Sitting around a fire station waiting for the off is nothing unusual. We all find something to beat off the boredom. Some play cards; others watch videos. Whatever it takes.
In Seb’s case, it was designing a holograph of a three-dimensional chessboard to see all 512 squares at once, and I mean all. Not easy with eight ordinary chessboards stacked one on top of the other. Every square got his attention. He changed their colours, varied their translucencies and even altered the thicknesses of their outlines. No matter what he did, the result did not pass his acid test of seeing all the squares along any diagonal.
His comp-stick went everywhere with him. I’d once seen him unfurl it on a pub table, build the holograph chessboard and patiently adjust the shade of one square for over an hour. Of course it was with him at the Saint Philips fire.
Paula picked up her plate of lumpy mashed potato and congealed beans and carried it to the table where her friends sat. Fish fingers today. She hated fish.
She sat down and stared at the food as all around her the other women in the canteen chattered nosily, or hurled insults, or laughed. Chairs scraped across the floor, plastic cutlery scraped against plastic plates. Her head throbbed.
“…roast chicken,” Mia was saying, “with gravy and roast potatoes and peas. Watch this.”
Paula lifted her gaze and watched. Mia lifted a fish finger and it changed into a chicken drumstick in her hand. “It’ll still taste like fish though,” Paula said.
Mia dropped the drumstick onto her plate, where it abruptly turned back into a fish finger. “What the hell’s wrong with you lately?” she asked, flapping a hand. “You’re so damn miserable all the time.” She clicked her tongue in disapproval and picked up her knife and fork. A black curl of hair fell in front of her face.
“I’ve been here ten years,” Paula said. “That’s what’s wrong with me.”
“Yeah, well it’s not our fault you were an early starter.” Mia hacked a fish finger in half and shoved it in her mouth, glaring at Paula with eyes that were almost as dark as her hair.
In Central Park the leaves are just beginning to turn to yellow. The tourists are overdressed, thinking the air will have turned colder here along the Atlantic coast but there is still some time before that happens. I can remember a time when visitors and Manhattan dwellers alike would only venture to the edges of the park. As if touching your toes on the boundary was an invitation to a criminal gang.
It has since been “cleaned up” but not in the way the media claims. Sure the police presence helps but I know the real reason why you will not see the homeless in the park. I know why the drug trade and robberies are down to almost nothing. You see, I was there around twenty years ago when it all went down and I will never forget the face that saved the park. It haunts my nightmares to this day.
You know when you’ve done something stupid and you don’t know whether to laugh or cry? That’s how I felt when the water smashed into my face. Also, once I’d calmed down enough to work out which direction the surface was in, a Tweet popped into my head. Really cocked up this time. LOL #GonnaDie.
I guess I was so used to crap happening to me that ending up completely under water with no idea of where I was, didn’t seem so bad. You have to laugh or you go mad.
My lungs screamed at me and although my arms worked frantically, they didn’t seem to be getting me very far. The joke was over, anyway; it was no longer funny. I really was gonna die if I didn’t get air soon.
So, blue sky above me. Promising. Just keep swimming. When I broke the surface I had enough time to suck in a breath before my head went under again. I panicked, flailed a lot – probably looked like an idiot to anybody watching – then my hand touched something soft and I realised I’d reached the bank and there was grass and earth and oh! Life. I was alive.
Yay. I dragged my half-drowned self up onto the bank and coughed until I vomited water. Exhausted, I rolled over onto my back and lay there, soaked and shivering and staring at the sky which, now I looked properly, was more of a weird green colour. Tourmaline. The word popped into my head suddenly. Tourmaline sky. A poet would have a field day.
“The simulation is complete. Creation of an artificial singularity is deemed viable. Do you wish to repeat the simulation?”
I sat back, frowning at the screen. A phone began ringing in the background but I ignored it.
“Do you wish to repeat the simulation?”
“No, no, that’s fine. Leave it there.”
The computer interface closed down and I turned to my work space. Everything looked fine but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that we were missing something. Director Massingbird was a brilliant theoretical physicist, but sometimes I felt we were all dazzled by that very brilliance, blind to the obvious.
That damn phone was still ringing and I was irritated that one of the nightshift hadn’t bothered to answer it. Then I realised the ringtone was wrong. It didn’t match the internal phones and the whole lab was encased in a giant Faraday cage, which blocked all mobile signals. I stood and turned, moving my head from side to side, trying to get a fix on the source, as the caller seemed in no mood to hang up.
After a moment I swung round – the sound was coming from behind me, from within the reaction chamber itself. Bemused, I left the control area and walked across the access gantry to the armoured glass sphere which housed the initiators, even though there couldn’t possibly be a phone in there. I passed through the access airlock and paused. The air in the chamber pulsed rhythmically in time to the ringing, a palpable change in pressure that made my ears itch. I checked for system anomalies, in case this “phone” was actually an unfamiliar audible alarm, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I looked around the chamber, bathed in the cool blue glow of the Tesla coils. There was a hint of frost on the interior glass, caused by the cryogenic cooling net, but that would vanish when the system came online.
Shen-Kw’aim crouched in front of Jeta and Shan, and took a moment to embed their faces in his memory. He reached out to Jeta, brushing his daughter’s hair back from her eyes, and then put his hand on his son’s shoulder, squeezing just a little.
“Remember,” he said, “this body is not what carries our soul.”
He stood and took Elana in his arms. She wanted him to stay; her clutching hands told him so, even though she knew the contract was unbreakable. The pain ahead would be worse and more prolonged if he didn’t go. She shook against him, her tears wetting his shoulder and it was all he could do not to break down and show his fear. He used precious moments taking his wife in his arms and kissing those soft lips once more, parting them, melting into her.
A sharp pain in his wrist made him pull away. He could hide it no longer. He let his wife go and turned away.
It was time to die.
He started up the Hill of Souls, avoiding a new-soul who skidded down the path, sure of her way but not sure on her feet. Her face was lit with the wonder of sensation.
The building at the top of the hill, raised of silvered stone and glistening in the sun, was close now. Shen fell against the glass door, pushing it open with his left hand – his right arm throbbed from his wrist up to his shoulder, and the very thought of using it brought tears to his eyes. He hurried to the receptionist, cradling his right wrist with his left hand. He presented it to her, and already – so quickly, much quicker than any of his seven previous deaths – his soul was wriggling under the skin, making it bulge and rend the tissues beneath. He should not have delayed; he was glad he had.
The bench made my backside ache, but I had to do my good deed for the day and it was the ideal spot for a bit of people watching.
A park lay directly opposite and an old woman walked an equally-as-old-looking dog up to a tree, where it pissed and then kicked grass up at its feet.
Maybe I could help her cross the road…
A young woman wandered past the railings, outside the park. She had bare legs. Long, bare legs. And she was eating a sandwich, licking her fingers in a way that I thought was entirely far too suggestive for that time of day.
I glanced skywards and mouthed a silent prayer. Let her come over here.
The woman, no, she was a girl – seventeen – noticed the bench and she crossed the road to sit by my side. She bit into the sandwich, crisp lettuce crunching between her teeth.
She had to speak to me. She would speak to me. One more mouthful.
“Sometimes,” she said, swallowing, “it would be nice just to… just to go somewhere. You know? Like, somewhere in your head or something. So you didn’t have to deal with all this crap all the time.”
She brushed breadcrumbs off her lap and onto the pavement. Pigeons gobbled them up and then started back as she scrunched up the brown paper bag that had contained her sandwiches.
Perfect. She would do nicely.
“My name is Vigo Hanesh and I’m a conjurer.”
The auditorium reeked of late-afternoon apathy and crushed egos. Everyone – the production team, stage security, the three judges – looked sweaty and tired.
The judges stirred in their seats – Ms Simper and Messrs Gushing and Hardass.
Gushing spoke between sips of tepid mineral water. “Well, Vigo, what are you going to show us today?”
I removed my frock coat to reveal rolled shirts sleeves and a tight-fitting waistcoat. “I’ll forgo the usual hocus-pocus in favour of brevity. Simply put, I’ll produce any three items you care to name, as long as they’re small enough to fit under my coat.”
Simper stared at me, dull-eyed and listless. Hardass looked up from his notes, tapping his gold-plated pen. Gushing licked his lips. “Anything? How can you possibly know what we’d ask for?”
“Any three objects you care to name.” I smiled. “Ladies first.”
Simper blinked, seemingly unsure of what was happening. “Ah, well… flowers. A bunch of flowers, that’s what you’re supposed to make appear, isn’t it?”