Akiowa gave a sigh, part relief, part longing.
The spear had kept her in the mountains since leaving the miners, and she’d yearned to see – and walk on – something more pleasurable than deep snow and bare rock. Now at last she was overlooking a lush valley full of chokecherry, black plum and mulberry trees, much like the lands of her own tribe.
There, also, a village like her own: a scattering of earth lodges and rows of squash and beans. Some women worked – tending cooking pots, grinding grain – but most villagers sat in groups, talking. Laughter reached her.
Wistfulness enveloped Akiowa. How contented they looked. How happy. But then, the miners had seemed happy.
“Have they found happiness?” she whispered.
The spear gave no answer, but guided her down towards the village. Her heart lifted as she walked through woods glowing with autumn tints, though dismay grew at the lack of fruit on the trees – even the bitter chokecherries were stripped bare. Fruits were valuable food, but were far more valuable to the birds and beasts who shared the land. Only at a time of great need would her mother have allowed all to be picked.
What do you get someone who has everything? I have everything I ever wanted – the swanky apartment in the City, the fast cars, the racing bike, the expensive holidays. I don’t go to work because I don’t have to; I could employ someone else to do it all for me. My parents were rich. They died. They left me everything.
Money doesn’t make you happy. That’s what people with no money say. Money made me very happy.
I grew bored, though. After I had travelled the world, I base-jumped. I scuba-dived. I climbed the highest mountains. I went into space. I did it all. I experienced everything, even things I didn’t like very much just for something to do. I had relationships with men as well as women. I’m pretty sure I was the modern-day equivalent of Dorian Gray.
But God, I was bored.
That’s when I heard about Dream Box. The vast majority of drugs have been legal for so long now that nobody really bothers with them anymore, but the Dream Box was something else.
At last! Akiowa had lost track of how long she’d been walking towards the mountains, though awe at their magnificence had long since faded into acceptance. But here were the foothills, and the spear was guiding her towards a great cleft in the rock. Excitement claimed her. The silver miners’ camp had to be close.
Since leaving the old man and his wretched independence, the spear had kept her away from villages, and she’d met only a few hunters and a family who were resting alongside their canoes on their journey down a wild river. The spear had given her stories for them, and in return they’d shared food and tales of the miners’ wealth. “If only we were rich,” a child had sighed. “How happy we’d be.”
Of course! Happiness would be found with riches. Akiowa had hugged herself when the spear agreed to take her to the miners, and now she was nearly there.
Akiowa skirted a towering boulder of rock, then stopped in surprise and alarm. Several hundred paces ahead, stretching across the cleft, an enormous wooden barrier rose out of the rocky ground, each thick stake a giant fir. Dismayed at the outlandish sight, she didn’t notice the men watching from the top of the barrier, bows drawn, until one shouted.
“What’s your business?”
Fear constricted her throat, but the spear sent its thrill up her arm, invoking the Storyteller’s hail. “Old story, new story,” she cried, her weak, wavering tones transformed to a clarion call. “Tall story, true story.”
There were a hundred men in the tavern, but you could have heard a pin drop if it weren’t for the sound of one-eyed Angsfarn, the best ratter hound in the bay, who was lying on Karl’s table, munching his way through a whole bowl of nuts.
“Well? What happened next?” Theodulf asked. The greybeard had barely touched a drop of his mead. His horn would get dusty if he didn’t move soon.
Karl kept them waiting a moment longer, just to let the anticipation build. “I’d like to say I stood my ground and slew it there and then. You all know I’m no coward, but given a choice between fighting a monster like that and surviving, I’d sooner flee and live to fight another day.”
Little Ongar squealed with excitement, and his mother hushed him.
Karl drained the dregs from his tankard and held it out for the wench to refill, again. “I slipped through a narrow doorway, certain a beast big as an ox wouldn’t be able to follow. But it was sinuous, as silent as an owl, and as fleet as a falcon. I never got more than a few feet away from the great hairy beast.”
He sighed and stared into his tankard, beery reflection gazing back at him. “I glanced back and saw its soulless eyes staring at me. Filled with hate they were, and numbered more than I could count.”
I am free, I am happy. I am free, I am happy.
Akiowa repeated the words over and over as she walked along the ravine floor. She’d fallen into the habit to stop herself fretting about what being the Storyteller would mean – how could she live another person’s life? But a small treacherous voice wondered if it was also to convince herself it was entirely true.
Free she certainly was. Five days had passed since the old Storyteller had died; five days in which Akiowa had walked the land guided by the spear, meeting no one, free as any cottontail or prairie dog. Surely the very definition of happiness after years of slavery.
“I am free! I am happy!” she called. The rock walls threw back the words, but though “free” echoed joyfully, “happy” returned in mournful tones.
At the ravine’s end, a pool shone like a silver mirror. Akiowa set the spear down, took a breath to steady herself, then knelt to drink. The old woman’s face reflected in the water still upset her, but she no longer jerked away in horrified confusion. Only in the first moments of waking, when she saw gnarled hands and wrinkled skin, did the terror and shock of the transformation overwhelm her again.
When Mike McMurphy injected the serum into his arm, he had no idea that he was bringing all the world’s suffering to an end. He’d spent less than two weeks developing the virus: a simple bundle of protein with barely the complexity to be covered by US copyright law. The syringe caused no pain – and Mike had used the oldest, bluntest needle he could find – but he could feel the serum spreading through his blood.
It was a simple virus, spreading a rash across his chest and raising a slight fever, but it dwindled away after a couple of hours.
The mutation, of course, did not.
The mutation developed in the third-floor men’s room of the Old Chemistry Building. More aptly, the mutation developed in Mike, but it was of no consequence until he released it, mostly in the urinal and on the floor, but the mutation spread through the plumbing and into the air. Perhaps if the bio-pollutant detection system had been better honed … but it wasn’t. The tightwads who oversaw the university’s budgetary committee had sealed the fate of humanity.
“Old story, new story; tall story, true story…”
The words echoed around the canyon, piercing as an eagle’s cry, thrilling as a coyote’s call. Akiowa’s heart leapt. The Storyteller!
Hands trembling with excitement, she hurried to round up the goats, hoping to pen them quickly so she could rush down to the village in time to sit close to the spear. Once, when she was small, in the happier times before she was seized by the tribeless men and sold to slavers, she’d sat with her father only an arm’s length from the spear. Magic had purled from it as the Storyteller wove her tales. Magic that glittered like sparks from a fire, but fell as soft as snowflakes on her skin, with scents of honey and woodsmoke, earth and stream. Oh, to be so close again.
But the goats refused to come at her call, and her broken leg had mended badly, slowing her further. By the time she’d herded the flock into their pen and fastened the gate, then limped her way to the village, the whole tribe was gathered before the headman’s tent, abuzz with expectation. No room near the spear, where the headman, clothed in mountain lion skins, sat with his shaman wife in her cloak of condor feathers, smouldering bark cloying the air around them. No room anywhere save at the edge of the crowd, and three times Akiowa was pushed away before she found a place she was allowed to sit.
The coastal road between Southport and Ainsdale is edged by sand dunes, covered in long rough grasses that look like hair. Cars rush past at sixty miles an hour, headlights glaring, stereos blaring.
I walk home on the seaward side of the road, traversing the dunes as clocks tick past midnight. It feels like I am walking on the spine of a massive sleeping dog that’s waiting out the years until humanity disappears.
The journey is long, and I’m wearing a short black dress and denim jacket – more suitable for dancing than walking in below-zero temperatures. I really should’ve waited for a cab instead of thinking I could get home on foot. This route was not meant for pedestrians. I blame the wine I drank and the water I didn’t. At least I chose flat shoes over heels.
Aside from the cold, I like walking under this black-gold sky. I get caught up watching the stars instead of where I’m going. I’ve never seen anyone on this side of the coast road before, and I begin to wonder why.
Then the ground starts moving.
Ba beckoned forward the soldier who carried the scrolls. “In Spotted Turtle Valley I found evidence of collusion between imperial army officers and the bandits who slew my brother,” he said, his eyes squarely fixed on General Gao. “Confess your crime and surrender yourselves into my custody, or face the consequences.”
General Gao threw his head back and laughed. “What are you going to do, exile? Accusing your superior of criminal behaviour is a serious mistake!”
The Purple Demon whipped his sword from its scabbard and struck Gao’s head from his shoulders. Silence filled the Hall of Righteous Bloodshed. For a long moment the corpse remained upright, until it toppled from its chair with a crash.
“This is an outrage!” Colonel Ho shouted. He jumped to his feet and drew half an inch of sword from its scabbard before Ba’s blade sliced through his shoulder and cut him in two.
Ba Renzhong turned to face the ranks of men, most of them sat at their tables, evening meal growing cold. “I have clear evidence of General Gao and Colonel Ho’s association with criminals, and executed them, in accordance with the law, when they refused to be imprisoned. As senior officer, I am assuming the position of general. Are there any objections?” he asked, sword dripping blood.
* Winner of the 2018 Story of the Year Award *
When was your first? That is always what we ask one another. When and what? When in your life was that moment, the time that revealed the world to you and sent you scurrying under the bed sheets? When I think back, the thing I always remember is the house. Not the inside, where the shadows gathered and hid. Those memories came later. I remember the front, the black and white Tudor facade with roses growing around the door, and the crunch of a gravel driveway under car tyres. God only knows how my father afforded such a place, although I suspect the Devil might have a better idea. Not a grand house, but beautiful and caught in my memory in a moment of eternal summer. Memory can be an ironic little bastard when it wants to be.
We moved there when I was about eight. I don’t remember much before that, which is odd as eight is old enough. I know some people who claim to have memories of their time as babies, of flashes of food upon their tongue, the smile of a mother’s face. I don’t have any of that. Mother never really smiled much in any case; she never seemed up to the challenge. Father laughed all the time, a laugh which echoed around that house and bounced from basement to rafter. The days there were full of laughter, though I didn’t join in.
My room overlooked the garden, such as it was, fenced in on all sides by the encroaching houses of modernity. I liked to watch the moon shining on that small patch of grass. But soon I couldn’t see out the window. There were too many handprints on it. Father got very angry about those. He said I was being naughty, that I shouldn’t make such a mess, and didn’t I know how much it cost to clean windows? Then he would laugh and raise his fist. I said nothing, through the tears. I hadn’t touched the glass. The hands had just appeared.