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.
Ba Renzhong took a fresh horse from the military district and set out for Spotted Turtle Valley alone. A short distance into his journey he spotted a cloud of dust behind him. The Purple Demon tied his horse to a tree, unsheathed his sword and hid up the road, ready to ambush whoever was tailing him.
He kept his eyes fixed on the road, gazing like a hawk focused on its prey. But when the approaching horsemen drew near, instead of Colonel Ho, Ba saw men who had fought alongside him at White Wood Fortress.
“What are you doing here?” Ba called, emerging from the rocky wayside and sheathing his sword.
The soldiers, perhaps fifty in all, turned to face him. “Colonel Ba! We received a message from Major Cho to come and reinforce you, to help you recover your brother’s body.”
Ba mounted his own horse and beckoned for them to follow. “Good. But stay behind me if it comes to fighting. I’m going to get Ba Jiang’s corpse even if I have to carve my way through a thousand men.”
Breaking down her body, I can tell her parts are different from anything else in my collection. I remove her carbotanium panelling and unscrew the protective plate. Resting it on the oil-smeared workbench, I open up the wire-meshed housing unit and connect to her sternum slot.
Data streams up to the console, and the monitor flashes the tell-tale codes of sentience. A whirring builds from her chest cavity. Lights slice blue from side panelling and the power unit spills poisonous-red brilliance across the landlocked shipping container. Shimmering metal reflects in the glittered stars of Advika’s school painting. The bot’s voice unit thrums. I calibrate it, and she speaks clear: “I sense you’re in distress.”
My head burns. An hour since activated, she’s ceaseless with her probing.
“What would you know about how I feel? You were just a fitbot. All the MR-Series were.” Probably her emotional response matrix is damaged. A known issue. “But I’ll soon fix you up good after a road test! Ain’t much I can’t repair or improve.”
“My previous user already modified me. I’ve not been utilized as a fitbot for seven years.” She lets that hang in the arid air.