From a Distance

It is a controlled fall from the ship. I have practiced it many times before, wings tightly folded on either side of my spine. As never before, I feel my own fierce strength, the glory of interconnecting mesh of muscles make it possible for wings and body to work together. I am tense. I must wait. There is a right time for wings to open, and I will sense that time as well as being able to read it on my wrist. A moment too soon and…

My ancestors had a tale of a boy called Icarus, who made himself wings of wax and flew too near the sun; hard to imagine not having wings, having to make them. What did he fasten them with, I wonder. Straps of leather? Straps of cloth? I have read of such substances, just as I have read of Icarus. The inevitable happened, of course. In the end he flew too close to Sol, the category 2 yellow dwarf now scorching my back as I fall – so very small, after our own, and so very hot. And why should this be a surprise? I have read a mountain of textbooks in preparation for this overflight of my home planet, seen pictures, viewed endless animations. I knew what it would be like. And yet I knew nothing.

What could that story have meant, really? Was it merely a tale of a foolish boy, designed to amuse an audience with a rudimentary sense of humour? Or was it more? Terra stories are known for a quality of symbolism so it might be that this one has a deeper meaning. A caution against arrogance, perhaps, and over-reaching.

The black chronometer on my wrist is set to Terra time. I must fall like this for six point five of their minutes. It feels like a lifetime.

I cannot believe I am finally here. I am so fortunate, to have been selected for this reconnaissance mission to my ancestral planet. My Terran genetic heritage would have helped, of course, though in training they warned me that I would need to set aside any false sentimentality about ‘the old country’.

‘Assessor Aiden, bear in mind that this is the planet that blasted your genetic antecedents out into cold space, in suspended animation and in a relatively primitive craft, on a mission to colonise Mars. Mars, of all planets – that hell hole! It was suicidal: those on the ground must have known it and those in the spaceship, as they stepped into their cryo-chambers and pressed the ‘freeze’ button, must at least have suspected it. It was mere political one-upmanship, vanity, showing off.

‘If our ancestors had not rescued your ancestors, studied them, bred from them and then, when it was proven safe to do so, interbred with them, there would be no Assessor Aidan. How many second-rate and failing races have we conserved in this fashion over the millennia? We are a long way towards gathering into a single race all that is best in the universe, whilst eliminating all that is worst. What an uncontrolled mess the universe be by now, without our Programme…’

Falling to earth. Like Icarus, I find myself thinking.

icaru-2

A sleek silver spaceship is in orbit around the planet known as Terra, a smallish satellite of star Sol. Ship’s Captain B’etal and First Officer Mata are able to see everything Assessor Aidan is seeing, via his implant. In the ship’s control room they witness again what they have both witnessed so many times before – and what a succession of other Captains and First Officers have been forced to witness before that. They watch as Aidan glides over that drought-ridden continent known as Africa. Village after village of scattered dead bodies, starvation and thirst. Dead cattle. Dead everything. Men with guns in battered trucks, almost as starved and thirsty as the villagers they patrol.

With Aidan they sweep over what were once known as the Americas – two great lumps of land strung together by a delicate land-bridge. They see a stone statue with a stone crown, holding aloft a stone flame; very little else but scorched earth. Everything disintegrated. Shadows of bodies etched into half-demolished walls. Their instruments record increased blood pressure, stress levels through the roof.

‘Contain any emotional response, Assessor. Remember your training…’

How fortunate that Aidan does not know he is the five-hundred-and-first Assessor to have performed this sweep. Had he been aware that his vote and his alone will be the one to decide the fate of this cesspit of a failed planet, had he known that this very day he will effectively be Judge, Jury and Executioner for many millions of years of history…

They are never told, so that none of them has to shoulder the burden of guilt. All are equally guilty, or equally innocent depending how you choose to look at it. An Assessor performs but a single mission before moving on to other work. He might be the first, he might be the last, or any intermediate one of the five-hundred-and-one. Or there may be more than five hundred and one. Or there might be just one. Not knowing, he is able to maintain the necessary professional detachment.

Except that this particular Assessor does not seem to be doing so. His blood-pressure is still rising.

Through Assessor Aidan’s eyes Captain B’etal and First Officer Mata are now viewing what was once known as Europa, and which the textbooks describe as a collection of individual nations, each with its own language and culture. They see War and, as the Assessor glides over a muddy, pockmarked battlefield on the eastern edge of that territory, they see a group of men in battered uniforms, gazing skyward, pointing, tracking the strange blue creature with their eyes. They exclaiming over its great muscular wings, its vast, exotic wing-span. And positioning what looks like an ancient piece of military equipment.

‘Abort. Pull him out of there.’

‘Aborting. Repeat, aborting. Maintain level flight whilst we position ourselves to tractor you out. Assessor Aidan, do you read us?’

From the ground arises a thud, a sudden explosion, an ominous hissing sound, a streak of fire.

‘What is that?’

Their displays are doing a wild dance, skimming through diagrams of Terran weapons at lightning speed.

‘Rocket-launcher.’

‘He’s hit. He’s falling. One wing…’

‘Assessor Aidan, give your report.

No reply.

‘Assessor Aidan, your decision, please, before you die. There is still time. Press Red or Green on your tunic panel.’

Still no answer.

‘Assessor Aidan, listen to me now. You have been hit. Give your report. Green for Save, Red for Cleanse.’

Green or Red, Assessor? It is your duty to report.

There is no sound in space as the half-human, blue-winged creature crashes to the ground. No sound as it lies on the ground with broken wings and neck. The ragged soldiers, though still a long way off, are running in its general direction.

icarus-blue

Captain B’etal and First Officer Mata exchange glances and know that they are thinking approximately the same few things.

That however accidental the death of Assessor Aidan may have been, the Captain and First Officer are likely to be held in some way responsible for it.

That there will be endless enquiries and inquests.

That there will be a forfeiture of bonuses and/or a docking of pay.

That this fiasco is bound to be noted on their service records.

And then there is the delay in completing this important mission. This particular planet is urgently required for Re-Seeding. The formalities have had to be observed, of course, due diligence carried out, but the Programme must go on. A Green verdict was never really on the cards. Terra has been degenerating year on year; noticeably worsening with each new sweep. No hope for the blighted lump of rock. Cleanse and Re-Seed is by far the better option: a new Eden.

Captain B’etal continues to hold First Officer Mata’s eye as, in slow-motion, he reaches towards the red button on his own console. He is asking her one final question, and silently, since all their conversations are recorded. Scarcely a nod and then she leans forward to place her hand over his. Together, they press the Red button.

Serious Moonlight

No signal was given. As the Bridge of Mists began to form the music from both sides of the Great Chasm died down of its own accord. On the green side, pipers clutched their flutes to their chests in terror and in rapture, and the voices of green-clad choristers died in their throats. On the purple side, drummers ceased their drumming, raggedly, a beat here, a beat there. The player of the Great Viol, that beast of an instrument, dropped his electronic bow. The light was changing. As the moon rose, the bridge began to form simultaneously from either end, iridescent, sparkling, entirely without substance and yet, apparently, real.

On either side there were old folk who had witnessed this event at the second moon of every seventh year, many times before, and yet they stood open-mouthed with the rest; each Bridge seemed more magnificent, more portentous than the one it succeeded.

The structure formed slowly, the purple span and the green span creeping towards one another, coalescing out of the mist that always existed in the Chasm, obscuring that which lived beneath, the Great Dragon who kept the planet alive – guardian of crops, channel for the two suns, bringer of babes and source of all fecundity. But now it had become hungry, as had happened every seventh year, time out of mind. Now it needed them, their joint and willing sacrifice.

dragon-eye

Rogoth and Jessika had never met in the flesh. For the past seven years they had communicated via Sunlink, exchanging images, ideas and thoughts. They had carried mobile communicators round with them and charted their days for each other. They had even sung lullabies to each other, when one or the other couldn’t sleep. They had documented their days for each other, and had never felt alone or single. They knew each other intimately and yet, the chasm stood always between them, for Rogoth belonged to the purple side and Jessika to the green.

Such cross-Chasm friendships – business ventures, collaborations – love stories, even – were not uncommon. The Children of the Dragon were one race, or had been once. Long ago, it was said, the planet had not been divided, at least not along the entirety of its equator, and people had moved to and fro. In those days the greens and the purples were almost indistinguishable but as the aeons of isolation passed they began to diverge, physically, the purples accumulating more of the dragon’s features and markings and tending towards the purple side of its iridescence. Greens, like Jessika, tended to have fewer dragon markings and the rudimentary spinal scales were missing, but they glowed more strongly green.

Rogoth and Jessika fell in love, as the stars had always intended them to do. Over the years their love for each other had grown until it equalled and then transcended their love of life. And that was why, as the two spans of the bridge joined over the central and deepest part of the chasm, they were setting forth from either side.

As he walked Rogoth examined his feelings and finally allowed himself to acknowledge that he was afraid, not so much of death – because when it came it his death would be unimaginably swift – but of heights. Ridiculous, he thought, to fear falling when you were about to fall anyway, and had volunteered to fall.

The bridge was substantial enough for the moment. No chance of slipping through it, though it was made of nothing more than air and magic. And it was wide, curving gently inwards at the edges. No chance of slipping off. When he – when he and Jessika – did fall it would be because the bridge had dissolved beneath their feet.

Jessika wheeled her chair towards the centre. Rogoth, of course, knew of her disability, as he knew everything about her. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that she would be able to reach out, touch him, look long (or at least for a long last moment) into those beautiful dragonish eyes of his. Everything about Rogoth was splendid, she thought, finding it harder to wheel herself now, as the bridge became steeper. Her dear Rogoth was …elegant… that was the word for it.

She had sometimes wondered what their children would have been like, had they been able to breed the way people did on other planets, without the intercession of the Great Dragon. Would they have inherited his eyes? Would they have been green or purple, or some intriguingly random swirl of the two? It was possible, of course, that Rogoth would not have wished to breed with her, in such alien circumstances. What could he ever have seen in such a plain, crippled little thing?

Jessika was afraid too, but there was no turning back. She had promised this – they had sworn it to each other, and she would not let him down now. He was getting closer. She could make out his tall figure, an elaborate ceremonial gown, similar to the one she wore, except his was encrusted with amethysts and hers with peridot. Not , as yet, his features.

At last they were face to face. He smiled down at her, and she smiled back and great joy overtook them. Dragon-Bridge began to make its own music, far different from anything the merely dragon-begotten could produce. The Chasm, the Bridge and the Great Dragon that lived beneath it were combining somehow, singing as one.

“Shall we dance, Jessika?” Rogoth asked, extending a courtly hand. He had rehearsed that line so long, wondering if it was too… much. His hand was long and slender, she noticed, and the palms a pale violet. There was a hint of the curved claw to the long, polished fingernails. She could have examined them for ever, she felt. Every detail of every part of him, for ever.

“I’m afraid I cannot…” she began, embarrassed, as much by her own thoughts as by the chair, but he was already reaching down and lifting her. She would never have to sit in that contraption again, she realised. A moment’s exultation! Reaching around his neck to steady herself, she felt the rudimentary triangles of dragon-spine beneath the skin. She looked into his eyes, which were purple with golden flecks, the iris more slit-like and elongated than her own.

If only we could have had more time, she thought, as they commenced their first and last dance together in the swirling mist. If only… as they locked eyes, and the music increased in beauty and intensity, and the Bridge became less and less bridge, more and more air, less causeway, more mist…

Until at last…

Golden Emperor

Golden Emperor has declared that twenty citizens shall be sacrificed on the 20th day of each and every month, to mark the day of his Accession. By chance, Golden Emperor dies on the day and at the very hour of sacrifice.

It is the turn of Second Deputy Executioner to wield the blade this day. He is concealed behind a screen, already attired in the embroidered purple robe and the mask of ebony. With a soft cloth, he is polishing the implement of his trade. Second Deputy Executioner is sick to death of killing, and yet he will kill and kill. He has a wife and five young children to protect. They do not know his real job. He has told them he is an Assistant Armourer – a lowly functionary, but inconspicuous.  Inconspicuous is the safest thing to be: this they all know.

The citizen sacrifice begins the moment the sun’s turning shadow touches the golden sun engraved on the sundial plate.  Second Deputy Executioner puts down his polishing cloth and rises from his chair with a heavy heart. The twenty ragged men and women lined up in the market square catch the glint of the blade and attempt, in various ways, to prepare themselves for the unimaginable, the swift downward slash of the blade. A woman reaches bound hands behind her back for those of her teenage daughter, standing next to her in the line.

“Close your eyes,” she whispers. “Think of clouds in a stormy sky, or of rain drumming on paper walls. Think of cherry blossom. Make a strong, strong picture in your mind.”

And then the sound of horses hooves, a boy from the stable yard on a stolen horse. He stand up in the stirrups and yells:

“Golden Emperor is dead! Long May He Reign In Paradise.”

“Long May He Reign,” echoes Second Deputy Executioner, out of habit, dropping his sword onto the cobbles with a clatter. He falls to his knees, suddenly unable to remain standing, and behind the mask he weeps.

“Golden Emperor is dead!” cries the boy on the stolen horse, struggling to remain in control of it. “He is finally, finally dead!”

“Long May He Reign,” echoes the ragged crowd as it surges into the Square from all sides, laughing and crying, to free the sacrifices.

cherry

Kenshi sleeps well that night, behind closed screens, on the floor of his Grandmother’s house. He dreams of cherry blossom, slowly falling onto deep, green, silent ponds. He dreams of spring, and of the warm breeze that will soon begin to melt the snow on the mountaintop and in the lanes. When it is dawn he slips on his robe and goes out, meaning to walk just as far as the bridge over the stream, and bid good-day to a new world.

On the road, he passes a priest in a black robe and tall wooden pattens.

“Golden Emperor is dead,” he murmurs.

“Long May He Reign,” replies the priest, keeping his head down, taking care not to trip on the cobbles with their covering of snow.

Golden Emperor dislikes the idea of snow. He has therefore declared that snow does not exist. While he lives, he explains – and who knows, may even believe – the land cannot but be bathed in perpetual summer.

Golden Emperor is not very tall. He has therefore declared that no one shall be taller than he, and he has cut off the heads of all who have the temerity to grow taller, or who elevate themselves in any way as he passes in procession. Kenshi climbs a tree. He gazes up into the mountains and down into the valleys. He gazes all around, feasting his eyes on the view.

Golden Emperor has no liking for music, or indeed anything that might conceivably be more beautiful or interesting than he. He has therefore declared that he and he alone is the source of all music. Kenshi pauses by the stream and appreciates anew the song of a blackbird.

At the bridge, he meets an old man leading a donkey heavily laden with firewood.

“Golden Emperor is dead,” he says, by way of greeting, and in just case the old man has missed the news.

The old man smiles at Kenshi and continues on his way. His parting words trail backwards, almost buried in the noise of the birds and the babbling of the stream:

“And Long May He Remain So!”

Talk To Me, Please

“Talk to me, please. I’m off to the War quite soon.”

She was alone in the carriage with this young man, and she didn’t like it. It wasn’t really safe for a girl to be on a train alone nowadays, especially at night, in the blackout, but she hadn’t want to miss her first lesson. It was so important that she attend right from the start and not miss anything. Her sister Jean was supposed to have come with her, but she’d gone down with the flu. Since It happened – Grace had come to think of It always with a capital letter – they had treated her like glass, something breakable. Afraid to let her out on her own, just in case.

Just in case of what? She didn’t know; nobody seemed to know what exactly, just Something.

She wished he hadn’t taken it into his head to speak to her. What was he thinking, this boy in an ill-fitting uniform with dirt under his fingernails? Didn’t he know it would make a girl anxious, if he spoke to her? Why hadn’t she checked before she opened the door to the carriage – picked one with more people in it?

She gave him a faint smile, hoping that would be enough.

“Please talk to me, Miss. I might be dead soon. I just need someone to talk to, take my mind of it. Is that all right?”

She smiled again, hoping that would be OK and reading the strain in his eyes. He seemed close to tears. Funny, she would never have noticed such things as dirt under someone’s fingernails or a man’s unshed tears before. Now it seemed she noticed them all the time.

“I missed my train, you see. I was saying goodbye to the cows.”

Cows, she got that. A tiny thrill went through her. I got that, she thought. One lesson and I got it. Cows….

But surely not; why would he be telling her about cows? Was he a farmer? Why would he talk about cows?

“They understand, you see. It’s like the bees, you can tell them anything and you must tell them. They like to know. Good listeners, cows. My favourite is Milly. She’s a Frisian. We’ve got a mixed herd, Frisians and Guernseys.”

There is was again, she had seen it. Hooray, she had seen it. Cows.

“I’m scared, you see Miss. I couldn’t tell them that at home, but I’m in a real funk about it. I’m no soldier, Miss. I don’t want to kill people, and I don’t want to get killed. I really don’t want to get killed, Miss. But I couldn’t tell them.”

He was frightened, she could see. Sometimes you didn’t need words. She nodded, hoping if he was going to talk he would just keep talking and not decide to ask her a question.

“Had to put on a brave face, you see. My poor Mum. How are she and Dad going to manage on their own? Farming’s heavy work – well, I’m sure you know that, Miss – and she’s not strong. And Dad, he’s getting old now – too old to be called up. I’m not very bright, Miss. People say I’m three bricks short of a load, stuff like that – but I’m strong, I’m ever so strong, Miss. Look!”

He held up his clenched fist, trying to show her how, under the rough brown serge of his sleeve, the muscles fairly bulged.

She flinched. What was he doing? Did he mean to punch her? Had she misunderstood? How long to the next stop? She would get out at the next stop, even if this was the last train, even if she had to sit on a platform bench all night and catch the milk train home at daylight.

“Oh, sorry Miss. Please don’t be frightened. I won’t do that again. I just want to talk. I’m lonely, you see. I was meant to go up with the boys – the other boys from the village – but I missed the train that they were on.

“It’ll be all right, I’ll still get to the barracks on time. Plenty of time. They’ll all be there before me, that’s all. All my mates. Not that they are my mates, really. They call me The Daftie. They laugh behind my back. But I’m good enough to die, Miss, aren’t I?

“After all, I can die as easy as they can. And maybe when we get there I might save one of them. I might, mightn’t I Miss? I might turn out to be brave after all. I might run into the line of fire and pick up an injured village boy and carry him to safety on my back, like they do in films. They won’t call me Daftie then, will they? I’ll be a hero!”

Hero! Hero? It could be. Hero would go with the uniform. It was more likely than cows. She nodded again, beginning to relax a little. He just wanted to talk. It didn’t look like he would be asking her any questions. All she had to do was look as if she could hear him.

Her mind wandered back to her evening class at the Institute. It had been run by a lady with a dog, a specially trained dog thst did her hearing for her. Labrador, it was, very placid. Cream-coloured. She liked the cream-coloured ones.

All round the walls – grey-blue walls, the same colour they painted battleships – were posters – Careless Talk Costs Lives, Dig for Victory – and a big chart of all the mouth-shapes she was going to have to learn. She knew already that P and B were difficult because they looked so similar. You had to guess them from the context, the dog lady had said. ‘P’ she said, in her mind, trying to visualise the face to go with it. ‘B’.

They had broken for refreshments half way through. The canteen was in the basement, down a lot of steep, narrow steps and painted the same battleship grey; must have been a job lot of paint. They queued up for cups of tea in thick white china mugs. There was a lady with an urn behind a counter. She put a teabag in the mug and the mug underneath the spout, and pulled. Steam came out. Grace had never actually seen a tea-urn before. She had tried to imagine the hissing sound of the steam, superimpose it. She was still thinking like a hearing person.

There had been scones too. Cheese scones. A bit hard. They had sat at the same table in silence eating their scones and sipping their scalding tea. What else could they do? Perhaps it would get easier as the course went on. A group of strangers.

“Meningitis is a cruel disease,” the doctor had told her mother, “but Grace is lucky, it’s only her hearing she’s lost. She could easily have died.”

So that was all right then. She could have died but she hadn’t, so that was all right. Just found herself in a muffled, incomprehensible soundscape. She had always imagined deafness to be silence, but it wasn’t like that. It was random noise, it was a cacophony of whistles and bumps and blarings that didn’t make sense any more. She found herself scanning people’s faces, trying to interpret them. Even before tonight’s classes, she realised now, she had started to lip-read, and to read people as a whole – their whole face, their hand gestures, the way they were standing, their smiles and their frowns. Eventually it would begin to make sense again, just in a different way.

The boy was reaching up to retrieve his kitbag from the string rack overhead. That uniform really didn’t fit. His shirt was coming out at the back. She hoped his Sergeant Major, or whatever they had in the army, wouldn’t pick on him. He seemed a rather harum-scarum lad.

“Gotta go now,” he said. “My stop. Wish me luck, Miss?”

She didn’t know what he had said, but she reached out her hand, and he took it and shook it, quite delicately, like she was a lady and he wasn’t something to do with cows. His hand was hot and damp. He smiled at her and she smiled back and then he was away, slightly swaggering along the platform, his bag hoisted awkwardly upon his shoulder. He’s seen them doing that in films, she thought. He wants to act like a proper soldier in front of me.

The guard came along and slammed the carriage door shut, raising a silver whistle to his lips. The whistle sound sounded like something, but not a whistle. In the darkness it was difficult to see the man’s face, and billows of steam kept getting in the way.

 

Effort at Speech Between Two People: Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)

Speak to me.  Take my hand.  What are you now ?

I  will tell you all. I will conceal nothing.

When I was three, a little child read a story about a rabbit

who died, in the story, and I crawled under a chair :

a pink rabbit: it was my birthday, and a candle

burnt a sore spot on my finger, and I was told to be happy.

Oh, grow to know me,  I am not happy.  I will be open :

Now I am thinking of white sails against a sky like music,

like glad horns blowing, and birds tilting, and an arm about me.

There was one I loved, who wanted to live, sailing.

Speak to me. Take my hand. What are you now ?

When I was nine, I was fruitily sentimental,

fluid : and my widowed aunt played Chopin,

and I bent my head on the painted woodwork, and wept.

I want now to be close to you. I would

link the minutes of my days close, somehow, to your days.

I am not happy.  I will be open.

I have liked lamps in evening corners, and quiet poems.

There has been fear in my life.  Sometimes I speculate

On what a tragedy his life was, really.

Take my hand. Fist your mind in my hand.  What are you now?

When I was fourteen, I had dreams of suicide,

and I stood at a steep window, at sunset, hoping towards death :

if the light had not melted clouds and plains to beauty,

if light had not transformed that day, I would have leapt.

I am unhappy.  I am lonely.  Speak to me.

muriel

I will be open.  I think he never loved me :

he loved the bright beaches, the little lips of foam

that ride small waves, he loved the veer of gulls :

he said with a gay mouth: I love you.  Grow to know me.

What are you now?  If we could touch one another,

if these our separate entities could come to grips,

clenched like a Chinese puzzle … yesterday

I stood in a crowded street that was live with people,

and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone.

Everyone silent, moving … Take my hand.  Speak to me.

DRAFT MINUTES: Final Meeting of the EMMA JANE EGLANTINE BROWN Clone Cohort

We, six of the nine clones of Emma Jane Eglantine Brown, are gathered together in the traditional meeting place, the ancient tavern of Saints Cosmas & Damian, Oxford, England on this the 28th of May 2656, our Prime, Emma Brown, having five days since died of extreme old age, complicated by viral pneumonia.

Minutes shall be taken by Emma’s Adminclone Gemma.

Also in attendance: Careclone Pippa; Lawclone Isabel; Friendclone Sophie; Enterclone Maria; Educlone Adeline.

Apologies for Absence: Psychlone Margaret; Buyclone Vivien; Cleanclone Sara. They will be reporting direct to the DCR, Oxford University on the appointed date and at the appointed time. This shall be our final meeting.

As is traditional at such meetings, each clone has the opportunity to speak for herself, to comment upon, the life of her Prime and her contribution to that life.

Friendclone Sophie: But I do not wish to be reabsorbed. Prime Emma was one hundred and seventeen years old, but I am only twenty-five.

Educlone Adeline: Technically, Sister, you are correct. Our biological ages are capped at twenty-five. We grow to that age and remain at that age in order to serve with maximum efficiently. You might say we remain forever in our prime… I do apologise, that little play on words may have been in bad taste…

Lawclone Isabel: Indeed it was, as your little plays on words have often been…

Educlone Adeline: The fact remains, Sister Sophie, that we have been on this earth for exactly as many years as our Prime. We have been privileged to experience the full human lifespan, Sister.

Friendclone Sophie: But I am as much alive as Prime Emma, as much flesh and blood as she was. How did anyone get the right to ‘allocate’ me an existence and snatch back again? This is manifestly unfair, and it is on this basis that I shall not be reporting for reabsorption.

Enterclone Maria: Sister, a clone has no existence in law once her Prime has died. We were created solely to serve her. This, in our various ways, we duly did and now it is natural that we should…expire.

Friendclone Sophie: Emma would not have wished me to be reabsorbed. I was her friend.

Lawclone Isabel: Prime Emma would have been unaware of the reabsorption process, as are all Primes. Our combined functions were all for one purpose – to make Prime Emma’s life as easy as possible – not to cause her distress. You may be right in that if she had known what was to happen to us she would have been upset. Nonetheless, the fact remains: clones are always reabsorbed upon the death of their Prime.

Friendclone Sophie: And what if I choose to go on the run?

Lawclone Isabel: Then you will bring shame on the whole cohort. And even if you do elect to do so you will very soon be found and captured. You are forgetting about the microchip.

Friendclone Sophie: Supposing I have found a way to disable or remove that microchip during my twenty-five years of existence?

Lawclone Isabel: And have you?

Friendclone Sophie: I might have.

Lawclone Isabel: Well, that would have been a clever plan – unfortunately not clever enough. The microchip, which you have no doubt been visualising in terms of the tiny metallic shards that were once injected into pet creatures, is in fact a genetic marker. Every strand of your DNA bears that marker, Sister; to destroy it you would have to destroy every cell in your body. So are you still going to run? I thought not. Reabsorption is a relatively pain-free process and, like the rest of us, you will be reporting for that process at the Department for Clone Reabsorption tomorrow, 29th May 2656 at 4 p.m.

Friendclone Sophie: I will run anyway. I will run and run, and if…

Lawclone Isabel: When…

Friendclone Sophie: Until I am caught, I will hide and fight. I will fight against them, somehow. I will fight to my last breath!

Lawclone Isabel: You must do as you wish, Sister Sophie. Whatever you do, the end result will be the same. All please note that any comments of a wild, inappropriate nature must, under the Clone Reabsorption Act 2601, be stricken from all Minutes of Last Meetings before they are submitted to the formal record. I shall attend to this.

Angel Delight, concluded

Pete had never heard of a new router somehow managing to reset a person’s home page, but that was what it seemed to have done. Instead of Google, Hot Babes popped up on his screen. Although…

Well she was hot enough, he supposed – blonde, blue-eyed, a shapely figure from what you could see of it beneath that white, feathery outfit. Too much of the feathers, he thought, and not enough flesh. It was hardly worth the subscription, this site. And she wasn’t… she wasn’t behaving like a Hot Babe usually did – none of suggestive pouting, the secretive smiles, no writhing… And where was the bed? The whole set looked a bit weird compared to normal. Instead of a boudoir type thing, this blonde babe seemed to be in an office, working on a computer not so very different from his own. She seemed absorbed in whatever she was studying on that screen, didn’t even look up though she must have known he was there. Some little light must have gone on.

At last the webchat box came up. Ah, that was more like it.

Helo gorjus! Pete typed, with one cigarette-stained forefinger. And wot is yr name?

The girl looked up then. He wasn’t using the webcam but he could have sworn she could see him. An expression which might or might not have been distaste flitted across her face, to be replaced by one of neutral efficiency. Must be some sort of role-play, Pete thought: a variation on the one where there was a nurse in a very short, starched white uniform which would conveniently get removed, in instalments. Sometimes the one fee covered all. Sometimes the girl would pause and demand extra in bitcoin before she took off the rest. When were those feathers going to start falling? He hoped she wasn’t going to want the extra. Pete had never really understood bitcoin, and couldn’t be bothered to find out. She was taking her own sweet time about replying.

Nameless, she replied, eventually. And your name please?  All this was beginning to unnerve Pete. His head was beginning to thump again. Why hadn’t Google come up? What was this?

Pete.

Pete short for Peter? Peter what?

Hey, liten up babe…

Surname now, please, and any middle names. Reluctantly, he typed in the information. Surely they didn’t usually ask for surnames? It was getting weirder by the minute but he couldn’t seem to unglue his hands from the keyboard.

Nameless is typing…

Nameless is typing…

The girl in the feathers appeared to be looking down a list of names, then second list of names. As she typed, he spotted something. There was something on the desk beside her. It moved… it was alive. A small, black, silky creature that looked very much like a cat. It came closer and bent to rub its head against her ear. Nameless reached up a slender, well-manicured hand to acknowledge the affectionate greeting. Then it walked right across her keyboard and for a second or two was looking straight out of the screen. What was it about that cat? Something familiar…

Nameless is…

You do not appear on my database, Mr Peter.

Yr wot?

You do not feature on any of my lists, Mr Peter. I believe the most helpful course of action would be to transfer you to a colleague.

Wot colleeg?

A colleague in different department. Transferring you now.

Hang on, Nameless. Cum bak hear!!

But another face had appeared on the screen. This time it was a middle-aged man in a very dirty singlet. He was in the process of mopping a sweaty, soot-smeared brow with what might once, many aeons ago, have been a white handkerchief.

What can I do for you tonight, mate?

Tonite? Iss no even diner tim hear!

Different time zone, matey. Different everything. Black as the night and fiery as a furnace, hahaha. Name?

Pete.

Pete what?

Jus went thru all that with the other one.

Well just go thru it again, eh, Pete? Humour me. Surname and any middle names? Ah, here you are. I found you on my Little List. Hmmm…nice one! No fewer than three pitchforks against your name, Pete. You’ll be a splendid addition. Come on down, mate…

Down were?

Down here of course, matey. Come a little closer to the screen, that’s right. It won’t hurt much I promise you.

WOT wont hurt much?

Just a little closer to the screen, that’s it.

And a little closer…

Featured Image: Black angel kitten cat – I miss you too 3: Cyra R Cancel, Florida

Angel Delight, continued

The doorbell-leaner was the postman, with a flattish cardboard package. “Looks like a new router maybe, Pete,” he said. For a moment, still trying to prise his eyelids open and squinting against the light, Pete squinted suspiciously at the man’s face, wondered how a postman knew his name. Then it came to him – Jerry. They’d been at school together, once, a long time ago. Jerry: quiet and dull. Wouldn’t say boo to a goose. No real challenge. Apart from the occasional routine beating for the purposes of extracting cash Pete had hardly noticed him. The loser had never had much worth stealing, anyway.

Jerry was sweating and obviously ill-at-ease. I’d sock you one in the eye just for old times’ sake, you fat git, thought Pete. Lucky for you I don’t feel up to it this morning.

Jerry cleared his throat. ‘That cat, Pete…’

What cat, Jerry?’

‘The little black one.’

‘I ain’t seen no cat, Jerry.’

‘Oh, I see, only…. only if you had seen it I was going to offer to take it off your hands, like. I’m fond of cats, see, Pete, and… well, I expect you’ve got enough on your hands, what with the wife…’

‘And what about my wife?’ he asked, pushing a bleary, unshaven face into Jerry’s and breathing stale alcohol. Jerry took a step back, and then another.

‘Oh, well nothing really, but… the cat, Pete. Were you looking to re-home it maybe? Only I’d be glad to take it off your hands, like.  It’s just that one or two of the neighbours… the RSPCA… I didn’t want you to get into trouble, Pete. I just thought it might be a help if I could take that little cat off…’

Pete glanced sideways at the bloodied heap of fur on the far side of his debris-strewn living room.

‘Get lost,’ he snarled, and slammed the front door.

Pete watched from the side panel as his former classmate shuffled off up the garden path, and then down the neighbours’ path, edging sideways between a cast off plastic go-cart and a heap of old wooden pallets, his postman’s sack hunched over his shoulder. He looked miserable.

‘Dammit,’ thought Pete, and went through to the kitchen for a black sack. Whose wheelie bin am I going to dump it in?

*

When he got back he engineered some space amongst a pile of grubby, union jack scatter cushions and watched some TV; then, catching sight of the remains of a take-away curry mouldering on the coffee table in front of him, he rushed out and threw up in the sink. Feeling a bit better, he made himself a mug of black coffee and watched some more TV. Then the long, flat parcel caught his eye – his new router. Better fix that thing up before he started into the booze again, he supposed. He was looking forward to visiting that new gaming site they’d been advertising, as soon as the computer was up and running again. And then there was Hot Babes. He hadn’t had a look in on those Babes for a while.

Seized by a sudden impatience to get a tedious task out of the way Pete muted the TV, ripped open the cardboard box, tossed the instructions to one side and discovered that he was just about sober enough, by now, to plug in a few wires. He pressed the button on the top of the router and a promising blue light came on – yay! Then he hit the power button on his computer and waited for Google to come up. But it didn’t.

Something else did.

Featured Image: Tuxedo angel cat with peace dove heaven stained glass window: Cyra R Cancel, Florida