Nativity (Part 1)

A Galaxy Nativity in two parts by Andy Ainscough.

 

Prelude.

 

Lullay Lullay my little tiny child. Bye bye Lullay Lullay.

 

 

*

 

‘Any news from the camps?’

 

‘Nothing. Nothing new anyway.’

 

The two men stood on the edge of the rock crest surveying the darkness below. Apart from swirling mist that here and there stretched its cold fingers, nothing could be seen. Even the sky, with its map of stars, was black as scorched earth.

 

‘What are the current numbers?’

 

‘Fifty-thousand dead on the west side, before the quarantine. South tip has gone now, the wall reinforced, the few who remained left inside. We haven’t heard in weeks from Ureicia so we can presume there are none left. Since the containment has been released into the air, we have had no further diagnoses. Only the worst cases are still dying. A small mercy.’

 

‘No no, I mean the birth numbers. What are the reports?’

 

‘Ah. I see. Well, since First1 was discovered, not a single baby has been delivered.’

 

The two men stood for a second letting the words resonate through the air. A moment after a light appeared above them accompanied by a huge guttural whirring of heavy engines By the first man, A rope ladder hit the floor. He shook the other man’s hand and started to climb the ladder. After a few rungs he looked down.

 

‘Thank you Professor. Your work is much appreciated. Tell me what happened to Sir Balthar?’

 

‘He didn’t make it. Until we meet again Prime-Minister.’

 

The helicopter with the Prime-Minister of the planet Galthet disappeared into the night leaving the Professor in the warzone below.

 

Part 1.

 

A Desperate Wind

 

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen let nothing you dismay.

 

The village huddled together in cold winter air. They had heard a report was coming. An excited buzz ran through the crowd. A report meant something from above. From the Sector five parliament, perhaps even from the Galactic Commons themselves. After such long hard years, after the all the misery that the First1 disease had caused they clung onto that somewhere out there in the black night, there were people who could help. The Decade of Death is what the survivors had come to know it as. The decade where everyone died and no one was born. You could see it in the people. Not just in the clothes they wore, nothing more than layers of brown rags, but in their faces. Nearly everyone here was either in their twenties or thirties but they looked much older. The heartbreak had etched itself onto their faces.

A woman, with scraggy brown hair lumbered forward with what looked like a box covered in old sack. Another man, sporting a turban of soiled bandages, placed a crate delicately on the floor. The woman plonked the box on top and like a magician pulled the sheet from it. It was a television and the woman bowed to a humble cheer from the crowd. The man banged and banged upon the box until it spluttered into life. The screen fuzzy and dim showed a symbol, a star inside a human fist with a circle round the outside. Underneath was a countdown. 3…2…1…

A woman appeared on the screen smiling. You could tell she was a grey looking person even on the black and white screen. She had a sharp hook nose and hair cut close to her head. She smiled for a moment and then began to speak:

‘Greetings people of…’ She looked down for a moment off camera. ‘… people of the planet Galthet. I, Tabitha Might, Empress of the Galactic Alliance, was deeply moved by the plight of your people and the horrors that you must have experienced over the last ten standard years. Your leaders appealed to myself and the commons and in the circumstances tough decisions must be made. In light of the deadly nature of First1 we have decided to quarantine your planet indefinitely. We regret this decision but in a complicated Galaxy complicated decisions must be made. As such, I will inform you that no external individuals or powers can step foot on your planet. Take care and Goodbye.’

No help was coming. The villagers screamed into the night.

 

The Shining Light From Above.

 

A star, a star dancing in the night, with a tail as big as a kite.

 

The next evening, at the edge of the village, Paddy the Yowk-Herder saw a star appear in the empty and frozen sky. He looked around to call someone but no one was there anymore. Paddy had once roamed the fields with his two brothers but they had gone now. The plague had taken them. He still had his Yowks though who slept around him, keeping a quiet chorale of deep, animal snores. He brought his hand up to his eyes to look at the new arrival in the sky, but it was too bright and he turned away dazzled. Probably the last of the government escaping. The quarantine probably didn’t extend to them. He sat and leaned against one of the big animals, burying his head in its soft fur. It felt to him here, as if he was the last person left, not just in the village, but the world, the galaxy. There was no one there but him and Yowks to roam the fields until First1 came to him at last.

Paddy and the Yowks sat at the small rock lip overlooking the village, down below nothing stirred, not a cry or a light. Here in the winter, the village would normally be lit up with people dancing in the streets but there was no time for such things anymore. The curfew saw to that. Paddy was only allowed out for essential services. A phrase he always smiled at, he never felt essential before the plague came.

He leaned forward. There was a rustling, a movement in the dark below. Yes, he thought, there coming from the town hall was a person. They were moving along the walls with a hunched back and a big coat. Whoever it was they almost certainly didn’t want to be caught. He climbed down the ridge and looked further, the light from the sky illuminated the street. The figure emerged into the street and he knew who it was straight away. Magda, the witch from the forest, her hair a wild nest of green, her clothes mossy rags. She looked towards him, her wild eyes stared right into his just for a second and then she disappeared into the night.

 

*

Alanu, the Prime-Minister’s assistant stood waiting nervously in the shipping container that now stood for the ministerial offices. With a gust of wind from outside, in walked the Casperium, The Prime Minister. He was still dressed smartly, in suit and tie but there were stains on the shirt and mud along the bottoms of the trousers.

 

‘Prime-minister have you seen it?’ Alanu said.

 

‘Of course I’ve seen it you idiot. How could you miss it? Its right there in the sky.’

 

‘Yes sir, quite right sir.’

 

‘Any news from the Professor?’

 

‘Nothing as yet sir. The last of the trade ships have docked and gone, they have left some supplies but not enough.’

 

The Prime-Minister stopped and rubbed his temples. My life, he thought, should not have been this. The Christmas before it started, Galthet had been one the shining lights of Sector 6. He loathed the phrase because it was Ea1 condescension but it was an up and comer. An example of what the outer rim planets should be doing. Quaint but industrious. Fucking Ea1, he thought to himself.

 

‘Sir?’

 

‘Sorry, yes Alanu, could you make sure the –‘

 

The Prime-minister stopped. The screen on his desk crackled into life, after a moment, with faint wavering lines across it, appeared the face of the Professor.

 

‘Professor, it’s good to see you.’

 

‘You too, Caspar. Although I bring grave news.’ His face was white even on the faded screen.

 

‘How could things get any worse?’

 

‘I’ve been decoding a message in the sky. The message from Tabitha Might was wrong. Well it was a lie anyway. The star in the sky is ship, an empire class battleship to be precise. She said quarantine but she meant incineration. If we can’t prove that life will continue they’re going to burn the planet.’

 

The Witch from the Forest.

 

Then woe is me, Poor child for thee, and ever mourn and say…

 

Madge was not a witch, even though they all thought her so. She, and her mother before her had lived from the earth, from where they came and where they will return. Snaggle snaggle, snick snick, she whispered as she went, rubbing the dirt into her hands.  She approached the edge of the thick trees and fell prostrate to the ground. Anyone to look at her would be afraid, as many in the village were. Her hair was a nest, wild and full of twigs, across her face were two green streaks of moss, her teeth yellow like river fish. Snaggle snuggle, snick, snick, she said to herself again. She wore sack and leaves as clothes and from her arms hung feathers and hides of small tree-rats. She wailed a cry for her world to the trees, she mourned it already. The people were dying and so soon would the earth. The great moan echoed through the sky. She cracked her head this way and that until birds erupted into the sky. She wept for the earth but also for the people’s stupidity. If only they looked to the earth for their answers and not the hell-sky above. She cried until she made herself hoarse. She knew the earth and what it could do. Pain shot through her and she clutched her stomach tight. She cried most of all not for them, the people already on this earth. But for the child she was about to bring into it. For the last child of the planet Galthet at this Christmas time.

 

To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray…

 

 

 

 

The Galaxy Nativity will continue in Part 2…

 

 

 

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Homecoming

A Morven Glass story by Emma Geraghty.

 

 

It gets harder around this time of year. I guess it’s tradition. Things have changed over the years, but this time of year never gets easier to deal with. It doesn’t get cold out here. I know they have artificial snow and ice and all that shit on some of the more populous planets, but nobody bothers about it in Blokk. Heating bills are expensive enough without digitally induced weather.

I’d love to say I spend Christmas volunteering, that I give my time to those who actually would benefit. They’re always looking for help around Nep1 and the smaller settlements. I want to be a decent person, I’ve had enough Christmases that I could do it. But I don’t. I donate a large chunk of credit to a few places to assuage the guilt I’m supposed to feel, and then I leave. I’m inactive. And that’s fine.

I spend Christmas day in the space station that orbits Tanaka. My home planet, if I even have one of those. It’s primarily used as a hotel, a stop gap for interplanetary business people, so it’s relatively quiet around Christmas. I rent a room for three nights. I spend Christmas Eve asleep. I wake up early on Christmas day and order room service, I read in bed until mid afternoon, and then go to the restaurant. I sit alone and eat. The bottle of whiskey goes up in price every year, but it’s tradition, it’s all tradition now, just like the armchair nearest the observation window in the station lounge is always my place to sit with my legs tucked under me and my tumbler balanced on my knee. I look at the planet I grew up on. The thick clouds of dust, the cracks in the skin of the world where water runs in fast currents searching for a sea that isn’t there, and ocean that doesn’t exist. And the sky around it. The infinite darkness of space, the void, the emptiness, and I know there are hundreds of planets and hundreds of peoples and but I have lived out here for so long and it doesn’t go away. I let the homesickness overwhelm me. I drink more. Sometimes other people try to talk to me, other lonely souls looking for someone to raise a glass with, but most of the time I turn them away.

I tell Allory a half truth. She knows I don’t have family, but I tell her I spend Christmas on my home planet with some friends I grew up with, the one time we get together in the year. Which would be difficult, given the whole not-aging thing. There were – are, presumably they’re still alive – others like me, other Children of Lazarus, but I don’t know where any of them are. Maybe meeting someone like myself would make me feel better. Maybe they’d be insufferable.

Tanaka is sand and stone, hard living, bad wages, difficult. A lot of people never leave, and even if they do they come straight back again whether they mean to or not. It’s a dustbowl, a sink hole, a non-place. It’s home. Was. My stomach drops and I knock back another gulp of whiskey. I miss it. I miss them and I dampen it down most of the time, but now, looking at my home planet, the longing comes back fierce and fiery, forcing it’s way through my veins. I indulge. I indulge in the emptiness in my chest, in the memories that slip over my eyes like old films.

The last Christmas I spent with them was the best, and maybe that’s just nostalgia, but it was the best. I didn’t know I wouldn’t spend another one with them. I was in my fifth and supposedly final year at the Institute and I was allowed three days off for Christmas, and I was home with my mum and my little sisters. I wasn’t well. They were trialling a new drug on us, I can’t remember what it was supposed to do but the side effect of insomnia was taking it’s toll. I slept for all of Christmas eve and took enough Klaxxon pills the next morning to match the energy of my sisters and help Mum in the kitchen. It was crowded in our tiny house. Hot. We played music from Ea1 that Mum bought on the black market and we opened presents and drank the wine we’d been saving all year and ate until our stomachs hurt and Astrid and Henna complained about there not being enough chocolate as if there could ever be enough chocolate for them, and Mirry got cranky because she’s five and is always cranky past bedtime, and Mum tells me off for spending too much money on a bracelet for her but I see her smile when I fasten the gold clasp around her wrist, and I can already feel the dread of going back to the Institute but I push it back and play games with the girls and watch films on the VirtuVid that Gran gave us last year and Mirry falls asleep on my knee and Henna and Astrid climb into their bed and Mum tells them a story and when they’re all tucked in, we sit together on the sofa. Mum asks me how I am. And I tell her I’m happy. And it’s true.

I should have stayed.

The whiskey burns my throat as I finish the bottle. I should know by now that drinking just makes things seem further away. I am so lonely. I don’t admit it, but it’s this time of the year, the time of the year when everything is about togetherness and family and love and sharing time with one another and it just reminds me that it’s gone, it’s all gone, all of what I used to have is gone and the loneliness seeps into my skin and I drink more, but it doesn’t help. I feel removed. I feel one step away from everyone. Like I’ve lost the sense of touch. The lights in the lounge are ambient, colours melting across the ceiling, and I miss Allory like mad. But not just her. I’m a million miles away from everyone I’ve ever loved, and it’s melodramatic, but it feels so true. If I was someone who cried then the tears would be coming now, but all I want is another drink and to be held. So maybe, when I’m sat at the bar, that’s why I let someone buy me a drink. He sits on a stool next to me and talks, and it’s clear that he doesn’t need any response to have a conversation, and this suits me fine. He puts his hand on my leg and I don’t push him away. We finish our drinks. I let him lead me to the lift and once the doors close he presses his lips to mine. He slides his hand under my shirt. I let him push me onto the bed and in my head I apologise to Allory, knowing that she won’t find out. And when I get out of his bed hours later, dressing silently so I don’t wake him, and walk back to my room, I know I should feel bad. I should regret this. But I don’t. I never do.

Better Than James Brown

By Emma Geraghty

This is set immediately after Captain RainCha and the Temple of Dreams, so make sure you check that one out first.

Galatic Co-ordinates: 15-01-01-01

Here are a few things that I would love to say. I would love to say that this is my first time inside a government cell. I would love to say it’s the first time I’ve been arrested in a public space. And I would love to say that I came quietly. But none of those things, in any way, are remotely true.

San Ya’s assistant took me in an outflier away from the cave of wonders, or whatever that place was called. I offered to stay and wait for RainCha, but to be perfectly honest I wanted to get away from there as quickly as possible. I was shaken up. Being teleported into a death race is not the kind of experience I was looking for in KrYstal100. And RainCha seemed to have a handle on things. Guy has an ego as big as his, he must be good for something. I think Valeiran could tell I was on edge. After a swift word with San Ya, I was in the tiny ship buzzing back towards Sector Four. Valeiran kept trying to talk to me. He had a very soothing voice. It didn’t do anything. I was seriously freaked. All that talk of worst nightmares… I just wanted to go back to Allory and get into bed.

The universe, as usual, had other ideas. Valeiran picked up the government fliers on the scanner about ten minutes into the flight. He didn’t seem panicked at all. I saw him start to reset the flight path, evasive manoeuvres, all of that. But I was tired.

“Just drop me at the nearest port.”

His brow furrowed ever so slightly. “We can get away, Morven.”

I shook my head. “I don’t want you getting caught up in whatever they’re trying to pull. I can deal with it. San Ya probably needs you wherever she is, or with whatever RainCha is dealing with. You seem pretty indispensable.”

He smiled his incredibly attractive smile, but for once my mind was too preoccupied.

“Seriously. Drop me. I’m good. I can lose myself in a crowd.”

Valeiran dropped me at Cymosa Port. Not the nicest place, but somewhere I could fade. Probably lay low for a day or two. Maybe they weren’t after me.

“MORVEN GLASS.”

Maybe they meant another Morven Glass. I kept walking. If I could just make it to the main street…

“STOP WHERE YOU ARE.”

I didn’t. I could hear them running towards me and resisted the urge to go for my gun. I rolled my shoulders, shook my head slightly, and dropped to one knee as one ran straight at me. His momentum landed him on my back and I threw him sideways. Back on my feet. Turned to face the other three aiming blasters at me. For a moment, I was tempted to go for them. Just to see if I could. But getting shot was something I didn’t fancy.

“HANDS ON YOUR HEAD, GET ON YOUR KNEES.”

“If I had a credit for every time…” I grinned, locked my fingers behind my head and knelt on the floor. There was quite a crowd now. The guard I sent flying twisted my wrists into cuffs and kicked me in the shoulderblades, sending me straight to the ground. I managed to twist slightly so I didn’t land right on my face, but it still fucking hurt. I was hauled unceremoniously into the back of the flier, a hood was pulled over my head, and we set off. Another grand adventure with the law for Morven Glass.

So now here we are. Or rather, here I am. In some cell in the pits of some government building, getting the shit kicked out of me because of someone else’s fuckup. If I ever see RainCha again, I might kill him. Or shoot him in the knee. Something along those lines.

“I told you, I don’t know where he is.”

“Don’t lie to us, Glass.”

“I’m not lying, you cretin.”

He sinks a fist into my stomach and I crumple. Or at least I would, if I could. The Gorbegs on either side of me keep me upright with iron grips on my upper arms. My feet are only just on the floor. I’m a little glad of the support, to be honest. Not sure I could stand on my own. These guys are good. The guard stood in front of me waits while I get my breath back. Very nice of him.

“I told you. I fucking told you. I got teleported to some weird Indiana Jones bullshit in the middle of arse-end nowhere. I don’t know where RainCha is. I never met the bastard before today.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“That’s not my problem.”

The guard smiles slightly. It’s not a friendly smile. I grit my teeth, waiting for the blow I know is coming, but even then the punch to the face takes me off guard. “It is your problem, Miss Glass. It is definitely your problem.”

I guess he’s right. I’m not sure it’s my fault, but it’s definitely my problem. I press my tongue against my teeth, checking if any have come loose. Miraculously not. What I should do is just relate the whole story to him in a calm tone of voice so he understands that I genuinely had nothing to do with RainCha appearing in the Galactic Senate and it’s just a huge misunderstanding and actually I’ve had a pretty rough day too and he’ll just let me go back home. But I doubt that would be the outcome. And I’m pretty sure he just gave me a black eye, so there is no chance of me co-operating whatsoever. Because I’m stubborn. And I’ve had worse.

He’s talking again.

“…we have no issue with keeping you here overnight, it would be so much easier if you just told us what we need to know. I don’t want to hurt you, sweetheart.”

I laugh. “Oh, fuck off. This is nothing. I’ve been doing this for a couple of centuries. I’m a child of Lazarus, remember? The kind of torment I went through for that, you’re not even allowed to come close to. This is basically a massage.”

“Listen-”

“Nah, you listen. I have told you what I know. I have not lied to you. I hardly know RainCha. I have no idea about the teleporter. I am not the droid you’re looking for. So you might as well just let me go, because this little spa day is just wasting everyone’s time.”

The guard doesn’t seem to know what to do with this information. It must usually be a lot easier than this to interrogate someone, and for the second before he hits me, he looks genuinely irritated. He slaps me hard across the face and my head snaps to the side. I taste blood in my mouth. I count to three and grin up at him.

“Come on, honey. At least buy me dinner before any of that kinky shit.”

——-

It’s dark when I come round. It’s dark and I am in a lot of pain and I am pissed off. I never asked for any of this. Not this time. I allow myself a moment of self pity before getting my shit together. I pull myself into a sitting position against a wall. Everything hurts. I do an inventory. It’s mostly ribs and kidneys and stomach and face. Nothing broken. Maybe a rib or three. Black eye, probably. Split lip, definitely. Huh. My nose isn’t broken. That’s nice.

I’m pretty sure I can hear breathing nearby. I give a low whistle, the universal call and response signal. Someone whistles back.

“You awake.” The voice is heavily accented. “Thought you dead.”

“Sadly not.” I squint into the darkness but can’t make anything out. “How long was I out for?”

I hear them shrug. “Time unimportant. You human?”

“Mostly. You?”

“Vespin.”

I don’t know if they want a conversation or not, but my brain just isn’t up to it. I hope I haven’t been down here long. The last time I was in a government cell, I didn’t get out for a week. I don’t think I could do that again.

In the darkness, I can let myself think. It’s something I try not to do too often – I’m all hard exterior and wisecracks and old pop culture references that people don’t understand. Not that much room for real thoughts. It’s a miracle I’m still alive. Old age doesn’t apply to me, but I have had enough injuries that I should have been dead long ago. Maybe that was something else they did to me at the Academy. Superior healing power. Or maybe I’m just stubborn. I don’t know. That’s the thing with being alive as long as this. You don’t care any more. Or rather, you do care, but in a different way. I have seen too many loved ones die to care freely. I don’t let people in, I close myself off. To people. To situations. To everything. Nothing is new any more.

So when something shakes me up, it really shakes me up. Getting teleported into that canyon, for example. That has never happened before and I had no idea how to react, but my default is survival and I’ll be damned if that’s the way I was going to go. The fates have other ideas, I guess.

And then there’s Allory. It’s been over two years already, and I don’t want it to end. I’ll have to tell her at some point, that I don’t get older, and then she’ll want rid of me. Which is fine. Or there’s the alternative story line, where she says it’s fine and physical appearance doesn’t matter and she wants to stay with me forever, at which point I’ll leave. Because it doesn’t matter if she’s strong enough. I’m not. I can’t watch her get old. I don’t have it in me. When I got out of the Academy, ten years after enrolling, after all of the experimentation, I went back to my family once. And that was it. I knew that if I stayed with them I could see my little sisters grow up. But then they would carry on growing. They would pass me, their big sister, and they would grow old and time would take them away from me. I don’t know if I had nieces or nephews or anything like that. Better they thought I was dead than knowing I was… well. Weak.

Shit. This got real. I guess I should be feeling close to tears or something, but unless it’s physical pain I generally don’t cry any more. Physical pain or a vintage movie where a dog dies. The bastards.

I lean my head against the wall and close my eyes, trying to get the images of my family or Allory or Marley and Me out of my head. I can hear the Vespin breathing near me. They sound asleep. There’s an idea…

Bright light wakes me, and for a minute I think I have died and crossed over and I am a little put out. But then I realise that a door has opened. Not a metaphor. A physical door to the cell has opened and guards are coming in. They motion for me to get up. I can’t. My body has seized up, so when they grab me under my arms I yell out in pain.

“Give me a minute, fucking hell lads.”

I try to get some life back into my limbs. Slowly, slowly, I get to my feet, using the wall for support. This is really difficult. My eyes haven’t quite adjusted to the light. One of the guards grips my upper arm and walks me to the door. Wait. Where are we going?

“Gonna be honest with you boys, I don’t think I can take another interview. Someone else can have the job.” I’m babbling a little. This doesn’t happen to me. What the hell, Glass? Get your shit together.

“Someone’s collecting you.”

If that’s supposed to reassure me, it doesn’t work. Just don’t let it be a lawyer, I can’t handle that, not right now, not when I’m already injured, who is it, what-

But then I’m already out of the door and I see who’s come for me. Allory. All business suit and angry expression, a look of fear flashing across her face when she sees me. I must look gorgeous. The guard lets go of me and I fall against her. I press my face into the shoulder of her jacket, my fingers gripping her arms. She holds me for a moment, lips pressed to the top of my head.

“Come on. We’re leaving.”

She signs some forms, muttering about lack of professionalism and the legality of everything, and helps me walk slowly to the lift and up to her flier outside. She straps me into the passenger seat. There are guards watching. I have a look at the building we’ve just come from. It seems like a single storey storage job, but that’s definitely just a hologram. I’m normally on the lookout for details, little snippets of information I can use or at least something to make a decent pun with, but I don’t have the brain power. The events of the last few days – hours? Weeks? I genuinely don’t know, and that scares me. But anyway, they’re catching up with me. Allory gets in the pilot seat and revs the engine, taking off slowly. She doesn’t like talking when she’s flying, so I lean back against the headrest and take a moment to look at her. Really look at her. Take in the angle of her jawline, the tension in her knuckles as she grips the controls, the small strands of hair that have escaped her bun. I’ve never told her that I love her. I can’t say it now though – I have been hit in the head too many times recently for it to come across as sincere. I feel my eyes begin to close.

“If you die now,” I hear Allory say in a measured tone, “after all the strings I had to pull to get you out of there, I will kill you.”

I open my eyes, smiling. “Al-”

“And I am aware that sentence is illogical, but let me explain.” She types some new coordinates into the navpad. “If you die, I will hire all the best scientists to bring you back, I will spend every scrap of money I have to resurrect your ungrateful self, and after your first few minutes of consciousness, I will shoot you in the head. So keep your eyes open.”

“Aye aye captain,” I respond, and am rewarded with the smallest of smiles. “Where are we going?”

“Hospital.”

“Allory, I don’t-”

“Have you looked at yourself in the mirror recently, Morven? You’re a fucking mess. I have no idea what they did to you, and I don’t want to know because I am already fighting the urge to turn around and burn that place to the ground. You said you’d be home three days ago. You promised. And I know you’re tough and you can fight, and I know your job is dangerous, but you keep your promises and when you didn’t show…” She shook her head sharply. “I’m taking you to the hospital. I want you to heal properly. Not your usual couple of days bedrest and then back to work. I’ve had enough of your bullshit with that. You hear me?”

I nod. “I hear you, Allory.”

“Good. Now, shut up and let me fly.”

I keep my eyes open all the way to the hospital. My heart starts beating faster as soon as I catch sight of the place, but I breathe slowly and will myself to calm down. Medical facilities have always terrified me, ever since the Academy, so it’s a testament to Allory that I actually make it through the doors and past reception. I get given a robe to change into while I wait for a doctor to see me. Allory has to help me. Fucking hell. I can’t remember being this bad in decades. Fuck RainCha. Fuck Lavatio Bron and his mirrored suit and his sand snakes and fuck Tabitha Might and her slap happy guards. I get examined and poked and tutted at and I do a lot of metaphorically biting my tongue until finally I get put into a bed and injected with some sort of sedative. Allory kisses me lightly on the lips as I drop into blissful unconsciousness. I don’t want her to leave. But the whole world is slipping away.

Dreams. Memories. Everything white and chrome and sterile smelling and it’s just a needle. You’ve done it before, the side effects with this one are minimal. Are you looking for an escape route? There are guards everywhere, and I know you might fancy your chances but eventually one of them will stun you and bring you back here and we’ll give you the drug anyway. Don’t be a pussy. That’s better. No, not your arm. This one goes straight in the spine. Scared, Glass? Didn’t think so. There. All done. Brain spinning. Everything hurts. His face turns into Mum and San Ya and Allory who smiles and pushes a needle into my temple and I am in so much pain and I’m crying what’s wrong with you? You’ve been through worse but that means fuck all if you don’t take it as far as you can go. It’s just another year or so. We’ll make sure your family are safe. Who knows what would happen to them if you decide to drop out. Not a difficult choice, is it?

I wake in a cold sweat, heart thumping so fast I feel like it might re-break my ribs. Panic attack. I close my eyes tight and focus on my breathing. I’m getting out of this place. I try to rub my eyes, but I can’t move my hands. I look down. Handcuffs? Are you fucking serious?

“WHY AM I IN HANDCUFFS?”

Allory’s head appears round the door, eyebrows raised. “Why are you shouting?”

“Why am I in fucking handcuffs?”

“Because otherwise, you’ll try and discharge yourself. Which you are completely allowed by law to do. So I handcuffed you to the hospital bed.”

I press my head back into the pillow and close my eyes tight, willing myself to calm the fuck down. The sheer ridiculousness of the situation hits me. I start to laugh. It hurts, but not as much as it did before. Must be getting better. Allory comes over to the side of the bed.

“You know, I kind of like you in handcuffs. Once you’re fully healed up, I’m going to…” she bends down and whispers in my ear. My eyes widen in surprise. I think I’m blushing. Wow. She pulls away, a look of pure innocence on her face.

“Whoa.” I shake my head in disbelief. “Now I know I love you.”

Now Allory looks surprised and I panic because that is completely not what I meant to say. Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit. 

“Weird timing, Glass,” she says. Then she shrugs. Smiles a little. “Get some rest. I love you too.”

She walks out of the room and I breathe a sigh of relief. That went so much better than it should have done. Huh. The universe had other ideas, I guess.

The Runaways

By Samuel Edney

Galactic Co-ordinates: 89-13-05-01

Suggested Soundtrack: See Spotify Playlist at end.

Beep. Beep. Beep…

URGENT MESSAGE SENT FROM COLONY SIERRA TWO-NINE, REGENCY CLUSTER BELT SEVEN; The zealot families have overthrown the government and authorities. The colony, no… the planet… everything is in disarray. Fire engulfs us, everywhere. Send immediate help. Please, for the love of God, have mercy. Send as much help as you can muster… They are coming. The darkness is coming. It is hungry. It wants to eat us all… they are coming.

***

Through the lenses of dusty and rusting old binoculars, Mica looked down to the base of the hill. A compound; a metal fence surrounded it, floodlights shone down on the tarmac. Atop the tarmac, a dropship, fuelled by two crew members in orange overalls, and guarded by a squad of five soldiers, clad in dark blue. Two of the soldiers stood at the gate, letting in the last of a convoy of civilians, draped in rags and stumbling through.

‘Is it still there?’, Cassy asked from below.

‘Yeah. But not for long’, Mica replied. She lowered the binoculars, hooked them back onto her belt, then climbed back down to the room below . ‘Reckon we still have about a half hour.’

The cottage was old, ruined, the bricks covered in moss. The roof was merely a frame, and several holes punctured the walls. Mica jumped down onto the grass and leaf covered warped wooden floor, and sat down. Cassy packed several items into a backpack; two bottles of water, several small food ration packs, and an old star map. Mica pulled her own backpack to her, unzipped it and began to check the contents inside, placing the binoculars in.

‘You ready?’, Cassy asked. Fiery green eyes looked up at Mica through dark brown hair. Her chiselled cheeks and jawline punctuated the default look of stern judgement she harboured wherever her gaze fell.

‘Of course I am… why?’, Mica asked.

‘Your hands are shaking.’

Mica looked down. The bottle of water she had in her hand shook. She put the bottle back in the bag, clenched her fist, tried to make the shaking stop. ‘Well, you don’t look entirely calm either.’

‘Of course I’m not’, Cassy said, ‘You think this is easy for me?’

‘It isn’t easy for either of us.’ Mica zipped up her bag, put it beside her. ‘You never actually told me why you’re doing this with me.’

‘I’m not doing it with you, I’m doing it for me. You just happen to be here too’, Cassy spat.

‘You asked me to be here,’ Mica said, ‘Those are half of the supplies I manage to scrape up in your bag.’

‘Don’t lecture me.’

‘I’m not, I just…’, Mica stopped. She didn’t want to insult or offend the only sane person she knew was left on the planet besides her.

Cassy zipped up her bag, put it to one side, ‘I know. And… I know we don’t know eachother that well. I’ve never really known anybody that well. Just my family, who… who helped orchestrate this whole mess.’ Mica looked at her, scared but curious. ‘Which is why trust isn’t one of my strong suits,’ Cassy continued, ‘Never trusted anyone, and no-one ever trusted me. That’s why I need to get away; because maybe someone, somewhere else, might trust me… and I can learn to trust them too.’ Cassy looked at the floor, refusing to meet Mica’s gaze.

Silence filled the room. Filled the cottage. Filled the whole world around them. Mica searched for a reply to break it up. ‘My family are all dead.’ Cassy started to look back up. ’At least, I think they are. I haven’t seen them since Resdun Square. Lost them in the crowd. Then…’, Mica paused, lost in the memory, ‘There was an explosion. Fire. Fire like I’ve never seen. As if, a dragon had swooped down and let loose all it’s might and… and fury.’ She stopped again, Cassy looked out at the forest, and the night sky. ‘I searched for three days, went further and further; ten blocks, twenty, thirty, even to the edge of the colony. Never found a trace.’

After a moment, Cassy looked back at her. ‘I didn’t know.’

‘Well, now you do,’ Mica paused, ‘Listen. Maybe, when we get out of here… just for a bit, until we both… you know… find our feet… we can stick together? I’m not saying forever, but…’

Desperate for the stammering to cease, Cassy grabbed her bag, and stood. ‘To be honest, I wouldn’t count on it.’ Mica looked at her, then away, feeling slightly insulted.

The rumble of an engine came from outside, drawing both girls attention. Cassy, hunched down, stuck to the walls, moved into the living room. She stopped at the window, scanned the road leading up to the cottage outside. Overshadowed by trees and bushes, it was pure darkness. Cassy stared into the abyss, occasionally glancing in each direction. Nothing, but the sound of the engine grew louder every second.

Then, the darkness began to illuminate. The engine growl accompanied a pair of headlights curving around a bend ahead of the cottage. Cassy stuck to the wall, peeking over the flaking paint of the windowsill. Within a moment, the headlights straightened out and shone directly onto the cottage. Cassy jumped back so as not to be seen. The beam of white light burned onto the face of the cottage for a moment, then disappeared. She peaked round again.

A pickup truck had come to a stop outside. The bulbs of it’s headlights cooled as they died down. The rusting door on the driver’s side creaked as it opened, a pair of fur clad boots kicked up leaves as they struck the ground.

A bony hand wrapped itself around the frame of the door, slammed it shut. Another held a metal pipe. They were attached to the long arms of a tall, thin figure, clothed in cloth rags. For a head, it donned a mask; made from a real bull’s head. The figure began to walk; towards the cottage.

Fear filling her mind, her heart, her very soul, Cassy retreated to the back room, swept her bag up from the ground. ‘Time to go’, she said, careful not to show her fear to Mica.

‘Now?’, Mica asked.

‘Yes, now!’, Cassy snapped.

Mica grabbed her bag too. The two girls swung them over their shoulders, then began to climb through a hole in the wall next to them, Cassy first to go. Just as Mica exited, the sound of the front door being kicked to pieces rang out. Mica looked back to see the figure in the doorway. Before she could even register what was happening, Cassy grabbed her, then pulled her through the gap.

***

The two girls ran, kicking their way through the forest, occasionally tripping over tree trunks protruding from the sap coated ground, the momentum of sprinting down the hill forced the loss of control of their pace. Cassy glanced back to the cottage; stood in the spot they occupied mere moments ago, the bull headed figure stared at them. Then, it disappeared quickly into the darkness behind it.

‘Was that a zealot?!’, Mica shouted her best through her wheezing.

‘Not now, focus on getting to the dropship!’, Cassy called back.

‘I want to know why—!’

The two came to a stop, forcefully slamming into a tree. Cassy turned to Mica, bragged her by the straps of her backpack, ’Listen to me right now, because I’m not going to stop and come back for you if decide to get bogged down in wanting to know why that thing is chasing us. I am getting to that dropship, and if you want to be there too; forget about the zealot’

Mica stared into Cassy’s green eyes, nodded, shaking again, more visibly next time, unsure whether through fear or still regaining herself from the momentum of sprinting down the hill. Cassy let her go, turned around and began to search for the compound guarding the dropship. Just between the trees she could see the illumination from the floodlights. ‘Looks like we’re pretty close,’ she said, ‘But we can’t stay on rough ground, it’ll take too long. We need to find our way to the main road.’ She looked back to Mica, who had turned and was staring back up at the cottage, now some distance away. ‘Mica’, Cassy said.

Mica turned to her, a lost look in her eyes. ‘Sorry, I just… this is it isn’t it?’

‘This is what?’

‘We’re really leaving.’

‘Well, yes that’s the point of all this’, Cassy said, confused.

‘I know… it’s just hit me now’, Mica started to tear up, but she didn’t entirely understand why.

Cassy rolled her eyes, ‘I’m going to leave you, here and now, if you’re starting to falter already.’

Mica shook her head, ’Don’t worry about it’, she said, a stern snappiness to her tone, ‘I’m here. Lets go.’ She made to move, but Cassy pulled her back. ‘What are you doing? I’m ready, now you’re not?’

‘Shut up,’ Cassy whispered. She listened to the sound of the woods around them. Birds chirping, the leaves rustling in the slight breeze; and the sound of engines. More than one. Cassy’s eyes widened. ‘Run. Right now. Run!’

The two broke into a sprint yet again, this time steadying themselves slightly as they progressed down the hillside. Cassy kept her attention focused on the light projecting from the dropship compound. Mica kept her attention on Cassy; the further they went, the darker it seemed to get, the shrubbery and foliage around them becoming more dense,clawing at them, as if to pull them into the trees.

Up ahead, Cassy spotted a clearing, ‘Open road!’, she shouted back.

As they approached, Mica spotted something in the corner of her eye; headlights. Not just one pair, but several. ‘Left! To the left!’, she screamed.

Cassy turned her gaze, just able to make out the outlines of the truck from earlier, being followed by other cars and trucks. She looked back ahead, gritted her teeth, and ran harder.

They reached the road; a wide dirt path that dropped further down into a ravine on the other side. Cassy stopped, scanned her surroundings. To her left, the road looked to curve left and back up the hill. To her right, a straight line, leading directly to the compound’s gate. Mica screeched to a halt beside her, kicking up dust. The chorus of growling engines grew. Cassy grabbed Mica, pushing her ahead as they ran.

Focusing her attention, Mica looked up and ahead, laying her gaze on the dropship and the crew and civilians starting to board it. She locked on, the sight of escape and near freedom from the lunatics chasing her, and the fire that she remembered engulfing everything she had known, spurred her pace. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Calm and determined. She could feel the blood pumping through her veins, the wind rushing past her ears drowning out the oncoming engines and the rising panic nature of Cassy’s shouting. All Mica could see was the dropship, and the future it could bring.

Just a little further.

The sound of a deep, guttural scream snapped her out of her trance. She skidded to a halt, whipped back around. Mica laid eyes on Cassy, several yards behind her, being surrounded by four vehicles; three pickup trucks and a small car. Cassy stopped too, hidden behind a veil of dust kicked up by the vehicles now encircled around her.

Cassy searches for Mica, disorientated by the sudden blockade now facing her. She found her, a fair way aways down the road, staring straight back. She tried to muster a call for help, but as the doors to the trucks and car opened, seemingly, and eerily, unanimously, she found no use of rhetoric. Instead, her green eyes lost their fire, replaced with terror, stared longingly at Mica, begging for help.

Mica didn’t move. She just looked on. Then to the dropship, then back to Cassy. She thought about what Cassy had said to her, back on the hill, and how she was met with a stunning indifference back up in the cottage after trying her best to provide some amount of comfort. It didn’t take long for her to make a decision. Avoiding meeting Cassy’s gaze, she turned towards the compound, and ran once more.

Cassy watched the outline of Mica’s body disappear into the lights, and felt something all too familiar to her; crushing betrayal. She paused, stared at where Mica was.

A body blocked her line of sight; towering over her, the bull headed figure that chased them from the cottage. Cassy looked up into the hollowed out eye sockets of the mask. Fiery green eyes stared back, ‘Brother.’ The figure grunted through the mask.

The slamming of a door from behind her drew her attention. She turned slowly, now surrounded by rag-clad figures, all wearing animal heads as mask. Closing off the circle, holding an axe, a man wearing a wolf head. Cassy took a deep breath, focusing herself on the situation at hand. She stared directly at the wolf, ‘Father.’ The wolf headed figure said nothing. Cassy looked around at each individual figure. ’Well? Come on.’ She raised her fists. From the circle, wielding hammers and pitchfork, two assailants approached. They were hesitant, put swung for her. Cassy dodge, then swung back, knocking the hammer wielding ‘Pig’ away. The pitchforking wielding ‘Sheep’ stabbed at her torso, but Cassy darted left, took hold of the pitchfork, and wrenched it from the Sheep’s hands, using it to knock the figure away.

Cassy was light on her feet, pitchfork in hand, skirting around the group, trying to keep a watchful eye on all of them, but failing to do so. ‘Come on!’, she screamed, ‘Get it over with you sick fu—‘

A deep thud, followed by a grunt and the spitting of blood, Cassy was knocked to the ground. The Bull had driven the metal pipe into the back of her head. Pig and Sheep returned with rope and a bag in their hands, respectively. Cassy tried her hardest to pull herself up, spitting more blood into the dirt.

The rope was wrapped around her wrists, the bag pulled over head, and she lifted up. Cassy felt herself being thrown into the back of the pickup truck. The sound of two pairs of feet joined the clanging of her body onto the metal, followed by the percussion of opening and closing doors. In the darkness, she tried to get a sense of balance, desperately searching for detail through the dark fabric as to where she might be. The growling of the engines started up once more, and Cassy felt the vehicle lurch and start to move.

A bright beam of light pierced through the bag, blinding her. She could hear several howls of surprise and protest, followed by a deep boom of twin engines, and the gusts of air that they kicked up. The bag flew off of Cassy’s head, and she stared up at the underbelly of the dropship. Next to her, the Pig and the Bull were writhing; taser rounds lay in their chests. They fell from the pickup and onto the dirt road.

Cassy blinked repeatedly, struggling to stay conscious, but everything began to turn blurry. From the dropship, five indiscernible outlines of dark blue slid down ropes to surround the pickup she struggled to find her feet in. She could hear the muffled shouting of orders.

Suddenly, she felt herself being lifted into the arms of a solider; one of the guards from the compound. He was young, with dark hair and glasses, a name tag sown onto his vest that read; ‘JOSH’. She and him began to rise, darkness beginning to fill her peripheral vision. Cassy’s attention turned to the dropship she rose to meet.

A pale hand stuck out as she was carried onto the rear ramp, and the face of Mica met her.

Then, darkness.

***

The distant sound of generators humming. The dark began to illuminate. Someone was next to her, touching the back of head with something soft and wet. In the distance, a distant voice spoke, crackling slightly; a radio broadcast ‘… with a flash of purple…appeared in the Senate… Tabitha Might…’

Cassy awoke to the sight of a green suited medic tending to the wound on the back of her head with a cotton bud. He drew back, inspected the blood, brought out a bandage from a pack wrapped around his waist. Around him, a grey coloured room. She was laying on a bed. To her left; a window. Outside of that, the blackness of space, punctuated by stars. To Cassy’s right, Mica sat in a chair, looking at her.

When she came around fully, Mica smiled, sat beside her. ‘Hey. You’re alright. Just relax and don’t move too much’, she said, ‘Took a helluva hit. But you’ll be fine, apparently.’

The medic packed his things away, nodded, then left the room, turning off the radio as he did so. Cassy blinked again, focusing on the same outside of the window. ‘Where are we?’, she asked.

Mica stood, moved over to the window. ‘We’re in orbit’, she smiled again, ‘We made it’.

Cassy managed to pull herself up enough to look out of the window. The planet’s

surface came into view; there were large patches covered in fire, with others covered in

lights that, one by one, started to go out. Cassy looked away, stared straight ahead.

Mica moved away, ‘I’ll let you get some rest’, she said. She started to walk towards

the door.

‘Mica’, Cassy said. Mica stopped, looked back to her. ‘About you sticking around.’

‘Yeah?’, Mica asked.

Cassy paused, searched for the right words. ‘Maybe, for the near future anyway. And… thank you’, she said.

Mica nodded, meekly smiled, then exited. Cassy looked back outside the window, and pondered over what may happen next.

 

Bloodshot

By Emma Geraghty

Galactic Coordinates: 23-04-06-01

“Please enter identification number.”

The voice from the security system is posh and tinny. Instantly annoying. I take off my glove and type in the six digits, the numbers sliding unconsciously from my brain to fingers already numbing in the bitter night. The red light blinks. I hold my breath.

“Confirmed. Please enter.”

I push the door open. The apartment is silent and I want to keep it that way. I make my way along the hallway and into the lounge, everything bathed in a fiery glow from the sunrise outside. The curtains are open and for a moment I think maybe I’m too late. Maybe she’s up already. And if that’s true, then I am well and truly in the shit. But I can’t hear anything. Just the sound of my own breath. Even the sounds of the street don’t make it this high up. It’s unsettling. I’ve always hated silence. It’s easier to hide in noise.

The third door along is the bedroom, and that’s where I need to be. I place a hand on the handle and push it down, the click seeming to bounce off the walls. This room is in darkness. I take a moment to let my eyes adjust, let the silhouettes of furniture emerge from the dark, let my brain remember. The desk. On the other side of the room. That’s where the box is, in the first drawer. I look towards the bed and see her figure beneath the bedsheets, blonde hair turned black in the lack of light. I move quickly to the desk. This might just work – in and out, no trace. Like I’d never been here.

And that’s when the alarm goes off.

“…bringing you the best sounds at six am, this is Blokk Radio, with you all through the day…”

The lights flick on and the curtains begin to open, all of this pre-programmed bullshit ruining a perfectly good plan in an instant.

“What the hell?” She’s awake.

I turn to face her, smiling in what I hope is an apologetic way. “Hey babe.”

“Hey? Is that it? You know, when I said you could stay at mine, I meant during the night. Not rolling in at the crack of dawn with a hey babe.

Her tone is angry, but she’s never been able to stay mad at me for long. So I shrug off my jacket, throwing it over the back of the chair, and sit on the bed. Look at her. Smile genuinely this time. Her eyes are sharp but lined with sleep, hair all over the place, and the rush of feeling takes me by surprise like it always does. Allory Hacida, stealing the breath from my lungs at the most unexpected moments.

“Have you been out all night?”

“Got stuck with work.” I shrug. Images from the night chase themselves through my brain but I shake them free. I lean in to kiss her. She pulls back, wrinkling her nose.

“No way. Nothing for you till you get in the shower.”

“Is that an invitation?”

I lie back on the bed, making sure my boots aren’t touching the white sheets. She laughs.

“Someone’s come back horny,” she smiles at me, and I can’t keep the grin off my face. She gets out of bed. “It can be an invitation if you want. Saves on water.”

My mind drifts briefly to the thought of a shower, to the hot water pricking my skin, then to sleep, to letting my eyelids close, letting myself dream. I shake my head to clear it and sit up. “No time. I’m due at the station in half an hour.”

She shakes her head, annoyance flashing across her face. “You need some sleep.”

“Not more than I need a job.” I go back to the desk and get a small box from the top drawer. My original target. Inside are a few dozen tiny red pills, each marked with the letter K, and I take two without water. I ignore the small sound of distaste that Allory makes. Klaxxon pills were taken off the general market about a year ago when people realised they destroyed their nanomedics, but as Al’s told me time and time again I evidently don’t care about my health. And I get them for free. I can feel the charge as the pills work their medical magic, and within ten seconds I am wide awake. My ears are ringing and I suddenly have a banging headache, but that’s all normal and I swallow a couple of painkillers as a chaser. Sorted.

I hear the sound of the shower and resist the urge to follow her in. She’ll be genuinely pissed off at me now. As long as I don’t take them in front of her she doesn’t seem to care, but she also insists that I keep them here. So she can keep an eye on me. I have another bag back at my place, but that’s besides the point. What she doesn’t know can’t irritate her. But it is sweet of her, I guess, to care so much-

Focus. Stop thinking about it. She won’t last.

My clothes stink. I remove my holster, strip, and throw the clothes into the laundry unit, the mechanisms firing up instantly. I stand in front of the mirror to assess the damage from the night. Just a couple of bruises. Huge one across the ribs on my left – glancing kick from a security boot. On the curve of my right shoulder – breaking into a shitty apartment. Nothing too serious, and I’m always grateful when they go for places I can cover up. A couple of jobs ago I came back with a face like a Rorschach test. Not pretty.

I splash my miraculously unbruised face with cold water and get some of my clothes out of Allory’s wardrobe. I hear the shower stop. She comes back into the bedroom as I’m struggling to fasten my bra behind my back, a blue towel wrapped around her. Her hair drips over her shoulders.

“I don’t know why you don’t just twist it round,” she says, smacking my hands away and doing it for me.

“Thanks.” I grab my t-shirt from the bed. “I feel like I should be able to manage my own underwear by now, y’know?”

I know she’s looking at my bruises and I know exactly what she’s thinking, but I brush past it. I pull the t-shirt over my head. One of the ones from San Ya’s black market – it’s not exactly illegal, but stuff salvaged from Ea1 is always frowned upon.

“A woman’s place is in the resistance,” Allory reads. “Who’s the picture?”

“The princess. From the film we watched last week.”

“The one set in space? With the light-up swords? I don’t know why you like that stuff, it’s so unrealistic.”

“Unrealistic? We live in space, honey-”

“Yeah, and it’s nothing like that film.”

“It’s a masterpiece. End of.” I drag a brush through my hair and pull it into a ponytail. “Anyway, gotta dash.”

Allory looks pointedly at my gun and holster, still on the bed. I put it on, grab my jacket and gloves, and go to head to the front door.

“Morven.” Allory’s got her hands on her hips. “You’re forgetting something.”

“I am?” She raises her eyebrows and I falter. “Oh. Yeah.”

It’s a good kiss, if a bit rushed. I’d stay here for the whole day if I could. The whole week. She’s smiling when I pull away, her face just inches from mine. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Oh?”

“Tonight?” I wrack my brain. There’s nothing filed under Allory, nothing under Tonight… The smile disappears from her face. “Tonight. The meal. At Arcadia.”

Shit.

“I’ll be there. It just slipped my mind.”

“Table’s booked at eight. Dress nicely. No denim.”

Shit.

“Do you need a ride?”

“No, I’ll meet you there after work.” She bites her lip slightly and it instantly worries me. “There’s something else… Don’t go mad.”

“Okaaaaay…”

“I didn’t tell you before because I knew you’d panic, but I promise you’ll be fine. My parents are joining us for dinner. I think it’s about time you met them.”

Shit.

————————————-

So I’m outside and it’s really fucking cold and my brain is in utter panic. Meet the parents? Christ. Not a chance. No. Fucking. Way. I press my thumb to the scanner, swing a leg over my ride and give it a kick, a couple of passersby jumping at the roar of the engine. It quickly settles into a low growl. I angle upwards. There’s already vehicles buzzing about, zipping this way and that, heading to work or home or to meet their girlfriend’s parents or whatever. I wait for an opening and flick through some music. The little player was another relic from Ea1. You can get these implant things now, but there’s a procedure and doctors and to be honest, I like that I’m in control of my own body now. And if I’m wearing headphones, people generally know not to talk to me.

The ride to the WeGard-U station only takes ten minutes and I have at least six near death experiences. I’m sure cities in the Inner Planets have traffic systems or something, but out here we just wing it. Much like everything else. This whole city is a death trap. Blokk lives up to its name – it was originally an import station for the other outlying planets, and when the money ran out there were just lots of storage containers and old buildings. And then humans invaded, as we always do. So the containers got stacked on top of each other and got made into apartments, which is where everyone lives. The centre is a little better – think Ea1 cowboy movies with more lasers and chrome – but in the suburbs it’s a mess. Allory’s apartment is pretty nice, but it’s expensive. My place is… best not mentioned. I power down outside the station just as the final screams of electric guitar die in my headphones. I remove my helmet, check my reflection in the wing mirror, and head into the building, starting up a fresh track. I may look like a woman but I / cut like a buffalo…

“Morning, Morven.”

I tip a salute to the Gard at reception. “Morning Xende. Coffee machine working?”

“No.”

“Excellent.” Today is hell.

I’ve just completed the retina scan – recent freak-out with clones, don’t ask – when Gard Probis appears. He’s well educated, conventionally attractive, and a complete bellend, so naturally I figured he would feature in my day.

“What are you doing here, Glass?”

I shrug, leaning nonchalantly against the reception. “Nothing much. Chilling out. Maxing. Relaxing all cool.”

He narrows his eyes, recognition flitting briefly across his face. He definitely knows I’m taking the piss.

“It’s half six in the morning, Probis. Just doing my job.”

“Of course,” he sneers, looking me up and down. “Every inch the professional.”

I’m just about to snap back a killer one-liner when my file arrives. Xende clears her throat. She’s holding a small three-tipped needle. “You want it direct?”

“Nah, transfer.” I suppress a shudder. She turns to her screen and within seconds is handing me a micro-card the size of a fingernail. Probis raises his eyebrows.

“Memory card? You need to catch up with your tech, Glass.”

I roll my eyes, pocketing the card. “Why are you still here?”

His indignant response is drowned out by drums and electric guitars as I unpause my player and head back to my ride. I occasionally enjoy irritating him, if I have the time, but not today. I put on the helmet and slide the micro-card into the side of it. Images flash across the visor. A name. A face. A location. Warning. Dangerous fugitive. Proceed with caution.

That’s more like it.

I take the rest of the morning relatively easy. Grab a coffee, some breakfast, another coffee, buy some new cigarettes. I spend quite a while sat outside what passes for a cafe, smoking and scrolling through data files on my laptop. Yes, I still have one of those. It looks like it’s survived several nuclear blasts – which, to be fair, it might well have done – but it works like a dream and I don’t feel like I could break it if I tried. I’m researching my target. Well, refreshing my memory, really. I’ve gone after this guy before. A good fifteen years ago. And he got away. Dabrial Birch. I’ve not got a vendetta or anything. In fact, it’s quite nice to have a familiar face pop up now and again, like checking up on an old friend who you’ve tried to kill several times and finding out they’re still well and still fucking their life up. And all I have to do is find him and bring him in. Dead or alive.

His last known location is Triisk, about three hours out of the city, so that’s where I head. I’m not worried about him skipping out on me. Triisk is home to the biggest network of gambling dens in the outer planets, with a minimum stay of three days and no maximum limit. The place is a void. You get thrown out when you run out of money – trust me on that one – but thanks to the vast amount of illegal trading he’s done, Birch is loaded. And he checked in thirty hours ago, so unless something has gone horrendously wrong then he’s still in there.

The bouncer is huge. I think he’s a Rhino, which means he’s small on brains and big on everything else. His voice sounds like he’s chewing rocks. I pay the minimum fee and slide past him into the Complex, stopping just inside the door to get my bearings. There isn’t much light, most of it coming from the smart screens that run the games, and the sound of the players is masked by a throbbing bass that hits just below the ribcage. I can feel my pulse slowing in time to it, feel my alertness fading away… I bite my tongue to sharpen my brain. Birch is a tricky sonofabitch and I’ll need every scrap of energy to get him. I shake my head quickly. Bloody hell. My brain- hang on. There’s a woman stood, and I’m guessing by her outfit of a very skimpy bra and knickers that she works for the Complex. The silver platter she’s holding has lots of little red pills on it. Jackpot. I take two of them, murmuring my thanks and feel my heartbeat kick up to double time. Whoa there. If only Allory could see me now, I grin to myself. I feel fantastic.

I start scanning the games for my man, hands in pockets, slightly hunched posture. Making myself inconspicuous as possible. I slink from game to game, hoping that I see him before I have to get involved in one of them. The management get annoyed if you just hang around without playing. I gravitate naturally towards the bar, and just as I’m about to order a drink, I see him. And he sees me. We lock eyes over the bartender’s shoulder, and for a moment, everything is still. I raise my hand and wave at him, smiling. He looks confused. And then he runs.

Here we go.

And I’m chasing him through the Complex, through the middle of games, knocking cards and chips everywhere, people are shouting at us, swearing and shaking fists. Birch turns down an aisle of old slot machines, and with great effort pulls one of them over to block my path, but I notice it in time and I’m jumping over it, keeping my breathing even, adrenaline coursing through my body and at the same time hoping for a dead end so I can take the bastard down. It doesn’t take long. A locked fire escape. He turns, back to the wall. I stop a couple of feet away from him. Both of us getting our breath back.

“Birch.”

“Of all the gambling dens in all of the galaxy, Glass-”

“I had to chase you through this one.” I smile. I like this guy. Shame he’s a criminal, really. “Fancy a ride? I can drop you anywhere, so long as it’s the Gard station.”

He shakes his head, still smiling. “Not a chance. I like my freedom.”

There’s a bit of a crowd now, including a couple of Rhino bouncers. It looks like they’re going to let us finish this ourselves – nobody’s getting involved, but everyone is blocking our way out. I see Birch is crouching slightly. His shoulders are tense, arms raised a little. I allow a note of amusement into my voice. “Are you going to fight me, Dabrial?”

“Looks like it, sweetheart.”

“Excellent. Just be a gent and don’t go for the face. I have a date tonight.”

“I’ll try my best.”

He launches himself at me and I dodge to the side, grabbing his shoulders and driving a knee up into his stomach. He doubles over, winded. I give him a bit of room, dancing back, light on my toes, bouncing from foot to foot. Call me a philistine, but I love a good fight. The crowd are louder now, cheering and jeering, not rooting for anyone in particular. Birch is up again. I throw a punch at his face, but he feints to the right and lands a hit, I can feel his knuckles crunch against my already bruised ribs. I swear and retaliate, pushing him forward and smacking his head off the wall, following quickly with a kick to the back of the legs and driving him to the floor. A cheer from my fans. I straddle his back and unhook the cuffs from my belt.

“Honey, I am bringing you in.” The cuffs tighten automatically and I haul him to his feet. He doesn’t look happy. There’s already a bruise starting on his forehead. “Thanks for that though. I think I needed to get something out of my system.”

He doesn’t say anything. I steer him towards the door, and after a brief negotiation with the Rhinos and more than a few VCoins changing hands, and secure him on my ride. I unfasten his cuffs. “Don’t try and escape or anything, because I will just shoot you this time.”

Birch’s laugh is hollow. I’m just about to get on when my phone goes. I check the screen. Allory.

“Hey babe,” I gesture to Birch one minute. He rolls his eyes.

“Is this a bad time?”

“Kind of. I’m in the-”

“So, tonight. Just want to make sure you’re remembering everything.”

“Eight o’clock. Arcadia. No denim.”

“Get there at ten to.”

“Right.”

“And-”

“Al, I have literally just caught a criminal. Can I call you in a bit?”

She sounds a little irritated, but we say our goodbyes and I put the phone down. I take a deep breath. Massage my temples. Try to ignore the guilt that’s gnawing my insides.

“I was surprised to see you tonight. You haven’t changed. At all. Fifteen years, Glass.” Birch’s voice is low. I can tell he’s looking at me but I don’t want to meet his eye. “You’re one of the Lazarus kids, aren’t you? The experiments.”

I nod.

“So you don’t age?”

I shake my head.

“Does she know?”

I shake my head. It’s something I don’t want to have to think about. Something I constantly push to the back of my mind. I’m almost reaching the limit with Allory. We’ve been together for two years, and I think I’m as close to being in love as I will ever be. But in another year or so, I’ll have to break up with her. Because everyone I know gets older, apart from me. And I can’t undo what the scientists did, so my relationships don’t last. Nothing lasts. Every three years, I uproot everything.

I pinch the bridge of my nose and count to five. Let go. Let go. Birch is still looking at me with what looks like pity on his face. It jolts me. I throw the spare helmet to him. “Enough of this sentimental bullshit. Let’s get going.”

“If we must.” He fastens the helmet over his head, and I do the same. “I’ve never rode on of these before.”

“In that case, listen up. Relax. Enjoy the ride.” The engine roars to life. “Oh, and hold on tight. Or you might just die.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Rubber Mice

GALACTIC CO-ORDINATES: 123-04-01-01

SUGGESTED SOUNDTRACK: (See spotify link at end)

The planet, Tix and its sister Tox seemed the perfect place for the scientist Pref Terin to hold his experiments. They were situated close enough the centre of the galaxy to pick up some residual of the great black hole but far enough not to be sucked in. Little did he know, that wherever he held his experiments, he would always have the same result.

Pref Terin, normal looking to an extent, as least your basic human standard, had always been an ambitious man. You could see it in his keen eyes, blue like lighting and a brow that questioned you before he’d even opened his mouth. As a boy, in the housing reefs of Nep1, he had tinkered in the corner of the lean-to that housed their family. During the day he would scavenge in the undergrowths of the reeds, picking apart the debris that had fallen from the ring and the passing ships. He found tiny things, a screw, a sliver of foil, a crusted bit of ancient ore. But they were all treasures to him. He used to take them back and hide them about his person. This soon earned him the nickname Clink as he would jingle with metal as he walked. He would place his findings in front of him and try and fit them together. And he did, eventually. It was just a jigsaw puzzle to him, one that hadn’t been made yet. Eventually all the pieces fit together.

At university, a scholarship at Pure Light on Ma1, he found his inclinations to piece-fitting enabled him other gifts. He saw the lines of politics and history form in ebbs and flows. Each decision rippling like a pebble in a pond, making perfect sense as it happened. The dissolving of the Six United, the forming of the empire, the election of Tabitha Might, he could see each step like a map. But he always wanted more. This was only recent history; he wanted to see every step. See how the machine of the Galaxy fit together. To find its inner workings.

In his lab, the Trans-Molecular Engineering Department, in the last year of his undergraduate degree odd things started to happen. On his desk toy mice would appear. At first, he had come back to it after lunch and there it was by his keyboard. A small rubbery toy mouse. As anybody would, he dismissed it as a prank. Ot even if it wasn’t a prank, Professor Zanflip was quite eccentric, it could well be his an off cut of his latest work. But then the toy mice started quite literally appearing. It was always at night too, as the machines snored around, Pref would be there tinkering with ghost atoms and with a pop! a mouse would appear. Peculiar, he thought. He would run down to the Advanced Teleport department but no one was ever there. Even the AI’s were in sleep mode. He checked the shield runnings and they were fine, he knew the university’s policy. No shield up – no experiments. Otherwise the readings would be off. But there it was like clockwork – a toy rubber mouse.

As the days went on Pref would become more and more anxious for its arrival. His fellow students didn’t believe him – they put it down to late night hallucinations – a result of the overworked piecer-togetherer. But Pref knew. He started to wait for it to capture the moment. He recorded it too. There was a brief buzz and a slight flash of blue light. Every time the same, he would play the recordings obsessively through the day. It didn’t drop from the sky it formed fully on the table. But never anything else, just a mouse each time. He began to avoid all other work, even eating and sleeping came secondary to the appearance of the mouse. But it was always the same. Until one very special day. A day that would change Pref’s life forever.

Pref was waiting at his desk for his nightly arrival. He sat back, with a big mug of coffee intently watching the spot. His desk looked like a huge, heavily armed missile deck all aimed at the same spot. There were cameras at all angles, heat sensors draped over liked delicate arms smoking cigarettes, lenses whizzed and whirred like a pack of paparazzi waiting for the latest star. The time was running on the computer, any minute Pref knew it would arrive. As the clock carried towards midnight, there it was, right on time, the instruments everywhere sprang into life. There was a brief pop and a flash and there it was – the offering of the day. But this time it was different. Attached to the mouse, by a little slip of tape was a note. Pref scrambled forward. It said: Note the Decay. He shuddered. The note was written in his own handwriting.

Pref wasted no time. He ran to the Department of Quantum Geology and brandished the mouse in the Secretary’s face.

‘I need… I need to use the machine… the one… oh I know which one…’

He panted and brandished his student card. Before the poor man behind the desk could protest, Pref ran into the department and into the nearest study room. Inside was a group of bewildered looking Walrans with clipboards.

‘Erm…sorry…,’ Pref said. ‘Orders from… Proffesor Zanflip… I need this room.’

The nearest Walran raised a fleshy eyebrow. ‘I don’t think so, we’ve just been in class with him.’

Pref noted that there was no loyalty amongst Walran. ‘… You didn’t let me finish… Professor Zanflip…and the Vice-Chancellors… right away.’

‘Fine. We were finished anyway.’ The Walrans with eight pairs of suspicious folded flippers slid out the room tutting as they went.

Pref ran over to the machine that filled the room and placed the mouse in the hatch. He stood behind the screen and watched as the readings spread across it. He traced his finger along it. The machine was there to register the atomic decay of objects. A dating machine that had been around for thousands of years. As he followed the line the pattern formed in his mind. He gasped. Strands of atoms started appearing that were dated next week and the week after and months and years down the line. The mouse was from the future.

And so the work began. Years later he still remained at the university completing his PhD, ‘Towards a Practical Time Travel’ – nearly rejected until the intervention of Prof. Zanflip, a lover of the stranger investigations. The mice became infrequent but when they did arrive it would always come with a note. It would be a suggestion of a metal, a hastily scrawled equation. Each one proving a breakthrough for Pref. As the years went by, his hair grew unkempt and remained on end however hard he tried to comb it. His eyes formed deep bags underneath them. His hands became worn and coarse. He kept what he called the breakthrough mouse with him at all times. He toyed with it in his pocket as he walked, he kept it by his bed in the rare hours he slept. After he while, he noticed the mouse begin the change. Not just in general wear and tear but in its whole appearance. One day it would look ancient. Holes would appear in it and the plastic would crust and decay. The next day it would form over smooth and new. He knew what was happening. Whatever he was creating in the future – it was unstable. He thought about the jigsaw. Everything in his life so far he had fitted the pieces together. But this time – there were so many holes and nothing to fill them with.

In the last year of his PhD, strings were finally coming together. In his lab a vast machine had been constructed. It was like a tank out of an ancient sci-fi film, all arms and legs and big blocky chunks of steel. It all revolved around a central platform that glowed blue with a pulsating heartbeat. All around the room, on every shelf and flat surface, on the windowsills and scattered across the floor were hundreds and hundreds of rubber mice. The thing about sending things in time is that you’re never quite sure if you’ve done it. The thing just disappears and then you’re left with no idea if it reached, or reaches its destination. So Pref started setting dates. In three weeks time, he would run the machine and send a toy mouse back to today. As soon as he finished putting the note in his diary – there it was. A toy mouse appeared on his desk. It was working. It was finally working! So he set the date every day and there the mouse appeared. A full cycle of mice. Pref, now wild with joy as the pieces formed more and more, dug through his old diaries. There were the dates, each mouse was logged and recorded. He took a mouse and attached a note, something recent from a few months back, Try X’kair hair for the plaster lines. He fired up the machine and sent it. Suddenly he remembered it arriving more clearly, as if the circuit had been completed. He cheered and ran his hands through his hair. Little did he know, in his excitement that standing by the door was Professor Zanflip accompanied by a human, a man of about forty, with a neat haircut and a dark grey suit. The human gave a slight cough.

‘Ah, who are you?’ Pref exclaimed. ‘Oh sorry didn’t see you there Professor…’

‘Hello Pref – you’ve been working hard I know! I used to be like that myself when I got caught up in something. Getting on a bit now though ha! Don’t have the energy anymore!’

Pref looked towards the other man with an unproceeding glare.

‘Ah yes. Sorry Pref to intrude but talk of your amazing work has got round. And this is…’

‘Consto Grant. Nice to meet you Mr. Terin.’ The man held out his grey hand from the grey suit. Pref didn’t move from the control point of his machine. ‘I am a representative of her grace Empress Tabitha Might. I run the department for Empire-led Galactic Advancement.’

‘Never heard of it.’ Pref said.

‘Now now Pref, he’s from the government,’ Professor Zanflip said and fired a warning glance his way.

‘I am indeed. We have heard that you are working on a practical application of time travel am I correct?’

‘No. Well sort of. You’re simplifying it, it’s more time displacement. I can send things – like sending a GMessage. Zip. Zip zap.’

Consto raised his eyebrows, ‘Zip zap?’

‘Yes I zip things through time. Mr Grant what is you want?’

‘I have a question for you.’

‘Oh yes? And what’s that?’

‘I understand you have been running your experiments with rubber mice. Is this correct?’

‘Yes’

‘Tell me. Would it… I don’t know…transport say a human?’

The same evening, Pref left the university of Pure Sight under the cover of darkness. He knew exactly why the man had come. He knew exactly what he had wanted. Throughout all his experiments, Pref had always known that sooner or later people would take notice. Legends of time travel had been around for thousands of years. It was the holy grail of the modern technological age. But he also knew that nothing good could come of it. If he refined it, say into a handheld device, then designated species could zip back and forth causing all sorts of trouble and if the Empire has sole control of it… well, he shuddered at the thought. But he knew he had to carry on. He knew he did carry on. All the messages he had received at the beginning – he hadn’t sent them yet. Somewhere he knew he keeps on going.

When he was young, his mother gave him a number and a name. She had given it to her all her children and said it was ‘A lifeline for when things get rough.’ They all asked her questions but were scolded. After a hitching a few lifts Pref arrived at docking bay shanty village a few systems over. It was all rusted browns and greasy cloths clutching on the edge of an asteroid. He opened his communicator and typed in a message. There’s a room at the University of Pure Sight. TME Ph4. I need the contents bringing to me when the time is right. He felt stupid. Who was at the other end? After a moment there was a buzz on his comm. It was a message. I’ll do my best. Send the word FLARE when you’re ready. We’ll find you. All best. San Ya (Proprietor.) He looked up from the dirty platform and wondered where in the sky San Ya was.

* * *

 

Eventually, Pref Terin, genius and spotter of patterns made it to and abandoned city on Tix. Enough digestible vegetation to keep him stable and no one in light years to bother him. San Ya had come up trumps. A couple of days after sending the word, a young Bonso had arrived bearing a crate filled with a hulking great machine and thousands of rubber mice. He had asked himself in the days that followed why he didn’t just destroy the thing, run off to the outskirt planets and have done with it. But it was the adventure that stopped him. He knew that if he could get it right then there’s the galaxy in his hand. Not in a way of control but just to see it. To witness a time when planets still wondered if there was anyone else there. When the only conceivable way of travelling through space was to send people out for thousands of years. See the discovery of new people and places. To see the strand of history link together. He could predict the future, not by even going there but by tracing each line towards its destination – there could be no other outcomes. He had to know.

His office was now a warehouse in the middle of the dead city. He had built solar panels all along the streets and the wires that connected them made the city look like the inside of a computer. The time machine was now twice the size at least. It had four huge legs and a roof of spiky circuitry that loomed over the central panel for sending things back. Everywhere there were scattered boxes of mice. In the first weeks, he was terrified that the Empire would track him down. But as the weeks and years passed he grew into his own world. It was as if he was constructing a gateway or more so a tunnel. That if he dug a little each day eventually he would make it through, into the light on the side. Whilst the mice were still very much present, he had graduated to larger things. The odd fruit would appear in his hand weeks off being sent back. Then a box of odd ends crashed out the sky in front him. Once a dead goat fell on him whilst sleeping. Something told him, the heat perhaps, that it was alive when it was sent. But soon, live goats came through, bewildered but bleating and relatively happy when they picked themselves up. After a while things would appear with strange collars on them and then shoot back into the air. He had discovered a way back. It was a peculiar sensation watching his discoveries appear a few weeks before he made them. But the sight of them always pursued him on to make them. As is the paradox with time travel. He knew that soon it would be him on the platform – taking the plunge into the unknown.

One day, there was a glow from the corner of the room. Pref ran over expecting to see another gift from the future. It was a goat but it was still glowing. He checked the tag, he had recorded them all to keep track, this one arrived last week, it hadn’t been sent back. It suddenly wretched and then clambered around finding its feet. It was like a newborn, just out the womb. Then it fell to the ground and lazily reared its head and smelled like it couldn’t see. Pref fetched his stunner and put it out of its misery.

Eventually the day came that he had longed for. He had set up a chair in on the platform and extended the range. It was a short trip back, relatively speaking, just to a little before he arrived and then straight back. He swung all the parts in place and clipped the lifeline round his waist. Around him were mirrors on every side. The man before him, he barely recognized, he was covered in shaggy hair, dirty and thin. All over him were cuts and bruises like an ancient map. He ignored it. He picked up the big stick he had fashioned and jammed it into the on switch. The machine roared and then all he saw was light. After a few minutes his surroundings bled into existence. He lay panting on the floor with a tingle all over his body. It was the warehouse. But there was no machine, no mice. It had worked. He patted himself down. He was intact – no new damage at least. He felt a tug in his lower belly. The lifeline was already bringing him back. With the same sensations he was suddenly back in the chair with his creation all around him.

* * *

 

At first he thought he was through the tunnel – that his years of experiments were over and it was a success. But then as the readings came, after a few weeks, he realized that he was wrong. He remembered the mouse, the first mouse with the note on it. How its atoms fluctuated in age. The way its plastic had decayed and reformed. How he had ignored it. The goat too. As he stared at the readings from his own body he knew it was happening to him too. Then he saw it. In the mirrors his face lost its beard. His long hair grew back into his head. It revealed his blue eyes and his quizzical brow. He was young again. The thoughts came with it too. The puzzling over the galaxy. The obsession with mechanics and history. He felt like a little boy. An urge came over him for his mother, a deep longing for her. To run into her many dressed and cling on for dear life. But suddenly he would wretch over and in the mirror before him was an old man but not just old – rotten. Gnarled. It was as if his skin was peeling off like a cooked onion. It was grey-black and charred too. He wasn’t dead though he was alive. He felt wise. As if he didn’t need to discover anything more, not because he didn’t need to but because he was beyond that now. As if his mind was now on a different plane. He reverted between the ages and everything between. Every time he returned to his proper age, the cuts would be worse, he’d be in more pain, the skin was beginning to disintegrate. It was as if he was rotting. The time travel had displaced him, his own atoms didn’t know where they were. He was becoming both a newborn child a living corpse. He would have waves of visions too. From places he didn’t know. Two warriors on a hilltop. Civilizations falling and rising. A man trundling from an ancient ship hopping in the low gravity. The rubber mice again and again.

There was only one thing left to do, he knew. He had one message left to send back. One message that he knew he had to write because he had already written it. He morphed into a young man and for a moment saw clarity. He scrawled the note and then attached it to a rubber mouse. As he did, his hands screamed in pain as they decomposed in front of him. With a huge heave he pressed the on switch sending the small rubber mouse back in time. In the last light of the time travel he saw the words Note the Decay.

* * *

In the University of Pure Sight, the young Pref Terin gasped as the daily rubber mouse, this time, for the first time, had a note attached. Note the Decay it said. He ran full speed to investigate.

Captain RainCha and the Child Prince.

GALACTIC CO-ORDINATES: 01-01-02-01

 

SUGGESTED SOUNDTRACK: (See Spotify playlist at the end). You Dropped a Bomb on Me, The Gap Band. Coleen, The Heavy, The Dap King Horns. Yearnin’ Burnin’, Pleasure. Play That Funky Music, Wild Cherry. Shame Shame Shame, Linda Fields. Soul with a Capital ‘S’, Tower of Power. Fire, Ohio Players.

 

 

 

Oh man. This is not what was supposed to happen. I guess I’m gonna have to smile. Oh and wave maybe? Yeesh that’s a lot of people. Not even the shadow-board is going to cover up this one. Look at all those cameras. Lucky they’ve got something nice to capture. Boast.

Okay so I might have got myself in another scrape. Surprise surprise. Let’s go back a bit. Whilst I’m here smiling like an idiot in front of the collected press of the Galactic Empire – I may as well tell you a story.

Here comes that bass line – kicking in like a funky mother. Here we go again.

 

So I’m with Ray and we’re flying off from Salty Joe’s. About time right? The space was clear and we’re listening to some ancient traditional music from Ea1 primitive era. I mean I know it’s a bit highbrow but damn I love Boney M what can I say? Anyway the awkward conversation about the purple space weasels was over and we were kicking back, next stop the Capitol. Bitey, the surly weasel is curled up on the dashboard, Sandra, the smallest keeps igniting on my fingertips and dancing to the beat. No sign of the others. I mean the fact that a group of symbiotic space weasels had saved my life and now live inside me sounds a bit weird right? But Ray had seen it all; he actually said it was a vast improvement. We’re zipping through space and life is good.

 

Sounds a bit too good doesn’t it? You’re damn right it was.

 

Ray just had to ask the question didn’t he? He just had to bring it up. He says:

‘So what about The Owner? I mean he knows you’re alive right? I’ve heard he has people everywhere. He’s never going to stop chasing you.’ He grunts and shovels a leathery handful of crisps into his wide mouth.

‘Way to kill the vibe Ray bloody hell. I thought we were having a road trip?’

‘I’m just saying Captain. He knows this ship. He’s probably tracking it right now.’

I see Sniffy fade out of my arm and curiously sniff the air. That’s why she’s call Sniffy – she sniffs.

‘He can’t be. God you’re so paranoid.’

‘Or he could hack into your nanomedics. He could know exactly where you are. And I’m telling you with those Weasels on side –he’ll probably want you as an artifact.’

‘My nanomedics are redundant,’

They are. Ever since I escaped the army I’ve had them switched off.

‘Hacking is better than ever; you should see the things I’ve been shipping from Tecaria. Oh boy.’ Ray laughs and pulls down a heavy lever with his hand-foot.

‘Shit. Shit you think?’

‘I know. And even if he isn’t, if your record updates and you’re an Unregistered – hell you’re not getting the capitol again.’

 

Hold up for a minute. I know what you’re thinking who the hell is this guy? Maybe last time I didn’t say everything about the Owner. I don’t know much but I do know he’s a collector. Literally he likes to own things. And not just ‘things’ – species too. Although I don’t think he can tell the difference. If he’s after me then I best run as far and as fast as I can.

 

Sorry back to the story. Keep it going Captain – keep on smiling for that crowd.

 

So I know this woman who can help. I hope.

 

‘Turn this hunk of junk around Ray. We’re not going to Ea1 today.’

‘No Captain. Why do you always do this!’

‘I don’t always do this!’

‘You do. The other month we were hours from Ea1 and we turned round just because you saw that person you don’t like.’

‘What person? Where?’

‘In the ship next to us on the hyperway. You know the woman with the hat.’

Ugh I do hate that woman. She’s the worst. It’s the hat.

‘We went for ice-cream though it was fun? You said you had fun. I’m hurt.’

Sniffy turns her little purple back and sighs dramatically.

‘Oh come off it. We’re not going. I have deliveries.’

‘They’ll wait – just say it was space dust or something.’

‘No’

Damn it Ray can be stubborn. Gonna have to wap out the big guns. I raise my arms and out of it flow all eight of my purple space weasels. They know the score, I can always rely on them, despite only knowing them for a few days. Minor detail. They line up on their hind legs with their little arm-claws (arm-claws? Hands? I dunno?), they raise them up and water fills their tiny purple eyes in a very picture of pity.

I whisper softly to Ray. ‘You wouldn’t want these poor little guys stuffed in a museum would you?’

He looks at me and laughs so loud it rattles around the ship.

‘Not those guys – you on the other hand…’

The weasels disappear with a fizz.

‘Okay where we going then?’ Rays says and laughs again.

 

He reaches up and swings round grasping an item from the ceiling and throws it at me. I miss but Sniffy catches it, good old Sniffy. It’s a navigator, an old one by the marks on the outside. I find the switch underneath by digging my fingers into the wiring. It buzzes into life projecting a miniature galaxy into the air. There are faint lines to show the six sectors. The Capitol a rough circle off centre. Sector 2 half encompassing it as if taking a bite. The square edged Sector 3 coming out the other side with its ominous black dot in the middle. 4 is a growth on the bottom of the Capitol and 5 like a crown on top. Then around the edge like an afterthought is Sector 6. This is certainly an old one; sector 6 only has a few specs of light where planets have been designated. I’ve walked on more planets there than this map shows. It makes me feel sad the thought of all those planets taken by the Empire and all the ones yet to be ensnared. All over the map though are red lights. Not planets but markers I think.

‘Ray what the hell are these?’

‘Your hangouts. I like to keep track.’

‘Weirdo’

Sorry 1 min. Just cut back to the present – someone’s asking a question.

 

‘Mysterious Stranger. What was the purple light coming from you? What species designation are you?’

Oh my god random reporter you can’t just ask someone what species designation they are.

 

Right sorry, back to the map.

            ‘So which one will it be?’

I look at the dots. He’s not wrong. There’s everywhere I’m publically known to frequent. The Black Mines at 30-03. Talios the Game Planet. Praxtra Minor. And some private ones too. Uh-oh- shit that’s The Sublime Retreat of Madame De Hon… Didn’t want to anyone to…ahem….anyway…

‘I need to see San Ya. Will take me to her market?’

‘Ah okay I can do a bit of shipping whilst I’m there. She always has something for me to take. It’s moved though. Sector 5 now.’

 

A few hypersleeps inductions later…

 

‘I was wondering when you were going to show me your new toys Captain.’

‘Hey San how’s it going?’ I saunter into her messy office and see the tiny woman that I both love and fear. The owner of the greatest and most illegal black market in the galaxy. She is sat in the middle of a vast leather chair, her feet not even nearly touching the floor.

‘Good thank you. Show me them.’

‘No pleasantries? How come you’re not in Sector 6 anymore? Okay…’ I move away and she jumps off the chair. How can she be small yet so scary? She looks at me from under that thick block fringe.

‘Show me.’ She chucks a book at me and I dodge it just on the last second.

‘Ugh fine. God.’ I raise my arms and out pop the weasels.

‘Weasels. I didn’t believe it but there it is. Purple space Weasels. What can they do?’

‘They have names you know. Sorry my loves.’ I say with an over the top petting a cute dog voice.

‘Do they?’

‘Yes. There’s Bitey, Sniffy, Scratchy, Sandra, Fuzzy, Big Teeth, Really Purple One and Get Out My Trousers. All good quality galactic names. ‘Ah shit get out my trousers!’ I pull the little bastard out. ‘You see good appropriate names.’

‘Amazing. Utterly amazing. You have your biology rewritten by a group of dangerous creatures that could be sapping you of life for all you know and you stand there making jokes. You won’t be allowed back into the Capitol Sector I’ll tell you that for nothing.’

‘They’re not sapping me San. They’re helping. I promise.’

I’m not lying, I wouldn’t be here without them.

‘Let me scan them at least – see if they’re safe.’

She looks at me and I can tell she means it. He face just softens a little at the edges. Softens until she grabs her laser scanner and tazers me with it. I fall to the floor shaking; I can feel the weasels fizzing inside.

‘Fucking Hell San!’ I scream.

‘It’s the only way I can scan properly. Unless you want me to cut you open.’            I did not.

‘Amazing,’ she says staring at her computer screen. ‘Absolutely amazing. They’re healing you as you’re being scanned I can hardly get in.’

‘What this thing is meant to hurt you?’ I say writhing.

‘Oh stop being such a crybaby. It’s like your body is part energy now. The scanner can’t decide if you’re biological or energy.’ She shuts off the machine and I lie there panting.

‘You’re amazing. You lucky son of a bitch,’ She says and grabs my hand pulling me up with her surprisingly strong arm. ‘You aren’t on a social call because you’re not already drunk. What is it you need?’

‘I don’t really know.’ I pause and suddenly feel a little awkward. ‘Do you know of someone called the Owner?’

‘Do I? He’s the reason I’ve had to move half way across the Galaxy!’

‘Ah right. Well I sort of got in trouble with him way back and it caught up with me. That’s why well…’ I flick a weasel out of my hand. ‘But now, he knows about the new me and Ray reckons he’ll be after me.’

‘Ray’s right. He’s a collector like me. But not for trade… often it’s for stuff a little more alive… I don’t know but I suggest you stay away.’

‘He’ll find me. He will. You know he will. I came here to see if you can help me.’

 

I remember the words sounding odd as I said them. Now god damn it, many times in my life I’ve been helped out. Hitching lifts, scamming food, acquiring places to stay with a little widening of my pearly whites. But this time I meant it, before I had done it to get by, this time I really needed help.

 

‘Damn it RainCha. Of course I can,’ San says and hugs me round the waist. Even this dragon lady has a softer side. ‘What do you need?’

‘To Disappear.’

‘Why didn’t you say so?’ She rifles through some papers on her desk until she clasps a sheet of paper in her hand. ‘Have you heard of the Shadow-Board?’

‘Erm…sort of…. I think… I remember something from history class…’

 

I didn’t pay too much attention at school. My bad. Or I did but I have drunk an extraordinary amount since then. Sorry San Ya where were you?

 

‘It’s known more as the Dark Heart of the Fal-Tapria. The legend is that it’s the shard of the god Balethia’s sword. The story goes that he swung it over his head in anger and it stuck our black hole breaking into a million pieces. But they’re wrong. It’s a piece of tech. And of course the Fal-Tap Senate knows it – they don’t think it’s a god-sword. But it is powerful.’

‘What does it do?’

‘Well whoever has it cannot be tracked. It’s not just a signal blocker it works intelligently, affecting and changing other technology not just blocking it. Just tech though I think. People – I doubt it. If my history is correct the rise of the Fal-Tap Republic as the foremost substate of the Empire was a quick one. They suddenly appeared everywhere. They only revealed themselves when they wanted to. Funny that.’

‘But there’s only one left?’ I say knowing exactly where this heading.

‘Yes that’s thing Captain. And it’s exactly where you would think it is. Right under the palace of the Fal-Tap Royal Family.’

 

OH YEAH BABY IT’S A HEIST STORY.

 

The Fal-Taps are in human terms walking cats. I mean I know, my god, I wouldn’t dream of saying it out loud and I don’t think it myself, but it helps map the biology somewhat. They have a furry face and whiskers and sharp claws when you get on the wrong side of them. They come from the centre of sector 2 but like humans have spread out consistently throughout the Galaxy. Even San Ya’s assistant is one although I’m sure she hasn’t told him about the mission…

 

Anyway yeah the mission.

 

The shadow-board wasn’t just my only hope it was my freakin’ salvation. An escape from the Owner, an escape from the army, Hell an escape from all those bets I owe at Salty Joe’s. It just was the little matter of getting into one of the largest and most powerful houses in the galaxy. No biggie.

 

Ray is waiting impatiently outside in the market’s loading bay and when I tell him, he quite rightly thinks I’m insane. San Ya, rather unhelpfully has no idea how to get inside. The palace is a former stronghold built like a steel egg. Once in, fine. There are tunnels and shafts your usual network of possibilities for the unscrupulous but on the outside nothing apart from the heavily guarded front door and a balcony leading to the royal family’s private quarters. And boy did I not want to go there. We sit in the ship drinking beer with the thing projected on the galaxy map just floating there like a fucking lemon.

‘There’s no way I give up. Hand me over now. In fact I’ll ring him up – I’m on the black market I’ll come quickly…’

‘Eh Captain – why don’t we just pose as delivery men?’

‘I mean you are a delivery man.’

‘I know that’s why it would be such a good plan. They must have a delivery entrance somewhere on the egg. It might unfold or something I don’t know.’

‘We’ll need a Fal Tap. Remember the work force laws on Ea1? Humans only. Same there. Visitors and contractors fine but workers – gotta be Fal Tap.’

‘Eh you’re right man. Freakin pure planet laws – ridiculous. We’d be able to do a drop off but not an entry. Fuck man.’

Now then something strange happens now. The timing seems a little convenient but I guess them little bastards have been listening in; they have a habit of doing so. I guess they are literally inside me – they have no choice. But still they’re cheeky gits. I feel a little tingly around my face and hands and Ray looks as me suddenly as if I’m a ghost and then I’m on fire. In that order.

‘Whoa who are you? Shit man,’ he says and leaps on the table with his leathery feet.

‘It’s me Ray, what you talking about?’

‘Nah nah nah don’t you be playing tricks on me – who are you? How did you get in here?’

I though the Bonso had gone batshit for sure.

‘Ray fuck’s sake it’s me Captain RainCha.’

‘Ah man I’m not dealing with any of this voodoo shit – what did San Ya give you in there?’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Look in the mirror’

I sauntered over to the side of the ship where we kept the one grimy square of reflective glass expecting to see my handsome old mug but hell no. I had whiskers and a face full of fur. I was full of fur. I mean I suddenly felt a full bristle down under, it was everywhere. It was only when the very tips of my new hairs glowed the slightest tinge of purple that me and Ray knew. It wasn’t San Ya it was the weasels.

 

So we had our in. Looking back it seemed a fairly straightforward plan. But as I look out now in the present at the thousands of reporters hovering round the royal balcony things haven’t turned out quite the way I wanted.

‘Captain are you the Child prince’s new protector – seems odd to hire a human don’t you think?’

Oh erm… back to the heist…

 

So we track down a few palace bound deliveries and pick them up before the real couriers arrive. Was a bit too easy but apparently my new whiskery mask in a Fal-Tap unfriendly human outpost can work wonders. I don’t know what it was inside –vases or livestock or some shit. But we took it and landed at the bottom of the giant egg sorry the Palace. Now on the screen itself it looked pretty impressive but from here down at the base my god. This was legit. The ground was about a third way up the egg so from here it looked like a magnificent dome painted bright white. The amazing thing was that it was perfectly smooth, for such an ancient building there was not an imperfection in sight. My god the galaxy is beautiful I thought, shame about the people who live in it.

The goods on board must have had some tags in them or something because as we arrived from the smooth surface a hatch appeared letting us right in. Now inside was a completely different story. It was like looking inside a super computer all smooth and sleek on the outside and then bam a chaos of wires and lights within. Everywhere there were ships taking off and entering, pipes bursting with smoke, shouts from managers and workers. It felt like one the gross factories you see on outskirts planets that pollute the seas into dirty oranges and greens.

To his distinct displeasure I leave Ray on board locked away in the living quarters. Can’t have them finding out I’ve got a Bonso on board I’d be orbit before I can say ‘get out of my trousers’.

‘Hey Rainy hurry up man.’

Oh yeah I’ve got on him the headset though.

We had discovered in the corner of the loading bay was a hatch into the ventilation system. Yeah we’re going old school classic on this bitch. Then after some crawling and few cheeky camera shots of my arse we’d head down into the vaults to find my salvation. San Ya didn’t have a way in but she did have the plans. Lucky I’m a Fal-Tap for a bit. I walk out of the ship and onto the platform floor. Without prompting a huge metal arm comes down and opens the cargo door emptying it of it contents like a greedy child. I look up – there’s the hatch right up in the corner too high for any Fal-Tap to get to. It shouldn’t be a problem – the weasels mean I can fly. Oh didn’t I tell you? Well within reason of course. It’s less of a fly and more of a float. Anyway they get me from A to b often with a brief stop of at x and y. I look around again – there are hundreds of people around all talking or shifting boxes.

 

Oh no! What am I going to do?

 

Lucky we timed our arrival. A huge klaxon sounds and the hall empties. It’s lunchtime of course. Anyone who has met a Fal-tap knows they are a naturally cranky race and the best way to soothe their bad tempers – a whole lot of food in them furry bellies. I hang back until the doors on each side close with a satisfying hiss.

‘How’s it going Cap?’ comes the bonso in my ear.

‘I’ve not even left the hanger Ray chill out.’ Ray really needs to chill out.

 

There’s no one around. Can always rely on a Fal-Tap lunchtime. I get to the corner and see my hands glow purple. Then I start to rise up the air slowly and a little clumsily. I look over my shoulder –there’s nothing there. I look over one last time before crawling into the hatch. Fuck. They weren’t there before. A semi-circle of hooded, becloaked goons weren’t there? Were they? Did I mention them? Definitely not Fal-Tap, definitely not registered. Fuck me. Where did they come from? I turn round still floating like an elephant ballerina.

‘Let me guess you’re from The Owner.’

‘Yes,’ they screech as one. ‘We’re here for you.’

‘How did you get in here?’

It was when they funneled their bodies into smoke and launched towards me that my question became immediately redundant. Luckily on hand was Sniffy and Sandra who launched from my shoulders and morphed into purple light. The smoke bounced off to the ground reforming into the figures again.

‘Cheers ladies,’ I say.

‘What’s going on?’ Ray says.

‘The Owner. He’s caught up with us – sent some kind of smoke creature. A shape changer. The weasels have dealt with it though.’

‘Shit man they still there?’

‘Yeah but stunned or something I think.’

‘Keep going.’

I had kept going. I mean I wasn’t going to hover round speaking to Ray all day was I? The vent was a round tube of metal. Quite relaxing actually and surprisingly flat. Oh yeah it was quite nice and flat. Oh wait –

 

Shit. How do I always end up falling down something at high speed?

 

Yeah the vent goes suddenly downwards. It isn’t too bad – just takes me by surprise is all. I check behind – no sign of the smokes. I come to a flat bit again and I can see through the grates the rooms beneath. They’re beautiful. All white marble and portraits. Much classier than the grey metallic heaviness of Ea1. Everything on Fal-Tapria has this light brightness. Them got class that’s for sure. Shit but there’s someone there in the corridor. A grown male and a child. Their voices make it up through the vent.

‘Daddy I saw them I did. I swear it. I thought the wall was on fire but then there was a face. In the smoke.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous Valtin. You mustn’t tell lies…’

The voices fade as the carry on down the corridor. Shit there must be more of them smokes or at least they’re on the move.

I keep on hustling on my hands and knees. Imagine the arse shot here it is. Occasionally I see a purple flash as one of the gang scouts out ahead, urging me on with a little point of a claw. At one point I see Big Teeth and Really Purple One run off and then stop. I can see it their faces – fear. They are suddenly surrounded by smoke. I hold out my hand and pull them back. I’m not far off now. I must be just by the vault. Fuck. I blast out a burst of energy from my hand. The smoke disperses and I run-crawl on. There is a light up ahead. Literally at the end of the tunnel – here we go. I bundle out and there it is – the vault of the shadow-board. The sword-shard of the gods. It’s in a glass dome the same shape as the palace itself. But the glass is strange, it swirls and changes as if made of water. Its thick too, I can barely see the artifact inside. I’ve heard of this stuff but never seen it. Star-Glass. One of the thickest, hardiest materials in the galaxy. I reach into my pocket. San Ya is a woman of many secrets but the contents of her private collection is the most unknown. She had given me this and tapped her nose. ‘Use it in the vault’ she had said with a wry smile. It was a cream sort of yellow and acidic smelling. It must be for here. It must be. I take a blob on my gently wipe it one the surface of the Star-glass.

‘Are you there?’ Ray in my ear.

‘Yes sorry just busy lubing up some glass.’

‘What?’

‘Oh I’ll tell you later.’

At once, the glass starts fizzing and hissing, I can see a hole burning through it at a lighting fast past, it spreads and spreads until a hot-edged door appears. I look at the cream again. Fucking hell what is this stuff – I just put that on my finger. Yeeash. I turn the pot over and there written in tiny letters is ‘Strong Weed Killer – emergencies only.’

 

Well I’ll be damned Star Glass is a plant. Big camera close up on my now whiskered dumbo face.

 

Anyway the coast to the shadow board is now clear. In there is a tiny rock-like object the kind of black that is so black it makes your eyes hurt, it cuts itself out of its own background. Or at least it did until the bloody smoke appeared. Their faces are like screams. Dropped jaws and sunk eyes emerge from the air.

‘We will have the shadow-board and you Captain.’

‘Ugh The Owner sure loves his goons doesn’t he?’ I say smiling. I reach out for the board. They reach out too.

 

What happened next was a little bit of a shock. This time I didn’t even feel the tingle but I was deposited inside a bedroom. Now we’re getting close to where I am now. Sometimes I’d just love a quiet heist you know? A dangerous mission yeah but where everyone remembers their manners and a gives me a gift bag on the way out but oh no that’s too much to ask. Sorry well the bedroom –

 

It was as grand and a tasteful as the corridor I glimpsed before. All marble and white and portraits, it even had the child. Oh fuck – the child is here. Frozen solid was a Fal-Tap child.

‘Erm…Hi. This is awkward.’ It was. ‘Who are you?’ I say.

‘I’m Valtin, the child prince of Fal-Tapria, who are you? Wait, you’re a human – how are in here?’

I looked down at my hands. Shit I was a human. The shadow- board had stripped the illusion. But there it was in my hand. Yes I got it!

‘Hey Valtin, nice to meet you. I’m Captain RainCha…’ Definitely should have used a fake name. ‘I’m your…erm I guess…I’m your protector. Yes I’ve been employed by Daddy?’ God hope that is species appropriate. ‘Hired by your Daddy to be your personal protector.’

‘A protector? From what?’

Right on cue, there they are. The smokes like haunted specters from hell. The Owner must have found these lot in some godforsaken hole in the Galaxy I’ll tell you that.

‘From those! Get behind me!’

Valtin hops behind me and I wap out a purple shield. The smokes attack again and again. I keep urging the prince backwards as is stumble. Behind us is a huge window. No wait it’s a door. The smokes keep on going. I can feel the fizzing pain as they strike the force field.

‘Sorry guys you’re doing s great job. Keep it up.’ I clench my teeth and push all I have into the shield.

We approach the door.

‘Erm Captain…’ Valtin tugs on my coat. ‘You might not want to go through there.’

‘No choice kiddo.’

 

I back out of the door and I know I’m outside. It’s the balcony – the only blemish on the palace. For a moment there is silence and the smokes seem to stop attacking. There is a whoosh from below and suddenly all I see is light. A thousand flashes hit my eyes. As I adjust I see the light is coming from Fal-Taps with cameras and those furry sound things. They’re floating with jet packs and levi-platforms. Fuck it’s the press. I turn round and see the smoke disappear in a resentful swish. Must have been a bit camera shy – I would be too if I was an unregistered criminal in front of the media of the second post powerful race in the galaxy. Oh fuck – that’s an exact description of me. Shit.

‘Friends, colleagues. This man has just saved me from a horrific attack by an unregistered. I bring to you Captain RainCha, my protector.’ Wow this kid’s a little statesman. Good on him. So I smile and wave at the cameras. I mean what else can I do?

 

And that’s where I am. In front of the assembled press of the Fal-Tapria. Spouting questions, taking pictures. This is of course the opposite of what I wanted. In a mission to wipe myself from the galaxy I’ve managed to make myself it newest and biggest celebrity.

 

Or have I?

 

Ray pipes up in my ear. ‘Captain! Don’t go silent on me – have you got the shadow-board?’

‘Sure have Ray. Sure have. Do me a favor and swing the ship around the underneath the balcony.’

‘Sure thing Rainy.’

I turn to Valtin, the little statesman. ‘You ever need me. You say one word in front of the cameras. Just one.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Weasel.’

I wink and smile and grab the shadow board from my pocket. I sure hope this works or I’m gonna look like a right chump. I hold it up to the cameras and feed a little energy into it. Suddenly all the cameras stop. Fuck yeah it’s worked – the shadow board has worked. The images must be wiped off the tech. I look at the reporters. They’re all clutching their heads and looking round. Oh boy it’s worked on them too.

 

Oh yes shadow-board. Move over Ray or maybe Sniffy – you are my new best friend.

 

Right sorry, best take my leave. I leap over the balcony and dive straight down into Ray’s spaceship.

 

One day I’ll deal with The Owner I know, but for now if you see a bad guy scratching their head and wondering what’s just happened look for a purple glow in the distance.

 

Until next time.

Yours,

Captain RainCha and the Bad Boys of the Purple Moon.

Plays intensely good slap bass solo.