Jahera’s hands trembled as she leant against the metal wall. Her palms slipped on the sweat pouring from her skin. She struck out and sunk into her arms sobbing, the cold of the metal burrowing into her bones. Fragmented ribs stabbed at her with every breath. She dried away the last of her tears. The burnt, torn clothes scratched her face. Images of bent talons pierced her thoughts.
A self-satisfied growl drifted along the passage to her right. The urge to flee kicked in again, but she had been running for days. Prey.
The smell of rotten meat enveloped her. She turned to face hot air crawling over her skin. Through a hole in the metal wall, a forked tongue licked out to where her sweaty palms had been. Her eyes focused. The corner of her tormentor’s mouth lifted in the darkness to reveal dimly lit fangs. She knew it wanted her to run. It dared her. A white, glass eye with a sliver of black examined her from the other side of the hole. Its hate reached out; cold hands touching her organs as if preparing them for consumption.
“Please take a seat, McMaster.”
I sat across the desk from Director Haining, unbuttoning my jacket so that the Glock didn’t snag on the lining. The only source of illumination in his office was the desk lamp. Haining obviously thought the down-lighter made him look serious and brooding, whereas all it really did was highlight his double chin.
He smiled. “You’ve been head of corporate security now for, what, three years?”
“Four come June.”
“Four come June. And may I say that we, that is to say, the board, are very pleased with your work to date. Very pleased indeed.” Haining fiddled with his cufflinks. “You’re the closest thing we have to a father confessor around here. Some may be uncomfortable with what you know about us, but I’m not. You don’t judge, McMaster, you never judge.”
“All I ask for is honesty, sir. I can’t fix the problem if I don’t know what it is.”
Dougout squeaked and Crystal purred as they rolled out bouncing and jerking from the ship in their buddy trawler. Dougout navigated the rough terrain while Crystal performed continuous 360-degree scans. To their increasing annoyance, the ship checked their status every fifteen minutes.
Crystal snarled, “Any way to put the ship on silent mode?”
“Sorry, dear,” said Dougout. “it would detect it and we would get penalized.”
She sighed. “Might be worth it.”
Dougout was a small human and fitted easily into the cramped driver’s seat of the trawler. He had light brown skin, which matched his dark brown overalls and explosion of dark brown hair.
“Any sign of the life we detected from orbit?” he asked.
“Not yet. This place should be teeming with life.”
“Yeah, it’s unsettlingly unsettled.”
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.
“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.
“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?”