My mother clutched my hand as she lay under the wreck of the vehicle whose auto-steering had gone crazy. Pain etched heavy lines across her face. Her body trembled. She tugged at my hand for me to come closer.
I bent my face over hers, trying to hold back the blurring tears.
“Promise me…” she whispered.
“A lit candle… on the table… when boyfriends come to dinner.”
It was a crazy thing to ask for, a small thing to beg of me and I wondered why it was so important to her.
She closed her eyes and her hand relaxed, letting go of mine. She died smiling. My tears drowned out the sight of her and much of the days that followed.
“By the stars,” Nicephorus moaned. “What are we supposed to do now?”
Drusus laughed. Like everyone, except Gertrude, his voice was modulated by a filter mask. “Calm down. You sound like a schoolgirl whose pigtails have been cut off. The captain’s no fool, and he’ll have tracked us coming down. He’ll kit out one of the other boats with shielding and send it down to pick us up. In the meantime, we need to make for the temple.”
“Shouldn’t we stay near to The Tiger’s Eye?” Gertrude suggested. “The Sun Dancer probably tracked us as we came down. If we leave the crash site they won’t know where we are.”
Several other pirates nodded agreement.
“And if the sun comes up before the rescue boat comes down?” Drusus countered. “It’ll be fifty degrees or more during the day. Do any of you think sitting out in the sun is a good idea?” He gave them a moment to contemplate that prospect, and continued, “Besides, do you want to face the captain without the rhodium? There’s a fortune waiting to be claimed. So what if we’ve lost a bucket of rust? It’s time to plunder a ton of treasure. We’ll occupy the temple and use it to shelter from the sun.”
We were not alone.
I’d the sense not to speak my thoughts aloud this time. One more word and I would be disciplined at best, demoted at worst. Spencer had no patience with my hunches.
When the screaming started, I was the only one to drop to the ground, pulling Spencer with me.
“What the f–?” He began. I clamped a hand over his mouth.
All around us our fellow scientists, my friends, were being snatched.
Only a few feet away, someone was hauled past us, yanked along by an unseen force. Odd socks identified her as Georgie, our xenobiologist. The bags of cuttings we’d collected still swung from her belt. I moved to grab her as she flashed past.
Spencer pulled me back. He gripped my wrist, glaring into my eyes, silently ordering me to stay put. He knew I’d gladly lay down my life for her. She was my best friend on this expedition. My lover.
The screams faded into the distance. I couldn’t leave the little rat to follow her – he’d die by himself. I had to get him back first. Spencer’s face had turned a sickly yellow.
Not for the first time, I wondered why a man like this had been put in charge of an exploratory expedition. ‘No sentient beings on this planet,’ my arse. Continue reading
* Winner of the 2015 Story of the Year Award *
George found the rip in the fabric of space on a Thursday morning, some time after elevenses. He leant over to throw away his empty packet of rich tea biscuits and there it was, a tiny hole hanging in the air behind the long-dead hydrangea the HR people had put in his cubicle in an attempt to pretty up the place.
After a quick look around, George cautiously stuck the tip of a pencil in the hole. The pencil slid in halfway, the tip disappearing into thin air. George left the pencil hanging there and went back to work on the Masterson report, after carefully moving the hydrangea a little to disguise the hanging pencil.
Next day, the rip had torn a little wider and the pencil had disappeared. George bent over and peered into the tear. It was now wide enough to see into. On the other side he saw white sand and gentle waves of the clearest, aquamarine blue. The sun shone and trees rustled softly on a distant hilltop. The pencil, disturbed by the growing hole in the fabric of space, lay on the sand.
George looked sideways out of his cubicle, to where he could catch the barest glimpse of the grey office block across the street. The hum of London traffic was audible even above the ordinary office noises. From the rip, a soft breeze blew and the salty tang of the sea beckoned. Continue reading
Gertrude opened her eye. It was dark, and all she could hear were a few quiet groans of pain. Her head throbbed, and she felt the warmth of blood trickling down her temple. Flickering to life, her artificial eye switched to night vision, revealing the carnage of the crash landing. Everything that hadn’t been tied down was strewn in pieces throughout the ship. An ugly gash had been ripped into the military grade plastic windscreen, but it had withstood the impact largely intact. Despite it being night, the warmth of the atmosphere seeped into the ship through the gash.
“Are you alright?” Drusus asked the cyborg. The ship’s power had died on approach to the planet and she could see the Murovian fumbling with his buckle.
She leaned over and unfastened it for him. “I’m going to have strap-shaped bruises, but otherwise I’m fine. In future, could we have landings without a 50G impact?” she asked.
He smiled. “Glad your eye’s still working. And your lungs.”
Not to mention my heart.
All around them crewmen were groaning and struggling to free themselves from their seat straps. Gertrude found hers had been damaged by the force of the impact and couldn’t be loosened.
Time to give my hand a test. Continue reading
“This ain’t gonna be your usual Disney-type attraction,” explained Charles, self-appointed leader of the motley group.
“It’ll be better!” said Arielle, dark-haired, skinny, wide-eyed.
“The latest in 3D imprint AI technology,” said Brady, a wiry and sandy-haired nerd with thick glasses.
“Scarier than the real thing,” said Arielle. She was so excited she couldn’t keep still.
Charles was tall, muscular and good-looking, with a full head of brown hair. He was driving his parents’ old gas-guzzling SUV. It comfortably fit his five college friends, though the ride was not so comfortable since the shock absorbers were bad.
“There it is!” said Arielle. “Cool!”
The Automated Haunted House looked very old, rundown, gloomy. It stood atop a steep hill. Large birds circled overhead.
“Buzzards,” said Louis, short and stocky with curly black hair.
“Robots,” said Brady, smiling.
Arielle said, “Don’t spoil the fun, Brady.”
As a rule, George Paleologus hated the Christmas party. Pretending to like people whom he knew solely because they shared a workplace was loathsome. But this party was different, because, as far as he was concerned, the cause for celebration was not some carpenter’s birthday but his own promotion. Besides, he had a little business to finish off. It had only been four months since he joined HexBank, London’s foremost boutique bank for the magically inclined, and he was already executive vice warlock. At this rate, he’d be running it by next Christmas.
The floor numbers drifted by, until the lift reached the seventy-seventh storey and its doors opened. It was usually where they entertained idiot sorcerers with more money than sense, but on Christmas Eve it hosted HexBank’s festive frolics.
George stepped out of the lift and raised his hand in greeting to the three dozen other attendees. Most of them returned the gesture, and he made a mental note of those who did not. All were human, more or less, save Barry, the chief of security. A pair of deep gouge marks above the doorway betrayed where the minotaur had forgotten to duck sufficiently.
Chief Executive Warlock Julius Andronicus wandered over and handed him a glass of nectar.
“Thanks,” George said, taking a sip. “I’m surprised Barry’s here. Can’t say I’ve ever seen him before.”
Julius nodded. “Aye, he usually dwells in the security HQ, monitoring the cameras and eating intruders. Can’t stand the place myself, it’s a bloody labyrinth. Come on, I want to have a quick word.” Continue reading
Coffee was not the same. It tasted just as good, but she couldn’t feel it warm her once she swallowed and it coursed down her artificial oesophagus. Brasidas and Drusus were briefing those selected to fly down to Naxos in The Sun Dancer’s mess hall. The twenty pirates who had been picked sipped coffee and smoked sabketh whilst they listened to their leaders. Gertrude was sat far from the purple smoke, on a table with only Sarah Wellington for company.
“Naxos is in dark space,” Brasidas explained. “The Elthurians charted it immediately prior to their extinction, and when the plague came knowledge of its existence returned to obscurity.”
“You want us to go to a damned plague planet?” Nicephorus interrupted.
Brasidas glared at the crewman. “It’s not a plague planet. The Elthurians never established an outpost there. Ask another stupid question and I’ll have you serve a shift in engineering.”
The other crewmen laughed and slapped Nicephorus on the back. Brasidas’s words had provoked a scowl on Nicephorus’s face.
“What’s so bad about that?” Gertrude whispered to Sarah.
The blonde pirate raised an eyebrow. “You haven’t met Primus yet?” Continue reading
Jay was laughing and waving to us as we watched from the beach, telling us how nice the water was and that we should go and join him.
That was the last we heard from him. I remember protesting as Kirsty pulled me to my feet. I remember the pair of us running towards the water.
And I remember Jay’s screams as something pulled him beneath the waves.
That was ten years ago now. I was only nine. Kirsty was eleven and our brother was thirteen.
“Unlucky for some!”
“Don’t butt in. That’s not even funny. You wanted to know why I hate this place, I’m telling you.”
We’d always go to this same beach every summer; my aunt and uncle owned a chalet on the seafront so it was a cheap holiday for the family. I never liked swimming but Kirsty and Jay loved it. I preferred to sit on the beach and build sandcastles. Maybe eat an ice cream.
I remember that year we met some other kids, I remember what they looked like but for the life of me, I can’t remember their names.
“I’m going to get an ice cream, do you want one?”
“No! Finish the story. I’m here; nothing’s going to happen.”
The twenty hexapod robots, twin pulse cannons still trained on Gertrude, Brasidas and the others, began scuttling slowly towards the compound. The War Dogs shepherded the human pirates through the massive black gates. Gertrude was the last one inside, and the gates rumbled shut behind her.
“Lord Ump’gomptar will receive Captain Brasidas,” one of the War Dogs stated in a robotic voice. “The others shall remain here.”
The robot that had spoken turned around, a prolonged process on its six legs, and led the captain away at walking pace. The remaining mechanoids shuffled a little closer together to fill the gap it had left, and continued to surround Gertrude and the others.
“Is this the normal welcome you get?” she muttered to Drusus.
If he was concerned, the Murovian did a good job of hiding it. “More mechs than usual, and we’ve never had an escort down to the ground before. Something’s rattled the Ralgo.”
The interior of the compound was almost as sandy as the desert beyond the walls. Bleak and featureless grey stone boxes were the only buildings within the compound. They rose only a few storeys high, and, to her surprise, there were no more than half a dozen. The walls encompassed an area large enough to accommodate a town, but the lack of structures meant only a few hundred people could live there. Continue reading