Leather creaked as Joe shifted on the couch. Waiting for my patient to settle, I watched a bird basking in the sun out on the balcony, the drapes billowing through the open door with a soft breeze.
‘Mary wants to see me tomorrow,’ he said.
‘Go on,’ I said.
‘I…’ He sighed. ‘It’s been a long time coming. I wanted to get to this place. But now we’re here I don’t know what I’m going to say. How do I make up for seven years?’ He waved a hand lazily. ‘I know, day by day. Still…’
‘What do you think brought Mary round?’
‘Matt wants to meet me. She’s not sure about that yet.’
‘So, he wants to. What do you think about that?’
‘Honestly, that just makes me more guilty about the whole thing. I was too much of a dick to be there from the start. There’s so much I’ve missed. But that’s what happens when you run.’
‘Last time you mentioned -’ I said, licking a finger and flicking through the file, ‘that avoiding difficult things actually just isolates you and takes away choices, you said you’re doing to yourself what you’re trying to avoid.’
‘I hear you. If I want to be free I have to not escape anything that feels like it might trap me. Avoiding complications or responsibilities just means they own me in a different way. I miss opportunities.’ He should’ve been his team captain by now. He’d turned down promotion twice.
‘You’ve come a long way since our first session.’
‘It’s simple. I’m not that scared kid any more: I have to face things, take charge. Simple doesn’t mean easy, though.’
That’s how it is with them. A need builds until it bursts into an outlet – escape, strength, control, recognition or anonymity, whatever. But that still leaves something unresolved. Joe’s father had died when London fell, yet the impact he’d made on his son lingered.
Leather creaked. ‘I mean, what do I say tomorrow?’
I watched the drapes fluttering, weighing up a response. I’m not his friend – I’m his therapist. My job is to enable him to help himself figure out what to say to someone he left pregnant at the altar. ‘You’re looking to re-establish a connection. It’s a case of being honest, patient -’
‘Answerable. Responsible.’ Said hesitantly, fishing for a confirmation.
‘That frightens you.’
‘Sort of my whole thing, isn’t it?’
‘I know I’m not my father. I won’t repeat those mistakes. Though when I vanished… that was just a mistake in the other direction. I’ve already done damage. Getting back into their lives… who is that really for?’
‘Matt wants to meet you.’
‘He wants to meet the guy behind the action figures. Not the guy on your couch.’
‘Does that idea come from him or Mary – or is it just you?’
‘He must have some sort of expectation. It’s only natural. I don’t know if I can live up to that.’
‘Is your worry that he will want you around, or that he won’t?’ I asked.
He lay there for a while, rolling that around. A cloud passed across the sun. ‘Huh. Oh, man. That’s… I’ll need to chew on that one.’
‘Let’s put a pin in that for next session, then.’
‘Mary did let me have a photo.’ He fished in his pocket, saying, ‘His thing affects photos though,’ as he passed it back over his head.
Matt looked a lot like Joe. The photo had been taken in a busy park, with everyone else in the shot washed out, vague. So second-generation cape. A need to be noticed? I noted that down – possibly something to bring up as things developed on the Matt front.
‘I see the resemblance,’ I said, trying to draw things out with a less intense approach. I returned the photo.
‘Yeah. It’s… I mean, he looks okay, doesn’t he? He’s decent in school.’
‘If he’s fine, I mean – that’s good. I can’t have done too much damage. He’s well-adjusted, it seems. I’m still a dick, obviously.’
Yes. ‘What matters is how you move forwards.’
Joe’s phone bleeped, insistent. He checked it and groaned, shooting to his feet. ‘Sorry, something’s come up. I must dash. But you’ve given me a lot to think about. Same time next week?’
‘I’ll see if I can tack some more time on the end.’
‘Great,’ he said, walking out into the sunlight.
Joe stood on the balcony, hair fluttering in the wind. Sparks trailed from his fingertips as he rose into the air, heels then toes lifting from the floor. For a moment it struck me, again, what my patients were to the rest of the world. How much more human the parahumans were to me, lying on my couch without the silly branded capes and masks. Then he shot into the sky with a discharge of lightning, leaving a sharp burst of ozone on the summer breeze.
The P.I. stepped into the morgue, shaking out an umbrella. He hung it from a hat rack, rested his fedora on the handle, and lit up again, taking a good long drag. Three weeks sniffing out the dame at beatnik joints – only for the trail to end up here.
‘Good timing, H,’ Benny said, shaking his hand then leading him to the back. ‘You just missed the fuzz.’
‘Aw, ain’t that a shame?’ he said.
Benny snorted, pausing before he opened the shelf. ‘It’s a messy one.’
‘Seen it all, Benny.’ Benny shrugged, rolling out the body. Jesus! In life, Miss Penelope O’Mletta was meant to be a real knock-out. Now? ‘I need a drink,’ H said, ash trickling on his loafers.
‘Warned ya,’ Benny said, taking a swig from a flask and passing it over the stiff. H gulped down the cheap scotch, then took a pen from his trench coat and poked the yellow goo caked on a wound.
‘Looks damn scrambled.’
‘What, you saying this is the Spoons?’
Benny shrugged. ‘You’re the gumshoe. But that’s what the boys in blue were saying.’
‘I know those jokers. I wouldn’t put much stock in that. But I don’t know who but the Spoons smoke people like…’ he said, trailing off to gesture over the carnage.
‘Yeah. But H, how’d Old Man O’Mletta’s daughter get tangled in all this?’
‘That’s the question. Pharmaceutical kingpin’s daughter goes off grid blowing the trust fund on more… recreational pharmaceuticals. Kinda thing I’ve seen a hundred times before, they end up home and straightened out. Once the kid fell off a high wall, cracked their head.’ He rubbed his own smooth white dome. ‘This time’s something else. Musta been a real shady character hanging in one of them jazz clubs. I better ask for more, uh, resources on this one.’
Benny chuckled. ‘Well, O’Mletta’s got some to spare. Done with the body?’
Benny rolled the drawer back in. ‘Careful out there. If it is the Spoons, try not to draw attention.’
‘Don’t gotta tell me,’ H said, following Benny to the exit. After retrieving his hat and umbrella he opened the door than paused in the threshold. ‘Poker on Saturday?’
‘Course, I gotta win my money back.’
‘Hope you don’t need it too bad with tells like that, then!’ He unfurled the umbrella, pat Benny’s shoulder, and knocked the door shut with a foot. He thought he’d seen it all before, but this case was giving him real bad vibes. He decided to head back to the office for another glance through the notes.
Humpty Dumpty, P.I., walked out into the downtown rain, streetlamps glistening orange in the rain on his shell.
After the spores spread, and defied the nukes, and left me roaming the empty city haunted by my wife’s final fungal gurgles, I tried to join her and discovered my immunity’s true scope.
I found others chosen. We watched the rain battle concrete, tarmac give way to grass, the night sky deepen to countless stars. Eventually we heard Pan’s voice, his whispers in the leaves, and understood he’d always been speaking, ignored.
He claimed back his world, keeping us to drape skyscrapers with ivy, sow fields with flowers, gather plastic for eventual compost. Gardening, immortal, until the damage is restored.
Alex Page writes because making fantastical things up is fun.
Billy huddled closer to the fire, prodding it with a stick and jolting when sap burst.
He glanced back from the fields to the house. A warm bed indoors would be nice right now. The grass was getting slick with dew and the wind was biting, whipping clouds across the moon. He straightened up, searching for signs of movement. A sheep twitching in sleep. Branches swishing. His eyes were leaden.
Something whooshed in the distance. There was a sound like someone shaking out a sheet. In the span of a heartbeat something swooped down by the ground and away. A sheep screamed, the flock stirred.
Billy stood, brandishing the stick. Now he was awake. What’d happened? It’d been too fast to see. Probably nothing. Too early to call out. He’d just been trusted to take a turn watching. Embarrassing to wake up the village over nothing on his first night. He started walking over, using the stick to get down the muddy hill, pushing down the thought of what he’d do if a wolf or something was running around.
The sheep were bolting away from the area. He couldn’t see anything the matter, heaving a sign of relief.
Then it happened again.
Something vast dove down in front of him, grabbing a sheep in scythe-like claws as it went, and soared away with flaps that shook the grass and hurt Billy’s ears. The animal’s cry vanished with the rest of it. Billy fell back in the mud, the stick cracking as he tried to catch his fall. He screamed, running towards the house, clambering around panicked sheep and up the hill, covering his hands in mud.
He paused, wheezing, just before his knuckles hit the door. What was he meant to say? He knew how it’d sound. Silly boy catching a fright. Got spooked in the dark. Fell asleep and lost some sheep, knew he’s too young for the responsibility, too old to make up stories like that. Those nice clean clothes. He stood frozen in place, sweating and dirty, pulse racing. The fire crackled.
He couldn’t tell them a dragon stole the sheep. He couldn’t stay out here with a dragon. Finally he pounded the door, calling out, ‘Wolves! Wolves took two sheep!’ Feet pounded on the stairs inside and his dad appeared, hastily putting on boots and a coat.
Billy grabbed onto him, burying his face in his belly, wailing. Big rough hands rubbed his shoulders then nudged him away, finding the mud on his face.
‘What’s all this? You didn’t run after them, did you?’
He tried to calm down. ‘It – they were so fast. I-’
‘It’s okay, Billy. It’s alright. You did fine.’ They settled down by the fire, a few other villagers coming to the commotion, checking on their flocks. ‘They’re getting bolder these days, coming down from the mountains.’ His dad shook his head, cast in silhouette, and spoke with a chuckle. ‘Almost like something’s pushing them out of there.’
I am gravely concerned to hear that you are considering withdrawing funding. Our vital work cannot continue without the support of backers such as yourself. Pressure from
Dear Mr —–,
I am dismayed to hear you are considering withdrawing support for our attempt to mount a legal challenge against
Sorry you’re too much of a coward to stand up to Murphy. Yeah the long-term viability of life on Earth is at stake, but you got a fraction of the nasty emails and demonstrators I get and it’s scary so fair enough, piss off then.
I am dismayed to hear you are considering withdrawing support for our venture. As you know, the Federation’s proposed warp rail through local space may threaten planetary
I am aware the Federation provides enormous opportunities, and can relocate humanity and key components of our biosphere to a terraformed colony in the event of meltdown. However, I quite frankly have an irrational attachment to this planet and cannot meekly accept
No damn it Morgan this one is a -bad- idea
I am dismayed to hear you are considering withdrawing support for our venture to mount a legal challenge to the Orion Committee regarding Prop. Sol A14D. As you know, probationary members of the Federation have curtailed access to legal aid, making it all the more vital that both on and off-world concerned citizens assist us in
I implore you
I am disappointed to hear of your desire to withdraw from the project. Murphy has been placing pressure on all of us to let the issue go. It’s shameful that world governments are sticking their heads in the sand over both Prop. Sol and the behaviour of its high-profile supporters, and I can understand your desire to protect yourself.
However, might you consider taking a more back-seat role rather than dropping out? Again, I do appreciate your personal safety concerns at the moment, but this is so much larger than any of us that I must urge you to consider other options. We need all the help we can get.
The office dipped briefly into darkness, as Orothein the Thousand-Limbed swarmed in front of the sun then returned to His nest on the moon.
‘Active today, aren’t they?’ Mark said, sipping coffee from a giant mug. ‘Reckon there’ll be some claims coming in soon.’ He ran a hand through his hair, leaning in close to the computer screen and squinting at the spreadsheet.
The return of the Old Ones had its impacts. Those hibernating under the earth or in the sea had caused earthquakes and tsunamis when they rose, with regions tainted and lost to madness, mutation, and decay. But humanity was permitted to exist, and the Red Box Insurance Company gained substantial market share by pioneering policies covering their influence.
Tom put his coat on the back of his chair, sitting next to Mark. ‘Ugh, chaos out there!’
‘Trouble on the Tube?’
‘Non-euclidean geometry at Bank. It’s like an Escher painting in there, bloody paradoxes.’
‘Hate when they’re antsy.’
‘Took ages to figure out. Had to go up the same escalator three times then run down it once to get to the exit.’ Tom sighed, switching on his computer. ‘Good weekend, Mark, Jill?’
‘Saw that new Tom Cruise one,’ Jill said, swiveling at the opposing desk. ‘He’s not been the same since he joined the Cult of Skartel.’
‘Yeah. Better off in Scientology, really.’
‘Something you’d never expect to say,’ Mark said. ‘I didn’t get up to much, just lazing about all weekend.’
‘Those are the best,’ Jill said. ‘Still no Sandra, by the way.’
‘Hope she’s okay,’ Tom said. ‘I knew she had financial worries, but… ah, shit. Forget I said that.’
‘What?’ Mark said.
‘Stumbled into her rat-arsed at a club a few weeks back and she said something about it. Forget it, I wasn’t supposed to say.’
‘She’s in accounts, and she can’t…’
‘Mark,’ Jill said.
Mark put his hands up. ‘Say no more.’ He put in his headphones and got to work.
Jill made eye contact with Tom, glanced at Mark, then rolled her eyes. Tom smiled and shrugged. ‘I need coffee,’ he announced, getting up.
‘Same,’ Jill said, following to the machine.
‘Don’t pay too much attention to Mark,’ Tom said, rooting through cupboards for mugs. He passed one to Jill, gesturing for her to go first.
‘Thanks. He’s a bit of a dick, isn’t he?’ she said, pressing buttons.
‘Yeah, that’s just his way, his sense of humour.’ Coffee poured into her mug. She leaned on the counter blowing to cool it down while Tom set up his mug.
‘Had enough edgy comedians at my last job. The woman’s got a problem and hasn’t showed up for a while, you ought to feel bad… I heard some people downstairs saying she’d joined the Old Ones.’
Tom snorted. ‘Office gossip.’ The machine whined, struggling to trickle out at half the usual speed. ‘Damn thing acting up again.’
Signs put up in and around Bank Tube Station by the Human Defence Force told commuters how to travel through the distortion to their destinations, while they waited for an HDF squad to restore normality.
Sandra ignored the signs, barging against the stream of the crowd. She walked with purpose up a set of stairs, arriving at the bottom of the same set of stairs but with a new door on the left, went through the door and appeared on a ceiling, took a set of stairs back to the top of the original staircase, and went down them again. She went to the right and knocked on the wall, appearing in a cavern inaccessible through the three dimensions.
Water lit green by bacteria dripped on her head, splashes and footsteps on rock echoing around the chamber as she walked to the lectern at its centre. Her breath steamed in the cold, the only heat coming from the book. As she got closer the water became warmer, and she felt like she was getting sunburn.
Sandra stood by the rough-hewn stone lectern, water steaming at her feet, staring at the book. An item so ancient, its mistress sleeping from before the dawn of man until recently, yet bound in a patchwork of human skin.
She touched it with her finger, expecting her skin to burn. A tentacle slithered into her mind, filling it with a language older than the tongue. She opened the book and began to read aloud.
Mark was on the phone with a client when darkness fell again. ‘I’m sorry, Mr McCarthy, but your policy doesn’t cover second-hand mutations caused by thralls of Solowen.’ Mark glanced out the window, listening, as Orothein floated in front of the sun longer than usual, the gaps between his tendrils backlit red as they swayed.
‘Because it’s an exponentially growing effect. We can’t realistically provide that sort of cover in your region unless the premiums are astronomical.’ People were starting to gather at the window. Mark watched them whispering to each other, while Mr McCarthy continued. Cars below turned their lights on.
‘I’m sorry you’ve got extra ears, but I don’t see what I can do for you. I’m looking at the emails here, and I can see it was clearly stated what you were and weren’t getting covered for. I can pass you on to another claims operator if you like, but they’ll tell you the same thing.’
Orothein roared, a roar that somehow passed through the vacuum of space to buffet the earth. Everyone flinched. It was starting to get cool from the impromptu eclipse. ‘Okay, Mr McCarthy. Thanks, have a nice day.’ Mark passed the call up to someone else. ‘Today’ll be a tough one, I can feel it.’ He went for another coffee.
‘Glad I got one of these,’ Jill said to Tom, flashing an HDF self-defense pamphlet.
‘Ah,’ Tom said. ‘What sort of stuff is it?’
‘Nothing too hardcore. Simple glyphs for holding thralls off, preventing them speaking, the basic cross-running-water stuff.’
‘I’ve got one stuck in the sofa somewhere.’ Orothein allowed daylight to return.
‘Well, you never know.’
The coffee machine made a whirring sound, pouring out warm water. Mark groaned. ‘Come on!’ He fiddled around with it, not noticing the reaction of the office as Sandra strode from the lift.
He yelped, thinking boiling water had splashed on his hand, and saw Sandra, hair lanky and eyes too focused, her shoes dripping with green muck, holding a book close to him. He backed away, knocking a glass from the counter, the heat reducing as he got away from her.
She opened it and read out barbarous words that made the coffee machine shiver and spark, her hair turn into snakes, and everyone in the office see a vision of the earth forming as Orothein nudged fragments together with a thousand limbs, a swarm of Old Ones assembling from beyond the stars to bear witness. The carpet became sodden in cold water, beginning to glow green.
‘Behold!’ Sandra said. ‘Emeris, Lady of Secrets, calls on you to know Her wisdom, the forbidden, the ancient, the unspeakable truths kept from the eyes of man, the-’
She stopped talking as Jill slashed her hand with a pocketknife and drew a symbol in blood on the wall, then was rooted to the spot as she drew another. Tom gave Jill some paper towel and rang 999, asked for the HDF, and said they had a thrall with a book.
Mark straightened, nudged the glass shards to a corner with his foot, and said, ‘Nice one, Jill.’ He tried the machine again – which worked perfectly – and took the steaming mug back to his desk, his hands shaking a little, shoes squelching on the wet carpet.
An HDF team swiftly arrived to cart Sandra away, gagging her and packing the book inside a lead-lined case. They scoured the taint of Emeris with a rite before they left, the carpet steaming dry. Gradually people returned to work.
After a while, Mark spotted something on a spreadsheet. ‘Holy crap.’
‘What?’ Tom said.
‘Sandra took out a policy, last month. Juicy payout too. Unless it’s dismissed for fraud.’
‘It’s right here.’
Jill inspected her cut hand. ‘You think she arranged-’
Mark sipped coffee. ‘Maybe. I said there’d be claims coming in, didn’t I?’
NAME Kelsey Graham
ID CODE A467B/ZQ9
APPLICANT STATEMENT (MAX. 500 WORDS)
I know this form won’t get read, but it’s something to do on the commute. Most of the people on this train also work at the Bureau, but don’t know the AI’s already decided. It’s gone through everybody’s records and decided who gets a ticket, but it’s better for morale to let people ‘apply’.
Will I get a spot? Feels like I deserve it. We wouldn’t have the hibernation cracked yet without me. But is my science rating high enough to make up for the age? There’s bound to be a bunch of damn biology genius/artist teenagers with six-packs and zen monk psych profiles more worth keeping.
If I thought this form was real, what would I write? Listing achievements and personal qualities for a job application is one thing, but when it’s for the chance to live? To live, instead of a million other people? I’m alright, but am I better than a million people? What sort of person could believe they are?
Shinzen quit to be with his family. Not a bad choice if you have one. The pods are pretty much done anyway. It’d be good to have time to properly test long-term hibernation. Hopefully the lucky few will still have their marbles at the other end!
Even with modern automation, it’s a miracle enough people are still working to keep civilisation going. Going quite well, for the most part. Money is worthless now, so people just get what they need. If a job is worthless, which a lot were, people don’t do it and the useful ones get divided up. People have more time, but they’re filling it with things. It’s easy to forget what’s coming sometimes. Why did it take this to make us collectively get it together?
Not that it’s all kumbaya until the end. Tensions come out. Like Grace broke down today, demanding a ticket for her kid. Had to be sedated. No idea how she got the gun in there. Far as she knows the Director selects who from this sector gets on board. She’s been seeing him in the office every day, thinking he could save her kid. Of course she’d be willing to shoot a bureaucrat to flip that ‘no’ to ‘yes’.
Of course no person can choose. There’s far too many people to sift through. And the AI isn’t biased. Shouldn’t be. Hopefully the programmers didn’t put their own issues in there.
Too much of this relies on hope.
I’m thinking of quitting myself. See if I can patch things up with my sister. Time I sat back with her and Bob and the nephews and niece. They’re in Hawaii. Warm sun and sand and surf.
If you are reading this, AI, I hope you know what you’re doing.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR INTEREST. THE BUREAU AIMS TO RESPOND BY T-3 MONTHS.
Dawn came to the motorway with a mottled red flush, bleeding through thick grey skies. Coarse yellowed grass growing in the tarmac’s scarred and pitted face drank in the meagre light, as the sun rose higher and it mellowed to a dirty orange like the rusted husks of the cars.
Some trees clung on in the forest by the roadside, gnarled and tough like old leather, their leaves grabbing all of the twilight they could. Many had collapsed into flaking wet wood coated in lichen and billowing with mushrooms, rotting in the dark undergrowth.
The remains of vehicles stretched both ways down the road for mile upon mile, a traffic jam with no impatient muttering or honking horns. Silence reigned also in the forest overlooking the road, broken only by the rustle of leaves and the calls of birds now distant from each other. Silence flowed along the breeze down the road out of the forest, pooling in the city.
Wind whistled through rubble and broken windows, a gale clearing the sky’s grey cataract to give a glimpse of the blue hidden above, waiting to be revealed. Sunlight shone down as it had before, warming the ground. It reflected from scattered fragments of shattered glass and sparkled on the fuzz of frost on the streets, casting deep shadows under the rubble.
Further into the city skyscrapers had been bent, twisted, shattered, like trees in a ferocious storm. The closer to the centre they were, the more their edges had been melted; smeared like putty; dripped to leave puddles of metal dotting the ground, gleaming in the burst of sunlight. Towers had been uprooted, welded together at the edges into wild and precarious structures overhanging tarmac and concrete which had also melted, and re-set into rough peaks and valleys.
The sun reached its noon height above the city centre, where there was nothing. It had been shredded and scattered in fragments over fifty miles, leaving a shallow bowl of scorched concrete and bare soil where not even lichen or moss grew.
A heavy bank of dark grey cloud cast its curtain back over the sun, restoring the perpetual rust-tinged dusk.
The other side of the city rose up towards a bank of steep hills. Frost rimed the yellow-green grass at their base, the new long winter making puddles on their summits freeze. The stream trickling down the hills’ far side, embarking on the long journey to the sea, now had icicle fangs in its little waterfalls.
Growing broader, deeper, and warmer as it went, the stream trickled through more forest steadily changing into a mushroom farm, with trees losing to the weak light as the remains of their trunks densely shaded the undergrowth. But as the stream became a river, the decaying forest gave way to fields released from the brown uniformity of cultivation, populated with green life – smaller and rougher than before, but continuing to feed and house stubborn wildlife.
Roads crossing the region stood quiet, nocturnal animals undisturbed by streetlamps as the sun set and night fell. Patches of clear sky revealed glittering bright segments of the milky way, undimmed by artificial light; while other areas captured all starlight in sooty cloud – cutting constellations into segments of light scattered among pitch black darkness.
The river meandered past a rusting derailed train, through an empty town with a tank standing sentinel on the bridge overhead, picking up speed as the land swooped down to the coast. It joined the sea at a beach with shells and fish bones slowly eroding in the surf.
Out over the roiling waves lightning whipped across the sky, bringing early flashes of daylight to the night, booming thunder against the world’s new quietness. As the first glow of light rose again in the east, the storm reached land. The first fat drop of rain splashed into the sand, releasing a speck of fallout carried back down from the clouds.