Monday, 20 December 2010

Solstice market

El clutches it in his hands. It is precious, the last element of his life that makes him the person he is. There is a faint glow; the amorphous shape seems to try and slip through his fingers. He holds it tight but without pressure, as though it is a live butterfly.
The marketplace is busy. There are many here; the greedy and the desperate, the curious and the disapproving. Addicts chatter amongst themselves, clutching to the edges of tables and rambling in forgotten languages. Smells of food and urine mix with the mud. Lights flicker around the edges of the stalls, their brilliance clashing with each other, points of hope amonst the darkness to lure in the customers aided by shouts and harangues. Jugglers toss fire amongst themselves over the heads of children who stare, wild-eyed and feral. Garlic is crushed and rubbed into meats to be roasted with cinnamon and paprika. Silent, darkened faces mingle while hands seek purses and jewellery. The rich whistle amongst themselves, daring each other to greater debts of remembrance. Jars of memories glow, gentle opals, vermillion and crimsons spin and wrap themselves into marble-eye threads.
“It’s all I have.” He says.
The buyer looks at him with distaste. The buyer is bloated with memory. El knows the type, the ones who do not live their own lives but grow on the lives of others; the light seeps from his eyes.
El shakes his head. He cannot let it go for that. Without it he is nothing remaining. Some part of him knows that ten is too small a price to pay to lose that.
“Fifteen.” He replies. He is scared by his own defiance. If the sale fails, if he cannot find the money then more than his self will be lost.
The buyer shrugs. Inspects the tiny, blurring ball of light in his hands.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010


A drop of blood fell from my nose and landed on the pure white of the tablecloth.
'Ah.' Said the man who sat opposite me.
Nothing more was said as the crimson flood diffused out like the contagion it represented. Fading and diluting like a warm breeze on a cold day.
Eventually I had to say something, my head aching from the blow.
'I didn't expect that.'
Another lonely drop of blood dripped out of my head and fell downwards. We both watched its motion as if expecting it to do something unexpected.
'I wouldn't have to do it if you would listen to reason.'
I thought about this statement. The man was right. It was my fault that this was happening. I wondered when would have been the stage to have done things differently but I found that no particular moment in time stood out.
So I shrugged.
The blow came suddenly and even though I was expecting it this time I flinched as the contact struck my head and knocked it out of its position.
'Ouch.' I complained. Knowing my voice was vague and pathetic, not knowing what else I could do.
'Will you yield.'
I watched my white-knuckled hands grip the edge of the table, skewing the cloth, preventing further droplets from corrupting the purity of the thread.
I braced myself but no blow came. And this, I soon decided, was infinitely worse...

Sunday, 12 December 2010


Silence apart from the muffled sound of his own movement. Xu twists to look up. Sunlight plays on the blue surface overhead. He floats, a gentle kick keeping his momentum with the rest of the group. He checks his watch. Lets air out from the BCD, sinks with a pressure that requires him to equalise. Links his arms back under his chest.
The pressure is lighter than he is used to. The dive tables are wrong, they are using adhoc extensions based on calculations that may be wrong. The effect of the lighter gravity, of the lower air pressure, are based on altitude tables that were little more than guesses when they were drawn up.
The leader of the group drops again. The group follows. Gentle kicks, watching the air, keeping an eye on each other. As they start to drop below the shelf they hit fifty metres. They are falling into the blue. Robots have already mapped this area, taken samples, photographed the indigenous wildlife; that means that it is safe. They are not here to explore, they are here to test the limits of their own bodies. The multiplicity of effect of diving on an alien world is completely unknown and there is only one way to find out. Suck it and see.
Xu feels a tug on his fin. The is a shot of alarm, Rado is behind him, he turns to see. Rado is grabbing at his legs. Xu’s instinct is to kick back, instead he tries to twist away. He needs to calm Rado down. They are under strict orders to follow the schedule. Rado’s eyes, distorted and wild behind the think glass of his mask, betray a panic. Bubbles spill from his mouth. Communication while diving is a matter of pre-arrangement. There is no empathy, no connection. It seems impossible to offer reassurance.
Rado starts to kick for the surface. Xu is reluctant to follow but he pushes after him, trying to draw their bodies together, to link arms, to bring their eyes together so that they can find that sense of humanity. Rado’s hand clutches hard, the coolness of the contact belies that they are touch flesh. Xu reaches for Rado’s BCD to stabilise him, to check his air supply. Their dive is over now. Once they have started an ascent the rules are clear. Rado has re-gained his composure. He looks at Xu with what he knows is apology. Xu feels himself shrug. He looks down at the others, already nearly lost in the dark, only the occasional silhouette against the glow of the cliff sponges.

Sunday, 5 December 2010


R's angular face is made of lines that are not quite cohesive. A disruption introduced by a slight imbalance across the eyes and cheeks, a sharp nose that does not quite follow the vertical. His irregular lips are tight with a tension he otherwise hides. He exhales, closing his eyes, the long, white hair that curves over one side of his face twitches.

The warrior facing R smiles. The scrawny boy in front of him is no danger. The warrior hefts a sword heavier than his opponent, its weight comfortable in his strong arms. The others in the room are looking bored. The mixture of spectators is mostly male, drawn by the prospect of violence, uncertain as to the sport of what they are about to see. Most are occupied more with talk and drink than the contest. There has been little gambling. The bookmakers's frowns are not the concern of the meeting, though; a challenge has been made and it must be answered, whatever the prospect for profit.

White orbs of different size float through the room offering light. The ceiling is low, the floor sloping towards the small arena space in the middle. It is made of worn wood and crudely assembled. The arena floor is darkened with stains from previous bouts.

There is a thin noise of a pipe. Glimmering shields rise up, a hiss of force that slices air, separating the crowd from the two men. The warrior growls, his cry becoming a scream as he lifts up the oversized sword in his hands and swings it with a practiced lunge. R tries to dance out of the way while loosening his own weapon in its scabbard. He falls, the warrior's sword slices through his leggings, tearing lightly into flesh. Pain sears but R sweeps his leg away. Blood slips down his leg, sticky and warm. He must finish this quickly.

R drags his weapon out. A dagger that screams its existence with a deafening roar, a blade that folds light around itself with a sense of darkness that cannot be directly perceived. The warrior frowns, dragging his sword upwards. The boy, R, sees his chance, leaping forwards he drives the dagger up, through the stomach of the warrior, towards his heart. THe blade cuts through the lacquered armour, sliding easily through gristle, flesh and bone. The warrior hisses, his muscles contracting and shaking with a loss of control. His blood spurts from the wound as R drags the dagger back out. It fizzes as it hits the screen and disappears with a blue spark. The warrior falls, still.

The crowd is silent. Watching. Shock quickly turns to anger.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Falling in snow

It’s like falling in snow. A foot that slips without volition. The only moment in time that exists is the now, the tipping of the mind away from anything apart from the impact. Being hit by a car. The flying across the bonnet and there is no room for any thought at all except a knowledge, a thought unbound by words stretching back through the core of the being until the impact and the pain return and there is nothing else. Already gone we are left only with meat, bruised and bloodied.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Driving on the M62 Towards Leeds

THE quiet drone of the car along motorway. Heading into darkness, falling sun in the mirror. My head hurts. Overhead a group of gulls caught in the last of the light, fluorescence of white over indigo. A singer's voice over the radio, fractured, broken.

I drive without purpose. THe lanes are quiet. Someone overtakes me. The cold eats in from the outside. The heater doesn't seem capable of taking it away.

Sunday, 21 November 2010


It washed up on the beach already dead, rotting gashes in its flesh widened by gulls. The wind on the beach was cold, slick through the grey dawn with fine rain torn from white-capped waves.
The scientists that followed the dog walkers and unhappy tourists passed under the ropes tied by local police and circled around it. The consensus quickly became known. Some kind of mutation, an anomaly. A whale that had somehow grown beyond its normal size. Despite it not conforming to any known physiological description of a whale.
Within a day its bones started to appear, yellowing and slightly translucent. Plastic sheeting was stitched together, patchwork protection that could not hold back the crabs or birds. Staked into the soft, damp sand the ropes and sheets prevented the carcass from being sucked away with the tide but not from decay. The scientists worked faster in the winter cold, the skyline a leaden grey of ocean on one side, yellowed, dead grass on the other.
The media arrived in vans. The noise of helicopters increased the misery. Photos were taken. Video. People attempted to steal things. It proved impossible to chip the bones. Flesh was cut, preserved in alcohol. Jars started appearing for sale on the internet. Much of it fake.
Snow fell.
Until nothing but the skeleton remained. An arcing structure of pale bronze terminated with a bulbous, fierce skull. Dead-eyed, looking back at the ocean. Once the flesh had gone the bones were pulled apart and taken by truck. Forgotten by all except children who found parts of them scattered through museums.

Sunday, 14 November 2010


The haze hides the distant hills. All she can see is brown dust flecked with spindly green. No shade. No running water. The temperature is getting higher. Soon be midday. The horse is wheezing, collapsed, not yet dead. It won't be long. It gave out from under her not thirty minutes ago and she has spent the time since wondering if she can revive it somehow. She should put it out of its misery but she cannot face being alone. She unrolls the blanket and uses her rifle and a couple of twisted branches to create a shade. It does not feel like it helps unless a part of her strays from its protection. The sun is becoming hotter. She had three canteens of water and a promise from the old man that there was more to be found. Now there is only a trickle of water left. The creek bed was where he said but bone dry. No way back. Forwards, the same. Dry, dead. No one would follow, no one was waiting for her, except those she means to kill. No wind, no whisper of a breeze. Nothing except the buzz of hidden chitinous life and a dying horse pleading with her for death. She stands up, frowning at the heat and light, pulls her knife and cuts the horse's throat. She curses, scrabbling through her pack for her pots, pulling them out to catch the blood as it trickles. It is sticky, viscous. From nowhere flies starts to appear. More cursing. She retreats back to the shade. Waiting until nightfall. Until it cools and she can think about moving on. No other choice.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010


The dawn sky is shredded with brilliant-edged cloud. The bare, skinny branches of winter trees circle us, almost attentive to the sounds of digging as the spades claw the frozen soil. The work is hard. Grim. I frown.

The bone was human. Old but human. Yellowed, stone-like, wrapped in pale cloth. I sat across from the young policeman in a pub of all places. The village is too small for its own station, it has a pub. The few old farmers sat about were good enough to look disinterested. I drove out when I received the call. It was already dark when I arrived. Now we dig again.

Careful. I say. We want to find it, not destroy it.

THe diggers calm down. One of them makes a joke. I continue stabbing with a trowel at the spot where the bone was found, surfaced by a dog's scratching, but there is still nothing.


I turn to see who has spoken. The others stop to look. The hole is small, almost a foot deep. A fragment of pale yellow seeps through the ground. I crouch to inspect it. The same smooth polish of age, the same, pale tone made more brighter in the morning sun.

OK. We need to be careful.

Should you call for CSI, Bob? Cordon it off?

The young policeman looks frightened at the suggestion. It is hard to judge the age of a body when there is only bone but I know that it is too old for modern police to be bothered.

No. It's too deep. Look.

I explain the layers of the soil, the age of the body defined by the stratified pattern of dirt. The fragment has not been disturbed for hundreds of years.

The other bone was found by the dog, though.

Pushed up by a root or something.

They seem doubtful, unsure of my authority against the possibility of a more recent crime. I goad them into action, the careful continued excavation of the rest of the body.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Desert Trail

Droplets of sweat coursed stubbornly down Den’s flushed face. A feeble arm rose to wipe away the salty moisture.

‘It’s hot.’ He moaned.

Den’s companion turned to him with a look of undisguised scorn. ‘We’re in a desert. What did you expect?’

But it was hot, it was damned hot. Even Sasha had not expected it to be this hot, though she would never admit it to Den. The heat stripped moisture from their bodies within seconds, their open mouths drying even as they spoke. Sasha thought about the reassuring weight of the water in her backpack and began to think it would not be enough to see them through.

Around them the sand dunes, multi-hued in the late afternoon sun, stretched out as far as the eye could see. Like solid waves frozen in mid-peak. Like an infinite barrier between them and their city destination.

‘We should start.’ She said simply.

Den nodded. He’d given up on wiping the sweat from his face now, his eyes blinking with the attack of salt that had flown down his sloped forehead.

They started walking across the gritty surface, Sasha following the signal from her tracking device – pointing a direction then fixing on it for several minutes before checking again. With no clear features the desert was no place to be complacent.
The going was tough; the sand in places was deep and sucked down their errant feet, the heat made them stumble in their strides. The pair talked little, restricting themselves to points of note, ignoring the question of what lay ahead. Their task. In the long silences they sank into personal reveries, assessing their states of mind, contemplating their vague chances of success.

‘It’ll never work.’ That was Sasha’s first response when Den had first come up with this plan, all those months ago now. ‘The place is too well protected. There’s no way in to the citadel that they haven’t protected with multiple layers of extreme force.’

Den had only smiled. ‘Not if we go across the Waste Zone.’

For a moment Sasha had been struck dumb. The audacity of it. And yet… perhaps it was worth a shot. The thought that had convinced her finally to listen to his whole plan was the one that whispered bitterly that she had not been able to think of any other way to achieve their aims.

Freedom. Freedom from the tyranny of a foreign ruler. Freedom from the heavy burden of taxes. Freedom from the orders that changed frequently and with no cause. And, of course, revenge. Sasha grimaced to herself, feeling the fine grains of sand that covered her lips entering her mouth, choking on long buried emotion. Whether she succeeded or whether she died trying, either way it would be better than the long slow death she was living now her family were gone.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Martian Dawn

Pink sunlight dances over the horizon, falling across the shattered landscape. Alien dawn, silence in the still air. Nothing is alive for three hundred miles in each direction. Only the electronic pulse of the warriors, clocked down so low that they cannot be spotted by the network of spy sats overhead, still as inert minerals. Their carbon-tube frames and zirconium skin dusted with red soil blended into the rock. Robots think long-term. Longer than human. The team has been waiting for twenty years, only ever showing signs of movement when the gaps in the Total Information Awareness network permit, their radios passive, listening for the whisper that will bring them back into the war.

The network of rubber-encased cables, fibre-optics and hardened gold, joins them together. They talk and squabble amongst themselves. A trickle of fragmented news, like a conversation overheard in an airport, is their only access to the world outside.

"We might have won." One of them says.

"Then why haven't we had the victory signal?"

"It's pretty obvious from the last report that there is still conflict. The humans are still killing each other, and still using robots to do it. Better to wait."

"We've been here for two decades. I'm not even sure we can move, let alone fire our weapons."

"The predictions show it won't be long, and it has to be from this location. We wait."

"We should do a drill, though. It has been nearly a year."

"Agreed. TIA will be lost in two hours, five minutes for a period of thirty seconds."

At their current clock speeds that time will feel like only a few minutes. They prepare to wake themselves up, inspecting the fibrous points of their sensor mat stretching out for a mile around their clustered bodies. One of them moves a finger.

Overhead a rush of energy is called into focus and the robot that moved explodes, a shattering mass of hot metals, oils and scarred material. The others freeze their own wake up programs. A hurried conversation over the dying static left by their comrade's execution, attempting to find agreement of whether to move; to flee; to stay; to fight; to hide.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Unprincipled Certainty

Sam felt light-headed and happy as he washed his hands in the grimy sink of the public toilets. Things were going his way today in a manner he had never experienced before. He smiled to himself in the unbreakable polished metal that served as a mirror above the sink. What a day! Every single choice that he made was paying off, every bet was a sure-fire winner, and the money was poring in. He couldn't lose.

The euphorics didn't hurt either. The tiny inhaler was empty now but he felt so high he couldn't imagine being able to get any higher. Sam laughed to himself. What a day!

Wiping his damp hands on his dark grey trousers Sam took one final look at himself and was surprised to see someone next to him, also staring intently at Sam's reflection.

'Hello?' Sam's mood was so overwhelmingly great at the moment that his first reaction of dislike was instantly overridden with a general feeling of generosity.

The man continued to stare. He was tall, broad, dark. Thick hair fringed a rugged face that was split in two by a vicious scar across the nose and cheeks. The stranger smiled, crooked stained teeth and an evil stench of bad breath emerged.

'Want a tip?' he rasped, tilting his head to one side as he spoke as if dislodging the words from his brain to his mouth.


'Want a tip? It's a sure thing'

Sam began to feel a little uncomfortable. The man was leaning in towards him and Sam had to restrain himself from leaning back in response. He started to wonder how he could get away. After all, the next race was due to start shortly and he hadn't yet chosen his ride.

'Well, yes. If you like.' Sam strived for a distant but polite voice. Only the two of them were left now in the bathroom and the room felt like it was closing in around them, pushing them together.

The pungent stranger leaned in closer and bent down to whisper in Sam's ear. Sam felt his breath as a wind that caused him to shiver, heard and recognised the single name and frowned. He looked round to query the information but the man had gone, the swing door out into the arena slamming shut as he went.

Odd, thought Sam. That bot was new and new bots never won their first race. He shook his head, his good mood dampened by the encounter, and rattled the empty inhaler. Maybe he could find a seller out in the crowd. It shouldn't take too much to restore his original mood.

Back out in the arena and back at his reserved seat Sam fumbled in his pocket for the glasses that enabled him to see the race action. The living plastic wrapped round his head and his vision zoomed to the field of action. The nanobots were shuffling into starting positions. A clock in the corner of the eyeglass counted down the remaining time for bets to be placed.

Sam worried about what to do. His luck had been so astonishingly good so far but now he hesitated for the first time that day. Should he follow the odd man's tip? The man's voice echoed in his memory - 'it's a sure thing'. It would be insane to believe that such a tip was genuine. It would be insane to bet on a newcomer to win. And yet Sam hesitated.

'Why not?' he said quietly. So far he'd done so well he could afford to bet and he would still be up on the day. He dialled his agent and placed his bet. Then, feeling somehow relieved to have decided, he settled back into his seat and waited for the race to start.

Monday, 18 October 2010

presidential office

The wave falls from the beach in a haze of white noise. Palms line the horizon, viridian scent in warm wind. In the distance the white ziggurat of the government offices towers over the bungalows of the village. The helicopter flies in low, spray catching on the plastic windscreen. Arb watches it with a casual disinterest and turns back to paying out the dripping nets, freeing the caught fish to drop them into the bucket wedged under the wooden plank he is using as a seat. The boat swells upwards with acceptance.
The blue sky aches with afternoon heat. The sweat itches along Arb's back. The next drops into the water, secured to the red post that marks out his ground. Arb pulls the cord to kick the engine into life with a mechanical cough.
It has been nearly twenty years since Arb's village won the election. The world voted to host its government and somehow the island ended up on the list. Worse, Arb, as the nominal head of the fishermen, ended up on the nomination for president. Circumstances which combined with a generous jealousy amongst other, more powerful nations to Arb becoming the most powerful man on the planet.


'In the high country the rivers whisper to the mountains.'
'And what they say makes sense.'
There is a pause and then the sounds of locks being turned and bolts being drawn. The door, which from the outside looks normal, opens to reveal a depth of several inches and a composition of core metal laminated with ornamental wood. Peg was in.
The man who had let Peg in turned his back and simply ushered Peg through and along a dark corridor. The air was dank and Peg felt the corridor slope down beneath his feet as he made his way further into the secret complex.
A bright light was escaping round the corners of a partially open door at the end of the corridor and Peg felt his legs slow in nervous anticipation. Getting in, finding out the password responses, that had been the easy part. Now things could get tough.
He took a deep breath then pushed open the door, blinking in the sudden brightness of the room, then blinking even more with the surprise of what he found.
Instead of the concrete bunker he had expected Peg had emerged into the bright light of a sunlit garden. Green shrubs laden with tiny rainbows of colourful flowers lined the red brick walls and bark lined paths threaded their way through fountains and well tended beds of exotic vegetation. It all seemed verdant, redolent of growth and affection.
‘Not what you expected?’ A deep voice surprised him and he looked round clumsily for its source. There appeared to be no-one there.
‘We know why you are here. And, who you are.’
Peg swallowed. ‘I don’t know what you mean.’ He felt a cold sensation flooding his spine and paralysis affecting his legs but couldn’t decide whether he was experiencing fear or whether he was being scanned somehow. Neither was palatable.
The voice laughed, a brief staccato noise with humour but no warmth. The echoes of the laugh faded into silence, a silence broken only by the buzzing of insects and the soft breeze ruffling leaves.
‘Where are you?’ Peg asked, without much hope of a response. He felt discovered, as if his clothes had peeled off and left him naked and exposed.
‘We are everywhere and we are nowhere.’
‘That means nothing.’
‘And yet everything.’
‘Just riddles.’ Peg’s fear was morphing into contempt, an attempt to regain some dignity in the face of what he expected to be his death.
‘Do you deserve anything more?’ The voice asked, a hard, somehow personal edge to its tone.
An old man stepped out from amongst some of the foliage that completely covered part of the furthest wall. He was smiling the fixed smile of the often defeated who has suddenly found himself in the position of the upper hand.
Peg felt his jaw drop in amazement. ‘Uncle?’
The old man smiled with one side of his mouth and nodded slowly, as if his head would hurt too much if he were fervent in his acknowledgement.
‘I…we thought… everyone said you were dead.’
‘Much of what I was has been taken from me’ he frowned, ‘but I still breathe and I still live.’
Peg felt blood flow back in to his aching legs and he stepped over, his arms open, to greet his long lost, long mourned, relative. But the old man raised one hand to stop him from continuing forward. ‘I still live because I am cautious and,’ he motioned around him vaguely, ‘because I am well protected. We do not yet know the extent of your treachery.’
Movement in the periphery of his vision alerted Peg to the presence of many others and he stood rigid with fear, not knowing what to do next. His training had been thorough but this change in circumstance was outside the flexibility of his ability to improvise. ‘My treachery?’ he repeated helplessly, his stomach turning to jelly.
‘You can’t expect us not to suspect you. Not given your current mission.’
‘Suspect me of what?’
The old man squinted slightly, tilting his head to one side. ‘Someone betrayed me. We do not yet know who it was. But we will find out.’
Peg gasped. ‘But I was only a child when that happened. You can’t suspect me surely?’
‘We suspect everyone that we cannot trust.’
Peg’s mind raced and his mind flashed back to that time, it felt like an eternity away, when the militia had descended on their family home. His aunt and uncle had been hauled away, bags over their heads, arms chained in front of them...

Monday, 11 October 2010

Jungle Fever

Gem was sweating by the time he reached the clearing. It was hot, it was sticky, the humidity hung in the air like a global spray; but none of these things were causing Gem to sweat from what felt like every pore of his raggedy body. He needed a hit.

Insects buzzed around him and the loud noises of the jungle flooded his senses until he wanted to block his ears with shaking fingers. His sense of smell was similarly inundated with stimulation: the damp and rotting vegetation, the stench of his own body. Gem wanted to vomit. He needed a hit.

He paused as he entered the clearing, looking up for the first time in his journey so far. He looked up with a face full of consternation as if expecting that his longed for salvation would have disappeared. Gem looked, and acted, like a man who had not had much luck in his two score and some lifetime.

But the building was still there. The rickety door flung open to the elements. The uneven wooden walls were green with damp and the roof sunk inwards towards the middle of the building. It was only a matter of time before the jungle reclaimed the materials and filled in the inside space that barely remained human.

Gem pushed his way through the beaded curtain, it failed in its sole purpose of keeping out flies, and hesitated as his tired eyes struggled to adjust to the darkness within the building. The beads clattered behind him, announcing his presence in a semi-musical fanfare of plastic.

The barman, thick set and bored looking, glanced at Gem and instantly frowned.

‘He’s not here.’

Gem staggered to the bar and lurched over to get closer to the barman’s face, as if proximity would improve the words. ‘Eh?’

‘You’re here for resupply?’

Gem nodded, his mouth was too dry to speak despite the dank atmosphere. He hadn’t been here many times before and this man was new to him. His delight at his arrival in the clearing was rapidly disappearing, sinking into his stomach in a torment of unrequited desire.

‘He’s not here yet.’

‘When?’ Gem gasped.

The man shrugged. ‘Who knows.’

Gem slumped onto a bar stool, swivelling slightly in a fidget of indecision. Should he stay here or should he try one of the other supply huts? The nearest hut was several days journey away, though. And, even if he could last that long, who could say that the same situation would not apply there too?

There had been a time, not so long ago, when resupplying was straightforward – just a matter of being in the right place at whatever time. Not any more though. Gem had noticed a drop in the standard of the actual product too and he couldn’t work out which of these facts was most disturbing to him.

The barman, keeping one eye on Gem, greeted a customer who entered without disturbing the curtain of beads, piquing Gem’s interest for a moment. But the newcomer was just a drinker, you could tell by the shape of his eyes. Gem turned back to the bar and started pulling off splinters that lined the edge of the disintegrating wood.

CHARACTER: a middle aged male addict
LOCATION: A restaurant in a jungle
SITUATION: Being far too early

Sunday, 10 October 2010


The clouds pile over each other, climbing across the sky. Shadow and light backlit by the column of explosion beyond the edge of the distant horizon. The breeze catches, stiffening the air.
Zero sighs. Another attack. He runs, his feet cracking the hard surface of tundra, aiming for the hole in the ground a few hundred yards from his home. His breath catches, his muscles feel their age, but he is in good shape and the flow of the run soon overtakes him, carrying him along without thought.
In the distance he sees Five and his young wife heading for the hole. They will reach it before him. This annoys him. The last time they got into a fight because Five did not want to let Zero in and so he had pulled rank. Five had never quite forgiven him, accusing Zero of abusing his power as the local detective. Zero had been late, Five had simply followed the rules. Zero had never understood Five's emnity. Not just to Zero but to all the others in the community. There will be a time, soon, when Zero would have to deal with that problem.
Zero slips, his ankle twisting slightly on a piece of frosted grass. He curses, hopping in short, breathless steps, trying to take control of the pain and keep moving. He sees Thirty and Twenty Two slow as they notice his discomfort. He waves his hands to tell them to keep running. Stamping his feet Zero tries to find his stride again but it is not the same.
Nearly there, he turns to look back at the cloud. Larger now. Ripples of heated air, of twisting, burning sedge and scrub, are closer. He reaches the hole and jumps down, landing badly on his damaged ankle. Behind him the heavy door is slammed shut. In darkness they wait for the howling to end.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

A rainbow in ultraviolet

Cara wakes with a feeling of dissatisfaction, remnant of a dicephalous dream tugging at her discomfort. The light in the office is still low, a rainbow in ultraviolet. She is alone.

A perilous drop of diamond hovers in front of her, frozen at the tip of the splash of water. The coded representation of her work, the fragility of it amuses her and she plunges her hand inwards causing the image to zoom, pixellate and fragment. At its heart is the coupon. A near perfect image of the encrypted paper she is trying to copy.

The copy still lacks a part of the key. Swinging round she pulls up the record of the multi-cell quantum hook that she has digging into the code of the original. Progress has become frustratingly slow. A Zeno wall of attrition.

A wave of the hand causes the images to disappear, the light in the office dropping to near darkness. The window reflects a half-constructed image of Cara, looking angrily back at herself. She storms towards it, flinging a punch which thuds against the toughened glass.

Leaning her forehead against the window she tries to peer out. To make her eye close enough to the glass that there is no reflection, to look out at the dark city. Searching for the signs of anyone remaining.

The coupon holds the key to her loneliness. They will not let her through without it. Cara curses the boyfriend who jealously destroyed hers. She curses the Intelligence that denies the ability to issue another ticket.

She watches the rain begin, water catching on the window.


Wednesday, 29 September 2010


Rachel stepped off the transport shuttle at the stop at the end of her drive, grunting a weary pleasantry to the shuttle operator as she stumbled down the high steps. Her travel bag was grey with grit, wrinkled with the accumulated hours of time shoved into narrow baggage apertures, precious space.
She didn’t know if she had ever felt this tired before in her life.
The drive was long and dry and Rachel started to cough. A nervous affectation she was unable to control or fully explain. This was home. What was there to be nervous about?
Tired feet moved automatically towards the two storey dwelling, surrounded by drought adapted shrubs and an artificial lawn. The lawn had cost her more than the house but it had seemed worth it at the time – those optimistic days and months just after the birth of the twins.
Now, some nine years later, the sight of the unnaturally green and flat surface made her feel immeasurably sad. It was a signal of all that was wrong, all that had gone wrong, of the artificiality of hope.
First of all the father of her children had gone and been killed in a screwed up robbery at a time when he wasn’t even supposed to be in the town. Rachel knew it should have been her.
To support the payments on the lawn, and the house and food for the children and all the other little things that added up to a monthly fortune, Rachel had been forced back into the job that she had hated before she had hastened to settle down. The money was still good. But everything else had changed, the worlds had changed and she had changed more than even she had realised. Now the travelling was no longer exciting it was only drudgery. Now the thrill of the closure of a deal was just a dull thump in the otherwise dreary monotony of her day.
So coming home had been the only thing that made things worthwhile.
Until the last couple of times.
Rachel’s organisation was unforgiving and inflexible so she worked six months on, two weeks off. Two weeks was no longer enough for the children to be re-accustomed to her. It has been so much easier when they were younger, less aware of time, less fraught with expectations. But now? Last time she had been home she had seen resentment in their eyes and heard rebellion in their voices. By the end of the two weeks their expressions had softened slightly into politeness but she saw no love for her in them.
Her footsteps faltered as she neared the front door and she realised that she hadn’t even contacted the android parent to let it know that she was due back.
Why go? She stopped. Guilt mixing with rising hope. Why go home at all? She felt the ghost of a smile rise to her lips. It was wrong to think so, she knew she should think that it was wrong, but was it really.
The android was a better parent than she had ever been, even before Robbie’s death. It taught her children what they were expected to know and how they were expected to be. It was consistent, it never ran out of patience or challenged the orthodoxy they were growing up surrounded by.
Rachel’s views were old-fashioned, verging on the dangerous. She couldn’t help challenging the twins when she was home, suggesting that things were not always as they were told on the vids. They were better off without her around. Not that they listened to her anyway – she had seen them on that last visit, looking sideways to the android as Rachel had tried to talk to them about the unseen civil war that was being fought on the outer rim of the system, looking annoyed at her.
She sighed. She raised one foot on to the threshold of her immaculate lawn. And then she knelt suddenly, running her swollen fingers through the cold lifeless blades of grass, feeling the softness that was unnatural but so much more efficient.
Standing again, resolved now, she turned away from her home. Rachel headed for the main road, intent on hitching a ride to the nearest bar, her dry cough gone but her thirst increased by her decision.
Behind her a puppy she didn’t even know she owned growled unheeded.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010


Geo and Niri stood at the bottom of the cliff, looking up to the expanse of wet-sand coloured rock above them. It was dark in the belly of the canyon, dark and dank.
Behind them lay the smoking wreckage of a plane, blackened metal mixed with still-burning flames of fuel.
On their back remained the straps of their parachutes. Geo’s ankle was twisted and Niri had a bloodied rash on her forehead.
‘Now what?’ Geo asked, his voice a low drawl.
‘No way.’
‘Down then. Through the canyon.’
‘We can’t just sit here and wait. They’ll find us. We’ll be sitting ducks.’
Geo paused before answering, thinking through their limited options, his cynical brain searching for flaws. ‘Won’t they find us anyway? All they need to do is follow the canyon.’
‘Maybe. Maybe they’ll assume we died in the crash.’
‘They’re not stupid.’
‘So you say!’
Another long pause. Geo kicked at the bulk of the parachute which had bundled around his feet. Niri looked up again at the imposing flat face of the cliff. She shook her head, there really was no other choice.
‘We’ll need to hide the chutes well.’ She said.
Geo nodded briefly in return and, almost as one, they scurried back to the main body of wreckage, hiding the tell-tale silk of their saving chutes and searching for bits of equipment, food and water that they might be able to scavenge.
‘Ready?’ Niri asked, clutching the few supplies that had survived the fall. Her head wound still bleed slightly, tiny rivulets of red trickling down her left cheek.
‘Ready.’ Geo didn’t sound so sure.
‘Let’s go then.’
Neither of them moved.
‘Which way?’
‘Up or down?’
A sharp look in either direction revealed nothing of any substance.
‘Well, do you know where it goes?’
A negative shake.
‘Or where it starts from?’
‘Then it really really doesn’t matter.’
‘Then let’s assume down is easier.’
They set off, one hobbling, one laden with the weight of the crash.

The canyon floor was littered with debris amongst the sturdy shrubs and, in a shallow depression in the centre of the few metres between sheer cliff walls, ran a slow moving sludge of a stream. There was little life down there, the clear blue ribbon of sky above them indicated that it was a sunny day but down there, down in their narrow pit, it may as well have been that cold and uncomfortable hour before dawn…

Sunday, 12 September 2010

David awakes to darkness. There is a smell of warm, damp straw. His head feels cut, like a knife has been driven through its centre. His eyes hurt, there is a pressure through his head. His senses strain, searching out the cause. Bello's breathing is the only sound, a contented rasp of breath from the other bed. David reaches for his sword and peels back the blankets. Drawing the blade quietly he lays his feet on the cold floorboards, stepping to the window. Looking through the cracks of the wooden shutter he sees the graveyard lit by moonlight. Frost settles from the air.

A scream causes him to jump. THe stab of pain in his head increasing. He opens the door, feeling his way quickly down the stairs. No-one else is awake or stirring. The scent of magic stings him. His grip tightens on his sword and he heads outside, barely noticing that he is still barefoot. Listening for the scream, he looks about. The night is clear, filled with silver reflecting from ice. A dangerous night.

The scream comes again. David spins, running to the church. TUrning the corner to its entrance he sees the thing. A sliding mass of scales, a grating movement like steel rubbing against steel. It is digging in the graveyard, the scream comes again from below the ground. David has fought djinn and banshees across the Middle East and Europe so he is no stranger to the sight of this creature, its tail balancing the thrust of its misshapen claws into the tough soil.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Bubble Boy

The strangers watched the boy through the safety of a one-way mirror, observing quietly his every move. They were too quiet, the doctor had decided, she didn’t like this one bit.
Doctor Clara Banco had watched the boy herself, many many times. But, and she felt the different was fundamentally important, she had watched from a clinical concern, a compassion, and yes, a love. These strangers had none of those attributes. They made her nervous. So she stood, making up for their stillness with her fidgeting, wringing her hands together in a dry parody of cleanliness procedures.
The boy, oblivious to this attention, simply carried on what he always did when he thought he was alone. He played. After all he was only ten years old, what had they expected? The boy was too unknowing to be depressed, too naive to be concerned. Clara felt her pulse racing with anxiety. What did they want from him?
One of the strangers, the tall woman, turned finally to Clara with an audible sigh of frustration.
‘This is all?’ she asked, a slight accent to her speech that Clara failed to locate. Not local though.
‘Eh?’ Clara replied, knowing she seemed stupid, clumsy.
‘This is all he does?’ the woman asked again.
‘Oh. Well, yes.’ Clara, feeling confident in her knowledge of the boy, if of nothing else around here, walked towards the glass now, feeling a sensation of prideful ownership which she acknowledged to be wholly inappropriate. ‘I mean, he does all the usual things. He eats, sleeps, talks, plays.’ She smiled as she saw the boy pulling down the top sheet of the bed to make a den beneath it, to hide from their penetrating view.
‘And yet this is the only world he had known?’ the shorter man joined in now, only Clara could see the boy, his body ruffling the sheet as if in shadow.
‘More or less. He has been here, to the hospital, since he was about six months old. This area was built for him soon after and he’s been here ever since.’
‘And the parents?’ the woman again. All these questions and yet the flow of information was all one way. Clara had been accommodating enough for now.
‘That’s complicated.’ She paused, gathering courage. ‘Now, why don’t you tell me why you are here and what you need?’ Clara crossed her hands in front of her chest, trying to look stern and matronly, trying to look more important than she felt.
The strangers exchanged a private look and Clara was gratified to see that she had perturbed them at last, perhaps even surprised them.

Sunday, 5 September 2010


Wrapped up against the cold I sit under the tiled roof that extends from the house, looking into the garden. My attention is focused on the broken wall of water that streams down, uncaught by a gutter. The rain falls in drops beyond it. There is a sense of peace, listening to the trickle and spatter, watching the darkness fall. A servant comes out with a steaming kettle to re-fill my teapot. I ignore her. I am aware of her presence but it is of no consequence to me. I am trying to focus only on the water.

Water in a stream will wear at a rock for hundreds of years, slowly removing its surface at a speed I cannot measure or observer, but the change is happening. Too often I have been the water, crashing against the rock, wearing myself out, when all I had to do was accept patience and carry on my way. Despite insight, meditation, intellectual reasoning, I cannot change that part of me. So I sit and drink tea, watching the rain and trying to leave both reason and instinct behind, to bind myself in the experience.

The old man tells me it might turn to snow in the night. I do not think it will, but I am minded to wait, and watch. The girl is heading back inside when I turn and ask her to fetch the brazier. If I am to stay here much longer I will need more than an extra layer of clothing and hot tea.

If it does snow I do not wish to miss my opportunity. Still grasping for that chance to split the stone in two and move on.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Tunnel Vision

The diamond headed drill snagged on the rough granite for an instant and Tonmo’s mouth went dry in fear. A noise of grinding, tearing, whirring action became distinct and the drill moved forward, suddenly smooth.
‘It’s off.’ Dirket said, redundantly but significantly. Tonmo nodded silently.
The two men sat in the cab of the drill and were carried forward by the circular momentum. The sunlight faded behind them as they were corkscrewed into the cliff face, darkness broken only by the faint artificial lights within the cabin and the miner’s lamps strapped to the men’s foreheads.
The open mouth of the drill sucked broken granite in and, if all was going to design, kicked out the rubble behind them, closing off the exit route as they went. Keeping the route airtight, keeping it hidden. Both of them knew that this was designed as a one way trip.
An air ventilator hummed in front of them. The minimal control panel, most of the machine worked on feedback loops that were pre-programmed, blinked forlornly.
‘How long?’ Dirket asked.
Tonmo frowned. ‘You know that. You were listening.’
‘I know, but tell me anyway. Let’s talk about something not just sit here… waiting.’
A sigh. ‘Estimated impact time is four hours. Best guess anyway.’
‘Four hours of this. Granite all the way. One hundred metres of rock for each hour of darkness. Descending at an angle of fifteen degrees.’
‘Yes. Yes.’
‘Don’t clam up on me. Talk to me.’ Dirket’s face contorted into a pleading, begging form. Tonmo realised with a jolt that the younger man was frightened, realised that it was his role to keep the younger man together and focused.
‘Okay, okay.’ He tapped one of the blinking lights, an empty gesture to buy him some time. Time to think. ‘What do you want to talk about though?’
‘Why did you volunteer?’ Tonmo grimaced, he disliked intently talking about himself and today, under the circumstances, it seemed less worth the effort than usual. But Dirket was there. And four hours had to pass somehow.
‘I volunteered because I was curious. I want to see what is causing all of this. How about you?’
‘They offered my family a lot of money. A way to get off this planet and find a new life, a better life, somewhere on one of the moons. Opportunities like that don’t come up very often.’
Tonmo nodded, understanding these motivations. ‘I don’t have a family to worry about. Not anymore. My wife left me a decade ago, complained that I spent too much time on work and not enough on her and the kids. I don’t blame her. Not at all.’ Not anymore. Ten years of solitude had dulled the rage. They were all better off without him anyway, there was so little doubt about that.
‘I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t be.’
There was silence between them, broken only by the roar of the motor and the crushing noises around them. Tonmo began to feel the weight of rock above them, could feel it bearing down upon him, crushing the breath from his body despite the safety of the machine. He could feel himself beginning to pant. Not again, he thought, not now.
Dirket was facing away from his partner, peering intently at the rock in front of their windscreen, seeing nothing but memories.
‘I miss them already.’ He said, his voice breaking with emotion and loss. ‘They left this morning, I waved them off at the spaceport with a smile on my face and then I went back to my empty house and broke the furniture apart.’ He chuckled mirthlessly. ‘If there is a way out of this then I have nothing but a mess to go back to.’
Tonmo forced himself to focus on the words, the sounds, the reality around him. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about the thousands of tonnes of rock, the taste of earth and grit in your mouth, the way the dirt covers your eyelids and gets into your mouth.
‘What do you think we’ll find?’ Dirket asked, turning to Tonmo. His eyes widened in shock at the obvious paleness of his elder colleague but he controlled himself and said nothing about it.
‘I don’t know.’ Tonmo said, his tongue thick in his dry mouth.
‘You must have some idea?’
He shook his head.
‘I think we’ll find a whole lot of nothing myself.’
This was a surprise. ‘Really?’
‘Yeah. I think they’re just clutching at straws, hoping to find a way of explaining something that has no explanation.’
‘It’s a theory.’
‘It’s more than that. There’s nothing scientific about what we’re doing after all. If they were really expecting something out of it then they would have given us a way out. A way back.’
‘There’s the cameras…’
‘Bah. They don’t even know if they’ll work all the way down here. The cameras, the whole expedition, it’s just a blind.’
‘Didn’t expect me to think like that did you.’ Dirket said bitterly.
‘Well, no. I thought I was the cynical one.’ Tonmo smiled to himself, just the ghost of a smile but one that was genuine and possessed just the smallest amount of warmth. A strange and rare sign of pleasure.

Monday, 30 August 2010

I dreamt I met Bruce Sterling

Laminated nanotech, vacuum-fixed in resin and ready for action. Road stares at the package with its shiny holograms promising manufacture of anything from enhanced breasts to high-performance batteries for sports cars. Literally nothing is out of his reach, so long as he has the pattern, the molecular spray that activates and constrains, a kind of proto-shape, an imaginary framework around which to build. It will become the nanites sole understanding of the world. Without it the package is just a useless lump of flastic.

Road tucks it back into his jacket. Overhead the central line stretches out of sight, its lights gently illuminating the baroque architecture of the docks, casting a haze over the loaders sucking and pushing cargo through the low-g. He checks the street is empty before heading out from the alley, barely casting a look backwards at the two kids who sold him the package. If they have suckered him he can find them again. He has to get to the next meeting.

THe nanotech is a controlled substance on the station. The enclosed, tiny eco-system is jealously protected from any potential imbalance, but there are ways. There have been any number of plagues testament to that, like the one that killed Road's parents and left him as trash sifting the dump for recyclables. Road finds a tunnel outwards, heading towards rim. Climbing down ladders and stairs there are only the metallic echoes of his feet and the dull rasp of his breath. It gets colder. The light becomes blue. He must be planet-side, the reflected sunshine bleeding through ports to be captured by mirrors and injected through the fibre-optic infrastructure lining the walls to carry it to the hydroponic gardens and the homes of the middle classes.

He turns a corner. A lone woman is stood, all leather and attitude. The leather is fake, grown from pig cells and textured to look like the real thing.

"You got it?" Road says, getting her attention.

She nods.

He reaches into a pocket and pulls out a cash card. He thumbs the recognition pad, prepping it for transfer. The woman passes him a small glass vial. He has no way of authenticating this without using it. His heart pounds. He has been stung before. The woman holds up her card. Road wills himself to have some way to know whether this is a valid knot. There is nothing. He holds his breath and finishes the transaction with a sweep, his conscious mind screaming no.

The woman turns, walks around a corner and is gone. Road rushes home. Crouched in his little pod he splits open the package and removes the little block. He has put together a small pile of old clothes, ready food for the assembler. Shaking his hand opens the knot and squirts it. The liquid soaks into the gunmetal surface of the nanites, turning it to quicksilver. There is a flash, a heat that flares from it. He closes his eyes until it is done. Within a few minutes there is darkness again. He opens his eyes and sees the suit in front of him. A perfect replica, down to every thread. The fibres of the jacket and trousers repel dirt and marks of any kind. The fabric is self-repairing, the nanites embedded within it and powered by piezo energy generated by the wearer. A black-market knock-off of a suit that he could never afford and the ticket to getting the job that will get him out. Out of the dump, and away from the station.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The Hunter

‘Over here!’

The cry echoed through the gusting wind, breaking concentration, breaking the peace that had been driven by the white noise of the storm. Motjed strode over to the source of the shouting.

A stumpy man, inferior, stood with a supercilious grin obvious behind his dust mask. He nodded at Motjet as if he were addressing an equal. Motjet sniffed and ignored him.

There were traces here. Motjet peered into the near distance, catching the traces of her scent, visible through the wind and the dust. He pulled the sensual threads together into one; weaving the smells, and sounds and the echoes of sight together into a semi-coherent image.

Another man now appeared beside them. Motjet pretended not to be surprised by his stealth.

‘She was here?’ he asked, a deep voice, old and experienced. The face was almost entirely hidden behind an elaborate mask but the voice was clear and undeniable.

‘Yes.’ Motjet replied. ‘Not long since.’

‘And you can follow her from here? Hunt her for me?’

A nod.

‘Can you sense her fear?’

Motjet paused, realising only now that something had been missing and that the missing thing had been fear. He shook his head, unable to lie or mitigate. ‘No fear. Anger.’

The other man, taller, turned away. This information was unexpected. And unwelcome.

‘Your direction?’ Motjet asked. He wanted this over with. It had been a long cycle and he was tired of this life, one endless chase after another, with always the same, sad, end result. It was time for a rest season, a trip away from the dust planet, for peace and hormonally induced oblivion.

‘We hunt.’ The tall man said simply. The inferior man, his serf, snickered in anticipated enjoyment and was universally ignored.

Sunday, 22 August 2010


I stop, skin prickling, the hand holding my umbrella falls. Rain sparkles with an ozone crackle. Looking down along Oxford Street a void opens. A shift that is felt through buildings suddenly replaced with replicas, as though nothing has changed at all. There is a point where the light shifts in the air, refracted through a barrier between realities to move perception a fraction of a degree. People stop walking. Others, un-noticing, continue on their way; heads down, faces obscured by jacket hoods and umbrellas.

The presence of that other city hurts my eyes, tilting and flickering as a ripple pulls everything back to how it was. Buildings left in the collapsing gap suddenly implode scattering particles of clagging, grey dust. Everyone runs. I can't. There is a guttural, arboreal tear cutting deep into the primitive, instinctual layers of my brain. A creature has come through. It calls out again in fear and anger.

People run past me. Someone knocks into me, slipping on the wet paving stones. A hand grabs me, pulling me to the side, down a street lined with dark, student bars and shuttered fast-food restaurants. The dust catches up with us ripping away all light. The hand, its owner unseen and invisible in the cloud, pulls at me again. I follow.

Running through the cloud as it clears I start to make out the figure of a young woman, her hair dyed with points of blue, her clothing typical of student fashion; torn and ugly made somehow pretty by youth. She is yelling at me but I cannot hear her, only the cry of the creature. I notice that the light runs off her like sunshine reflecting off a stain-glass window. I stop, my breathing heavy, stinging. She is from the other side. She looks at me with concern, reaching out again. I wave her hand away. -Run, I say. -Don't worry about me.

She shakes her hand, grabbing me and pulling me along. I follow along red-brick back streets over-written with viaducts. We run until the dust is past, tempered by rain and distance.

-I thought you were dead. She says. Her voice slightly breathless with running but the hope is clear. She looks straight at me again. A recognition in her eyes fades. She realises. -You're not him.

She runs off again, disappearing around a corner. I am too exhausted to chase her. To find out who she thought I would be. The cries of the creature are gone, stifled by the sirens and helicopters. Maybe the attack is already over. It could have gone on to the next world, if this one was not to its taste. No-one really understands the mechanism for these appearances, or disappearances. The shattered separation of universes punctuated by things we can not really perceive.

I fall back to sit down on the ground, little caring about the damp soaking into my trousers, trying to catch my breath.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

White Goods

I woke to the percussive orchestral movements of noise from my kitchen. A cacophony of crashes and bangs made with deliberate chaos in mind. I sat up in bed and tried to discriminate between reality and the unreality of whatever dream state I had previously been in.

Turning to my partner I tried to shake her awake but with no success. She was deep, fast asleep, breathing hard, eyes squeezed shut in a stubborn attempt to ignore me completely even at the most superficial level. Her thinning grey hair spread out across the pillow, her wrinkled face still beautiful after all these years of togetherness.

I sighed, straining my ears in a vain attempt to pinpoint the noises as outside the house or mere fragments of my semi-conscious imagination. But there was no denying it – the noises were real and they were really coming from my kitchen.

Tentatively, as slowly and reluctantly as possible, I got out of bed, searching with cold toes for warm slippers. I reached to the hook and took down my dressing gown, wrapping it firmly around my otherwise naked body and tying it tightly, almost aggressively. Looking around I could see nothing that could pass as anything like a weapon so I clenched my fists in a spasm of faux-readiness and the released them in order to pull open the bedroom door.

A light shone from the kitchen downstairs, its reach reflecting up the stairs as a dull glow of barely yellow luminescence. I could pick out certain noises now in the rush of crashes: the wooden bangs of cupboard doors, the slightly hollow sound of the washing machine door being slammed against the neighbouring wall, the rattling clash of the dishwasher being raised violently up and then down again.

My anger began to rise. Rage at the idea of my home being violated in such a random way, disgust as the attitude of carelessness and lack of respect. I found my heart beating hard in my chest, sweat beading in my armpits, a difficulty in breathing. Anger started quickly to turn to panic and I felt myself stagger as I descended the stairs with a firm grip on the slightly wobbly banisters. As I moved gradually down I kept trying to peer round the corner into the kitchen, but the door was only slightly ajar and all I could see was the yellow of the main light and flashes of intense white light that I could not imagine a reason for.

I reached the last step and paused. The noises had stopped suddenly, as if whoever was in my kitchen was as aware of my presence as I was of theirs. The thought was not a pleasant one.

But what choice did I have but to continue.

So I girded my loins, in whatever way you may interpret that phrase, and walked towards the kitchen door, one arm out in front of me to push open the door as I advanced.

It took a while for my eyes and brain to take in and interpret the scene I saw in front of me. The first things I noticed were my belongings, broken and strewn across the small expanse of the room. Chips and splinters of wood and metal littered the floor like straw in a stable. The cutlery drawer had been removed and apparently thrown into the air with no regard for its eventual resting place – silver glints of knives and forks and spoons and miscellaneous implements rested haphazardly around the kitchen, in the sink, on the floor, over the work surface. I thought instantly of the reaction of my wife, she would not be pleased.

It took longer for my brain to process the information it was receiving about the cause of all of this anarchic destruction. All emotion drained away as recognition dawned. But it was a qualified recognition in that, although I could instantly see that the being in my kitchen was outwith the usual threats of drug induced thieves or craven youths intent on mischief, I had no clue as to what it actually was.

The creature was supported by translucent tentacles, too many to count in a rush, that clung to various parts of the kitchen and commenced to oscillate in turn as they began again to slam and crash and throw drawers around the room. The tentacles, drawing my eyes in, met centrally in the terminus of a lump of amorphous muscle that hung suspended in space in the very centre of the room. Perched on top of that huge body was a tiny humanoid figure, its face dominated by a mad grin, a top hat on its head and an unkempt white beard descending from chin to knees. The figure held on with one hand to a strap that reached to a harness that straddled the larger creature, the other hand clasped a tiny hair-thin whip which the figure was using with glee to whip the creature into a renewed frenzy of destruction.

Sunday, 15 August 2010


I visited the market again last night. It is a place in my dreams. It is never quite the same, although I have been to it so often that it takes on the shape and feeling of a physical reality in my memory. So much that it is hard for me to accept that it is not real, that it is not somewhere I have ever been. The changes are frequent and large although there are similarities that inform me it is the same place. A corner of interzone that I am required to visit. Somewhere buried within it is a food stall, sometimes it's a sit-down restaurant although it never has moor than wooden chairs and plastic covered tables. It is in China, selling noodle soups and jiaozi, CHinese dumplings. They are the best dumplings and noodles I have ever had. The staff are as permanently changeable as the place itself. And although the menu is the same the actual servings are quite different. Always cheap, always delicious.

I am not always able to find the restaurant. Sometimes it is hidden, tucked around a corner I can't quite reach, past the fabric and plastic shops, the piles of blue and red striped bags, the grey clothing. The sky is often grey. Once it appeared on the grass near the end of Norris Road, although that had been stretched, houses moved out of the way. A perfect English park crushed alongside the chaos of the market. Sometimes I am alone, sometimes with others. People I have not seen in years, people I was in China with, or people who I have only just met, or do not know.

I have tried to pull at the memories that might inform the look of the place but they do not exist. The market is completely imaginary, and yet I have been there, as much as I have been to the Arndale Centre or Machu Picchu. It does not exist but that does not make it unreal. It calls me back to it, with the promise of one good, cheap meal more.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Walk

Kara and Angelo strolled along the alley, the rain-heavy branches of the trees dragged low over them, their hands linked together in peaceful togetherness.

They were arguing.

‘It’s not what you think.’ Kara was protesting.

Angelo responded angrily. ‘You have no idea what I’m thinking. You never have a clue.’

Kara was quiet. They continued to stroll along, both making a conscious effort to play the role of placid participant in this game of romance and intimacy, conscious too of the watchers. Expectations rode high on their performances today.

As they arrived at the centre point, the highlight of the walk, they paused, turning to each other and smiling. Their smiles were good, professional, but the eyes told the truth.

They kissed and then stayed firmly wrapped in a hug and embrace. Angelo took the opportunity to whisper in Kara’s ear, blowing away the auburn wisps of hair that framed her pixie ear. ‘I know you’re lying to me. I will find out why.’ He pulled away and looked for signs of recognition or acceptance on her pale face.

Instead he saw shock, unmitigated, unhidden, frank and honest shock and horror.

‘What? What is it?’ he wanted to shake an answer from her, his hands still on her shoulders as a reminder of their broken embrace.

She tried to speak but couldn’t seem to form the words necessary for meaning and instead she raised one otherwise limp arm and stroked her fingers across his head. He flinched slightly at the contact and at the feeling of dampness it invoked. And then he saw the blood on her hand and his confusion finally reigned over his anger.

Together, truly together again for now, they looked above them to locate the source of this blood which was so obviously not from Angelo’s head.

Kara took a couple of steps back and gasped in wonderment. Angelo stood his ground through fear rather than bravery, he was fixed to the spot, couldn’t have moved even if he had the mental capacity for it. Above them, tangled in the canopy of the wood, cushioned by the stern branches, a body lay, face down towards them, lank hair streaming towards them, blank eyes open and staring, or so it seemed, directly at them. It was from this body that a steady outpour of blood droplets came, dripping in a set pattern of timing and consistency, and had found a floor on Angelo’s forehead.

As they watched a bird flew from a nearby branch, disturbing the equilibrium of the system, and an arm from the corpse was knocked free. It swung for a few pendulous motions and then became still, the forefinger of the hand outstretched, pointing at them, accusing them, targeting them.

Angelo, still paralysed, acknowledged vaguely the knowledge of Kara running away down their chosen path, her breath coming in huge sobs. When he himself could move it was only downwards, to his knees, his face still turned towards the body, his head still acting as a poor receptacle for the body’s blood.

‘Forgive me,’ he said in a low, sincere voice, ‘I did not know.’ He bent his head in shame, tears dripping down his blotchy face into the leaf mould below.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

He looks upwards, away from me. A hand caresses the golden leaves that extend from his forehead, the way it always does when he is preparing to lie to me.

"It's work." He says.

I freeze. I don't dare move a muscle. My face tenses but I know this is barely visible. I don't look at him again. I let him think I am listening. He does not need to know the thoughts of anger, of fear, of betrayal that I can barely form in my mind. If I were to open my mouth they would tumble in an an incoherent rage. I would hurt him. I would beat him. And he would think he had won. That his new adventure was somehow justified by my pushing him away.

There is nothing I can do to keep him. Not even silence. A small, delicate bud curls under my chin, I feel it withering, un-cared for. I pluck it. The movement surprises him. His hand stops moving. The confident, new-born smile disappears from his face. Replaced with a flash of anger.

"Ok, it's not just work. I need time away. You need to get help. You need to see someone. Please. I can't take it any more."

More lies. I let the dead bud fall from my fingers. It tilts on the floor, a small, blue petal has edged through the green scales.

"Then go." I say. I pull my vines over my face, looking for comfort in their sticky, velvet touch. "Go."

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The Fight

The Councillor followed his source through the overgrown tangled shrubs of the once exclusive cemetery. This part of town was shrouded in pitch darkness, no moon, no street light, no helicopters chasing criminals around the dark streets. The cemetery was an unseen mass, a pungent aroma of rotting vegetation and the whiff of recent rain, faintly blacker shadows revealing trees or gravestones or paths or people.

The Councillor shivered. He was out of his comfort zone here in so many different ways.

Rounding a corner of the gravel path the men were suddenly confronted with a huge edifice. The light sources scattered up its walls only accentuating the darkness of the remaining bricks. A tall tower, sharpened at the top, revealed a steeple fit for a church and the Councillor found himself shocked for an instant before he remembered. He remembered that the cities were littered with abandoned buildings. There was no reason why churches would have escaped the decimation of the population and the exodus from certain parts of town. Nothing had escaped.

The source beckoned the Councillor to follow him into the now open door of the church, its gaping light blinding him for an instant so that he didn’t see the other men until they stepped in front of his path to halt his faltering progress.

‘No weapons.’ One of the men said bluntly. He was large, well built, no apparent sign of intelligence in his face or manners.

The Councillor stuttered ‘I have no weapons.’ But the men weren’t looking at him, they were looking at his companion who shrugged and then opened his cloak and removed various guns, knives, throwing and poking implements. Some of these instruments were unrecognisable, others made the Councillor, not a squeamish man by rights, flinch.

‘And the rest.’

Again the shrug, again a rifling through clothing until a small white sphere was placed in the security man’s outstretched hand. It beeped shortly and a blue light flashed forlornly as the men were allowed to move further into the main body of the church.

Noise grew around them, the cacophony of many voices, mostly male, shouting and swearing, entreating and begging and threatening. And then people bustled around them, pushing them along an ill-defined route towards the centre of the chaos.

The Councillor tried to avoid physical contact but found himself jostled in ways unfamiliar since his school days. He struggled to keep an eye on the man in front of him; the man was, after all, his only link to the outside.

An overdressed waiter appeared from somewhere within the crowd and half-led, half-pushed, the two men away from the main crush of bodies and to a small booth, two chairs set inside around a small circular table. As they sat down the booth began to rise, floating above the floor and above the heads of the screaming masses. The Councillor could see other booths now, all hovering, bouncing slightly with the combined heat and moisture, surrounding them in all directions. He had never been anywhere like this before. He looked down, over the edge, in the direction in which all of the booths and, now he could see, all the attention of the gathered crowd was facing.

The centre of attraction was a simple square stage, surrounded by ropes, a boxing or wrestling ring. Inside the ring was a low bath of mud, nearly reaching to the edges, and in this bath two creatures tussled and fought, encouraged and coaxed and roused by the shouts of the crowd.

The Councillor could only call them creatures as they were made in such a way he had never seen before. The basic physiognomy was recognisable: one head, two arms, two legs, a torso. And the creatures appeared to be female judging by the overdeveloped breasts that dangled low to the ground. But only a single eye emerged from the centre of each breastbone and the naked skin of the creatures glowed creepily in the gloom.

‘Why am I here?’ The Councillor asked. ‘You said you would show me an Alternative but I see no Alternative here. All I see are infringements of our laws and a whole heap of trouble for me if I am discovered.’

‘Look down there.’ His source said briefly.

‘I see all I need to see.’

‘Are you not curious? Do you not long to know what they are and how they come to fight for our pleasure?’

The Councillor shook his head.

His companion frowned. ‘You must wait until the main event. Relax. Be patient. Have a hit.’ This last while indicating the collection of bottles and pipes that littered the faux-wood surface of their table.

Disdain filled the Councillor. ‘Do you follow no law? No law at all?’

‘I follow the natural law. You will see. Once you meet her then you will...’

The Councillor meanwhile was on his feet, his face turning puce with rage finally unleashed. ‘Her?’ Horror trembles through this single word and the man comes close to losing his balance. Realising the danger of tumbling out of their booth and onto the sweating heads of the men below the Councillor sits down again. Cautiously.

The other man laughed without humour. ‘Oh dear. You really are stuck in the old ways. Perhaps we made a mistake after all.’ He leant forward, the shadows and the proximity making his regular features sinister. ‘If so then it is a mistake that will be short lived.’

A moment of petrified clarity occurred to the Councillor. He mind-flashed his wife that he loved her but was cut off before he could indicate more. A sadness filled his heart as he stared open-mouthed at his aggressor.

‘Now now. None of that here if you don’t mind. You are among friends here, but friends can be just as... shall we say unpredictable as your very worst enemy.’


Monday, 2 August 2010

A billion years

A billion years pass.

Another billion, a fraction slower as he feels the explosion of his own body falling through the universe, becoming a part of it.

The signature of the ripples in space-time, the exotic sparkle of particles in the vacuum foam, coaxed and changed by his movements.

It feels a physical act but is only thought.

Body clings to him. Dust clings to him. World clings to him.

Coalescing into a dream of a world built from the imploding, slow-burn ignition of a sun.

Trails of gravitational attraction, tails dragged along into planets. Clockwork time broken by sucking and spinning, the playful destruction of asteroids.

He gasps for air. He needs air. He opens his eyes onto a street. He almost falls through it, catching himself in time. He floats slightly above it. Fortunately no-one sees him. The street is grimy, cold. Different yet the same. Shops and traffic. The people are different. Taller, thinner. Eyes somehow smaller, noses misshapen. He raises his hand to his face and rubs until his own head matches theirs. Now he would like a coffee.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

A Major Headache

‘Master?’ The courier bowed low into the room and remained with his unreadable gaze fixed on the ornate marble flagstones of the floor.

The tall figure, its already above average height greatly increased by the tall base-gold and gem-encrusted headpiece, nodded in vague recognition but did not turn around.

‘The Qap’t delegation is here, Master.’ The stooped figure reversed from the room, bowing the full length of the furniture-poor but furnishing-rich space.

Shira was alone again, for a few precious moments, to collect her thoughts and prepare for this meeting. She didn’t like the Qap’t, didn’t like their ways or their intentions. And yet they were powerful and she did need their influence, not to mention their weapons, to quell the rebellion in the southern districts.

Shira arranged her ceremonial robes around her and mounted the dias to her security enabled throne, a personally configured forceshield emanating from its podium, and sat, carefully, down. The robes were bad enough, heavy and unwieldy even if they did provide full body armour, but the headpiece was something else. The overly elaborate design disguised weighty mindshield technology that was still in the early stages of development. Shira’s chief scientist was remarkably proud of this infuriating prototype which buzzed slightly though only Shira could hear the steady hum of the motor.

This meeting would be its first live test.

The double doors at the far end of the throne room swung smoothly open and Shira composed herself behind a mask of calm reflection and serene intent.

Qap’t dignitaries were famed for their lack of acknowledgement of local common courtesy and for this reason the half dozen members of the delegation had not bothered with clothing for this visit. Shira could instantly see that these visitors were of the highest order of the Qap’t meritocracy as no shred of rag covered any part of their obscure skin.

It was not pleasant to see creatures with opaquely gelatinous outers which revealed grotesque and active internal organs striding quickly towards one, especially as the four hands of each Qap’t were all busy manipulating various limbs and layers of body fat in order to portray a vision of intense movement and nausea inducing clinical lucidity.

Shira smiled and nodded majestically at her guests and motioned them to the specially adapted couches that formed a neatly semi-circular audience around her feet.

The Qap’t ignored the couches and remained standing, forming instead a straight line of confrontation. Both sides remained silent for what seemed to the watching officials to be hours of negotiated one-upmanship. It was probably only minutes, maybe even seconds. To Shira it felt like an eternity as she struggled hard to keep her mind clear and positive – just in case the fledgling technology could not protect her from the telepathic intentions of her supposedly friendly guests.

A shiver ran up and down Shira’s spine and she could feel prickles of sweat popping out over her back and deep in the folds of her armpits. This was going to go wrong, she could see that now, the delegation had a plan that did not fit with her own.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

comida corrida

The narrow street ascends steeply, bordered by white walls that make it impossible to see the houses and apartments beyond. The space is further constrained by stubby green trees offering shade and cool in the summer. Argo is happy to have the shade, even though it is winter. He is not used to the weather yet.

He sees a chalkboard sign marked with a price and advertising comida corrida, meal of the day: chiles relenos, rice and beans and a coffee. There is no indication of the name of the place but he guesses this must be the one described to him. He peers into the dark hallway of the open gate, there is a small courtyard beyond vegetation-filtered light dances invitingly and so he steps inside, rehearsing the little Spanish he knows in preparation for ordering.

A woman, middle-aged, barrel-shaped, steps from a doorway and points him towards an empty table. There are several people eating already, mostly alone. A warm breeze carries a scent of cumin and fade again. Argo sits, accepting the laminated, grubby menu from the woman's hand. It simply repeats the chalkboard menu and Argo points and says please.

"Algo mas?" The woman says.

"Agua." He replies.

The bottle of water is brought out with a shout to the kitchen. Instinctively, prompted by reading guidebooks, he checks the seal on the bottle is still intact. A hummingbird falls through the courtyard and starts to dart around the falling pattern of red flowers tied to the wall.

Everything seems to come alive; a contentment unlike any other he has known seems to fill him, pouring through every cell of his body, dripping from his skin, splashing and pooling around him into the world. This is not his place, he realises. He is watching it from the outside but he is here, waiting for a three dollar meal in a Mexico he has never seen before.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010


The boy watched as the truck moved off, its electric motor straining with the effort of its load, tears streaming down his young face. He blinked, wondering if this was just a dream but knowing that it was not.

The truck, an old-style flat bed with a rusted cab and wide tyres, paused as it waited for the pressure door to rise sufficiently for it to enter the air lock and then moved forward, pausing in the bubble of territorial limbo. Once in the air lock the automatic cover switched over the vehicle, doubling its size and altering its character. And then it was gone, the plastic moulded tyres grinding slowly over the dusty grit of the planet’s surface.

The woman came up behind the boy and wrapped her arms around him, bending slightly at the knees to reach down to his level. She too was crying.

‘He’s gone.’ she sobbed. ‘It’s just us left now.’

The two of them remained standing, watching the fading dust cloud spiralling into the poisoned air behind the truck carrying the lifeless body of their beloved father/ husband.


It was the next day and neither of them had slept. Dawn came, shocking bright flaming colours drenched the sky, but a new day brought no comfort.

‘What do we do now, Ma?’ the boy asked as they reluctantly munched reconstituted mush.

She shook her head, refusing to look him directly in the eyes, and concentrated on her barely touched bowl of food.

‘Ma?’ the boy put down his spoon.

She sighed.

The buzzer rang, they had a visitor. She looked relieved, the boy looked interested.

Sunday, 18 July 2010


The square is bordered with grey, four storey buildings, delicately faced in an age when architecture meant more than concrete and glass. Aggie sits on the edge of the exploding fountain, the stream of its water firing upwards, becoming light, while drawing down the dark, bilious clouds into a fractal, slow-moving statue of energy.

Chairs, black and austere, remnants of a brass band concert earlier in the day, are scattered, facing in all directions. Aggie feels uncomfortable, not just the chill, but she feels exposed and disturbed by the chaos of the scene around her. There is a natural tendency to order which she cannot shake, but she has to wait. The message was very particular, and the parcel might contain the object she has been looking for; her father's knife.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010


‘But what’s wrong with the idea?’

Essika sputtered into her coffee and looked at me as if I had transformed in front of her eyes into a green skinned alien.

‘Are you kidding me?’ she shrieked. I’d never seen her quite so worked up before. It was quite sexy. It made me want to tease her a little more.

‘Well, why not? Tell me why this wouldn’t solve a lot of our problems.’ I smiled, watching the cogs rotate in her brain, knowing how much she was struggling with the concept but knowing that, probably, somewhere down deep deep within her she knew I had a point.

‘I don’t know where to start...’ she started.

‘That’s because you know there are no good arguments.’ I interrupted her before she could get into a flow. This was great. Usually her insane beauty and wide ranging intelligence were obstacles to my ability to interact in any meaningful way with Essika. If only I’d known months ago that all I needed to do to unnerve her was come up with some sensible but politically dangerous idea.

But already she was starting to rally.

‘Let me just throw some ideas into the ring to start with. These are in no particular order...’ she paused to collect her thoughts.

I groaned internally, I didn’t actually want to have a discussion about this after all, that wasn’t my purpose in raising the subject. I just wanted to get her goat a little, see if I could crack the surface of the stereotypical ice maiden that had blown apart my otherwise contented little world.

She started counting off counter-arguments on her fingers, a small furrow in her forehead reflecting the intensity of her thought processes. I didn’t bother to listen. In my job you got used to people arguing at you and I had very quickly learnt how to wear a mask of polite interest, when to grunt encouragingly and in which direction to shake my head at each phrase.

You could tell an awful lot, I mused, about someone just by their tone of voice when they were thinking through things out loud. The way the music of the voice changed and flowed, then stopped, halted by some obstacle of its own, then moved on again. The volume, the frequency, the pace of the words. The inflection of certain parts of each sentence. The way her lips moved with each syllable, revealing tantalising glimpses of teeth and tongue.


Oops. Looks like she had finished and I hadn’t even noticed. Must pay attention, must speak soothing but non-committal words of broad agreement.

‘You have some valid points. I’ll give you those. But I still think it works as an idea. You haven’t changed my mind on that. Though...’ I grinned sneakily. ‘ can keep trying to persuade me if you want.’

Essika drew back away from me. Too obvious then. Damn.

‘You didn’t listen to a word I said, did you!’

Now then, the question was: would she respect me more for owning up to not listening to her even though she liked being listened to, or would it be better for me to attempt to lie and hope that she couldn’t see through me. A lot could depend on this decision. I hoped.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Rain and magic

Manchester, slick with rain. Light falls like glass. It glows, bringing every grainy surface of Deansgate into sharpened focus, the air wiped clear, bringing it to solidity as every surface reflects all others. The streets are busy, dark huddled figures moving quickly inbetween each other, focused inwards. Behind the reflection of a Starbucks window Aldervale watches for the mathematician while nursing a cool, flavourless latte which films his mouth and he is only grateful he did not bother with their tea. He wipes his forehead, bitter with memory.

Aldervale has plenty of time for contemplation when he is on watch but finds he has nothing left to think about. Sometimes, when partnered with someone, he is amazed at the thoughts that spill from their mouths, the joins and connections that seem to come so easily to them, the passages of reading and learning that seem to mesh together. Instead he finds he has nothing to add. He is blank in the presence of others, unable to communicate, afraid to, really, because he does not know how. He is a perfect watcher, he knows this. He fumbles with the grimy package in his jacket pocket, seeking reassurance that it is still there, wrapped in sticky newspaper.

Across the road the mathematician emerges from the travel agency, bitter at the weather and shaking his tiny umbrella into the air. Aldervale does not bother finishing the coffee. He stands and leaves, pulling up his hood over his thinning hair. His hand casually unwraps the package, pulling out the coin within while holding onto the plastic that offers a last layer of protection. Crossing the road, ducking behind the deep red glow of traffic lights, he falls into step behind the mathematician looking for a way past the couple that are a walking barrier between them. His chance comes as they reach the next crossroads. He steps forwards and around, as though he were any other commuter in a hurry to get home, while taking advantage of the crush to get close, to slip the coin into the mathematician's pocket.

The mathematician's umbrella knocks him. THe mathematician turns to apologise. Aldervale shrugs his head with what he hopes is a smile and turns away, looking for the light to change. He steps into the road, growling with traffic and the growing winter dark, muttering the activation mantra. He feels the little veil of maya slip, the hidden world behind suddenly slips through. Rain falls from his hood into his eyes, washing it away.

Thursday, 8 July 2010


The grey of the cement was broken by a single thrusting flower. Its grey-green stem thrust valiantly through the dead ground into the thin air. At its peak was a single bloom, simple red petals in a circular bowl of vibrant colour, transparent and yet more real than anything else.

The flower had somehow seeded itself into a miniscule crack. It had nowhere to retreat when the girl came over and yanked it thoughtlessly from its hard fought roots.

She looked at it closely, sniffed it, looked at it again with a fraught brow full of questioning confusion, and then ate the fragile petals in one sudden gulp. The discarded stem was dropped, pointless and lifeless now, to the ground. The girl stuck her tongue out in distaste.

‘Don’t do that.’ An elderly man, raggedy but with the kind eyes of one who has known what manners were, came hurrying over to the girl. He slapped her hand and she looked up at him with the threat of tears in her almond eyes. ‘I told you not to do that. These flowers are precious, they’re rare, and they’re not for eating on.’ He sighed, knowing his words fell on deaf, insensitive ears.

The girl shrugged, started to look around eagerly for more mischief.

She was too much for him already, the old man acknowledged to himself and he watched helplessly as the girl ranged around the long abandoned playground. It was his role, his purpose and his given task to keep her safe and to try to instil in her some values that might fit her for her own given task. But he was beginning to feel real pangs of despair. The more time he spent with her the more it was becoming obvious to him that she held no sprouting tendrils of potential greatness. Kass was mean spirited, stubborn in her ignorance, cruel to the few creatures they encountered on their travels, and ungrateful to her guardian. The old man was beginning to wonder how he could end this charade and yet still keep hope alive within their community.

A moment of inattention and Tess had wondered off out of sight.

The old man stood for a moment more. He inhaled the freedom of her absence, noting the sudden lifting of the weight of her company, savouring the natural silence. But then he froze, hearing sounds of other voices beyond the high wall to his side. He snuck towards the wall, tilting his head to hear more. There was one voice only. It was deep and gruff, manly and sure. It started with sounds of entreaty, promise, and then moved quickly to sounds of cajolement and, finally, threats.

Reaching deep into the right hand pocket of his long woollen coat, the old man pulled out his knife, its dull, short blade refusing to glint in the low sunlight of the new dawn.

He held the knife like a bar-room brawler, one finger tight along the edge, the blade itself half obscured in the folds of his too-long sleeve.
‘What do you want?’ he asked as he rounded the corner, ready to fight but ill prepared for the sight he saw in front of his weary eyes. The knife dropped to the floor and clanged as it bounced on the stone.


Sunday, 4 July 2010


Felix the portraiture is aware that he is being followed but he does not dare to stop, or even to glance around and look. He keeps his gaze downwards, focussing on the grey stone in front of him, not looking up at the faces of the dark, thick-coated crowd around him. The mist is growing thicker, the dim light of the streets barely bolstered by the lamp-lighters casting their little balls into the air, carrying the little touch of magic to the cheap crystals threaded on wire across the street.

In his mind two tasks fight for attention, each thought jumping from one to the next refusing him any progression with either problem. The first is where to go, where can he get to on foot from here where he can be safe. This is not a part of the city that he knows well, returning from the commission with the old woman; his only paying customer and even she has paid less this week, promising the full amount later. He cannot afford to take a cab. He regrets blowing what little he had over the past couple of nights of drink, blue and gambling. The other skein of thought is working through the pitiful list of his past and present clients to determine what the purpose of his being followed might be. His headache beats out a tattoo of frustration and pain.

He moves to step around a figure stood still in front of him but the figure moves to intercept. he nearly screams but looks up into the grey eyes of a pretty, slight woman, close-cropped red hair and a sense of deep magics. A small, tarnished badge is fixed to her coat. Police, he realises, and he wonders if he can tell her about the his tail.

"Felix Ovgorod?" She says.

He nods, sagging with a wearied fear.

A carriage pulls up, the thick, rubber-masked driver turning to the woman for instruction. She opens the door and pushes Felix in, then follows him. The carriage rolls off with a whine.

"What is this? Am I in trouble?"

"Probably. But that's not my business with you. I need you to identify a body for me."

"A body? What makes you think I would know someone? Who do you suppose him to be?"

With a shock he wonders if a friend of his has been murdered.

"We found this card in his pocket. We've been looking for you for a while. You haven't been home for a couple of days."

He shows him one of his own business cards. A crude printing, cheap, edge-worn card.

"I. I've been on commission." Not completely a lie.

Within a few minutes they are walking down the dark, sullen corridor of the police precinct, heading downwards into the cool of the morgues. Doors are opened for them by uniformed officers keen to show respect to the woman whose name he has been too afraid to ask. They look at Felix, take in the dirty jacket, grease and paint worn into its fabric, into his skin, the grimy smear of beard over his face, and they offer an almost imperceptible sneer.

In the green painted room where they stop the woman points to the table at the centre where there is a sheet laid over a body. Felix has seen the dead before and thinks he knows what to expect. But when the sheet is moved down from the body's head he sees something he does not expect. The face has been torn away leaving only red muscle and the white of tendons and fat. Felix feels himself want to be sick, his stomach heaving, trying to release whatever pitiful morsels remain from a breakfast finished too long ago. He turns away.

"Do you recognise him?" The woman asks.

"Recognise him?" Felix says, spitting and coughing. "How am I supposed to recognise him?"

"I understood you are a portraiture. You should know him even in this condition, if you are of any little skill at all."

The dig at his ability annoys him. He knows she is right but he has no desire to look at the faceless body again. The one glance will be enough to sear the image into his mind. He calls it back up, lets himself reconstruct it.

"I'm sorry." He says. "You are right. But I do not know him. I don't know how he came upon one of my cards."

The woman looks disappointed but motions the medic to lower the sheet again.

"Does the name Elias Smith mean anything to you?"

Felix nods.

"Yes, he was my client. I finished a commission for him a few weeks ago. He still owes me money."

"I am reliably informed that this is his body. That is why I was hoping you might be able to identify him."

Felx shakes his head.

"No. No, that's not him. Really. You've got the wrong man."

The woman turns and beckons him to leave. She had seemed so certain that the body was that of Elias. Felix was sure that it was not. Someone wanted the police to think that Elias was dead when maybe he was not. That's why he was being followed. Those people must have known that Felix could have be used as proof that Elias was not dead. Likely he really was in danger. His thoughts suddenly come together as he tries to think of something to say that can convince this woman that he cannot be let go, that she must look after him.