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.