sly glint of ready action in his belt. My laughter has cut to a smile which I see reflected in his face.

"We showed them, eh?" He says.

I nod. He continues.

"198.5. That's incredible."

"I cannot believe that Polar Waste idiot decided to try it."

Wong shrugs. Despite his slightly piggish looks I have learnt that Wong is incredibly intelligent. That's why I trust him. You don't want somebody stupid looking after you. I wonder, sometimes, why someone as intelligent as him would choose to run with us. I guess he does it for the same reasons: What else is there except that moment of random choice every moment of our lives. We both know that yesterday 198.5 could have killed us, that the god flying over on his cloud at that time might have had a different margin of error, or a different expectation of what makes a threat.

Monday, 3 March 2008


The first thing he knows is the sound of braking wheels against tarmac. The second thing he knows is the world suddenly tilted at a right angle. After that there is only waiting for what will happen when his body falls hard against the road, waiting for the burning movement to stop, waiting for the pain to start, so that he can know what has happened.