July, 2013

Part 2 – Chapter 4 – Lordling

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

The next two months are the happiest I can ever remember, not just because I was frequently in the intimate company of women, but because we operated as a coherent group in a way I would never have expected had anyone explained it to me beforehand. The Wolves pulled all our gear, and somehow explained to Sam that they needed their coats cutting somewhat as we went to warmer climes. The ladies of the group were all very attentive to Garain, and showed him how to be more genteel in appearance, binding his beard and plaiting it with bows, bestowing on him the chunkiest of their jewellery, and incidentally the most deadly, and showing him how to conceal himself in a crowd of ladies. Eventually he shaved, an operation I regarded as intrinsically dangerous, because he did it with a sharpened dagger, but it improved his concealment abilities tremendously.

I remember particularly the first night I spent with someone because it was with Ellie, she insisted that this was the case. She said that she had “promised to show me what lovers do”, and this almost unmanned me with the memory of it, but she took me in hand and showed me bliss. We talked afterwards.

“You should master your magic if you think that was good.” I rolled over towards her.

“Is that what we’re calling it now?” I asked, amused. She smiled and tickled me until I grabbed her arms and pinned her down again. “Have you not had enough?” She grinned and tried to knee me, but I was too quick.

“Hum, Garain’s lessons are paying off. Has he taught you anything else?” I looked thoughtful.

“Only that you’re here to please me.” I said laughing.

“Oh you ARE becoming embedded in the culture!” She said squirming around.

“Anyway, I don’t know the magic words.” She sat up, the furs falling away. She looked more pert than I have ever seen her.

“You can learn them. He can’t hear you, me either for a while, and never if I catch.”

“What?” I said unsteadily.

“I’m not protected, Jessop. Sally and I, we’re going to be the mothers of your children.” I don’t know quite what happened next, but it was the morning and I woke up next to Ellie, still in bed, and Sam, still fully clothed, on the other side.

__________

We sat there in the furs looking at each other.

“Look at it this way John, it’s better than dropping dead. And it’s not like we don’t WANT children. It’s just that we might have made different choices if we were home.” I shook my head.

“Can’t I just magic away the fertility?” Sam shook her head in turn.

“No, we don’t know that it will protect us. We’ve got to have it integrated into us. For that, you need to get us pregnant.”

“What about Garain? I can hardly get him pregnant.” And I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into the whole process with him anyway.

“He, and you’ll have to get used to using the female pronoun soon, is a woman. The King can’t kill him, her, without losing face. If he, it, she, they, damn it! If she drops dead, the King will be blamed. Even he can’t kill everyone, and everyone will turn on him instantly if he magics her to death.”

“Oh, right then.” And that was that.

___________

Gerain’s skill at navigating kept us from meeting any one serious, some peasants with only one woman, and a pretty poor show at that, and a few farmhands working fields. This meant that they were all women, and they varied from demure to dismissive to tart, and universally, if we had a complaint, we were to take it up with the men. I finally realised that ownership actually stopped a great of abuse, and land ownership, the exclusive right of women, gave them a great deal of power. It was this idea that finally made me be more at ease with what was going on.

Garain also proved to be very skilful a teaching me to fight. He likened it to learning a sport, which surprised me. He was taken aback.

“We’re not complete heathens you know, we have sport. [I’m having to translate somewhat]. We toss the caber, play Raquet Ball, we have Football and Golf and Football.” He scratched his bald chin. “That itches still. Anyhow, if you play golf, you have to learn to swing with your arms not your head. If you swing with your head, you’ll miss.”

We carried on fighting every day. As we carried on I became aware that any injuries I gained healed very quickly, usually within the hour. Garain commented on this. “That’s going to make you reckless. Treat every injury like it matters, because someone could chop your head off, and then where would you be?”

He carried on, teaching me to use forms used by all the fighters he knew, then how to counter them. Every day, I seemed to pick up something new. “You’re a fast learner right enough.” And so it went on.

This bucolic break lasted just up until the time we encountered our first “Lord.” By this time I had done my duty by all the ladies, and they all seemed satisfied with my performance; and seemingly it cemented their trust in my prowess.

We were attending to the wolves and setting up camp when the rag tag entourage came to a halt on the road beside our camp. Kate was outside our little circle and greeting the Lordling. I could hear her quite clearly, greeting him in the right fashion.

“Good day My Lord,” she said, curtseying. “May we assist you in any way?” he looked her up and down from the vantage point of his horse, who was shying a bit nervously at the sight of the gigantic wolves.

“I doubt it, child.” he said haughtily, looking down his nose at her, and incidentally not letting her up for her curtsey. “You could fetch your Master though, he might be able to help.” She rose and came to fetch me. Curtseying carefully, she said in a loud voice,

“John, beloved, a Lord who is unknown to me desires to speak with you. Are you ‘in’?” I wasn’t quite ready for this, but I got the message immediately. I turned my eyes to the wolf, and clipped her a bit more closely, she shrugged a shoulder.

“I’ll just pretend then for a moment if I may.” I whispered. She relaxed. I spoke louder, not looking at Kate, “Just a moment, dear, I’m not quite finished here.” I looked over the wolf, well, around the wolf, and held a finger up for a second, then bobbed back behind. Garain came up from the other side fully shrouded.

“Are you trying to annoy this man?”

“He looks the type to be easily annoyed.” Kate rolled her eyes. “Alright.” I said. I went out from behind the wolf. The Lord had got down from his saddle, I noticed one or two people looking out from the carriages.

“John Jessop. Are you lost?” The man stopped stock still.

“Do you know where you are?” I shook my head.

“We came off the ice a month or two ago, and we haven’t got our bearings yet.” His lips became very thin.

“Well I can tell you that you are on MY land, and you haven’t sought permission to be here. I do hope you haven’t taken any deer.” We HAD as a matter of fact had some rather nice venison the last evening, but I wasn’t about to tell him that.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” I said, cheerily, even though I knew that the main body of the beast was still turning over the fire.

“I see.” The man said with a steely glare. Well as you are on my land, without my permission, you should tithe me.” I looked at him all over. He had a rapier, which seemed a like a very slight weapon for a noble-man from what Garain had been saying over the weeks. I noticed that a couple of very burly men had got down from carriages. No women. Other than this he was wearing a doublet and hose, which looked very effete to my eye. His codpiece was certainly exaggerated. Or a cricket box gone mad.

“Excuse me,” I said, as carefully as I could. “I have no wish to offend you, but are you officially a woman?” The two men stopped, stock still. Our camp became silent. “I ask, because, well, only women own land.” The chap had become very, very red in the face. I could see the veins clearly standing out on his forehead.

“How dare you!” He managed to strangle out, struggling to pull out his tiny sword. “I inherited this land from my mother you heathen! I have not found a woman worthy of me to pass it on to yet!” He managed to yank the sword out of the scabbard, and wave it in my face.

“I’m so very sorry to hear of your mother’s death.” I said placatingly. “And I know that it can be hard finding a woman sometimes.” This made him pause. I noted that in order to count above three, he was moving his lips.

“Well perhaps I shall have yours!” He shouted, and stabbed at me, thrusting full at my body with his arm extended. I had time to see one of the very burly men put his hand over his eyes. It was hard not to laugh.

The vital thing, Garain had taught me, was never to over extend; by the very nature of a manoeuvre such as stabbing someone with a flexible sword, one over extends, and since all my training about telegraphing movement was still fresh in my mind, I stepped smoothly to one side, and grabbed his wrist. I had a pretty good lock on it, and so when I ducked under his arm, it twisted mightily, and he had no choice but to follow it. He tried to jump in the air to stop his arm breaking, and ended up on the floor, without his toothpick, and with my foot on his chest. I decided that this was beneath me, so I took my foot off him. Then I decided that he needed a bit more winding up.

“Isabella.” I called as politely as I could. She came over, quite slowly, and looked down at this man sprawled in the dirt, and then did something I could have kissed her for. She tutted.

The petty lordling sprang up and tried to slap her. Too bad for him, I was standing close, and I didn’t even make an effort. I just punched him in the face, and he went down like a dropped sack of potatoes.

“Would you gentleman mind removing this man?” I said to the two men waiting behind. They nodded. “What’s he called by the way?” One of them bit his lip. I shook my head questioningly. The other one opened his mouth.

“He’s called Lord Nancy. We’re his cousins.” I nodded at this. um, would that make you…?”

“Yeah, but we’re big blokes and we got all the women we want. Why should we care? His old Mum though, she said to try and take care of him.” I nodded. “He’s typical now though, arrogant little shit. Thinks he owns the place, as long as they ain’t no women. Ain’t no crops bein’ grown either. That’s why we’re leaving. We’re hungry.”

“Never let a man do a woman’s work.” Said Isabella, tartly.

“S’right.” said the speaking one. He looked Isabella up and down. “I’ll fight yer man for yer.” he stated, dusting off his jerkin and furs. “If yer want.”

“Can’t afford me, eh?” she replied with aplomb.

“Bet you’re worth a lot, doubt anyone can afford you.” He looked sheepish as he said this. I was feeling a bit appalled. But Isabella was smiling dazzlingly.

“What a nice boy you are!” she beamed, and she went up to him with her hand outstretched.

“Er, aren’t you supposed to ask permission?” I said. She turned slightly back to me and arched an eyebrow.

“Are you going to deny me this beautiful moment, John?” I rolled my eyes up and said,

“No, no, just wondering if you were going to observe the niceties.” She laughed and allowed her hand to be lightly kissed.

“I’m Nigel, Lord Nancy and this here’s my brother, Leonard, Lord Nancy.” His brother wiped his nose on what passed for a handkerchief.

“S’right.” He said. “We’re gonna take the biggest Nancy away now alright? Got places to go, people to upset.” And with this they dragged him away. The whole entourage took a little while to get going and some time to pass; by the end of which I could hear the little chap screaming obscenities as he’d been tied to his saddle bow. They told him to shut up before he was gagged.

_________

A little later as we sat around the fire eating the forbidden meat, Isabella and Garain were reflecting on this incident.

“Garain is a right, if that sort of thing is happening a lot, then law and order is breaking down.” He nodded and tore off another piece of meat. “If that little chap is becoming typical, or even just more frequent, then we’re in for a bad time. Did you notice?” We all shook out heads. “No children around.” I looked askance at this. Ellie’s face had a dawning realisation look on it.

“No children, because they’re too afraid to come out, or the women are too afraid to let them out.” Isabella nodded.

“That’s a change in culture.” She said. Garain looked puzzled. “Men don’t do a lot of the work dear one, where do you think bread comes from. Have you ever tilled a field?” He nodded.

“That’s woman’s work.” He reflected a moment. “Peasants work the fields, all hands on deck.”

“Yes, and in this respect, women are in charge.”

“That sounds wrong, even from you Isabella.” He shifted uncomfortably, “We’re in charge.” There was a moment of consideration about this, and I could see Isabella and the others waiting. “He’s in charge.” he said pointing at me, “I have taken the robes of a woman, I’m not in charge of anything.” Gefina spoke up. I think this is the first time I’d heard her speak in company. She is a raven haired woman with quite a pointed nose, a long neck and fine features. As with all Garain’s crowd, she is intelligent and forthright, but she tended to go a long time without speaking, so we paid attention when she did.

“You’re not really a woman Garain, so you don’t know about woman culture.” He looked a bit hurt, and she laid a hand on his arm. “It’s not a secret culture, largely, but you must know that there are a lot fewer men than women.” He nodded. “We have to do the majority of the work, because you can’t be wasted on everyday things when there have been wars to be fought. Outright war has always been a disaster, so you’ve spent your life training up for tourneys and such.”

“What has that to do with culture?”

“I wouldn’t offend you for the world Garain, but have you noticed that most men are not too bright?” Kate nodded, and he looked from one to the other in bewilderment. Gefina carried on, “For generations we’ve been breeding men for muscle and women for intelligence and beauty. That’s going to have a certain effect don’t you think?”

“We’ve always known that there’s women’s work and we probably shouldn’t interfere with it.”

“Precisely. Why do you think we own all the land?”

“So you can farm it. Oh.” A rather frightened look crossed his face.

“Yes,” continued Gefina relentlessly, “we own the land you build things on. We own the land that you get a lot of your food from. We spend all our time managing that while you spend all your time training for war. Even the peasants. We outnumber you five to one at least. There are few women on the earth who can stand up to a man physically, so a balance has been struck. You own us, we own the land. We provide food, and sex, and you protect us from other men. What happens to a rapist?”

“Woman runs away to a stronger man and tells him.” Said Garain promptly. “And he kills the rapist, if he’s any good.”

“And if he’s not.”

“I don’t know. I guess it’s pretty poor for the woman.”

“Yes.”

We were all quiet for a bit after that. We ate and drank, and somehow took some time to let everything just go down a bit. A thought occurred to me.

“You ladies said two inconsistent things a while ago.” I started. Kate held up her hand.

“Hang on, John. Garain, you should know that you’re not dumb. You’re really smart and considerate.”

“For a man.” Kate waved her hands.

“No, Garain, for a person. You’ve been on a mission for a while, you haven’t interacted with the real world properly for a good long time. You haven’t seen what it’s really become.”

“I know about the King.”

“It’s not the only thing that’s going on, society is changing. We know, we talk to the women. They’re not happy. The men have started to treat them badly. You don’t do that.”

“Don’t I?”

“No, not generally. John, what were you saying about two inconsistent things?” The thought had almost slipped my mind. I considered for a moment.

“You all said that I had to get you pregnant to protect you from the King’s magic. Then you said that Garain wasn’t in any danger the because all the nobles would gather up against him if he killed a woman with his magic. Which is it?” Everyone looked shifty. “What?”

“Um.” Garain looked up. “I’m probably a sacrifice, or more likely they wanted your magic because they’re going to fight, or they wanted to protect their children.” I looked at him and gestured to the pot of food, he nodded and passed me his bowl. “You can’t protect me in the same way. So we work with what we’ve got.” He took the bowl and dug into it with his spoon.

“I’m sorry.” He looked at me.

“I’m not. All this is wrong. We’ve had this talk. The King has got to go. You’ve come here because he broke your law, we’re helping because he’s an arse and ruining the earth and our culture. That’s worth a lot. He’s bought winter to our world, and now he’s bringing winter to our culture, we’ll all die. That’s how he broke your law. You’re so far in advance of us that we call some of what you can do ‘magic’, because it isn’t any different from the old tales of magic. that’s what he does, it’s not right. He’s got to go.” Gefina nodded vigorously, and the others joined in.

“It’s a noble cause.” “It’s right and proper” “Garain is right.” and other noises of support came from them. Sam and Ellie nodded too. Ellie spoke up.

“Garain knows this is right.” He nodded.

“He is my friend,” I said, “I don’t want him to die.”

“Childish.” he said. Isabella woke up from her partial doze.

“Garain! You know better than that!” I looked from one to the other in confusion. “She’ll get you into a spurious fight if she talks like that. We can hardly afford that.”

“Sorry Isabella, the point is made though.” She shrugged her shoulders and sighed.

“Yes, but none of us want to lose you.” He just shook his head.

“This is morose, I’m going to sleep.” And this prompted us all to seek warm furs and settle down for the night.

Part 2 – Chapter 3 – A New Plan

Friday, July 5th, 2013

It was some time later, and Garain and Isabella, just them, had joined us in the yurt.

“So, you’ve travelled far I take it, and you have strange companions,” he indicated the three wolves lounging in the yurt. “Have you been troubled by the ice?” I went to answer, but Ellie raised her hand. I nodded.

“The ice has been our friend and provided meat, and these noble companions,” she used a word, ‘amösti’, which really means ‘strange companions of my trusted tribe’, “we have travelled far from our range. We go to reclaim what is ours lying on the land of a Noble Lady.”

“Bought a castle eh?” asked Garain with a wry smile on his face. “Good job you’re not dead before you can enjoy it.” I didn’t know what to say to that.

“Um…” Isabella rescued me.

“John, I’m truly sorry for my attitude, I really shouldn’t have been that rude, it wasn’t fair on you or your ladies. I’m getting a bit crotchety in my old age.” I waved this away. “No, no, John. There are other implications too.” I looked askance at this. She took a deep breath. “Life has become brutal and short in the last years; we’re calling them that now because we cannot see any way of usurping the King. He seems to know everything, so even this conversation is dangerous.” Garain brings his hand down low while this is being said. Isabella sees and nods slowly.

“I’m with a civil society, which respects authority and civility.” I said very slowly. “I respect and revere the King, and if the judgements seem harsh, then we shall await the judgement of history.” Garain scowled.

“Kings usually only wait on the judgement of the gods.” The scowl deepened. I passed over a large chunk of meat on a piece of leather. This bought a smile to his face for a moment. Then, carefully, he took out a knife and a crudely beaten fork and a little tin plate, cut the meat in half and spent several minutes cutting up the meat into very small pieces before reheating it over the fire. I noted in passing that he just put the plate into the fire with his bare hand and held it there, before placing a rag on Isabella’s lap and placing the plate there. “Truth is,” continued Garain, “we’re going out on to the ice. It’s more than a man’s life is worth to challenge the King, and the ice is the only place I know of he doesn’t fully influence us with his magic. I need some time away from him to think. So do many if only they knew it.” He bit into the remains of the meat, and chewed thoughtfully.

“Supposing,” I said, carefully, “supposing there was someone who could get rid of him. Could you do without a King? Is there succession?” Garain swallowed the meat carefully, and took a good long look at me before replying.

“There would be a tourney. There are no heirs. A tourney would the only thing to decide it. There would be many deaths.”

“I don’t like to be callous, but would that matter?” Again, a long look.

“You halve yourself. There would be deaths, it matters not.” He frowned and picked up another piece of meat. “Why speak like a woman, and then a man. Women’s words are for women. If you must speak them, then be a man and commit to them.” I looked confused. Ellie put her hand up. I nodded.

“If I may have a word?” We left the yurt.

“I don’t understand what he just said; was he insulting me?” Ellie shook her head.

“He was expressing confusion. When you said that you didn’t like to be callous and then asked if it would matter, that was halving yourself. You might hear it often if you do that.” I looked more confused. “You’re a strapping great warrior. Well, you look like one, you just lack a few skills. You’re not supposed to care if they die, you’re only supposed to care if you win. But every man has a son or cousin he cares about, being concerned about that is womanly. You might have to fight if you express those emotions, so you have to man up and express them, commit. If you commit you might have to fight about it less and you might get insulted less, or choose to ignore it.”

“Got it.” We went back in, where Garain was having a long conversation with Sam about fighting, and how an unarmed person could still take on a sword. It stopped when I stood for a brief moment. I sat.

“I am sorry if I divided myself and it was confusing.” I began. Garain laughed.

“You’re a very strange man. It is done, you did it. Only women regret, it is their way, you speak like a woman, but you are a man, and you have the commitment of a man. Choose who you are!” He frowned briefly, but laughed again. “I’m not trying to insult you friend, but you are strange. I do not understand your purpose.”

“To bring peace.” I said firmly. He stopped laughing. I could see him working his brain, like a clockwork, as he mulled this over.

“That is the goal of a woman.” He held up his hand as drew breath. “it is a laudable aim, but men want war. It is our chance for glory!”

“And yet you run away to think.” Isabelle put her hand firmly on Garain’s arm. I could see his muscles bunch and clench. After a moment he patted her had lightly and she withdrew it after an extra squeeze.

“Yes, it shames me. And yet I would rather have this shame than the fainting death the King’s magic brings, or the drunkenness of so called Lords and Ladies who can barely keep a civil tongue in their heads and sword in its’ sheath. It used to be a countryside that had a reputation for quick tempers and quicker deaths; now those places as a bucolic peace.” Actually, I did translate there some-what. The world he used was ‘hardapga’ which would take a month of Sundays to translate. “There used to be a civility in a town, but now there is one town, and no civility.”

“Were there not matters of honour all the time?” I asked curiously.

“Oh yes, but we were forbidden to fight in towns by the old King’s order. he said that there were too many warriors lost in incidentals. The other monarchs agreed. But now there is one monarch in this long winter, and no need for armies. Just Barons bickering amongst themselves.” He said bitterly. “And I am but one man. I go to think.” He turned to Isabella. “Would you ask Tatty to bring some string drink? My friends here have none, or they would have offered it up.” I nodded, and stood as she rose. “Ah my friend, you give yourself away with so many little gestures.” He smiled, “How long have you been on this world?”

_______________

There is, as they say, nothing like when a plan comes together. And this was nothing like a plan coming together. We had been on the ice for a total of four months at this time. So far, that was two and a half months longer than we had anticipated. We had been on the ice too long, and even Ellie and Sam had become too used to our own company, and so we gave ourselves away in a thousand little ways.

Our company saw straight through us, and he was of the opinion that anyone else would too, and therefore our plan was hopeless.

“You’re off-worlders, that’s obvious now. I didn’t get it at first. Some men can be too long on the ice, and they turn a bit weird. You’re more than weird.”

We looked at him, a little aghast. Isabella leaned forward.

“It’s not unknown, there are a few places in the world that are confused with other worlds; and sometimes people come through.” Garain nodded. “We have ben to most of the portals,” she continued. “Some of what comes through has to be dealt with.”

“Your current King is one of those things.” I was tense, I didn’t know how they would take this. Garain and Isabella shrugged in unison.

“We suspected as much. We couldn’t prove it. And he has bought magic with him.” Ellie leaned forward.

“I would argue with you for the world, Garain, but it’s not magic, it’s tech. And we are policemen come to end him.”

“I do not know those words you used, ‘teche’, ‘pleaseman’, but if you are here to end him, then I am with you.”

“Hang on, hang on,” I said, “what are the odds of meeting someone willing to help us more or less first bat off the wicket?” And then I saw it, I saw what had been going on all the time. Sam was looking sad.

“Yes, John. You’re right, I see it in your face. Isabella is my entangled double.” Garain looked up, first at Sam, and then carefully at Isabella.

“I see it now. Had not before.” He rumbled. “It is obvious now, you are sisters.” Isabella put her hand to her mouth, clearly shocked. “I am more committed now.” He paused. “If you are Isabella.” She looked up at him with wide eyes.

“Since when did a man ask permission from his women to do anything?”

“Their ways are not our ways; you need to be certain of this course, it may end your life for a futile cause. As do the other women. Everyone must be certain. I have a responsibility. If I must, I will don the robes and furs of a woman and be this man’s creature, but everyone must consent.” And standing abruptly, he left the yurt and disappeared on to the ice sheet.

There were a few moments of contemplative silence. Eventually Isabella made to get to her feet, and I got up and lent her a hand. She bowed her head slightly in acknowledgement and stood for a moment regaining her composure.

“I have things to attend to now ladies and gentleman, and I must see to them, because the head of my household may be no more.” She looked me up and down. “I hope you are equal to this task, because you do not know the enormity of what you have done.”

“I have an idea, Lady.” She frowned and became very thin lipped.

“I think your idea is a faint reflection of what you will see happen when we encounter the town. Manhood is prized here, more than anything. We ladies own what we own to relieve men of the responsibility, to allow them to think and fight. He will not fight again. His punishment of me is nothing. He will disgrace himself and his line for you. Don’t fail him.” I bowed as low as I knew how. “I am honoured, but it is more important that you don’t fail. More than anything.” And she left the yurt also, sweeping her train behind her with a flick or her hand.

“What did I just do and is this sort of thing going to happen all the time?” I said, “And is there any of that drink left?”

We got pretty drunk that night, all of us, on Garain’s mead and rum. Isabella was the only one who showed any restraint, and even was tipsy. The other ladies, Tara, Kate, Helena and Gefina, joined us, demurely robed and suitable chaste, and we told them of the so called plan so far, and what was happening. They all wanted a hefty dose of the mead after that.

It was morning when I was woken by Garain gently rocking my shoulder. Everyone else asleep around me and the brazier was low. He gestured to me to come outside. I groggily got up and followed. The world was hard to resolve, I was clearly hung over, and I felt and urgent need for some water. I began looking about, but Garain handed me a waterskin, by the expedient of grabbing my hand and shoving it into it. I took a long draught, and splashed a bit on my face. Garain waited patiently.

“I have a plan,” he said, “A new plan.” I nodded. “You are clearly immune from Kings Geas, he cannot kill you dead with his magic, or you would not be here.” I nodded again.

“That’s the theory.” He looked grim.

“It had better be more than a theory, or we are all dead for nothing.” He took a deep breath, there was something more. “I might be dead anyway, but I think you can save the women.” He looked off into the distance.

It was while he was doing this that I noticed that his clothes had changed from the dark rough furs of his battle dress, to a lighter linen type robe in many layers, and cream, almost white furs, wrapped around in the same style the women wore, rather than just hung loosely and carelessly as his others had been.

“I think that whatever makes you immune is within you, and you can pass it on to your sons and daughters. I think that act will protect the women too, but not me.” I looked at him, gaping. “You must father all my firstborn. Then I will train you to fight. Then you will be ready for battle.”

_____________

I had a good sense of why Garain would spend the night on the ice, naked, as it turns out. He is hugely hardy; that would have killed me even with all the additional bulk. I gathered later that it was a test of his destiny. If he died on the ice, no problem, as the man on the scene I automatically inherited everything moveable, so not houses and such, but the cart, the women, all that. He had said this in the discussions with Isabelle that amounted to his will. But, as he had come back, he was bound, he thought to take the robes of a woman, and serve me, at least, on the surface.

“Tell them I owed you a gambling debt and couldn’t pay. They will believe it, and it will not be an unexpected disgrace. I’m known for a gamble, it will give amusement to my enemies. They need some amusement since the last tourney.”

“Um, what did you do to them?”

“Broke the leg of every single challenger as he fell off his horse. And Lord the Madam Lissom.”

“Sorry what?”

“She killed her husband and challenged her accuser to hand to hand combat. Woman are not allowed to fight, but it would have been a dishonour to refuse. It would have been a bigger one to kill a weak, defenceless woman in combat, and a disgrace to lose. As it turns out she is neither weak nor defenceless, and she doesn’t seem to enjoy the company of men, so we have to let her get on with it.”

“Let her get on with it?”

“I have taken the robes of a woman, she has taken the robes of a man; unless one likes to get one’s head chopped off, or sawed off more likely, one just accepts that sometimes the cart goes the other way. She’ll have a bit more humility now though. I told her that lance was too heavy for her.” He shrugged his robes around a bit. “This will take some getting used to, ah, My Lord.” I was a bit taken aback. The ladies had been calling me this for the last two days as we rearranged camp and packed it up again. But Garain?

“I am your ‘woman’, you are my Lord. That is how it is, get used to it.”

“Huh. I’ve been thinking about this impregnation thing.” He shot me a look.

“You have done nothing so far. You have not even talked about the matter with your women, what is the matter with you?”

“I’m a bit shy about it to be honest.” He glowered.

“You said what?” He began to bunch his fists. I grew noticeably nervous, this did not seem to improve his mood.

“Little bit shy.” I said recklessly. This as too much for him.

With a great roar he threw off the robes and swung a great roundhouse blow at me, not the gently telegraphed blows with the coshes, but massive blow of a man fully enraged. It connected and I saw stars as I flew across the clearing. He was roaring incoherently, and stamped across the grown before I could find my feet or my wits. He pulled me upright with one hand and swung again, but this time instead of hitting me with his fist, he opened his hand, saving all my teeth, and slapped me across the clearing again. It didn’t feel any less hard than the punch and I was dazed again. I saw that the women had come out and formed a rough circle, including Ellie and Sam. No-one seemed inclined to do anything about the beating I was getting. He seemed less incoherent now, but just as angry.

“I,” he said, lifting me up again, “have given up my manhood for your plan, so you will fight!” he punctuated this with a punch to my stomach. I doubled over and he kneed me in the face. I fell over backwards. “I will never mate!” He went to stamp on me, but I managed to roll out of the way in time. He had to turn a little, and I managed to scythe my legs into his. He fell over heavily, but bounded up again before I had a chance to do any more. Enraged he went to punch me in the face again, directly into the ground and I had to move my head suddenly to avoid it. He drove his fist deep into the earth. I looked directly at Ellie, a mute appeal in my face, but she shook her head and I realised, as he kicked me in the ribs, that I was on my own. I rolled over and over but he kept walking towards me and I realised that he really wasn’t going to give up until he killed me, or I reacted. I changed tack.

I rolled instead towards him, and while he looked marginally surprised he instantly stopped walking and pulled his foot back for a kick. I stopped and put my hands up to catch it, but I was far too slow. I cursed in frustration and stood up as he regained his balance from his missed kick. I took advantage of this to hit him in the face.

Now, I must relate something here. I haven’t done much fighting, and what I have seen has been on the television. Yes, I’ve boxed a little for exercise, but what no-one will tell, no-one, is that hitting a very large man with a very large neck trained practically from birth to fight is almost pointless. Also, you are quite likely to break a knuckle on his face. Unless he has a glass jaw. Garain did not have a glass jaw, but rather one that seemed to be made or granite or some other, harder, material.

I cursed again and retreated rapidly across the ground that was open. He rubbed his jaw, and smiled nastily. Although we were fighting in a small area, I can only describe what he did next as a charge. He developed in a few paces a sort of implacable run that looked as if only some sort of natural disaster would stop it, a mountain falling on him, that sort of thing. I looked at this for a brief second and decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and ran off onto the ice.

I didn’t know until that point that I could run really fast, and I easily out- paced Garain and he cursed and shouted and called me a coward. I knew I’d have to answer that, and probably with a challenge, except I didn’t know if that was allowed now. I did know he wasn’t supposed to fight with me.

I was sweaty, and this was not a blessing as night fell out there on the ice. I grew bitterly cold, and as I felt it seeping into my bones I knew a growing warmth that told me frostbite was coming deep within, as the tingle took me and I shook and shook. After a couple of hours the shaking stopped and I was in the pitch black walking on the pack ice. I was lost and in the dark and alone. I kept moving, my only instinct to keep my body moving as long as possible and keep it warm. Anyhow, didn’t lost people walk in circles? Maybe I would come across the camp again, eventually.

The night was darker than anything I had ever experienced outside at night. There was no moon, and no Milky Way, and it struck me how far from home I really must be. I might be anywhere, in a different galaxy for all I knew, and then the truth hit me like a hammer; I wasn’t just in a different galaxy, I was in a different reality, and my way home was up there orbiting the planet, with currently, no way to get back to it, because my quantum double was right here on the planet with me. I was more lost than it would have ever seemed possible to be, before I left Earth, came to this desolate place and acquired a new body.

I fell over in the ice and snow, and just lay there, not caring if I lived or died, frozen cold and lost, and then I did a very stupid thing. I fell asleep.

I was at the tea party again, but this time I wasn’t a five year old girl, I was me, and the rest of the grotesquery were around me, as well as the little girls. My knees were practically around my ears as I sat on the small plastic chair.

“Well,” said a little voice, “you took long enough to get here.” I just looked at her as if she was an alien. “Don’t know who I am?”

_____________

I’m a in a garden with four little girls and a bunch of shot in the head teddies and dolls, sitting, crouching at the table with little cucumber sandwiches on it, and slices of cake. I recognise Natashia, Katie and Samantha, but not the little girl talking to me. So when she asks me if I know her, I shake my head.

“I’m Ellie, silly. I meet you or the first time here. You’ve shared my dreams before though.” I just gape. “You’re supposed to face up to it here, what you’ve done. A lot of it is pretty awful, don’t you think?” She picks up the teapot and pours thick black coffee out of it, and offers it to me. “Drink this, it might wake you up in a minute, before you freeze to death.” She thinks about this while the other delicately eat cake with little plastic forks. “Actually, you have the Nanites now don’t you? You’re magic, so you won’t die.” She takes a big slurp of the black coffee with every sign of satisfaction. “Oh well, Sweet Elephants Track me Down.” She says, smiling, a hint of her grown up self showing in her face as it fades. “Come and see me again when you need another hint.” She smiles as she fades and I wake up.

I’m in a hot spring as far as I can make out, steaming away. The others arrive after about half an hour, and after Ellie and Sam making some fuss about wearing mittens, they pull me out. There are many admonitions not to touch me at all. I find out why when after about two minutes my clothes are dry, but my feet are wet, because I sunk into the ice.

“Start walking Jessop.” Ellie says, before the effect wears off and you have damp and cold feet.” It’s dawn, and Ellie remarks. “You’ve been out all night.” Sam looks over.

“Yes, all night and you left us with that angry lunatic. And we were worried about you. And him. He chopped up a boulder after you left. A bit one. Have you any idea what t’s going to cost to repair his sword?” I mumbled something. “What?” she asked, crisply.

“I said, ‘I got bit tired of being hit in the face.’” Sam slid to a stop.

“That’s what you get paid the big bucks for! You should have put him down, that’s your job! That why you have the big muscles! Do something about it!” She stamped on again back towards the camp, where she sat on a little stool, and sulked.

When we got back to camp, Garain was in clean clothes and furs and deep in conversation with Kate. He was looking earnest and Kate was just laying her hand on his shoulder. He looked up as we approached. I must have looked wary, because he held his hands up in the universal gesture of peace, and walked towards me. What he did next was quite hard to see, not hard to see, but hard to witness.

He went down on both knees and prostrated himself before me, arms outstretched and completely vulnerable. He turned his head to one side, so I could hear him clearly. I glanced up, Kate was openly crying, and the others were holding back tears. Garain spoke.

“My master. I am sorry for my inexcusable actions. My life is forfeit, my body yours. I am yours for pleasure or work. I have my place and have taken it at your feet, where I stay, to stir only by your command, or starve, as you wish.” I gestured to Isabella, who looked utterly miserable. As she came to my side I held out my arm, and she took it. I walked some little distance away, Ellie and Sam went to follow, but I shook my head, and surprised, they stayed, and comforted the other women.

I spent some time explaining, with Garain lying in the dirt a little distance away, what I wanted to Isabella. The return explantation took a long time.

When we had finished she was crying as well, and put both hands on my shoulders, and kissed me briefly on each cheek. “Truly,” she said, “as I love and revere Garain; there has never been a man such as you.” I shook my head.

“I am just a man, but I do what is right.” And gently kissed her on the lips, hesitating just slightly. She was firm about completing the act, and then pushed me back and turned me to face again the man on the ground.

I took a deep breath.

“Garain. You will stand up when I have finished speaking. Until then you will contain your feelings and listen carefully. Do you understand?”

“Yes, my master.”

“You will from now on instruct me in the usages and methods of battle when I demand it. You have taken the robes of a woman, and you will wear them and be disgraced, but you will use the skills of a man to instruct me in fighting.”

“That is most irregular, Master. Women are not allowed to fight.”

“That’s not what I wanted to hear you say, Garain.” I said firmly. “I wanted to hear you say ‘Yes Master.’”

“Yes, Master.”

“If you are worried that you will offend a Man, be assured that I will deal with him, firmly.” I said, hardening my voice as much as I could. “Very firmly indeed.”

“Yes, Master.”

“As to the women. I will accede to your request and advice, but only if they expressly agree, if they do not, we will find somewhere safe for them to stay. Understood?”

“Yes, Master.”

“When this time is finished, I will go home. Any offspring you will raise as your own. You will make every effort to have more children with these women, and be a family. You will never tell anyone of the true lineage of your first born. They will be yours. When this affair is over, we will restore your honour by whatever means necessary. There is no choice, you will cooperate or you will die. And one more thing.” He turned his head up a bit more. “You are all to call me John. It is my name. I want it used. Now get up and stop grovelling in the dirt. Never do that again.” When he got up the big man as crying freely and all the women gathered around us as I gave him a great big bear hug.

Part 2 – Chapter 2 – A Meeting

Thursday, July 4th, 2013

The next few weeks were hard. Ellie was in no condition to help and I learned leather-craft and woodcraft as practised on the planet under force majure, Sam mercilessly bullied me every time I got it wrong, as well she might, our lives depended on it. Her relationship with the wolves grew deeper and deeper, although even in their tiny pack there was a leader, it was clear that they deferred to her. This deferral was not entirely will on the part of all three participants. The bigger one, Sam called her “Kit”, kept the other two in line; although when I say this I really mean the other “one”, because the other female was the difficult one. Sam explained it.

“You see normally the pack leader is a male, and they don’t hunt much, but protect the pack.”

“Lions,” I said nodding.

“Yes, but unlike lions the males don’t come and kill the young of other males; in fact as far as I can make out the females have no problem being in charge, and will direct the whole pack to kill an invading male if they don’t like him.”

“You’re implying that they might like him.”

“Yes, or they might take pity on him if he’s been abandoned of left behind. Or he might just want a change of scene.”

“They get bored?”

“Approximately, yes. I think it’s a mechanism designed to prevent too much inbreeding, they’re not very faithful over a long period of time, but in the pack they’re all right on board.”

“Oh.”

“And they all protect the cubs.”

“I didn’t see any with that pack.”

“I think they hide them.”

“How did you persuade them to come with us?” Sam looked shifty. “What am I missing?” I asked, suspiciously. She waved her hands indeterminately, uncertain.

“I think they think I’ve got a lot of, of, uh, moxy, and they like that in human females.”

“Um why?” I asked, thoroughly confused.

“The men hunt them for sport, the women don’t.” That seemed reasonable. “Why are they helping us?”

“Well, again, approximately, they can smell the altered nano-tech on you, and a few of them seem to think you might be able to change it back to the way it was. The planet I mean.”

“They’re pretty intelligent for wolves.”

“They’re pretty intelligent, full stop. They’ve been around for a long time. They have thinking parties. No-one will teach them to read and write though.”

“Wha…?”

“They’ve been around a REALLY long time, but; no opposable thumbs and no written culture.”

“Oh.” One of the wolves raised its’ head.

“Human say ‘Oh’ too much. Not think.” I spat my coffee out at speed. It was hard to understand, but it was definitely speech.

“You can talk!?!? Animals can’t talk!”

“Parrot talk. Crow make stick. Wolf talk, little. Sam teach us. ‘nuf now.” And Kit lay her head down and closed her eyes, and feigned sleep.

“They think, John, and they’re pretty damn intelligent. They’re alien to us though.”

“Like, ‘from another planet’ alien.”

“No, John, like aliens among us. They still see you as food, and have no problem having a conversation with you and eating you. Possibly at the same time. They’re alien. They think, they just don’t think like us.”

“Right. Ok.” I said, unsure what to make of it. All I know is that the wolves never spoke to me again. I think it, she, was making some sort of point.

So the wolves pulled the sleds and a week turned into a month and Ellie recovered. She had, strangely I thought, no scarring, eventually, and seemed as chipper as ever, but she was a lot quieter.

__________

We had our first sight of grass about four months after our landing, and a week after that our first encounter with people. Well, our second, but this time we didn’t kill them and take their stuff. Naturally they were willing to trade, and thus, it was the women who came to talk to us first.

They looked at us strangely. It wasn’t until a good while after that I worked out why. They were wearing while bear furs, and their face were covered with scarves and scarves and a kind of plate over the eyes. Ellie and Sam came and curtseyed to me.

“What are you doing?” I hissed, though there was really no need, the wind hadn’t really died down.

“We’re asking permission to talk to the other women, and possibly the men.” Said Sam looking at the ground. I stood there like a lemon for a bit.

“You’re doing what?” Sam’s head snapped up,

“Don’t mess this up Jessop,” she said crisply, “remember this is an entirely different culture we’re dealing with, you’ve been briefed now, so go along with it.” I nodded, and as I did so, they both looked up and went to the yurt, returning almost instantly to us, and perfunctorily showing me the wares, none of which I recognised, they turned to the women. I know I said I was going to do any translation, but there are a few terms that English doesn’t have, so bear with me. The oldest woman spoke first.

“You have a fine man.” She said pointing slightly off to one side of me. “Are you happy?” Ellie and Sam dropped a curtsey before the old woman. Ellie, to my surprise, spoke.

“Yes, Domat, [Head Grandmother], we are happy, and our man respects us.”

“And does he service your needs?”

“Our needs are few at this time, Domat.”

“Few, and yet you are not with child.” She prodded a gnarled finger at their bellies.

“No, Domat, nor have we any desire to be so. We have been on the ice for some time, contemplating, and we are happy.” The old woman looked from them to me. I knew something was missing. There was a pause, and then she started to unwrap her headscarves and take the faceplate off.

I reckon this hardy old woman was about seventy-five, but she looked good for it, brown skin, wrinkled a little, but plaint and fresh. A shock of white, white hair that cascaded down her back, she was quite shapely as she stepped out of her robes. She looked at me archly.

“Like what you see, Man?” I was taken aback, despite the extended briefing. I just nodded, hoping this would pass for politeness. I got a thin smile in return. “Shy, is he?” She looked me up and down a bit. “Or just a bit thick.” I perked up.

“I say, steady on!” There was a cough from the covered wagon and a huge man, and I mean huge, massive, broad shouldered man, jumped down. All the women except the Domat, Ellie and Sam immediately grovelled.

“Too cold for that, get up and just do.” He looked at the Domat sternly. “Did you just insult this man?” She looked up, inevitably, into his face.

“Yes, I believe I did.” He rolled his eyes.

“Isabelle, what have I said about this?” She looked right in his eye, no less defiant than a few seconds before.

“You said I have a quick temper and it’s going to get me in trouble. I doubt that as long as you own me.”

“Missing the point.” She just looked at him with a gimlet eye. He turned to me. “I will not apologise for this woman and I guess you won’t back down from a fight therefore I challenge you to a duel and as the challenger you get the choice of weapons.” He reeled off quickly, while one of the other fur clad women rushed up with a medium sized box. “I’m Garain, please to make your acquaintance,” continued more slowly. The lady opened the box with a little bob. In it there are a number of sharpened knives, very small I thought, knuckle-dusters, some things I didn’t recognise the look of, and two very large coshes. I wondered about this arrangement. I passed my hand over the knuckle-dusters, thinking that I could maybe put him down quickly before he killed me outright.

Then he did a very peculiar thing. He coughed and shook his head ever so slightly. I looked at him, noticing that I was almost eye level with him, when had that happened? I passed my hand over one of the small knives, and the same thing happened again. I looked around. Everyone else as looking the other way.

No I’m no fool, but I was a little confused and I tried again with something else that looked as though it could be slightly lethal, and Garain, coughed again and shifted uneasily, and then, blow me if the girl didn’t move the tray and raise it up. My hand touched a cosh.

“Excellent choice!” Bellowed Garain. “Well done that man!” He leaned in toward me, and spoke, sotto voce. “You’re not feeling terribly abused by Isabell are you?”

“Er, she could have been a little nicer.” I said. “But er, no.”

“Excellent!” He bellowed again. “I think someone around here needs a little lesson, don’t you Isabelle?” He looked over to her, where she was beaming like a school girl with a crush. Ellie and Sam both had entirely unreadable looks on their faces.

We moved to an area of grass that was mostly free of snow, and Garain shrugged his furs off. I saw exactly, in detail, how well bulked out he was. His muscles were a study in high end physical development and rippled under his shoulders, and he loped to the centre of the area with an easy pace. I shed my furs as well, and was surprises to see appreciative looks on the face of the women, including Ellie and Sam. It was this that made me try to put on an air of brash confidence. I fell over on the piece of ice I had not seen. Everyone instantly turned their backs. Getting up and dusting myself off, I coughed a little, and the audience turned around again slowly.

We faced off over the little patch of grass, Gerain swinging his cosh easily in tight little circles, and me, just letting hang limply in my hand, waiting. He approached and gave an enormous overhand swing of his cosh, far bigger than required, and I dodged it easily, giving him a slight whack on the leg. I would have sworn that it was a very slight hit, but it seemed to bring him down, and he rolled upright expertly and came at me again, this time with a huge side swipe, which again I easily dodged by moving backwards. I slipped in the ice again, but this time I rolled backwards and springing up, I saw that Gerain had retreated and was inviting me on to the grass again. I moved forward. What I didn’t understand was how this massive obviously fit man was such a terrible fighter. I thought about it as I approached him. Somehow I could see everything he was doing. Had the Nanites educated me? Had they somehow made me faster? He could see me being distracted, and whipped in with something I didn’t see coming at all, and I took his cosh to my arm, and he was behind me. It all happened so fast. I turned to look at him and he was just standing there. He sort of rubbed his arm a little bit, as if I had hit him. Then I cottoned on!

I clamped my arm on the place he had hit me, which barely stung and rubbed it vigorously, then I rushed at him, swung my cosh. I missed but somehow our feet got tangled and he tripped and rolled up again into his normal place. He rushed me arms out stretched and hit me on the head. I dutifully went down and rolled backwards and he pressed his advantage, but as I stood up again from my roll I whipped him full in the face with my cosh, unplanned, and he went down like a poleaxed ox. And didn’t get up again despite the ministrations of his women, for nearly two minutes. I gave the cosh to the box lady and returned to Ellie and Sam. I noticed Isabelle was with them. They clapped politely when I approached. Isabelle said,

“Well done, Domor, (apparently this means ‘chief’). You acquitted yourself well and I am glad to join your household.” Ellie, standing behind Isabelle, shook her head just the tiniest bit. I knew what to say.

“I would not take you from your favoured and avowed, and I fought only for the dishonour I perceived in your words.”

“But I am yours,” she replied, “save my life and my hastina, (everything she has that belongs to women), I am yours to do with as you please.”

“In all humility I could not please one so proud as you, and I return you to the greater honour.”

“But you have bested him, how can I return?”

“It was only the animal within that bested him, not the pleasure of woman or the warmth of love.” Her lip was trembling now, and I saw, at last, the part where this was serious. I decided to give her something.

“Go with honour, for I was mute and seemed ignorant. Your man has satisfied my honour, and I require nothing more. If he will allow, I will take your company over meat, and his too. We will discuss matters of commerce and trade, and then go with honour.” She brightened considerable at this, and bowing, she put on her robes again, and went to join Garain, who had been looking on with interest. He nodded, and went to the wagon to repair himself. Ellie, Sam and I retired to the yurt.

“That was all show,” I said quietly as we sat around the fire drinking what passed for coffee around here, “and he needed it for some reason. I’m assuming the entire point was to tell Isabella off.” Sam nodded.

“Isabella went well past what is considered polite because she thought being on the ice so long you wouldn’t challenge it, so it was a bit of a surprise when Garain did. He was definitely reprimanding her.” I thought about this.

“Garain seems a lot more civilized that I would have thought, given everything you’ve said about the culture. Wouldn’t he have just given her a slap?” Ellie shook her head.

“You’re right, Garain is civilized, but make no mistake he can be savage. He’s clearly been here before, he must have had lifetime partners.” I looked up and raised an eyebrow.

“Partners?” She nodded.

“Think about it. She owns all the land, the goods and the chattel. He doesn’t actually have any rights to her goods, her body or her mind, though many behave like they do. She’s his partner, and she gets half if she’s sold. If she’s given away, that’s her honour gone, even if she is rich. To answer your question, he wouldn’t hit her, because she is old, she might leave, or die. He wouldn’t want that.”

“You never said the part about her getting half.”

“I didn’t want you to get any ideas.”

Part 2 – Chapter 1 – The Relationship

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

Part 2 – The Relationship

My name is John Jessop, and I’m a killer for hire; well, I used to be a killer for hire, now I work for a government, or a slip of a girl who is seventeen or a thousand years old or something in-between. She knows things, about me, about everything, and she is willing to talk. I find her darkly, irresistibly, desirable and I have besmirched my honour by the idea that I would force myself on her. She saved me. She saved me by being stronger and more in control of herself and of me than I ever could have conceived of, and she put me down.

And then promised to show me what lovers do.

I get shivers.

Elle, the girl, woman, time lord, whatever, treats the only other person around, a Lieutenant in the Navy with unsuitable shoes, Lieutenant Sweet, Sam Sweet, from my world, as my accomplice, but this self-assured career woman has become more and more taciturn as our time together increases.

I have been tasked with killing a King. I have been given no weapon, no instructions, no guide. We are on a baroque space station, all brass and wood, with no discernible power supply, and formerly no way of getting down from it to the planet’s surface. Until Elle built an egg out of ceramic tiles. Well, covered a well-appointed escape capsule in tiles.

Now she wants us to get in this thing and go to the planet on which resides this King, and for me to kill him so the ice age goes away.

___________

“It’s not a device that causes it, no.” She is saying… “It’s him, he is the cause and he is the sole cause.” I’m confused.

“But how can that be? He’s just a man, from this drawing, he doesn’t look any different.” I think about this for a bit. “And why is my government sending me to do this anyway?”

“Because,” she says, with a very patient voice, you are not known on the planet.”

“Why would that make any difference?”

“It makes all the difference.” Sam came with a tray and tea, in a silver pot, with a tea-cosy. I looked out of the windows at the planet turning very slightly below us.

“And why are we not a in synchronous orbit anymore?” Sam poured. China tea-cups.

“Because,” Elle said patiently, again, “because I’m moving us to a slightly more favourable landing point.”

“And that means?”

“Less ice and snow. Less chance of freezing to death in the first ten minutes.”

“That’s nice.” Exclaimed Sam, “Biscuit?” she said proffering a plate. I took one.

“And what have you to do with all this Sam?” I asked archly.

“I’m your moral support, John.”

“Moral Support?”

“Yes, I’m supposed to take you in hand, if you get, well, too excited.” Ellie interjected,

“They thought someone who looked like me couldn’t take care of herself, government code.” I looked from one to the other, trying to read them both. “Take me in hand.” Sam nodded.

“See to your needs, that sort of thing. See that you’re not frustrated.” I nodded, still not understanding.

“What?” I said. Sam took a deep breath.

“John, I’m trained in psychology, PTSD and trauma management, as well as all the usual military stuff. You won’t have a woman who is not your equal or above physical or mentally, and you have not been with anyone in over a year while you recovered. I am that woman. In case of emergency. Or was.” She drank some tea. “I’m also your backup and spy. The government doesn’t entirely trust you yet, despite what Hicks and Charles say.” She took another pull on the tea. I just sat there.

After a while, I had a question.

“Why is it important that I’m not known on the planet?” Ellie looked uncomfortable, the first time I had seen that. Sam suddenly looked out of the window.

“Tell me.”

“The King is not from here, John, and he is full of nanites, so he has tagged everyone on the planet and can kill anyone of them at any time. He can also spy on them. Himself.”

I went away for a think about this. They left me alone.

When I returned, they were both making some sort of stew in a very large vat, and the planet had stopped moving.

“Sam, how can you let yourself be hired out as some sort of intellectual who….” She whipped around, ladle in hand, it didn’t look like just a cooking implement the way she held it.

“Don’t say it John, just don’t.” She snarled, “It would never happen to a man, so don’t put me there or so help me God, I’ll put you down.” I held my hands up placatingly. But I couldn’t give up, even then.

“What would you call it then?” She crossed her arms.

“The official Military title is ‘Doxy’.” I sensed dangerous ground here. I fished around in my vocabulary, since I write, I have some little command of words.

“Erm, from the Greek, er “orthodoxy”, something about turning right, and teaching? Ah the old English, meaning, oh. Sorry.” She was very thin lipped indeed. I opened my mouth halfway, then decided against it.

“You have it about half right. Doxy does come from the old English and the Greek, and it was chosen as the title because I’m supposed to teach you the “right way”, in bed and other places. You have to please this young woman in all things. Ellie blushed.

“I’m sure I can sort that out,” she murmured. Sam turned slightly towards her.

“I’m sure you can dear, but the British Government didn’t know this when they asked me to come on the mission, and neither did the Admiral. And in any event I’m supposed to try and finish the mission if he doesn’t.”

“You’re not immune.”

“Nevertheless.”

“Wait a minute,” I ejaculated, “what do you mean ‘immune’?” There was an awkward silence. A lengthy awkward silence. They looked at one another, and then did rock, paper, scissors. Sam lost.

“We, that is to say, Hicks and Charles, the British government have been injecting with a sort of counter nanite for six months. You would have got over your injuries in six weeks if we hadn’t intervened.” I thought about this for a bit.

“I was just going to be killed if I said no wasn’t I?”

“Sort of.”

“What do you mean sort of? You can’t sort of kill someone.” Sam’s eye’s flicked to Ellie. “What,” I said, “have you got to do with it apart from requesting this hit.”

“I didn’t,” she said, “I’m you remember? The mirrors, the dreams?” I nodded, feeling a bit out of control again. “Well where I come from we have engram replacement therapy, but it doesn’t work on many people. It would work on us.”

“What do you mean?”

“My mind, your brain. Do I have to spell it out any more than that?”

I don’t remember the next few days. They kept me drunk, apparently.

________

I’m looking out at this planet now, steady underneath us, and I smell coffee and bacon and eggs. I’m hungry. I feel like a bear has done something terrible to my tongue, and every bone aches. Someone arrives, Ellie, with a glass of foul looking liquid, which she holds out to me.

“I need coffee.”

“You want coffee, what you Need is this.”

“I don’t want it.”

“Don’t be petulant.”

“I am not being petulant, it looks like elephant barf.”

“You’re being a five year old.”

“No, I’m not, I’m being a five year old who is full of nanite crap and hungover.”

“John Jessop, you drink this now, so help me I’ll hold your nose and force it down.” I look at the tiny girl in her tight black dress, with her long hair and pretty eyes. I think back to before, when she decided that she was going to be in control of me. I think about that, and decide to drink the foul smelling liquid. She looks me in the eye, “All at once.”

And to be fair I feel better almost straight away. I feel better enough to have a cup of coffee and enjoy it, with the bacon and eggs. As I’m eating I ask,

“What was in that drink anyhow?”

“Oh just some Nanites reprogrammed to prevent you from having hangovers and egg yolk.” Everything goes a bit distant as I hear this, and I gather that I’m looking a bit vacant.

“John, John?” Sam is saying, a look of concern on her face. “Are you alright?”

“What? Oh yes,” I say, “Fine, fine. Never better.”

“Are you ready for the actual mission briefing now?” She asks.

“Oh yes, might as well eh?” Sam pours more coffee from the pot. She looks at Ellie.

“Well, you know the worst, and the basics. It’s all the in-between stuff that might get you.” I just nod. She starts a very long explanation.

________________

So, apparently, there is a sort of inter-dimensional police force which looks after all the dimension aware domains, alternative Earths, m-brane universe travel that sort of thing, to keep in check the almost inevitable rogue element that comes about with travel between technologically advanced regions, and those counted as, well, third world. Earth, my Earth, where I and raised and taught that it was everything that there was is one of those places. It only has a very limited access to other domains, and that only because some rogue, long passed on, opened an illegal portal, and jammed it open.

Now, odd people come and go when they can’t be prevented, but mostly the emphasis is on stopping that sort of thing altogether.

There are exceptions.

Once a portal has been opened, it can be jammed open, so far, so difficult and inconvenient. But once a portal has been opened it also establishes an irrevocable quantum entanglement with another universe. The two become aligned, and one of the jobs of the inter-dimensional police force is to see that they don’t become too aligned, that events and people don’t become entangled enough to cross over.

Normally this is not a problem, except when someone like Elle and I, so different, but so much the same at a quantum level, get entangled. We could switch worlds whenever we liked, in theory, if we knew the secret. We don’t, so we just catch sight of each other being entangled, doing the same things at the same time, and seeing, well, each other. We touch, apparently, at times of stress. Ellie was base jumping. Her main chute didn’t open. Her reserve did. I never had a chute. Life isn’t automatically just.

This is fine and dandy, and manageable for the hard pressed police. They’re not really accountable to anyone, but the training is harsh. Any infractions of the strict codes of conduct and one is not simply put on the carpet. One is reprimanded in the strongest possible way at the end of a barrel and that’s it. Because, once one of these police is released from training, they are practically impossible to catch. Thus, the force makes sure in every way possible that they are incorruptible, even their thoughts are monitored. They are about as perfect a force as it is possible to have.

One may infer from this, and I did during the long explanation, that the system cannot be perfect, and that, very occasionally, someone goes rogue.

I wasn’t quite sure how the Nanites fit into all this, and I was pretty sure that something was being held back in the explanation, for example, how did the police people travel around in the multiverses without a shed load of equipment, the size of say, a small aircraft carrier.

There was a lot of shuffling, hemming and hawing at this point. It came out that all of the police were implanted throughout their bodies with Nanites, which they were mentally connected to, it being dangerous not to be connected to the Nanites in one’s own body, mental note to enquire vigorously about this, and when someone goes rogue, the first thing they usually infect other people with their Nanites as a precaution against being caught.

The Nanites have a few advantages for those in control of them the way I am not, for example, since they replace the entire mass of accompanying micro-organisms in the human body, there are billions and billions of them, and they can combat virtually any disease or any sign of aging, so the recipient can in fact effectively live forever. The other side effect of having so many Nanites in one’s body was the more important one for policing the inter-dimensional cosmos, and that was that one could “align”, that is quantumnly, (can I say that), entangle oneself with anyone one chooses, thus allowing travel to any dimension that one desires. Any dimension one desires without all the inconvenient governmental ship support.

Super.

So, basically all that was left for any rogue policeman was to get shot in the head so they could not think about healing themselves, and hope that they were not clever enough to leave a copy of their brain and thus memories somewhere in Nanite form just in case, (not unknown, but apparently kept strictly on the QT). And that’s where I come in, because this character had bought down the ice age, because he likes a good skiing holiday, on this primitive planet, which he likes because it has a reasonably misogynist culture, and became King because he could artificially make himself the strongest man on the planet and have a large concubine.

“And that, dear John, is why you must appear to own us when we finally make planet-fall.”

If only she wasn’t saying it as I was holding a scalding hot cup of coffee in my hand, then I wouldn’t be dropping it over my own groin.

________________

I find out over the next few days what the nitty gritty is. The Kings name is Louie, and he keeps his aristocracy in check with “Magic”. That is, he has Nanites in them and they can just drop dead if they don’t obey. Survey teams have been sent, and killed, but what few reports that have been received say that he mostly just pays attention to any outliers, the usual battle between the aristocracy don’t bother him, just the threats to his power.

Women are the issue; they are owned. Raised as I was in a liberal western society I’m a bit appalled by this, but it’s not simple ownership, so there are caveats.

In common with some older societies the men own practically nothing. Anything they build with their own two hands, women, horses and goats, the clothes on their back and a spare set, anything they inherit. That’s it. The man owns as many women as he can keep satisfied, but if they are unhappy they will let him know, and he will seek to sell them. Since they own the land and all the animals therein, he will make a good effort to keep them happy, or if a darker sort, unhappy and faithful. A man’s honour is measured by the amount of women he has, and thus land and animals and other wealth.

A man whose woman has run away, because he could not keep her happy, or at least obedient, has lost his honour, and must get it back in one of two ways; a sacrifice to the Gods, of which there are many; usually two cows. Cows are valuable and some woman somewhere has to agree to this, easy if she is obedient, not so easy if not. The other way is to sacrifice himself. This is not popular amongst the lower orders.

Rank, and thus nobility is conferred by bloodline, primogeniture; it is possible to be noble but disgraced by the lamentation of your women. Any nobleman will have either built his house by himself, or more likely inherited it from his father. The land still gets passed down in a matrilineal fashion. This means that if a Lord owns the Castle, which his great, great grandfather will have built, he may be renting the land from a Lady, who may grow wealthy as a result. If she refuses to rent him the land, or is too exorbitant in her asking price, the Lord may take it up with her owner, who may be less good at battle than the Lord in question. In this case the ownership of the Lady would pass to the Lord and the rent problem would be solved, since he would now own her, and thus guarantee to get a fair rent. Apparently it works, I’ve no idea how. It reminds me of lions.

___________

A thought occurs.

“Don’t we have a language problem?” Sam looked up and smiled. “What? You’ve fixed this somehow.” I hazarded. “This is going to be a clever-arse Nanite thing isn’t where the Nanites have been reprogramming my brain isn’t it?” She grinned. “I hate all this.”

“Don’t tease him Sam.” laughed Ellie. “It’s not like that, the Nanite are programmed to just play language learning radio into your ear quietly every night, you’ve been learning it for weeks. Ki’m esta intrago ekos?”

She was right, I understood it. Literally it was “Me to you, have my interrogatives been heard?” I replied “Mi’k eko intrages.” “You to me, I heard your questions lady.”

Honestly I don’t feel like translating everything. It’s complicated, nearly as complicated as English. Apparently I learned it in my sleep. I couldn’t have written a worse trope in one of my bodice-rippers. Just leave it. It’s not worth it.

____________

“Anyway, “ Ellie continued, we bought you Noble rank and a castle from a Lady whose Lord died with no heirs, and she was looking for a buyer. So you own her, she’s quite an old woman and a bit tart, but we think you’ll like her, and she approves of your mission.”

“You could tell her?” I raised an eyebrow, “Is that safe?” Sally interjected,

“Perfectly, this isn’t the first mission we’ve been on, we scoped her out.” she said tersely. Ellie leaned forward.

“We also bought some adjacent land, a few hundred sheep, a camel, they pretty rare here, a thing like a pig, but it has six legs and makes your normal pig look like a walk in the park, about sixty of those, you got some horses, some clothes and a cow. The place is furnished, but that’s all ours.”

“Er, right.” I said, still not entirely keeping up.

“So, you have to remember, you own us, the Horses, Beverly…”

“Who?” I interrupted.

“Beverly, Lady Hawsham. You know, the one we bought the castle off.”

“Right. How are we getting me to the castle? I mean how come I own it?”

“Ah, well, there was a bit of subterfuge there. Nobles are coming out of the ice all the time and claiming castles, so we told her we wanted to keep it a secret, and that you’d come and claim it and she’d back you up. There might be a bit of fighting.” They both fidget while I think about this for a second.

“What do you mean ‘A bit of fighting’.” I say, even more warily than usual.

“Um, well,” Let me stop my tale here.

Up until now I realise that I have seemed taciturn in and of myself, not communicative, maybe a little miserable. I know that my character is flawed in many ways, some would say, if they knew, that this was because I am an assassin; others would say, equally, if they knew, that this was because I write trashy romantic, bodice-ripping novels. Neither thing is going to endear me to many people.

What I have noticed is that if there anything that is awkward about a situation, people will try to dodge in the first few seconds. I have developed a habit of not doing this, because sometimes I have to make split second decisions.

What I have noticed, as well, is that since the Hong Kong debacle, which is about a year ago, I have not really been in charge of my own life. I feel that I should change this a little, because I can see coming something which I wish I could not.

“Um, well, they might challenge to a few duels, tournaments, that sort of thing, to er, see if you’re fit to own such a grand structure.” There is a bit of shuffling of feet going on amongst the gathered crowd of two ladies.

“Right. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is a pretty medieval society isn’t?” Nodding. Lip biting. “And in this medieval society, physical prowess is quite prized isn’t it?” More nodding. “And in terms of physical size and strength, I’d say the average challenge issuing male is going to be, I don’t know six feet six, two hundred and eighty pounds, mounted on a giant horse come at me at forty miles an hour.”

“Don’t forget!” Exclaimed Ellie, “don’t forget that your horse is doing forty miles an hour too, possibly more because you’re a bit, um…”

“Smaller?” I say with a snarl, “About the size of an author of women’s romantic fiction would you say!” I placed my teacup firmly down in the saucer. The handle broke off. Sam straightened up.

“Actually I’d say about the size of an extremely competent and discreet assassin, actually.”

“Neither of which qualifies me as a bloody knight on a destrier!”

“We realise it’s a flaw.” Says Ellie.

“That’s what we’re calling it are we?”

“Yes.” They say in unison. “There is a solution though,” Ellie continues. “The Nanites can, er, bulk you up.”

“’Bulk me up’?”

“Yeah, once we’re on the ground and travelling, you can train up amazingly fast.”

“I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“We can’t take metals down to the planet in quantity, so you have to make the rifle down there.”

“Right. So let me sum this up. I can’t take a rifle down there to kill the bloke I’m supposed to kill, because for some reason, don’t tell me why, I can’t take metal down to the planet. I’m expected to undergo a massive physical change, possibly doubling my weight in, how long?”

“Six weeks, we reckon.”

“Six weeks, and become enough of an expert in the pike,”

“Lance.”

“Lance and the bastard sword,”

“Sabre.”

“Lance and the Sabre to defeat probably some of the best warriors on the planet. Make a weapon of sufficient power and accuracy to kill the King from a distance and make sure his high tech can’t restore him.”

“Yep, no brain, no download.”

“And convince a planet full of maniacal warriors that I can satisfy you two and old crotchet and whoever else we pick up on the way, which might be a lot if I have to prove myself. Then, by the sound of it, have invent the tech to get us back to this space station or find the portal home.”

“Ah, technically, if we come back, we already know how to make a rocket ship, so you don’t have to invent it. We just have to make it.”

“Oh well, that’s alright then, if just have to make one, then no problem. Have I left anything else out?”

“We shouldn’t let the population know we’re aliens.”

“Don’t let them know we’re aliens. Right.”

“Yes, that just about everything.” Ellie looks pleased.

________________

For the next few weeks I don’t get to write a journal, or dictate, as I find out as soon as we’re planet-side, that hardly anyone can read and write, and therefore there is no paper, and therefore Nobles aren’t expected to be seen with a quill in their hands. I try to get the Nanites to keep notes, but they are silent on the matter, as with everything else.

________________

The Egg stood up to the re-entry, a white hot trail of smoke dashing the sky, I imagine; I don’t know, there were no windows, and the thing more or less disintegrated once it had bounced to a stop. The foam in the interior disappeared and left us with clothes, which we struggled into quickly, and a wooden frame and a lot of leather. Ellie and Sam quickly dismantle this and reformed it into a sort of sled with another trailing it, all the spars and wood except that touching the ice wrapped in the leathers, and our clothes, furred on the inside, wrapping us up like mummies. They laid the remaining leathers across the strips bound tightly to the frame thickly enough that one could not feel the bindings.

So we make planetfall and the sled works. What surprises me is when I’m told to get in it, and they get in front of it.

“No.” I say.

“You can’t say ‘no’ to this, someone might see us.”

“But it’s just wrong.” Sam looks at me. Sadly. Then I see a flash, and nothing for a while.

When I wake up, the sled is moving at quite a pace, Sam and Ellie are sat in the front, and a load, looks like about 30, of dogs are pulling us.

“We bought some dogs.” Ellie shouts back.

“How did you know I was awake?” She turns her head slightly.

“We’re entangled remember?” And the rest is lost in the baying of the dogs as we leap over a very narrow crevasse.

The journey is long, and we stop regularly for food and rest. I help putting up the tent, made mostly of hides, and layered three deep. It’s a complex process, so we don’t stop unless we’re going to really stop for a day or so. The dogs need shelter too and they stay in the tent with us. It’s large and warm, and smelly.

“It’s called a ‘yurt’.” Ellie says.

Whatever it’s called it takes three hours to put up. The women teach me how to help with this. The wind is never ending, a constant howling gales of freezing, icy wind. My beard has grown and protects my face from it, a little. In this wind everything want to blow away or freeze, so the outer part of the yurt is laid out in a line of branches permanently attached to the outer hide. The ropes are made from sheep gut or something. It’s stretchy, and this seems wrong to me until I see them putting it down in the snow and ice for the first time. Then I see that the ropes are made this way to stop them snapping at the yurt goes up. It’s like a sail at first, and then we pull and pull at the wind facing side is pointed to shear it away, and when we pull this out, it all suddenly become easier. We piton everything down, and everything, dogs, sled food, goes into the shelter. We put the two inner layers up inside around all this chaos, and rolls and rolls of tightly packed dried grass around the bottom, and suddenly there is an oasis of calm.

We insert a hollow tree trunk, very light and stiff, which had been storing thing, and has some very clever baffles in it to regulate the draw of the fire, and when that is lit, it’s all very pleasant. The dogs lie round the edge, and are fed firstly, (very noisy), and then bellies full they sleep it off. The ground is covered in furs and furs.

“How long was I asleep?”

“Two days.” Said Sam. “We traded a lot in that time.”

“No kidding.” Ellie held up her hand.

“Just tell him.” I look from one to the other in surprise.

“Sure?”

“He’s got to know how it is.”

“We robbed it off an old man who wanted to challenge you for ownership.”

“You did what?”

“We encountered an old man who was womanless, and he wanted to challenge you. We couldn’t allow that in your state, so we killed him and took all this stuff.” I looked at Sam and Ellie in a state of shock.

“Just like that?” They nodded. Sam spoke first.

“We’ve both had military training, he didn’t stand a chance, and he had no honour, so it wasn’t a hard choice.”

“But that’s just wrong!”

“Sayeth the assassin.”

“But…” Ellie interjected,

“He was going to die anyhow and we got these dogs. He was alone in the snow, the only reason he came out all this way was to die. We saved him from starving to death. Trust me on this.” I thought about this, it was true, but somehow…

“How do you know how to do all this camp stuff?” Ellie smiled,

“I lived here for about 30 years, you learn.” I couldn’t handle this, so I left it.

Leaving it may not have been the best thing, because for the next two months I lived with Ellie and Sam, just Ellie and Sam; they did most of the work at first, but as time went on they expected me to do more and more. I noticed that I was starting to bulk out very quickly, and constantly hungry. We ran out of food very quickly and started to hunt in the ice, a lot of it was sea ice as it turned out, for bears and fish. A lot of the animals were very similar to those at home, but I was told in no uncertain terms that we needed the fish, and unless I could get us some from the ice fishing, we would have to go to sea.

It was at this point that I realised that my six months on the trawler was a kind of training for this. My libido was growing stronger and stronger, but I controlled it easily, because we had things to do all the time, and because I knew that I couldn’t force myself on either of them, no matter what roles we were playing. In any event, it’s not a thing I would have been comfortable with, being that aggressive, I had put that monster away.

The trawler time was good though for other reasons, I knew what bait to use to catch all sorts of fish, and how to play a line, handle a large net, and obviously we had a large freezer on our doorstep so to speak. I knew how to gut and preserve the fish in other ways. Bear hunting was something else though. The first time we did that, well…

Contrary to what the graphic artists of this world, wait, home, would have one believe, women in artic gear soon lose any semblance of shapely womanhood, and become amorphous blobs in the snow. So it was only by height that I could tell Ellie from Sam in the snow if they were any distance away. I knew that Sam had whittled the end of a precious branch to a point, and cooked it over the fire, explaining that this type of wood became hard but flexible if treated the right way, something to do with the sap.

What I didn’t realise before that first hunt, was that Ellie was the expert with this, and I stayed out to watch the action that first time.

Sam, I didn’t know it was Sam, because there was nothing to compare her to, was bounding about like a little snow fox, scampering and shifting about. The bear, obviously hungry, immediately showed an interested, and Sam began to run away. It was at this point that I stood up.

This was, apparently a mistake. I was supposed to stay down and not moving, but I wanted to rescue Sam. Ellie sprang up from the snow as the bear veered off towards me, a non-moving, easy target; instead of hitting the bear straight in the heart, she caught him in the leg, dashing the spear right through it, but not fatally wounding it. The bear instantly turned and lashed out at Ellie, swatting her with a massive paw tearing through layers of her snow gear and roaring in rage. Dragging the spear with it, the bear started over to Ellie. I started to run in a blind panic, but Sam was closer. I could see her bend down to the snow as she ran, and as she approached the bear she seemed to deliberately allow her arm to be bitten. The bear shook and shook, and battered Sam with its’ paws, and roared again. Then in a swift sudden movement she brought her arm around and stabbed the bear in the eye with an icicle, and turned it, once. The bear screamed, I would never have thought that such a sound could come from an animal, and then it fell over backwards limply, twitching, but obviously dying.

Sam looked at me and screamed over the wind and her excitement, “Get Ellie!” and I veered off to find Ellie just sitting up and nursing her side. She needed help to get up, and was obviously in pain and having difficulty breathing.

Back at the sled, Sam was not in a good mood.

“You’re an idiot Jessop! What part of ‘We’re hunting bears just stay out of the way’ didn’t you understand?” I put Ellie down on the sled gently.

“Maybe if you had shared your plans and included me I would have been able to help instead of hinder!” I said, heatedly. Sam looked at me venomously, and then her attitude just changed. “Ellie, we’re putting the yurt up, is that ok?” Ellie coughed weakly and nodded. “Are you gonna be ok for a bit? It’s going to take both of us.” Nod. “Ok, we’ll be as quick as we can.” We went off and started to put the yurt up, the wind howling about us and increasing in intensity as if to punish us for our stupidity, well, my stupidity. We rode the sled in and fed the dogs immediately, just a light snack. They had seen the bear, and we had not completed the yurt, so there were a few hurt looks as they rested in the snow.

Ellie looked pale as we went over to her, and she was trembling, her outer clothes somewhat torn and dishevelled, but the inner layers seemed intact, but damp. There was blood.

As we took the clothes off we saw the extent of the damage, the bear had broken four ribs and one of them was sticking out, the cracked bone showing white through the pierced flesh.

“This is bad.” Sam had a very sombre face. “Good job it’s Ellie and not me.” I was shocked at this callousness.

“That’s a bit mean isn’t it, shouldn’t we be getting a med-kit?” Her head snapped around.

“What med-kit? This isn’t a joke Jessop! We’re on our own here. We’ll have to take a chance, because she’s dying.”

“What chance?” She gripped my arm like a steel vice.

“Just roll up your sleeve.” Ellie had more or less passed out at this point, and I was for the first time, truly frightened for her. “Stick your arm out.” I did so.

What she did next I didn’t expect, but I held still. She stabbed into my arm, painfully, a little way, and twisted the knife.

“That’s great, we’re both wounded now.”

“Be still!” She snapped. “If this was me I would be a dead girl. They don’t have the medical tech to deal with this sort of injury. YOU have the power to save her so shut and let me do my job.” And quickly she produced a piece of thin hollow bone like a pipe and jammed it into my arm where the wound was seeping like a slow leaking tap. “Spit on the wound.” I hesitated, “Now!” I did so, repeating the action again and again; at one point I snorted, “You don’t need all that in it, just saliva! Put it somewhere else!” I cleared my palate again and spat into my own wound. As I did this the blood started to flow down the pipe, and Sam jammed the end of the hollow bone into Ellie’s rib. Sam looked at me grimly.

“I’m going to do something now, and you better listen and listen good. You abuse this, and I will have your guts strung out along the castle walls you hear?” I nod. “Right, say the follow, slowly it’s a code phrase.” She took a deep breath. “Cream elephants fight the squirrel monkeys, and gantree.”

I dutifully repeated what I had heard, and saw a tiny silver flash as my blood flowed into Ellie, and for a while, that the last I knew.

_________________

I came round again just as Ellie was waking up as well. The wound in my arm was gone, and so were Ellie’s injuries, but she still looked weak. Sam was nowhere to be seen, but while we were sleeping, she had done the work of three, and bear meat was slowly roasting by the fire. The dogs were not there.

I got up and went over to Ellie. She was looking wan, nothing so much like a wilting flower from one of my novels, but a hint of steel in her eyes.

“You’re a bloody idiot, you know that?” She said weakly. She was in obvious pain, and I could see her supressing a cough.

“Take it easy, you’ve had a rough time.” She waved this off.

“Not as rough as you’re going to have now.” I frowned.

“What do you mean?” She smiled, again, just managing to bring it forth as a grimace.

“He knows you’re here now, probably. It’s a fight all the way. And she’s going to bleed you again, for me.”

“Is she? And how does he know I’m here? How does he even know who I am?”

“He doesn’t, but you’re a hole in his net, and you’ve activated your nanites good and proper now, so he’ll see the hole if nothing else.” She coughed, holding her ribs. I gently lifted up her clothes to see the massive bruising and scarring, though the latter was writing and fading slowly.

“You’re still in no condition to travel. We’ll have to stay here, it seems safe enough.” I said, quietly. “Why didn’t you guys brief me properly before we left?”

“I thought they had. I knew everything. I thought you did. Connected remember?”

“Yeah, yeah.” I contemplated this for a minute. “How come I’m not injured?”

“Who knows? We think it’s not the same when we’re not reflected.”

“Reflected?”

“Reflected, chirality is important in universes.” There was something about this, something important. But I couldn’t put my finger on it. “Each universe can be a copy of itself, in the other handedness of it. You’re left, I’m right.” I had been told too many bewildering things in too short a time. I just said,

“Er, right.”

There was a silence for a while, the sound of the wind whipping outside against the hides. There was a bit of a smell building up from the bear meat and I turned it. I thought some more.

“Isn’t there something about food when it’s reflected? Sugar doesn’t work. Sweeteners are made out of it.”

“Yes,” it came out as a whisper.

“So giving you a transfusion of my blood wouldn’t work!”

“No. I needed the Nanites, you’re actually quite poisonous to me.”

“I am?”

“Yes, sorry.” And with this, she drifted off to sleep.

___________

I went outside. Some distance away Sam was standing in her snow gear surrounded by wolves. At least they looked like wolves, they were the size of a large pony. She was whirling something about her head. As I looked more closely I could see that two of the wolves were down and struggling. Sam seemed very calm, but concentrating. I sat down.

As I watched one of the wolves started a bit of a run, a sort of lope that was like a charge, deliberate and implacable. Sam just stood there whiling her, well, whatever it was. As it leaped, she threw it into the air, and it caught around the thing’s massive front paws, and as she kept one of the bits of rope in her hand, she gave it an almighty yank, and seemed to slam the thing into the ground. In an instant she pounced on the thing and bound its’ back paws and then pulled the rope vigorously, and the thing was bound and struggling on the floor like it’s brothers.

The reaction of the other wolves was interesting, they started back as the newly bound wolf hit the ground and then gave a bit of a yip and a howl as she bound it up. Then they all stood, and approaching at a walk, went to the bound wolves and sniffed them all over. Sam stood stock still as they did this, and I went cold all over. Colder. These things could just eat her and she was standing in the middle of them.

As they approached, one of them, bigger and with more shoulder fur than the rest went right up to Sam, and bared his teeth. I could feel the growl in my stomach, but not hear it over the endless wind. I could see it bearing down on her, close to her face, and I couldn’t help it, I stood up.

I hadn’t realised how close they were, I could see its’ head turn just the merest fraction, and then she let it have it with her best right hook. It had no effect whatsoever on the animal as far as I could tell, it just gave me a look then dismissed me. It turned back to her, and quite slowly and deliberately turned on its’ back, and faced its’ belly up. All the rest instantly did the same.

Sam reached over and, jumping up the fur, she rubbed it a few times then jumped down.

The wolves ran off leaving their three bound comrades behind.

_____________

“They’re our wolves now, I think.” She said a little while later, “I’ve never seen anything like it, but they are staying. I undid the ropes.” She put a large mouthful of cooked meat into her face and chewed it vigorously. “And neither of you was in a fit state to help, so I just made it up as I went along.” Sam took a big gulp of water. “They’re quite intelligent I think. And they’re not common in the warmer climes, or we’d have seen them before.”

“Right, right.” I say still a bit dumbfounded. “And were you not scared?”

“Hugely, but I’m beginning to think that we got lucky.”

“How?”

“We would have had trouble feeding the dogs before long, the wolves will pull all our stuff a lot faster, and we can make better time. We’re about a month behind out plan you know. I’m surprised we, you, haven’t been found.”

“Alright. What about the dogs?”

“We let them go, they split into smaller packs and they hunt their own food.”

“And that’s it?”

“Pretty much.” This wasn’t a satisfactory answer to me, but I couldn’t think of anything better. I was suddenly enormously tired again, and I couldn’t resist the urge to sleep. Ellie was already asleep again, and I went to the bundle next to her and laid my head down to sleep.

Part 1 – Chapter 5 – Morals

Monday, July 1st, 2013

A long, really long, conversation ensues.

We‘re aboard a space station, void ship in 1929. Verne tried his bullet to the moon almost eighty years ago, it mashed the original astronauts flat and earned Verne a turn in jail for “reckless endangerment.” When he came out he was a changed man, secretive, reclusive and, apparently, educated in explosives and charges. His second experiment put a man in orbit about the earth and returned him safely. Verne was hailed a hero, and the French were thus the first people in space. The British soon followed, not wanting their cross channel rivals to gain a march on them, and with the 10 year delay due to Verne’s sentence, and some investigations on the part of the British Secret Service, a second manned flight was launched from outside Birmingham shortly after the first flight in 1867. In the next ten years the Empire launched no less than sixty flights, compared to France’s three, and Verne died in 1905 a broken man, his dream dashed by a government that didn’t care.

The Empire prevailed by dogged persistence. When the Russian and the Germans both launched disastrous but instructive missions, Britain stepped into high gear and built in a few short years a space station that would justifiably allow them to claim dominion of space. The “Void Ships” cast into space, and soon reached the moon, launched from this space station and thus needing little of the massive investment in launch mass that it appears in my time, is required.

Except that this is not my time, or before my time. Ellie explains that it is more likely that I have been “side-slipped”, because travelling into the past is simply not possible. It seems that times do not always align, though this may be an accident of the calendar. There is no way to tell.

I listen to this story with growing incredulity, the only reason I have to believe it is that I’m sitting here, tapping my fingers on the wooden surface of a table in space.

“How does the gravity work?” I ask.

I didn’t know this, but moving things acquire mass. If they are moving very fast, they acquire a lot of mass. We’re sitting on top of spinning plates, which somehow are frictionless, totally frictionless, which are spinning so that portions of them are moving very quickly, nearly speed of light quickly, powered by our occasional exposure to the sun and cosmic radiation. I press for details, but she is no a physicist, she’s a programmer, and I get nothing further.

I try for the important to stuff, why am I here?

“You’re not supposed to be here.”

“What do you mean?”

“We are supposed to be down there.” I think about this, it does not seem an attractive prospect, but there is a prize here, and I must stay focused.

“Why?”

“Because we need to you to kill someone.”

We’ve been here two days now. I have had a lot to think about.

I kill for a living, except that I don’t. I have put a life time of emotion and connection into novels that by any standard are pretty trashy bodice-rippers, and I realise now that that this has earned me more money easily than my “profession.”

I have hidden behind a moral code that provides for those that are left behind, because if I don’t do it, someone else will, and they won’t have that code.

I have kidded myself somehow that I am essentially a good person, while mouthing the acknowledgements that I’m doing something essentially wicked. I’m not evil.

In times past I would not have entertained the thought. Charles and Hicks and the crew of the Hesperus, the ship, boat, whatever. They have changed me. I have been able to kill with remorse or sorry because I have not been connected to anyone.

Perhaps if I had not written all those novels I would not be such a good killer.

Perhaps if I had not been such a good killer, I would not have written all of those novels.

I am not in a position to do anything. Ellie has spent her time repairing some of the systems of the VS Hesperus, and I have floated around doing nothing except being introspective.

The conversation following her announcement was difficult.

“Kill someone?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not sure I do that anymore.” She looks at me with that surprised look she has habitually worn in the mirror.

“Really? You’re the best, the best of the best, why would you stop?”

“Because I made a moral choice?”

“Morality hasn’t bothered you up until now.”

“Charles and Hicks changed that. The crew of that ship changed that.”

“Then you owe them.”

“Do I?” I stand up and walk around a bit, look for some tea in a cupboard.

“Other one. What changed?”

“I grew, well, connected.”

“And you’ve been alone otherwise.”

“Yes except for…”

____________

The memories come flooding back. I still don’t know my own name, but there are, apparently, other things I do not remember. Bad things.

My parents, my genteel, caring father, and my mother, I see her face, her brown hair and her green eyes.

..no-one. We were on holiday. It was the holiday of a lifetime, I was 15 years old. We went to Africa, a grand tour. My father didn’t travel well, but he thought I should see the world. It was wonderful. For a while.

There were poachers. They were local people, starving, desperate; not the type you might see on TV. These were desperate people.

They thought they could make money from kidnapping; after all, we had our holiday money. The government, it wouldn’t negotiate. Dad wouldn’t give in. He wouldn’t cooperate.

It was too much for the kidnappers. They shot him. They shot him in the foot, the leg, the thigh. It lasted a long time. He stuck to it, he wouldn’t give in. They did the same in the other leg. They knew what they were doing, they didn’t kill him. We had to drag him around on a litter. No pain killers, no treatment. Nothing.

They didn’t touch my mother, for a long time. They didn’t have to, she fell apart, it was up to me. If I told her what to do, exactly, she did it, but nothing more.

It took dad ten days to die. Mum died the next day. I think her heart broke. They left them in the bush.

I stole one of their machine guns in the night. I stole all their guns. They thought I was harmless, little Chinese-British boy.

I woke them up by shooting one of them in the feet. I did the same to the rest, they could not run fast enough.

I tied them with rope I found to one of their Landrovers, in a long chain. I remember them yelling and screaming. My father hadn’t screamed at all.

When I had done this, I tied them to the Landrover and drove though the bush slowly until I found lions. And then I left them.

I swore that if I killed again, it would be for right, in a moral way.

I don’t know what is right any more.

I told the authorities that I escaped, nothing more. They didn’t release the details of the deaths. I joined the army when I was sixteen. Everyone thought it was for the best.

______________________

The army trained me not to waver around; discipline, which I desperately needed. They heard my story, I said I just wanted to get on, and they listened to that too, after a while, and it turned out that it was better than any therapy.

I put my actions into the context a of a traumatised and angry fifteen year old, who had seen his parents die in a most horrible fashion, and taken retribution, terrible retribution, but I learned something, that I had left these men’s families without a means of support, and my retribution was far reaching, probably to their deaths too.

My father was genteel man, he would not have wanted what I did.

I know that people kill, I resolved to make it better.

I made it better.

______________________

“…no-one. There’s no one.” She looks at me curiously.

“What then?”

“I don’t know if I’ve made a moral choice.”

“This man, the one we want killed.” I wait, “He’s killing the world.”

“In what way?”

“You won’t believe it.” She turns and works at the computer again, wriggling her fingers in the screen, tapping at the brass inlaid keyboard.

“You’d be surprised at what I’m able to believe these days.”

“This world isn’t like your world.” I look steadily at her. There is something. ”People have abilities here sometimes. Rare people. This is one of those times.”

“He’s causing the ice age isn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because he wants space for himself, or the colony of the Americas.” The penny drops.

“You didn’t say ‘our world.’”

“No.”

“You’re not from here are you?”

“No.”

“So where are you from?”

“There’s no way of explaining it.”

“But you’re from Earth.”

“Yes. Not your Earth.”

“Naturally. How many are there, millions? Infinite umbers?”

“Um. No.”

“No?”

“We think there are a couple of hundred.”

“What?” I’m amazed. I would have thought that there would be two or and uncountable number. This is very strange, at least I think so. She has an explanation that is not only plausible, but remarkably likely, once she says it.

“The rest of them are not synchronised with our time and don’t exist yet, aren’t here yet or have long passed. These ones are just the ones we can synchronise with.”

“What do you mean?”

“How much techy stuff do you want.” I think about this.

“An overview.” She gets up and makes some more tea, I think about all the reaction mass it must have taken to get this up here. She is busy, and I look at her with interest again, something stirring within me. She’s wearing that little black dress I first saw her in. I get the urge to ask her a question.

“How old are you?” She looks at me archly.

“In as much as it means anything anymore, I’m actually two hundred and forty eight years old in your time. In mine I’m barely seventeen, here I’m nearly a thousand years old.” This is disconcerting.

“All that doesn’t mean anything to me. How old are you in your personal timeline.”

“That’s clever, you’re not totally ignorant.” No, I’m not. ”I’m seventeen.”

“How come you know so much?”

“Because I’m seventeen, but I experience time in between when I’m else when, I have lived for a thousand years, but in my world I am seventeen, and no-one knows any different. I am protected by my government as you are by yours.”

“Not anymore,” I say, and I find that I am saddened by this. I realise that I had a relationship with Charles and Hicks that meant something, I’m not sure what. She see my expression, and lays a hand upon my fondly for a moment. ”Ellie,” I say, but I hesitate for a moment, “Ellie, who are you?” The warm hand is withdrawn, and in that moment of contact I see the differences between us, my brown hand and her white one, my thick, rough fingers and her slender, pale, fingers. I have been immune, but suddenly I find her beautiful beyond measure and I have a powerful desire to protect her and nurture her. It’s confused by feelings of sexual attraction and lust, and then mixed up with strange feelings that I cannot identify, I get a flash of her in the mirror, and I am utterly dumbfounded when from this well of feeling a truth comes to me, that I could not have foreseen. I’m dumb-struck for a second, and then the words come to me, the fatal words.

“You’re me.”

________________

I know this, somehow, inside, but I cannot say what her connection is to me.

“It’s a lot simpler than you think.” I wait. ”You’re me, I’m you because we were born at the exact same moment in our respective universes, the exact same moment, down to the smallest scale. It’s uncommon, but we share a bond. Usually those who share this bond are replicas of each other. We are not.” She sighs. ”As a result, we’re of use, and the rest of them are not.”

“How many of us are there?”

“Maybe a dozen?”

“And my government knows about this?”

“Yes.”

It takes some time to absorb, and I realise that it will take long time, that I might not understand for some time to come, I have after all lived only one life, and she has lived many.

There is a beeping from the control room, and we depart the kitchen to see what it is.

______________

It is the medical bay. Sweet is ready and is waking up. The strange machinery helps her out of the water and withdraws the probes and devices. I turn my back as Ellie helps her with a robe and some clothes.

When I turn again, she is looking at me.

“I’m glad you’re ok, Lieutenant.” I say.

“Oh I think in the circumstances, you can call me Samantha, Sam.” I must look haunted, because she brightens up considerably. ”It’s not all bad, we were expecting something like that, and it’s not fixed in stone is it?” She looks at Ellie.

“I wasn’t going to get his hopes up, and we haven’t finished talking about the job yet.” The Lieutenant, Sam, looks only slightly perturbed.

“Well, we’re all hale and hearty and, I think, ready for action.” I feel my face crease up, and I see her reacting to it. ”You just have to get on with it man, and then we can see to the other stuff. Come on Jessop, buck up. It’s time I had a cup of tea. Where are we anyway?”

We go through explanations again, only the details differ, Sam asks different questions.

I spend my time in thought.

I know that I have spent a life in anger, and that the boat was finally a moment of peace. The time aboard allowed me to reflect.

The one who caused this, the ice, the whiteout of a world, do we have to kill?

Sam’s rehabilitation takes some time, and Ellie works at the Void Ship’s systems, I wonder what is taking so long. Eventually she tells me that there now no launch craft to take us down to the planet, and that we will die here. She shows me her project.

It looks like nothing so much as an a sort of egg covered in little tiles. There is a ring around the narrow end which is divided up into segments. She explains that these segments are what will guide us, they are the control surfaces, but I do not understand why they are so small.

“Because if they are any bigger they’ll get ripped off. We’re going to re-enter the atmosphere with almost no control, it’s this and a parachute.” I look glumly at this device. She opens a single door in the size, there are no windows. What there are is three leather heavily padded seats, and a joystick. ”It’s ok, I’ve done this before.” She says. I’m not reassured.

Days pass and I spend time in the Garden, but truthfully I need to be doing something, talking, doing, I don’t know what and I go in search of Sam. Ellie is making use of her in the Egg. They are stuffing more padding behind the seats.

I thought I’d get to know Sweet better, but it seems that she and Ellie are getting on, there is what I would describe as Girl Talk happening, but I’m alone here, and I need to work out what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, and for that I need information.

“Why am I going to kill this person?” They look up at me and exchange a glance.

“Because he is destroying this world and everyone on it, and he does not care.” Ellie wipes her hands on a rag. ”We have to save it.”

“Why?”

“Do you remember that I said that there are countless billions of universes but only a couple of hundred of these worlds that we can reach?” I nod. ”Well that’s why, rarity value. There’s something else too.” I wait. ”If we don’t save worlds from becoming uninhabitable, it increases the probability that all the rest will get that way too. Worlds kind of clump, like star groups.”

“Galaxies.”

“Not on that scale. But in realities.”

“But most of the universes are empty here and we’re alone.” I think for a moment. ”Has there been any radio contact?”

“Not really.” I look down for a second, contemplating my future, or my past, I’m not sure which it is. I have to save this world, use my skills as a killer, just the point when I feel, feel, feel!

I could give it up.

But it’s the right thing to do now, and I could give it up. Was it the right thing to do before?

Was it? I thought I had a moral code, someone else would have done it, I did it better. There is a hand on my shoulder. Sweet, Sam is standing in front of me, Ellie is beside me with her hand on my shoulder.

“We know.”

Do they, do they? I push them away roughly, I’m angry, so angry, how could they know? How could they? I know I’m shouting, shouting and yelling, asking the question, but I don’t hear myself. I’m throwing things, they move carefully out of the way, but after I have thrown quite a lot of things around and ranted and raged I being to notice that they are just waiting, not scared, not perturbed, just waiting.

That angers me more and I direct it at Ellie rushing for her, I want to break her, want to crush that waiting, want the fear to show. I want her to be scared, bend her to my will. What I want in many ways is dark, it is a lust I did not know I had, and a darkness descends as I move towards her.

_______________

Pain, contrary to what people think, is not easily overcome especially when someone is in control of it. It is a red light in the body’s response to stimuli, an attention getter than can only be ignored when the endorphins kick in. That takes time, and new applications of pain don’t give that time, so one’s attention can easily be focussed by shifting the point of attention.

Ellie is in control of this red light now, and is shining it on two or three places on my body, which turns out to be quite vulnerable.

“Jessop.” She says, breathing hard for a moment, “You’re not stupid, so I’ll assume you know that I’ve got the upper hand here.” I nod. ”Have you calmed down?” Nod. ”Now I’m going to let you go, and then I’m going to say something, and this time you’re going to think about it.”

“Alright.” She releases my thumb, and my foot, and, it turns out, a place in the small of my back. I step away slowly. She looks at me carefully, not for signs of violence, I perceive, but for signs of understanding. ”I’m ready.” I say, noting that Sweet, Sam, hasn’t moved at all, just a look of concern on her face, and a tapping foot.

“I’m you, Jessop. I know what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it. The only difference is, that I am a mirror image.”

“How can you be me? I’m, well, me. And you’re a slip of a girl.”

“What were you trying to do to me, Jessop?” I look away, not wanting to face up to it.

“Yes.” She says, knowing. I’m ashamed, and I turn red, and away. I want to run away, but we’re here orbiting a frozen Earth, and there is nowhere to run. I walk off, at least, to get as far away as possible. There is a sound behind me.

“Jessop?” She is standing there looking calm and beautiful. I pause, not turning. ”I’m older than I look, older than the sun.” I wait. ”When you can face up to it, come to me. I will show you what lovers do.”

I nod, once, and then go away to be alone.

The next few days pass in a kind of darkness, Ellie and Sam feed me, but otherwise they make no demands upon me. I drift around the space-station looking out the windows, sometimes I retire into my cabin and barricade myself in, sometimes I roam around freezing cold barely dressed.

I’m moral, I’m a moral man.

Someone will take life, some will do it, and leave the widows and orphans with nothing. Some will take their lives too, I have seen it, on the basis that they have nothing, or that they are family, and thus, the sins of the father and all that.

It is wrong.

In war we take life, and it is no less wrong, but there is a moment that comes, when it is you or them, and if someone must die then it is them, because you, well you want to live. In war, you give up some of your humanity, you give it up because if you thought about those you killed, how they died, who they left behind, you could not. You could not pull that trigger, fire that tank shell, mortar, rifle, pistol, wield that stick. Everyone’s life has a meaning and you would be taking that away and all the training of humanity, of your father and mother and your friends and your relatives and your priest and your rabbi and your everyone teaches you that life is a precious gift, precious beyond measure, a gift from God, from Gaia, from the Prophet.

And then…

You join the army and your Sargent, he tells you that it is you or them.

And you go to war, and take this gift away, sometimes from half a dozen people at once. And in your anger and your adrenaline and your pain you are glad, job well done, saved your mates, preserved our lives.

There is no excuse, you did what you did because you must, because it was you or them.

Because you were keeping the peace, preventing further bloodshed later on, preventing drugs trafficking, people trafficking, genocide, preventing something somewhere, by making the bad people GO AWAY.

But you have ripped their lives away, taken what cannot be returned.

_________

I shave again, the ritual comforting me as I possess myself. I know that I have avoided looking at myself in the mirror, and I still do to some extent, it is hard to meet my own eyes. For what I have done, I am truly sorry, for what I tried to do I am truly sorry, for what I am about to do, I am truly sorry.

_________

They are talking again when I return, laughing at some joke, but it dies away as they see me standing there. I am waiting to be received, I don’t wish to intrude, to…, to push myself upon them.

“Ah, but you do, still I think, Jessop.” Ellie says turning to me. ”You still desire to possess yourself, and to take power over your situation, but you have none.” She lifts a glass to her lips… ”You think deep in your dark soul that possessing me will overcome your desires.” …drinks the heavy red liquid within. ”And what will you do Jessop, when you find that it does not sate your lust, what will you do?”

She’s wearing that dress, that black short velvet dress that clings to her like a second skin, she is looking directly at me, challenging me, provoking me, mocking me.

Sweet sits up straight in her chair as I walk to Ellie. I take her by the shoulders gently.

“I was angry, and yes I was trying to take control. Do not excuse my behaviour because you understand the reasons for it.” I drop my arms and look down. ”I’m sorry.”

There is a moment of stillness, where she is simply looking at me and smiling. Then, she takes me by the hand, and leads me to the table.

“You are truly a man in possession of yourself.” Sam smiles and nods at this.

“You think so,” I say, “you think I’m in control of myself.”

“Yes, and when you do too, I shall show you what lovers do.” This makes me tremble. “Clearly, that is not a thing for now, ” she carries on, “for now, I shall give you a gift, something from my researches, something I know about you.” My trembling increases rather than dissipates. I lean forward expectantly.

“Tell me, please, tell me what you know.”

“Well, here it is then, John.”

Part 1 – Chapter 4 – Change of Scene

Monday, July 1st, 2013

She is real. She is real. She is real.

How can this be? What has been happening to me?

Help me.

Help me.

Help me.

Help.

Me, me, me, me, me, me me me….

_________

I come to and Hicks is sitting on the edge of the bunk with a glass of water in his hand. In deference to my condition he offers it to me first.

“We think you’ve been contacted. What happened?” I look at him numbly for a moment and take a sip.

“You’re a bit of a bastard, Hicks, if you’re talking about what I think you’re talking about.”

“Girl in the mirror.” I throw the water over him.

I’m not sure why I did that. I’m angry enough to want to punch him. He takes a hankie out of his pocket and wipes his face. ”She’s having an influence already I see. You need to resist that.”

“So, are you going to tell me what is going on?”

“Briefing in an hour.” He moves to rise, but I grab him, he merely looks down at my hand, but I don’t let go.

“Now, Hicks.” I can kill him three different ways from here, all of them crude, but my curiosity gets the better of me. ”You’re a liar Hicks!” I’m shouting suddenly, “You told me, you told me…” I pause. What has he told me, nothing, only that I have to be on board. He reaches casually down and pinches my hand, and involuntarily I let go. I sag on to the bunk.

“I told you nothing. I told you nothing because I cannot lie.” I look at him blankly.

“What are you talking about Hicks? You’re a psychologist, you could be the best liar in the world.” I rub my hand which gradually starts to come back to life. I realise that Hicks was never out of control. He could have killed me three different ways, or thirty.

“Because I could be the best liar in the world, I cannot. Life is too complicated and I can’t keep track of lies. In any event, lies make me less trustworthy. I need you to trust me. Make a choice. You either trust me, and obey; or your life ended in that Hong Kong fall. Think about it. You have less than an hour. Meet me on the bridge.”

I shower, hot and good. It’s hard to think, it seems like a conspiracy. I’m confused again, I thought I’d got on track, but now I’m confused again.

A rating comes to take me to the bridge ten minutes before the appointed time, and it takes exactly that long to get there. Behind the complicated control room there is a meeting room, much simpler with a large wooden table. Sat around it are the Captain, Lieutenant Sweet, Charles and Hicks. Hewey and Dewy are there too, standing to a rough attention on the inside of the door.

Charles and Hicks have folders open in front of them. I sit. Hicks commences.

“The, uh, other side, has no-one like you, but they have a problem. A political problem, and a humanitarian problem. You’re going to solve it for us.”

I wait. Nothing further is forthcoming, I’m being pressured to speak. I speak.

“I’m only qualified to help in one way.” I say, “and there are caveats. I don’t leave the innocent without any means of support.”

“We noticed,” says Hicks. ”That’s why you have been chosen, by both sides.”

“So it’s real.”

“Yes it’s real.”

“And I’m not going mad.”

“You might me. No guarantees.” He turns a page and pulls out a sheet. There is a hesitation, a brief glance around, and then he pushes the sheet to glide across to me. ”That’s your target.”

I study the picture. It’s not a photograph, but a fine drawing, finer than any I have seen before, giving an almost photo-realistic effect; it’s of an old man, he looks like King Arthur, a doublet, hose, a codpiece for goodness sake.

“A fairy-tale.”

“The past. Not ours.” I look sharply at him. Sweet speaks.

“The girl is, as far as we can tell his descendant, but he lived almost five hundred years ago. You have to kill him.”

“Then she will die, never have existed.”

“No, she exists, she will exist, with another to replace him.”

“That isn’t possible.”

“You will see, Jessop, that what is possible is beyond your ken,” she says curtly. ”You must do this thing. Since you will be beyond our control you must do it willingly.”

“Not totally beyond.” Says Hicks. She looks at him. The Captain rises and moves to a filing cabinet. He coughs apologetically.

“You’ve been ordered to go with him, Sweet.” She looks shocked, I guess she was not expecting it. I get a little warm glow inside. ”He’s not fully stable.” Thanks. “And Charles and Hicks think someone should be with him. That’s you.” So saying he pulls out a file with all the markings of secrecy on it, and flops it down in front of her. I can just see as she opens it that it is a single sheet of paper with a letter, or I assume, orders, on it. Her face is like thunder now, but she pulls in her obvious irritation.

“A little time to prepare wouldn’t have gone amiss, Sir.” The Captain sits down again.

“I realise that. We’ll forward on a communique to the relevant people about your continued absence.”

“Don’t tell them I’m dead, Sir, or I will have to take steps on my return.” He holds up a placating hand.

“I’m aware of your history, Sweet. I can assure that it will be handled,” He glances over at Charles and Hicks, “sensitively.”

“Yes, Sir. If you’ll excuse me then, I am aware of the mission, but I have some personal preparation to do.” The Captain nods, and she comes to attention and salutes him, which he casually returns.

“What about me,” I say.

“You have no family, in fact you are not officially alive.”

“And you want me to kill this fellow.”

“Yes.”

“I’m dreaming.”

“No.”

“Then how do I get there?” Hicks nods at the Captain.

“Come with me.”

We descend in to the bowels of the ship again after the Captain gives some orders in the control room. The way is long, and I realise that we have had to work around another large space in the ship. We come to a door, guarded by more of the sailors with their sense of humour surgically removed, and the Captain shows them a pass, as do Charles and Hicks. They do not challenge me in any way.

The door that they are guarding is at least thirty feet high, I wonder how they can even have room for it in the ship, and then in the gloom I note that is suspended in mid-air with hydraulic beams to support it. They are not moving at all at the moment. It’s at this point that I notice the ships movement seems damped, we’re not moving along with the waves, or even up and down as much. It feels very strange, and I get a sense of being out of reality again. Charles puts his hand on my arm.

“It’s a special ship, think of it as a giant tug.”

I look at this gigantic door, it is reinforced for stiffness in every way, there are triangular constructs over every inch of its surface. When the guards operate the opening mechanism, the door does not open, but the hydraulics pull it away from the other side of what I will soon learn is a cube, and pull it smoothly up while a crossing gantry extends from our side. I hadn’t even realised that there was a gap.

When the door starts to rise, I see that the floor is shone to a mirror shine and light pours out. It does not take long for me to realise that the floor is a mirror, as the walls and ceiling. The whole thing is a giant cube of mirrors. We see ourselves reflected again and again we stand there.

The guards require us to step into soft soled outer shoes as we go to cross the gantry, and we walk within.

I can honestly say that I have never been more disoriented in my life, and that includes falling to my death, practically.

After a while I get tired of the sensation of falling that I get, and actually look around. There are some holes in the mirrors. Hicks sees me looking.

“Well done. They are for alignment.” He nods to the outside, and a little mechanism starts whirring, the holes are filled with glass, which disappears. ”Don’t ask me how they make it work, that’s for boffins who know about light.” I walk over, I can’t see a join or distortion. It is this too that makes me realise that there is no distortion in the mirrors. I can see reflections of myself from where I am. Strangely I don’t see her.

Lieutenant Sweet appears in the doorway. She has a large case with her, on wheels, which have been absolutely silent on the floor.

“I’m ready Sir.”

“We’re not.” The Captain gestures and one of the guards come forward. ”The infirmary.” Hicks looks surprised. ”I don’t care what you say Hicks,” he says, “this man is getting immunised.”

“I might remind you, Captain,” he puts some emphasis on the word, “that I am in charge of this mission.”

“That might be, I’m sorry, that is so, you are, but this is my ship, and on my ship we do not send men into battle without the proper equipment.” Hicks holds his hands up in submission. ”He’ll be quite well immune once he gets there.” The guard has been watching, and Hicks carefully does not catch his eye.

“Your ship, Captain.” The guard gestures and we start to walk away. I hear behind me..

“You can report me for insubordination, Sir, if you so wish.”

“No, Captain, I would be more worried about you if you didn’t care…”

The immunisations take some time, the old Doctor is a southern gentleman and I wonder how he came to be serving in the British Navy. He talks nearly all the time about how medicine has advanced, but that the old skills are lost. It’s a familiar refrain.

__________

We in the mirror room once more. Sweet has opened her bag. I see that there are winter clothes, serious winter clothes, within, some for me and some for her. She strips her dress uniform off without being the least little bit self-conscious. I look and then look away.

“Look now, if you’re going to look, because it might be your last, or worse, you might have to rely on knowing me.” That wakes me up from my sudden shyness, which is in the event an unfamiliar action on my part. I look.

She is frankly very attractive in that trim sort of way that graphic novels fantasise about, there isn’t the least trace of fat about her and the swell of her breasts seems just too large for her waist and even her hips. Her neck is classically long and as she turns about once I catch a glimpse of a rose tattoo on her shoulder. ”Remember the tat. We think they don’t have that.”

“Have you been there before?”

“No, but have had some preliminary, well, contact.” She dresses, thick woollen tights, blue, old fashioned dress over a layer of under-dress. Then a jumper that comes almost down to her knees, and a modern Arctic winter coat with three layers, and gloves, and goggles, darkened. My clothes are similar, except the dress, I have thick double knitted hose and a tunic with layers underneath and similar Arctic gear. I notice that she puts a flask into her coat, and I find one and do the same. ”It’s not a drink.” She says. ”Get undressed.” I look at the Captain and Hicks, they nod. Hicks clears his throat.

“We’ll, er, leave you to it then.” He says. ”Good luck.” He shakes her by the hand before she is indecently undressed again, and so does the Captain. They reach out to me, and I accept Hicks hand slowly, then the Captains’ hand too.

“Hicks, ” I call as the gantry starts to pull back. “Tell Charles I said, e4-e5, check.” He nods, and the door starts coming down.

____________

It’s forty-five minutes later.

“You’re just not getting this are you? If you don’t dress in less than three minutes, you’re going to die, of hypothermia. End of story. Do it again.” She’s looking pretty cross, and no amount of nudity can distract from this. Beside, I’m used to her now, and she to me. She was a bit horrified by my network of scars, at first.

“OK, ok,” I say, and finally, ten minutes later I satisfy her. I can dress from naked in under three minutes.

I have stayed looking at non-reflecting things as much as I can.

It’s eerie.

____________

We’re standing in the middle of the room, I realise for the first time that Sweet is wearing a wig, and has no hair anywhere, she notices, “It’s a side effect of the immunisation.” We’re close together and the case, fully packed now is just behind us. I see the little post open and light glinting from each, but I can’t see a beam, so it must a be a laser. The room rocks a little, and it’s quite a start to hear the Captains voice coming over a speak from one of the holes.

“We’re at station keeping.” I get a sensation of movement, then it stops, and I realise that the ship must now be moving around us. I give in and look properly in the mirrors at this woman and I reflected into infinity, every flaw in me picked a million, billion times as a I stand there naked and cold. Unexpectedly I feel her hand slip into mine, and I find myself surprised to be returning the squeeze.

“They said you don’t like to touch, it’s in your profile, but I’m betting you’re scared, or going to be.” She says, I go to loosen my grip, “So am I.” I tighten it again, and as if this is some signal the mirrors suddenly start reflecting another reality, the laser light sparkles in lines as it catches some dust or smoke or mist, and I see us shift about, I sway, but Sweet stays upright and hangs on to me, pulling me into position. I see the girl, and even though I’m expecting it now it’s a shock. She is holding a notice saying “STAND BY” in five foot high lettering.

We experience a moment of acceleration, very slight, but then we are in the middle, as far as I can make out, of the cube.

The worlds collide and part again as the room struggles to align with the world reflected in the mirrors, the lasers spark and shine as they burn the air, and the room moves. There’s a wind, and more light, and I realise for the first time that there has never been light in here, so where has it come from? The lasers burn and burn now in each corner of the room and I see the room wave about, the mirrors moves trying to align the red light with another green light. They seem to cancel each other out as we hang suspended in mid-air, and there is a moment, no not a moment, a microsecond when the lights all align and the holes are filled perfectly.

I cannot move or breathe and yet this is not alarming, it is a moment in time where I live, remembering everything about my life everything. The world turns white, and it is cold, cold cold cold cold cold…

…and we are thrust into snow, fine white powdery snow, I feel it, it is real and as far away from the room of mirrors as we could get suddenly. I am gasping with cold and Sweet is urging me to get dressed, but I still see the room of mirrors, and I know she does too. The girl is there shouting something, but I cannot hear her above the wind and the roaring of the sea and something else. The girls tries to tug me, get me to act, and then there is the explosion, the sound of glass shattering, a sound like the end of the world and Sweet reaches out for me as the girl grabs my arm and the noise is intense, unbearable, loud so loud and I see the missile just before it explodes and then we are thrust forward again, and I feel hardness under my knees, and it is colder than I have ever known.

We dress quickly.

It’s cold beyond words, I can feel my extremities turning blue as we dress, and I find thick gloves in the trunk. The girl is with us, and she is turning blue also, but she seems to be doing so slowly, and is much more active than Sweet and I even after we have gotten dressed. She is running around the room opening doors and cupboards, and after a short search she calls out, her breath puffing and crystallizing in the freezing air.

“Here, come and get these on.” I look up and I happen to be looking out of a window, which almost kills me, because the shock of it is so great that I just stand there, freezing to death. Sweet pulls me away,

“Not now Jessop, you’ll die.” And she clamps her hand over her mouth to stop herself coughing. The girl is already clambering into the back of a, of a, well, space suit. It looks a lot like an old Russian model, with a single door in the back and room to move, but there are a few differences. One is that there is a script on the suit that I don’t recognise at all, and the other is that there is a big red button on the front with an arrow pointing to it, which the girl hits, and then comes towards me grabbing another suit and shoving it at me.

“Get this on you fool,” She says, “Time for amazement later, you’re dying.” And it’s true, I am. Sweet has shed the dress again and climbed inside a suit and sealed it and she is also coming towards me with the intention of getting me in one. I’m not adverse to the idea and I let them shove me in, seal me up and slap the button.

The suit immediately warms up.

____________

I return to amazement. I review the events in my head, I seem to recall a snowfield, a damp; not this place, and then we were thrown, I remember seeing a missile, but it couldn’t have been right? Or we would be dead.

We were very nearly dead anyway.

The suit warms up my toes and fingers slowly. I turn to see at last what I thought I saw, but did not believe. Sweet and the girl are already looking.

It is a large window, in panels, I can see the glass is thick, inches thick. Outside two contrasting scenes, one the night of the sky, stars twinkling at the edge; the other is the bright curve of the planet below us, covered in white, covered in snow.

___________________

There is a crackle on the radio.

“Hello? Is this working? Can you hear me?” One of the other spacesuits is pointing to its ear, fat gloved hand moving awkwardly. I nod, then, realising the futility of this, I draw my hand out of the sleeve and start to fit the suit to me, there are buckles and straps that fit it to my shoulders and waist so that I don’t rattle around in it. There is a smell of leather inside, and I begin to observe the immediate environment.

The suit is outfitted like as if some mad Victorian inventor has been let loose in it. There are flexible hoses, brass switches, incongruously covered in a fine film of plastic where meant to be tongued or nudged with the face, but plenty of room to remove my feet and hands. The arms and legs fill with air bags when I insert them and when I withdraw the air bags collapse. There doesn’t seem to be an air tank, and I worry about this, then I realise that this is also futile, because if the suit were not working I would be dead already.

There are tiny brass labels, and I see that they are in English. This seems odd to me as well, but I do not have time to ponder it because the girl has come over and touched her helmet on mine. I can just hear her yelling at me and asking if my radio works. I look for the controls and find a little needle meter and a switch which just switches the system on. I test it and hear the last of her yelling as she realises that I have got it to work.

“I’m Ellie.” She says by way of introduction. ”I thought I was going mad seeing you all the time in the mirror.”

“Me too.”

“But we’re not.”

“No.”

There is a pause. I consider my situation. I’m in a spacesuit in an orbital satellite, looking at a planet which is more or less, apart from a band around the a equator, covered in snow and ice. It occurs to me that I’m not floating.

“I’m not floating, and we’re not spinning.”

“It’s later than you think.”

I don’t know what that means, and I’m not sure what I’m doing here at all. I’m mad, my mind has snapped, and she is a figment of my imagination.

But how far back does that go? This suit is heavy, really heavy, that seems real.

Sweet is a new person, she could be in my head.

But Ellie, I have lived with her for months in the mirror. Here, she seems real.

I’m unsteady on my feet again. I have to sit, to think.

I can’t think.

It’s not real.

_________

“It’s real, or we’re sharing a dream.” I look up. ”It’s real, because this is not my place either.”

“Is it not?”

“No, it’s hard to explain.”

“I bet.” She reaches up and pats me on the shoulder awkwardly, there is a little kick from that part of the suit.

“What has Sweet got to do with it?”

“I don’t know, you’d have to ask her. I’m not even sure who she is, I was just expecting you.”

We turn and walk towards Sweet’s spacesuit which has not moved in ten minutes or so, realising that we have not heard from her. We raise the sun shield and look in as best we can, her lips are moving slowly and she is blue, very blue. Ellie catches on before I do.

“Shit the heating unit has failed. She’s been cooling down all this time.” She lumbers off to the rack where another suit hangs, it is the last one. Dragging it off the stand she lays it down and un-dogs the door. ”We have to take a chance now. Get out.” We undo our doors, and cold hits, worse than jumping in icy water, but we need to be mobile to get Sweet out of her suit. My hands turn immediately icy and my breath steams so that it is hard to see. I notice Ellie keeping her mouth tight shut, turning her lips in to protect them, and I do the same. It’s already too cold to move really, and I have trouble knocking the catches open, I dare not grip them. Each breath feels like ice in my lungs. Everything is going dark and I see Ellie gesturing as she carries Sweet from one suit to the other and I get back into my suit and lock the door. I want to breathe deeply, but some instinct keeps me from doing this until the air warms a little. By the time I recover, I see that Ellie is climbing back into her suit. She is not the least bit blue.

The suit decides that I need some medical treatment and I feel a needle in my buttocks as it injects something into me. I can’t avoid it and I don’t try. Whatever it is acts to restore me, because I feel like I can breathe properly again at last. Ellie is looking at me.

“You passed out there for a while,” she says, “you’re a lot more delicate than I thought.” I just look. ”You’re going to need some help. But first, we have to get out of here.”

She is obviously an expert at this place, because she starts to waddle around and check things which I have no idea about, circuit board, computer systems, tanks, other things that are obscure, including at one point, a soft toy which she examines minutely before replacing it with crocodile clips into a computer system. The bear seems to wink at me as it goes in the cupboard, I’m no longer prepared to dismiss this as an illusion, but I can’t deal with it, so I ignore it.

After a while, she seems prepared to switch things on.

Lights come on, it’s a wonderland. I’m scared to touch anything.

She hasn’t talked much, and I have not wanted to interrupt her, but now, I feel it is time to know some things.

“What is this place?”

“Oh, I suppose, your briefing wasn’t very good was it?”

“I’ve spent the last six months, I think, on a tug.”

“Right.”

“So…”

“Well in that case, welcome on board Her Imperial Majesties Orbiting Void Ship, The Hesperus.”

______________

It is some hours later.

Ellie and I have removed our suits at last, and Ellie spent some time checking the operation of them. She showed me at one point what looked like a burnt out valve, this was what caused Sweet’s suit to fail. Sweet in the meantime has been stripped and put in the medical unit, which seems to consists of a tank and breathing apparatus. We have to rouse her before she goes in, so that she does not panic. It’s not easy. Her fingers and toes look very damaged, terminally so, but Ellie assures me that the machine will repair all things.

While she busies herself with Sweets’ recovery, I look around the space station, pardon me, void ship.

It’s like a space station in every respect that I expected, doors that seal with manual releases, computers, comfy chairs at work-stations, exercise machinery. There is an air reclamation plant that looks more modern than anything I have ever seen, but flushing toilets, which lead via brass pipes into a garden hung out of one side of the station with a huge dome overhead, and lights which I soon discover are dispensing a healthy dose of UV to plants which, well we’ll just say they are overgrown and leave it at that.

The rest of the station is mad with brass and wood, it looks like the inside of a steam age machine. There are little handles which turn to activate functions which are not always clear. The keyboards for the computer are complex affairs with bars at the top and sides tracing the position of smoothly running but mechanical pointers. I see the screens regularly turn into mush as some function is worked out, sometimes with little square remaining in corners where things that need constantly displaying reside, and once I see Ellie dip her finger into the screen and move something from somewhere to somewhere. I reach and poke at a screen.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” I pause and look over. “I’m a programmer by trade, ” she says, “I know how to hack the machine.” I put my hand behind my back.

I spend some time looking out the window again. I have been very introspective for the last few months, but this is not a good trait in my profession, well, one of my professions. I realise something for the first time, that all the emotional energy that I would otherwise put into life, and that would interfere with my killing. I don’t feel like that belongs to me anymore. I’m not sure who I am any more.

I was someone who killed for a living, professionally. I have been employed by corporations and governments, small and large. I kill cleanly and quickly, leaving no trace of my presence and existence, until now. I have made sure that the widows and orphans of those I kill are well provided for, and I don’t kill anyone powerless. I do not regard myself as a common murderer. That is for street people.

I write romantic novels of such passion and depth that I am called on to write more every month. I use a front-woman to sign for me, she, I am famous. And we are famously recluse. I tell my neighbours that I am an author and they leave me alone, most of the time. I have a barbecue in summer, and a foursome for bridge, when I am at home. I live in a modest house, because I have no need for anything more.

Ellie is listening to my history. She nods sagely as we are sitting and eating, she has found supplies, all dried food and vacuum packed, she says it is years old, but it will be ok. She has done remarkable things with it.

I have many questions, so many, but my first is simple.

“Where are we?”

Part 1 – Chapter 3 – The Boat

Monday, July 1st, 2013

I’m not in charge of anything right now, we have boarded a boat bound for I don’t know where. There was a fast transfer between car and little speed boat and a dangerous, in my view, dash out of a harbour, made all the more exciting by the sound of gunfire zipping past as a couple of the more rash constabulary decide to take pot shots at us. The last I see of Hong Kong is an angry policeman hitting another on the jaw after removing his pistol.

The boat in contrast is quiet, it looks like an old fishing trawler, and there are even some men working it, but below is deeper than usual, and the vessel seems to hang weirdly in the water. Once below there is an extra deck, and in this lushly appointed place, the plans of governments are carried out. The deck is exactly six feet high. Charles has to stoop.

“What am I doing here?” I say, a couple of days into the journey.

“You’re an agent of Her Majesty now. Let me ask you something, what is your name?” I look at him blankly. I don’t know.

I don’t know my own name. Maybe I had a bang on the head, I can remember everything else about my life, but every time my memory should be telling my name, it kind of slides across it, or mumbles or blurs it out. It’s like, appropriately, a fish. I cannot get a grip on it. I was never much of a fisherman anyhow. I don’t know my own name.

And how come they don’t know it, these agents? What is going on?

“We don’t know it, because, frankly, we’ve never been cleared to hear it. You’re just Jessop to us, that’s the pseudonym operations gave us. We’re not even sure why we’re not allowed to know your name.”

I paused to consider this. Only Charles and Hicks talk to me, everyone else more or less ignores me, just a nod here and there, and acknowledgement that I’m present, not invisible.

I have to wear fishing gear while above, and the crew actually fishing talk sometimes, great mugs of sweet tea handed around in a kind of gruff camaraderie at their role, what they are pretending to be doing, and I am included in that, but right now I am below, in the office, and the office guys ignore me and concentrate of their computers.

“Call me Jessop then,” I say. ”It’s better than ‘hey you’”. Charles and Hicks nod.

Charles is friendly, considering, and has a magnetic chess set which he shares with me. We sit for hours playing. We’re about matched, and as the days pass we both get better, I gather that he doesn’t get much of a game from the rest of the crew. From time to time the watch changes, and the desks and computers are filled with other bottoms. Little drives are removed and carefully hung around necks. For a break some of the office staff go above decks and help out for a few days, they are treated with the same rough camaraderie as I do. Charles and I play.

I sleep a lot. I have tiny cabin all to myself, even with a washbasin and shaving equipment. I avail myself of it about a week into the trip. I have a badger hair brush, and a tub of shaving soap and a safety razor of the latest type, multi-bladed and vibrating. I run the water until it is piping hot and work the brush into the soap after running it under the tap briefly. I soak my beard, it’s quite bushy, and rinse it off a little. I find some shaving oil, and work it in next to my skin, and then work the hot soap in to my face again. I look into the mirror, my face is there, hair and all. It’s a relief, and I turn the blade around to the trimming tool, and work under my nose, and my side burns into that pointed shape that I like. I realise now that I should have cut it short, but it’s too late and I use the trimming tool to make a rough cut, then turn the blade to the shaving surface to finish.

It feels clean, right, as though I am reclaiming something of myself, even if I do not have my own name. This is mine, this power, I can look clean shaven.

I look again in the bag of toiletries I have been given and see a hair trimmer. I use it carefully, making my hair evenly an inch long all over. I’m finished at last and am putting the trimmer and other things away when I glance up at the mirror again.

She is there, waiting, she has just finished trimming her hair too, and it looks like she has recently peeled a masque off her face, it has a little glow. I guess that she has been doing this while I have been shaving, I wonder if she could see me all that time? It occurs to me, finally, that she never seems surprised to see me, I wonder if that is function of the surprised look she habitually carries, her eyebrows seems to be plucked high. I keep on forcing myself to think of them as hers. Shaving has reinforced my identity though, and for the time being I’m assured that this is something from my inner mind.

I ignore her, and go to dinner.

________________

The days stretch into weeks. The crew is quiet, I have never known such a cooperative bunch of men, there are no arguments or fights, no frictions. That seems creepy after a while, and I find myself wanting to needle them, even the upstairs crew.

It’s quickly stamped on. Hicks has a word.

“I know you’re restless now, and because of that, you have to stay above decks for a while. I cannot afford the disruption that you are trying to cause down here. Do you understand?” I nod, I get it, but I am bored and restless. Charles and Hicks have not shared any of their plans with me, or even told me in what capacity I am to “serve”. Everyone seems content to carry on quietly, I cannot understand it.

The upstairs crew undergo a change in attitude towards me, I’m expected to earn my keep. They teach me to handle all the equipment over the next few weeks as we change flags and territory. We take on fish, and soon we have to call at a port to sell out stock. On a normal vessel we would be about half full I’m told, on the “Hesperus” we’re fit to burst. We have to fish more though, or we look like we’re not trying, and the decks fill up. It takes another week to sort out which port we will call at, and our contacts there. The fish will go on the open market, we have to put up with some mocking at regular ports, but we’re out of our way now.

My strength has been building up, and my mind fully occupied as we fight the seas and the fish. It is a fight, sometimes a fully-fledged brawl out there on the sea where there is no coast to be see and the sea swells freely. I learn that the Captain is actually Hicks, and that he is a hardened sea hand with thirty years’ experience at sea. That seems strange to me, I wouldn’t have put him at a day over forty. He certainly doesn’t look that old. But then I think about how he moves, his assurance. He steps through hatches where I stumble even after a month at sea, he knows when it is about to blow, and when it is about to be calm. The upper crew and the lower crew respect him and he never raises his voice even in the most severe of gales. The “Steering Master”, normally this would be Hicks, the crew call him “Master” and the quayside people assume he is the Captain and negotiate with him, is the guiding hand, the crew trust him, but the true Master of the vessel is Hicks. Hicks trusts the Steering Master too, and never interferes with him, but relieves him regularly, and asks his advice about all matters above decks, and occasionally below too, but it is clear that below is not the Steering Master’s domain.

I see her in the mirror regularly, but there is nothing happening that I can see otherwise, and for a while, the worries of the world recede, and I actually begin to enjoy being challenged by the fishing, even after we call into port, and the chess once more when Hicks decides that I will not disturb the strange harmony of the vessel.

Life settles down and I build a relationship with people that I have never had before. It’s not comfortable for someone who does what I do, but it is comforting. I get a sense of what it would be like to have a family.

This is a new experience for me, and as we sail at about ten knots through right water and smooth, I undergo mood swings. One in particular is of note.

I have written a note to the girl in the mirror in an attempt to take make some sense of my world, it says, “What is happening?” But she has, inevitably, the same question for me.

I know that Hicks remains armed at all times, and with my strength and health improved by sea air and work, it is but the work of a second to dip my hand into his holster one day. I remember this day, the sea is cam and the sky is blue, azure blue, and hot. I’m shaking.

Hicks just looks at me as I point the gun at him. The only other person who takes notice is Charles. Hicks is completely calm, and goes to move off, as if I’ve just borrowed a pen without permission, rather than looking at me as if I have just taken his gun.

“I’ll kill you, I swear, ” I say, “I will, and it will hurt.” I’m shaking.

“Ok.” he looks completely calm, I find that rather annoying.

“Turn this boat around!”

“Sure.” He unclips a mic to the bridge and gives the order. The Steering Master complies without complaint. I’m confused, there isn’t a hint of impending action from Hicks or Charles. Charles is reading a book, and hasn’t looked up.

“Gimmie your gun, Agent,” I say turning my head only slightly. He reaches into his jacket with thumb and forefinger and puts the gun on the desk in front of me, moving slowly. He has to reach, it’s awkward. ”Why are you guys doing what I say so readily?” My finger is tightening on the trigger, this level of compliance is unnerving.

“Because of logic.” Hicks is unperturbed.

“Logic?”

“You’re stressed because you have not been informed about everything. You will go through this every now and again unless you can accept your new life. We would have left you behind. You’ve been on board for some time now. You know that we’re in charge. You’re relieved of any responsibilities right now, but you rail against it because you are used to being in charge of your own life. Try to enjoy it.

This is the longest speech I have heard from Hicks, and I cannot deny that he is right. I could kill everyone on board, and it would make my situation no better. In fact, it would make it considerably worse. I put the safety on, reverse the gun and hold it out to Hicks.

“Sorry.” Hicks shakes his head and holds his hand up.

“It’s your gun now.” I look askance at him. ”You have to be in charge of your life it’s true. I’m not giving you the gun, you took it, it’s your responsibility. We have have to risk our lives on trusting you, all of us. You’ve been able to do this anytime since you came aboard, now that you have, you’re responsible for your firearm.”

“That’s it? No punishment? No sanction? No decking me now because you have to prove you’re Captain?”

“Would you respect me anymore, or would you think I still had something to prove?”

I nod. Charles sets the pieces in the chess set in place for a new game and holds his hand out in a clear invitation. I take the clip out of the gun and empty the chamber. I sit and look at the board, Charles has set it up so I’m white.

I turn the board and set it so that it I’m black. It’s the first time I’ve played black in all our games and this fact is only obvious to me now.

“Hicks,” I say in a subdued tone. ”Can I have a holster please?” He nods. ”And Hicks,” He pauses from turning away, “Thanks.” A curt, short nod again.

_______

Charles and I play for some time, it’s a slow game. I take time to luxuriate in the pieces, the feel of the wood, the muffled click as they land and magnetically secure themselves on the board. The board itself is large and luxorious considering the space premium on the Hesperus, I had dismissed it at first as the single allowance of one of those in charge, but I’m beginning to think that there is something more to it.

Charles concentrates on the game intently, and one of the hands brings us coffee about mid-way through, also a first. I see at last that most the hands carry a gun with them, but none of them reacted, I could have killed everyone on the deck.

Hicks reaction bothers me, there is something not right with it, not in the strange way that the girl appears in the mirror, but in another way. He wasn’t afraid. There is usually some fear in a face however calm, and in Hicks’ face, there was none.

“He’s a psychologist, before you ask.” Says Charles suddenly. It’s his first training.” He moves a piece. ”That’s how he knows.”

“Knows what?” I’m old fashioned look.

“Don’t take us for fools, Jessop. In many ways we’re all dead here, none of us have families, we can’t be blackmailed, and we’ve more or less given up personal lives to be here. We believe in her Majesty’s Government, what it stands for, and in what we’re doing.” He watches me as I slowly reply to his move.

“You’re not telling me that you believe in all that King and Country bullshit do you?”

“No, not as such. I said we’re not fools, we all know there are flaws, big ones, in any government. We’re here for personal reasons, every one of us, but we’re doing essentially, what we’re told.”

“Then all that stuff Hicks said about being my own man was bull too?”

“No, we’re our own men alright, we just serve because we think it’s right. Because we think it is worthwhile, in the long run.”

“What do you mean in the long run?”

“I mean that our lives don’t mean much if we cannot prevent the wars, the Nukes and the Hijackings.”

“I don’t see much evidence of that from the news.”

“You know how it is Jessop; you of all people know that we have to be lucky all the time, and we’re not. That’s why we’re trying to recruit you.”

“Trying?” I’m not sure what he means now. I pick up a piece and wave it around in indecision, finally plonking it down poorly.

“Yes, trying. You’re worthless to us if you’re not on board.” I look around, pointedly. ”Not on board with us, philosophically. You won’t give your all. Unless you agree with us you’re unlikely,” He picks up a piece and places it carefully on the board, “to give it your best shot.” There is a pause as he considers the board, I’m just looking him when he speaks again.

“Check.”

It is two days after the Hicks incident. I am wandering around the ship at a loose end.

I’m strong, hale, hearty. Charles and Hicks have seen to that. I’ve never been as fit.

I keep my distance from people again, aware that Hicks is watching me now. I have let people in emotionally because I have spent some time here, but I have sense that things are about to happen. An unrest is about the place, a certain tension.

We have come into more northern climes, passing first Malaysia, Singapore, the Indian Ocean; many days without sight of land. We pass Madagascar, and call in at the southern tip of Africa for supplies, and I get the impression, information. I stay on the boat.

Working our way up the west coast, we have changed flags many times, we’re not challenged in any way, except once when we are warned off an oil spill from a ship that has run aground. This seems the longest leg of our journey, we’re in no hurry it seems and the cause is me; I have to be on side in whatever is coming, and Hicks thinks that this is the way to get me to do it.

The girl is a constant companion in the mirror now, except when I’m shaving; she is there daily, primping herself in some way when I look up, passing her hand over her face as if feeling for something when I pass my hand over mine feeling the morning stubble. She disappears on the next glance as I lather the soap, it’s a sign of how long we have been at sea that I am running to the bottom of the pot.

Shaving is a ritual that helps me to hang on to reality, I’m not sure that here is real, but I have lived everyday as if it is, and I shave because there is a reassuring routine, I know just a day has passed because of the length of my stubble. It seems as if it is something that I could not be fooled by, as if it is the one thing that in another reality, inside my head, doesn’t happen. When I shave, I am marking the passage of time, the movement of one day to the next in a way that cannot be denied. The scrape of the blade along my skin is a feeling of security, the attention to detail that is missing in a dream. Dreams, unreality passes over the bare detail of life, visits to the head, shaving, showering.

It is shaving that is a moment of concentration, an absolution from everything else that the day has to offer. It is a meditation on life and what has been and what is to come. The girl is there and then she is gone while I shave, and this too is an assertion of myself and my reality. It is a rite of passage.

__________

I’m fourteen years old, and my father is teaching me to shave. He is an anxious man, already I am taller than him, and he must look up at my faint whiskers; but I have talked to him already about shaving, and he has come to the conclusion that it is time.

We are in the bathroom, it’s cold, winter and the breezes blow in the little house.

My father is a grey little man, the epitome of a caricature of the accountant that he is; with one single exception, he has a shock of bright, thick, red hair. He talks conservatively, walks and never runs, cycles to work locally, and takes lunch to work made by my mother, simply because it saves money.

I have elected to shave with a shaver, my father a lifelong wet shaver frowned at first when I said this to him, but said nothing and investigated the possibilities. He insists that wet shaving is an essential skill that I must at some point acquire, but for now, as I begin a lifetime of hair removal, I must make my own choices.

He produces a razor, it is an expensive complicated machine, and I read the instruction manual first, as he would wish, and then listen patiently to his advice. He guides my hand as we turn on the machine and trim the long hairs, he’s very gentle, as if I might break somehow. I know that he is caring and concerned that I might cut myself, and so I let myself be guided through. He turns the shaving surface around and talks about how it will pull at first, and how I must get used to the sensation, it might be uncomfortable at first.

I grip the razor and move the buzzing machine over my face, there are a few tugs, but the machine is well designed, and I feel little discomfort. He seems happy that I have made a good job of it, and pats me awkwardly on the arm. I have already gotten out of the habit of touching people, and this is the first real physical contact we have had for over a year.

____________

We’re near Spain now, and there is that sensation that something is about to happen again on board; I can’t put my finger on it, but the work seems a little more frenetic, the computers board busier, and the people a little more distant, focussed. Even Charles has less time for our games, and we frequently leave them in the middle. I help about above decks more again as the catches grow bigger despite the small nets, and we have to call into port to sell the fish. To Hicks’ irritation we are even fined for being over quota at one point, and for a week or two we don’t even put the nets out. This is bad for morale, and the lads spend all their time playing cards and watching films.

Hicks broods about this for a while, it’s the first sign of real moodiness I have seen in the crew, and I’m concerned about it, but eventually he gives the order the cast the nets again and the trawler resumes its’ visible work.

I learn something during this time that I had not realised.

One of the functions of the boat is, apparently, to remain undetected and at sea for as long as possible while doing, well, whatever it does. The nets sprawl out over a considerable area, spread by something called “otter boards” which spread the net out, and we are “pelagic” or mid-water trawling. Our nets are specially manufactured for what turns out to be about twice the speed of even the fastest trawlers, which is why most of the time, we don’t catch many fish, and why what we do catch remain alive in the net for a long time. Since the purpose of our vessel is to remain at sea for a long time, this arrangement is generally convenient. But it does something else too.

It keeps submarines away.

Our nets are a hazard, and they stay away because we are heavily disguised by the sound of so many fish, and a hazard to navigation as well. We are well disguised.

I’m beginning to have a strange admiration for this team and their preparedness and the design of this vessel.

I realise that this too is part of Hicks plan, to get me on board. To get me of my own free will to join whatever it is he has planned.

And since my memory has not returned, I realise that this is my life now, that Hong Kong is six months and more behind be, but also a lifetime behind me.

I don’t like being someone else’s man, but maybe I am not being that. Maybe I am merely being guided gently, looked after because gentle guidance is the only way to get someone to follow you, truly, to commit, to be there for you, because you are there for them.

Maybe it’s like learning to shave with your father, and not being in pain.

That tension that I have been detecting comes to a head.

We’re well out of sight of land and have been for some days, I happen to be on deck. There’s a large grey ship out there, on the horizon and I can tell that we are approaching it. I say nothing but help as the nets are pulled in, the above crew are particularly cheery and light as we approach, but I see nothing to be happy about. It’s a military vessel and it looks like we chasing it for a good while, but then it begins to turn. Some signals from below are obviously being exchanged, and I see our little radar stop moving round and round, instead it takes up a tracking position that varies minutely as the other massive grey ship starts to loom. It looks like any conventional aircraft carrier, but then part of the bow opens as we approach, and to my surprise there is a dock within.

The deck crew lounge about watching the docking procedure, all except the Steering Master and the Pilot who are very active in the control room. Engines I didn’t know we had start up, and I realise that this is a fully equipped tug as well, our position held to within a foot as we approach the dock within the ship.

The sense of size of the vessel is communicated to me thoroughly for the first time as it encloses us, the bow doors closing before we are fully engaged. Some of the below crew come up to see the final moments of the docking. I see the crew all stand away from the sides as the final seconds approach, and I do the same. I’m almost knocked off my feet as a large clanking sound confirms that we are engaged in some sort of cradle, and a gangplank winds out from the dockside. I hear the sound of vigorous pumping from below and see that the seawater is being pumped out.

Hicks comes from below. ”With me,” he says curtly, as he strides past towards the jetty. It’s unnervingly high and narrow, if you’re subject of that sort of thing, but as we cross it he slows down, the Captain of the massive vessel is approaching with a rating who is laden with clipboards and a case. She is wearing heels, that seems wrong from what I know of military personnel. Hicks is all business, however. I find out something else I didn’t know about him.

“Admiral Hicks. Permission to come aboard.”

“Captain Tomlinson. Pleased to meet you sir. Permission granted. If you’d care to sign the boarding forms and service agreements…?” He gestures to the rating, who is looking at me with interest. She sees me glance down again.

“I have flat feet, and I can run 100 Metres in 12.3 seconds in these, does that answer your question?” I nod, dumbly. The Captain seems to notice me for the first time.

“Is this him?” Hicks nods, “Yes, he hasn’t been told yet.”

“Well, we’ve got everything ready.” Hicks looks at me.

“Just wait.” I wait.

We’re taken up through levels of the ship by the Captain, his rating, introduced to us as a Lieutenant Sweet, I don’t move a muscle in my face, and Hicks evidently knows her, and we are joined by two large sailors in dress uniform and, notably guns. Pistols to be exact, two, each. They also look like they have no sense of humour. At all.

As we shift places in the inevitable single file, I am next to Lieutenant Sweet once more, she looks at me appraisingly.

“Not a twitch. You pass.” I try not to be too cool about it.

“I might be faking it.” She raises an eyebrow, black like her hair.

“If you’re faking it, you still pass, because you’re willing to try.” She steps up the ladder, which is entirely unsuited for her in heels and the skirt of her dress uniform. I wait with my eyes lowered. She looks back down. ”And you still pass, because nearly every man looks once, with the notable exception of Hewey and Dewey there, but they are disciplined.”

“Thank you Ma’am.” They say.

“Do come along, Sweet.” I hear the Captain say. ”We’re pushed for time.”

“Yessir.” She says rapidly, and is all business again.

“Though I’m glad you approve.” He murmurs as she takes is side once more. Hicks is next to me again.

“Stop chatting up the crew.” I raise my hand in supplication, but he has moved on.

We’re bought to cabins, small, naturally, but privileged.

“Prepare yourself, ” says the Captain.

“He still hasn’t been briefed,” says Hicks. The Captain says nothing, just nods. I’m left in the Cabin. There is a basin and a mirror. look in it wondering what I’ll see. I see her.

It’s a shock, such a shock, I’m not ready. I have seen her so many times and she has always reflected my movements, reflected me, as she were me, she has invaded my sense of identity, my sense of self and I have lived with it, as though she is something in my head reflecting some inner me that is not available otherwise. I have gone months without questioning it, just accepted that this is who I am, I see things in the mirror that are not there. I have done irrational things because I have not been sure, I have never been sure.

Now, now though I see something that is independent, I think it’s independent. I think.

She is holding a sign that I am not.

It says “Prepare yourself.”

Part 1 – Chapter 2 – Hospital

Monday, July 1st, 2013

There is pain, sound, light; a confused jumble of images. I think for a moment that I must have fallen asleep during a film, but the pain comes and a soothing hand touches my forehead.

“Sleep now…” and I am so very tired the voice commands as much as soothes and I retire from the world again, a pleasant blankness overcoming me.

In my dreams I’m a five year old girl and we’re having a tea party, my friends are coming around to play. The dollies and bears are sat at the table and the little plastic plates are laid out neatly with the fine china my mother has laid out for the “big people”. My friends come with their mothers, and the adults talk away in my mother’s large kitchen while we retire to the garden for our tea. There is cake and lemonade, and because I’m a very strange little girl a pot of tea and milk and sugar. Only I am allowed to pour it, because I am responsible. Natashia and Katie and Gemma all seem very subdued, they are very quiet, but I try and be jolly and nice, just as mother said. I am the perfect hostess. Mother has bought me some new shoes for this party to go with my little party dress, there is a stain on them, I wonder where that came from?

Well, mother says to pass over things like that unless they an emergency.

My friends really are very quiet, I pour lemonade and pass around little sandwiches with the crusts cut off, cucumber and ham, not together silly, separately, with real butter and the whitest of bread.

Mr Bear and Dolly are quiet too, I try and jolly them up, but there really is nothing you can do for some people.

One of my friends is crying, it’s Katie, she seems frightened, the others hold her, but she shies away from me, I only want to help, I only ever want to help. She is saying something, I notice that stain on my shoes again, there is something in the grass. Katie’s not crying now, she’s just afraid, and I’m not sure why, at least I’m not sure why until Natashia speaks, in a petulant voice, which I have never liked,

“Eww, why did you do that to your dollies? And there did you get that stuff? I’ve had enough, I want to go home!”

And it is then, only then that I look around at my dollies, and realised that every single one has been shot through the head with a small calibre bullet, and that stain isn’t a stain.

It’s Blood.

I wake with a start and a sharply indrawn breath, that wasn’t me whatever it was. I’m still surrounded by a bright light and a beep. The nurse comes in and takes my pulse, she is short, stocky, business-like.

“You’ve been asleep a long time. How are you feeling?” I have a tube, I just nod. ”Good, we’ll get someone to take that out.” I nod again, trying not to move too much. There is a tent over my legs, but my arms are free. My arms are free, there is no guard, I’m not under arrest in the hospital.

Why?

I remember the police men, policemen, police-men; they came in, I ran there was pain, so much…

The detective is dressed in a mac and an ill-fitting hat, it would be, he’s a giant teddy bear, he’s got a thick pencil and has to wrap his paw around it to write. He’s amazingly dexterous with it, and has a flowing script that looks musical. He’s sat next to me, I’m that little girl again and we’re in the garden. He has a sidekick, a ragdoll in a stitched on uniform, I can see my mother with her hand to her mouth being comforted by the others. The ragdoll kneels down, her hand in a glove and touches the blood…

I’m awake, no tube, I swallow urgently. There is no beeping. It’s dark.

I sit up and the movement triggers some lights, they blink on above me and spread out. White everywhere, I’m on a metal table, hard, steel, cold. Memory floods back. I pull up my trouser leg, I’m dressed all in black, loose linen, work clothes. My leg is a network of scars.

And then I look past my leg, to the only other thing that is here in this arena of whiteness.

A small dolly.

There is a bullet hole, and blood…

I’m whole. I know it, I can stand, I can walk. The pain is gone.

I slip off the metal bench, shiny, utilitarian. The doll occupies my mind, I thought it was a dream.

It was a dream, I must be dreaming now, it’s never been like this.

It’s there, lying on the ground, bleeding, no, not bleeding; that’s finished. I prod it out of a morbid curiosity, it’s like flesh, heavy, creepy. I’m frightened, frightened. I’m a killer, a professional; and now, I’m frightened. I’m reluctant to touch it again, my feel have some sort of leather slippers, I use my toe to turn it over.

It’s not pretty, brains mashed out the back, a proper exit wound from a too large gun. This was an alive thing, alive; it walked and presumably talked, but it looks like a doll, it’s a doll. It was living. I can’t look, I turn it back over. Did I do this?

I feel something, something new. It’s a rock in my heart, I think I might be having a heart attack for a moment, for longer than a moment; minutes pass, I can’t catch my breath, my chest clenches, the room, warehouse, swirls around me and I stagger few steps away and sit on the ground. There’s a sob, and another, and I look around for the source. It is only when the first black tears fall upon my hand that I realise that it is me. I’m crying. How can I be crying?

I don’t know why I’m crying, I feel stupid. I don’t where I am and I’m crying over a doll; but it’s a living doll, it was alive, alive! I’m stupid and I’m going to die, can’t breathe, air, I need air…

…I wake up a few minutes later, more rational. There is something wrong here. I have two things to do and one of them will bring me near the doll again, and I’m not ready for that. I must preserve myself.

I go to the table and look in the shiny surface. It’s me, and I glance away disappointed. When I look back, she’s there, holding her finger to my lips, it’s a shock, and we slide down the side of the table together her and I, and the doll appears in the reflection. I see her get up as do I, but she has infinitely more grace than I, and we walk over to the doll. I can barely see her but she is doing something as I turn over the doll again, and see the wound. I look over to her and she is examining something too,, she’s looking at me, and then we turn away and look more closely.

I see with a more clinical eye this time, that the fragments of skull and bone are not right, the arrangement of the wound is wrong. The exit must have been directly at the back of the head, that is normal, but the trail of blood and brains spattered over the floor implies that the doll was held, not free-standing. Held, not held, supported, like in a cradle, for something unconscious, or not alive.

I pull the clothes off and see the stitch marks, it’s a grotesque made of animal parts and sewn to together with an exquisite care. I have never seen the like of it, it’s so awful that I have to be sick, and I move some distance away, realising for the first time that I’m thinking of it as evidence. I spit until I’m clear.

When I look up, I’m nearer the table, and she is on her hands and knees too, her hair shrouding her face. I see a shadow behind her, someone pointing, pointing a gun, and when I turn, he’s there, pointing it at me.

Now maybe, there will be some answers.

“Well well.” I say, “This is the most normal thing that has happened in the last, I don’t know, long enough for me to be out of hospital.”

There is a gesture, with the gun, away from the, the doll thing. I get a chance to look at him. He’s wearing a suit, he looks like he’s preparing for a job interview at an undertakers. The suit is black, like midnight; the shirt is tailored in one of the rapid tailoring places in HK, the stitch count is off, but the suit is pure Savile row. His tie is silk, expensive silk, a thick knot; a double Windsor if I’m not mistaken. He probably thinks that he’s not giving much away, but the shirt tells me that something has happened to him lately. Something bad.

“It took a long time to find.” His voice is accented, Russian, somewhere near Tambov. I know these things. ”You are slippery customer.” Who is this guy? He must think he’s a Bond villain, slippery customer? His face creases up into a smile, or a semblance of one, it really doesn’t fit his body, which is slim, his face is heavyset and older than his actions, there is a certain sag to it, lugubriousness that speaks of a life hard lived, his dark beard shows even though he has closely shaved. There is a mole on his right cheek clearly damaged over time.

“Who are you?” It’s not really question, just a kind of opening gambit.

“Ah,” His face pulls up into that smile, it’s not really a smile, “that is a complicated question, but you can call me Polokov.” Another gesture with the gun, suits me, it’s further away from the, doll.

“Are you going to kill me?” I can see his fingers twitching for a cigarette, and the yellow stain becomes apparent. It’s deep within his fingers, a lifetime habit.

“No, no, probably not, if you do as I say.” I move as indicated, and we are walking slowly along this warehouse, square lights in the ceiling dissipating even a hint of shadow. In this light his clothes are like a black hole, they seems to get darker, and I cannot make out their features any more. He walks slightly behind be anyway, well out of range of any possible move I might make.

“Tell me, ” he says, “tell me why you kill for money.” I can hear him puffing as we walk, it’s quite at odds with his lean, slim frame, as if he is a much bigger, fatter man fighting for breath. Smoking will do that to you.

“It’s a moral matter, you wouldn’t understand.” He stops for a second, and then the slow pace resumes, we don’t seem to be getting anywhere, except, except further away from that thing. There is something in the distance though, a faint blob, it’s the first feature I have seen here. Polokov squints at it.

“You would be surprised what I can understand.”

“Then it’s for the money, but I could manage without that; it’s for the peace.”

“What peace?”

“Companies would go to war if not for me.”

“Is that true?”

“Yes, some of the street gangs, they are driven by the companies.”

“Mhph.” We walk in silence and the faint blob becomes close, it looks like another table, there does seems to be any walls here, as it the whole place stretches off to infinity, but it’s a trick of the intense light. ”I would have killed you where you stand if you had not said it was for the money. We all do things for money, we are no better than whores on the street.”

I’ve met these ladies, some of them barely more than children, some of them not even that, barely more; trafficked, abused, desperate, drug dependent. Oh sure a few are TV’s favourite, the “tart with a heart”, or “working my way through law school”, but these are just comforting tropes. Whores are generally desperate people. This offends me.

“We are better. We’re better off. ” I stop and turn, his grip on the gun tightens, “We can choose. I choose what I do, not because it is moral, but because I’m good at it. Until now.” He gestures urgently, and I move on.

“So you think you are judge yes?” His accent thickens, “You say we better because we can choose? Well what is your choice now, eh?”

“You’ve got the gun.”

“Then tell me way out.” He almost shouts, but it comes as a whisper. ”I need to get out.”

We’ve reached the table, it looks exactly like the table I was on, and beyond it, the doll.

Polokov shakes and shakes when he sees it, he’s not even holding the gun pointing at me now, he’s too disturbed. I move towards him cautiously, and then rapidly as his eyes turn up in his head. The gun drops and I catch it, placing it on the ground immediately so that it doesn’t go off, and I can catch him. He’s a limp mass and I can’t hold him, but I lower him to the ground as gently as I can. He is shaking and foaming, I’m not sure what is wrong with him, but I can see that he’s in a bad way.

It’s a vigil, and too near the, the doll, but I stay paying attention to him, avoiding looking in the table’s reflective surface. He calms after a while and his eyes look fairly normal. I’m not sure what has caused this fit, and I can do nothing about it. His breathing eases, and he slips into what seems to me to be a normal sleep. I don’t know how much time has passed, but I’m thirsty, that’s a bad sign.

Polokov wakes and I discover than I have been dozing on the floor by him. He is sitting up by the time I come to, and he looks at the gun, discarded only inches away from his hand. He picks it up by the barrel and hands it to me.

“Here,” he looks ashamed, I think, of his behaviour, “For you, you are more rational than I am it seems.” He starts to get to his feet. ”You took care of me. I appreciate it.” I nod, and he reaches down to me. I swap the gun from hand to hand, and take his, it’s the first thing resembling a handshake I’ve had in years. I don’t generally touch people if I can help it.

It strikes me that his hand is warm, yielding but strong, I had forgotten how strong people can be. I write about emotions and relationships, but I have not known the touch of others. I have avoided it. It is a guilt.

I kill people for a living.

The grotesque doll is still lying there, how we have come in a circle is a matter for some debate, but I assume we have, other possibilities are too complex to contemplate. The fact remains however, that we are lost in this place.

“You should walk some distance away, and we can assess how big this place is. You think you can manage that?”

“I can do that.” he says, accent thickening. Without another word he walks off. Perspective is warped, I should be able to see him for a long time, but within thirty places or so he becomes a speck and disappears.

“Polokov!” I shout. He answers from behind me, I jump.

“There is no need to shout friend. I seem to have gotten turned around again.” I look at him. I would have seen him turn, I’m sure of it.

“No, Polokov. This is an impossible place.”

“How can that be, we are in it?” I think for a moment.

“I will walk backwards and look at you, you will see.”

“What will I see? A man falling over when he misses a step?”

“No, watch.” I turn and start walking backwards. Polokov just looks at me, I point with two fingers to my eyes and to him, and he nods. The perspective trick happens again, and just as I lose sight of him, I bump into something. A second of terror forms in me, and Polokov catches me as I fall. I curse and curse and curse, and Polokov waits for me to finish venting my frustration and not a little fear.

“This is an impossible place.” I say it, eventually, without emotion.

“Yes.” He says, “Impossible.” And somehow he has the gun, and I cannot move quickly enough as he raises it to his head, and shoots himself.

There is no body, no blood this time, I am alone. And no gun either, I cannot escape like that. Polokov is gone, with nothing to say that he has been here. I look around the whiteness. I’m thirsty.

The table is still there, and I go to look in it, the shiny surface reflecting me for a brief second, and the as I blink, not me. She’s there again. There is nothing else there in the image, and when I look around, the hideous flesh doll is gone, and this little perspective is lost to me, apart from the table and her, there is nothing here and all is white with the world.

I miss Polokov already, but I think that I am dreaming, and this knowledge, or belief, finally is a revelation for me. It is like a wave of consciousness, and as I look into the reflection in the table I see she has had the same revelation, and I nod and smile as does she. It is a moment of clarity.

The light diminishes and I see a darkness coming from all sides as the ceiling lights go out. I’m at peace, for now, and the girl and I wave at each other with exactly the same gestures, the same smile, the same shrug of our shoulders, and the lights finally come to be just the one, which goes out.

__________________________

I wake up in the hospital. Polokov is there, sitting in a chair, dozing, but he becomes instantly alert as I move.

“So, you’re real.” I say weakly, “you escaped.” He nods, and opens his jacket a little to reveal a small handgun with a silencer. He speaks, his accent much more pronounced in what I assume is the real world.

“I have been sent to kill you.” He says quietly, “but you have been in my dream, or I have been in yours. I waited for you there for a long time you know. Years. Fortunately I am not a complicated man. Still, I was mad when you found me. Mad. I am not sure I am not mad now. I have been sent to kill you, but I cannot. It would kill her I’m sure, and we have a higher purpose now. I must run, my friend, so that I live for that purpose.” He holds his hand out. ”You saved me. You are my brother.” I look at him, not entirely understanding, but one thing I do understand.

I say with a dry throat…

“Run, my brother. Run.”

Polokov is gone.

I realise shortly after how many questions he could have answered if he knows about her. Either I’m still dreaming or she is real and I’m experiencing something other.

I get up from the hospital bed and wince in pain, this has to be real, my legs hurt. I take a look, the scars look just like in my dream, how long have I been here? I realise that I’m still hooked up, and unlink all the bits of plastic attached. Withdrawing the catheter is painful, but I’m careful, I’ve heard tales. There is beeping, a nurse comes in and starts fussing, but I’m not in the mood and blank it out while I go to the bathroom. She is flapping about, but I say nothing; the floor is cold, but I note, very clean.

I close the door of the bathroom, and look in the mirror, not without some trepidation, but all I see is a bearded me, quite a bush too, I’ve been out for a while. I take out the cannula in my arm as well, and run the shower.

It’s good, I have run it hot. I notice sore spots, bed sores I assume, I’m not as gentle with my skin as I should be, I notice some larger flakes coming off. I have been laid up for a good while, and there are other signs too, in my muscles and in my bones.

Everything aches.

When I exit the bathroom after about half an hour or so, there are two men in the hospital room. Unfriendly men, with badges. I look at them, then out the window, then at them. Hong Kong skyline, British Secret Service. I’ve never had any contact, I don’t know what to expect. I pull on a dressing gown and sit on the bed.

“Hicks,” says the shorter one, “and Charles.” Hicks opens his coat, taps a gun. ”Just so you know not to try anything.”

“…” I try to speak but it turns into a cough. Agent Charles reaches over and pours a plastic cup full of water. In deference to my theoretical skills, he pushes the wheeled table over to me, rather than trying to hand it over. I take a sip.

“Before you ask, I don’t know what I’m doing here.”

“You were trying to shoot someone.”

“I know nothing.”

“You’re lying.” Hicks is all business, he thinks he can bully me. Charles is waggling his eyebrows out the window as a Chinese nurse, she rolls her eyes.

“You can’t know that, how long have I been out?”

“Twenty-Six weeks.” I look up at him. There must be something in my eyes, certainly my heart is thumping, six months! Charles engages.

“Really, yes. Why do you think your legs healed so well? You broke then in seventeen places. We’re surprised you can stand, let alone walk.”

If I wasn’t already sitting on the bed, I would have to sit now. Hicks sniffs.

“You’re pretty professional by all accounts. We know who you were trying to kill. Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“We’re wasting our time here I see. Well, look when you’re prepared to talk, ring this number.” He hands me a card. ”Escape, don’t escape, we don’t care, we’ll track you down. In the meantime, you have to deal with the Hong Kong police, and you’re too weak to run.” They turn to leave.

“Wait.” There is a pause.

“I’ll come with you.”

“That wasn’t on offer.”

“You have to give me something if you want information.”

“You’re in no position to bargain.”

“Then the UK Government will have to have its curiosity unsatisfied then.”

“We’re at an impasse, good-day to you.” A hand on the door handle. I play my only card.

“Polokov.”

“Polokov.” There is a pregnant pause.

“He was sent to kill me. He left an hour ago.”

“He’s good, what did you do to him.”

“I saved him, he owed me.”

“Polokov owes no-one.” Charles steps out the door and talks into a radio. Forgive me, Polokov, I can’t be in the hands of the Hong Kong Police. Foreign secret service is better. Yeah I look like a Brit, but I was born here, my passport, passports, say Hong Kong. It’s China now, they take a dim view of assassination.

“He owes me, and if you want more you have to take me with you.” Hicks looks out the window at Charles, Charles nods.

“Are you strong enough to dress yourself?” And surprisingly, I am, though it hurts. Everything hurts. I’ve been lying down for most of six months. I need something though, a pen and a piece of paper. The girl, she’s in danger. I write “Police coming, get out” on a sheet of notepaper I find by the bed and go into the bathroom and hold it up to the mirror. I see her holding up exactly the same piece of paper reversed. Damn, that means they’re coming now. I smile at her as she smiles at me, and then I exit rapidly.

“We have to go.” I say. ”Now” Charles speaks more into his radio urgently and there is a movement of people on the hospital floor, a sudden influx of black coats. I dress, not bothering with modestly or dignity, and it is not lost on me that my clothes are black linen.

Staff are hustled out of the way, and I barely have time to don a pair of shoes before Charles and Hicks grab me both arms and hustle me to the lift. Hicks has a priority key and turns it before the doors have closed, and the lift plummets twenty-six floors down to the basement car park. We move quickly to a large black Range Rover, and the rest, the rest is a car chase through narrow streets.

Part 1 – An Upheaval – Chapter 1 – Failed Mission

Monday, July 1st, 2013

Chapter 1 – Failed Mission

The first time I see her, in a mirror, I think I’m dreaming. It’s a shock, that hair, those eyes, that pale skin. She’s not me, it’s a shock.

I’m expecting a sun ripened face, lopsided, a beard, jeans and t-shirt; nothing exciting at the end of a day bumming around the house, writing. That’s what I do when I’m not killing people, for money. A lot of money. Important people, people who can afford protection. Important. People.

And then, when I’m not preparing for it, or doing it, or recovering from it, I write. Romantic novels. Trashy romantic novels. Because it makes money, enough to live on if work is light. It means I don’t have to be seen much, don’t have to mix. I’m an author, my neighbours know me, I hold little parties every now and again. We have a foursome for bridge.

I’m a prolific writer, I can usually find an excuse to be in whatever country I need to be in. I charge a lot of money for my real work. Governments use me. It’s a dirty world out there. I have a cat.

I see her standing there as though she’s me, moving like me, not like me, she’s graceful, I’m not. She’s cute, but young, in this warped day and age she could be fourteen to thirty, but I convince myself she’s about twenty-two, teenagers move less carefully, with less assurance. Her hair is black and long, really long, cascading over her short, tight fitting black dress. Hah, look at me, I see a strange girl in the mirror and I’m interested in how she dresses. This isn’t the inspiration for a romance, it’s a mental aberration, I’m hallucinating. I can’t afford it, I have be focused, either to write, or the other thing.

I go into the bath room and splash some cold water on my face. My beard seems wrong, she’s not in this mirror, but my beard seems wrong. I fish around in the bathroom cabinet behind the mirror, I have some shaving gear there. It’s a bowl and a brush, there were safety razors, but they don’t look all that safe now. There is a straight razor and a strop.

I hang the strop on the peg, pulling it to be sure it won’t come off. It’s not dusty, it’s been rolled up, so it curls annoyingly. I roll it the other way carefully. The straight razor still looks sharp, it’s always sharp. I strop it well, it takes some time to get that edge, that glint and shine. A hair splits, but it’s not good enough, I run the water freely into the sink without a plug, so that it gets hot, and strop the razor some more. I don’t put the plug in until the water steams. Then it’s too hot, add a little cold, because I don’t want to burn, but I need it hot, hot as I can.

I look again, to check she isn’t there. It’s still me, and that beard still looks wrong. It’s a year or more of growth. More. Since.

Never mind.

I take the razor to under my nose, a trace of shake before I begin, I recognise it for what it is and damp it down. I cut each hair cleanly away, the slight pain and the scraping noise telling me as a I close my eyes where I’m shaving and how close. It feels good. I have always done it thus, blind, I know where my face is, where all the hair is, as I know where everything is, once I have seen it. It’s why I’m such good marksman.

It’s gone, my beard lying in the sink, in the water. I look up to the mirror to see what I look like and she’s there, turning her head this way and that as if inspecting my shave, my face as if she is me. I drop the blade, and with a start I hear the noise, a glance down, and she is gone again.

I have work. And a book published in Hong Kong, for which I have to visit. I get a woman, Jessica, to sign books for me, they; the public, think it’s her. But the publisher says I must be there. For questions. It’s arranged.

The target, a wealthy businessman. Dirty, in the business sense. Wife and kid. Pity, soon to be a widow. It’s cruel, but that’s not my business. Someone else would do it. I have rules, others don’t. I have to make sure this idiot provided for them before he goes. My clients, they don’t like that sometimes, the notice needed, the research. I’m a burglar and forger too, paper and electronics; and because of that, I have to know about law. To get it right. It’s an ethical matter, you wouldn’t understand.

These people, the ones I kill; they’re above the law, sometimes, beyond the reach of normal assassins. These ethics, they cost, they cost me a lot; but you can’t let go of them, or we’re nothing.

I can’t get the image of the girl out of my head. I see her wherever I go, in darkened windows, mirrors. I’m not focused, it’s bad. I consider putting the job off, difficult, but not impossible. I could reduce my fee, the client would understand. I’ve had sick leave, you can’t have a sneezy assassin. It would be unprofessional.

What could I say though? I’m seeing a girl in my waking dreams, I’ll have to put it off a few days? For a cold or ‘flu they would get it. Not for this. I have to carry on.

_______________________

I never bother trying to smuggle guns, if I was going to do that I might as well just a put a flag up. Sometimes I transport a weapon in the hold, declared, as a weapon for a club. I’m a member of several internationally. It’s a hobby.

Here, to Hong Kong, I don’t. I just buy something on the black market in cases like this. Oh I could arrange an accident, but who would know that the interred has annoyed someone. It would just be an accident. There would be no point.

The place is busy, it’s always busy, but there are spaces in every city where it is quiet, I soon find mine. My contact meets me, Pierre; supposed to be French, an oily little stain of a man, but a good gun runner. All the French people I meet back home have a little class, they think they’re better, and maybe they are. They can cook for a start.

He talks almost constantly, about his health, his wife, his daughter in a broad French accent that seems to have no region. He gives away too much always, or too little, but I guess he’s at least telling the truth; his stories and complaints have a history and an inconsistency that tell me he misremembers something and edits others.

I walk around town.

The next day is bright and sunny. The little paved streets are warm underfoot, the red and silver taxis lazily buzzing through the narrow alleys, tyres thudding over the paving slabs. People walk around sometimes peering at me curiously, I use a little broken Cantonese to get some food, a noodle soup. There are signs in English, “Hair Avenue” and blue poles outside a barber’s shop, shuttered at this time of day.

The day saves me for a while, I don’t see her reflection, my reflection, in the glass of shop fronts; but then I catch sight of her wearing that same black dress, putting her shoe back on, in exactly the same attitude and position as I have taking a piece of gum off my shoe. I catch this out of the corner of my eye, as does she, and our eyes meet at the point where I should be looking at myself. I’m not; I see her, and she is tall, as tall as me in her heels; she’s putting her hand up to the side of her face, I feel my lack of beard, the unaccustomed smoothness.

An old lady asks me if I’m ok and I turn to her seeing my companion turn as well. I’m ok, I think I’m ok, I tell this old dear, and she carries on walking, drawing me with her and when I look up the window is gone and light has changed, so when I disengage it’s just me standing there, looking. The old lady looks back at me again and I start moving, saying “Xia xia” in passing, she bows uncertainly at the westerner trying to be polite.

Unless you have been to Hong Kong, it’s difficult to relate how narrow and busy the streets can be, how odd it is that they go up and down and up again in a pale imitation of San Francisco, except that it’s no imitation, it’s just a circumstance. I don’t place too much emphasis on coincidence, the world is large, things happen.

I’m alone in the crowd. I’m looking for that high vantage point, the unlikely place, far from my target. I’m lucky, it’s one of the things that makes me so good at what I do, there is always somewhere from me to work from, some apartment I can hole up in for a few days. Someone is always away.

I settle myself in, jimmying the door was the work of a few seconds, and the sheet of glass took care of the alarm.

There’s nothing to do but wait. I’m used to waiting. I make some arrangements. A tape over the door, just sticky tape, careful not to leave a print or anything as crass as that. That little tearing sound will warn me if it open unexpectedly. A fire-starter, easily removed but effective, for a quick exit. A rope and a brake. Never used. Just in case. I settle down to write, why waste the time? Another romance, a sauciness I don’t usually put in. A description of her creeps in, I erase it.

Hong Kong is never really dark and I let the light flood in, but live in the dark for tonight. The brightness of the screen lights my face and the keyboard, but there is only that. I write and write, the words pouring from me like a river, I’ve been able to touch type for years and I let my mind drift as the well-worn passages are wrestled into new shapes, new titillations, some of it erotic, but it leaves me cold; I can be touched, I’ve been with women, I enjoy it, but writing, making it up, it’s a profession, not a turn on.

I don’t need much sleep and it’s three in the morning before I feel the first touch of fatigue hit me, my fingers stumble on the keyboard and I know it is time to stop. The old routines take me, I pack everything into the rucksack, make up the bed with clean sheets and sleep in it. The police never check even if they find these places. There is nothing left of me, the gun is packed up and I go to brush my teeth before hitting the sack. There is a mirror. There is always a mirror, not so much because humanity is vain any more, but because of health. We like to see our teeth clean. When I look up she is there, hair tied back, black pyjamas protecting her modesty, she moves her face like me, grimaces like me. I still have a mouth full of toothpaste and saliva and go, she bobs her head down to spit, and so do I. It’s not a volitional act, I do it because I’m doing it, and her too it seems. I have a wrinkle near my eye, I check it and pull it, not as young as I used to be any more, she is doing all these things, she hasn’t a wrinkle I’m sure, it’s all imaginary.

It’s all imaginary, I can’t be seeing her, she’s not there.

She. Is. Not. There.

I resist the movements in the mirror, try not to do what she is doing, but that damned eyebrow hair has been annoying me, it will put me off my shot tomorrow, I scrabble around in the bathroom cabinet for tweezers, as I close it she brings them up to our eyebrow and plucks, just the once. A relief, I won’t worry about this. I smile involuntarily as she does, for me it is like seeing the sun come up, she is dazzling, perfect; but I’m done and we turn away from the mirror. I don’t see her leave. She’s not there, it’s all imaginary.

I sleep fitfully.

Dawn comes and I’m up, exercising, it’s important when cooped up, exercise, stretch, don’t be inactive. I drink coffee, one cup; then tea.

I go to brush my teeth again, she’s not there, just me. I’m disappointed. A bitter little feeling comes. I push it away, today I take a life. I have done everything, those left are well provided for, I have nothing to fear. I wash up for the last time, I think I catch a reflection of her in a glass, but it’s momentary and I have better things to do than chase ghosts.

Not better things, more important things. Let’s not kid ourselves, I’m no angel. I do something important. But I’m no angel.

There isn’t any more time. With perfect assurance I take out the components of the gun and begin to assemble it. It’s big, I take some time, everything must be perfect. There’s a knock at the door, I ignore it, but I’m still. This is the worst time, the most risk, when I’m assembling equipment, it’s when I’m most vulnerable. The apartment is one big room, a bedroom and a bathroom, I silently pick up my stuff and move into the bedroom. The knock doesn’t repeat, but a few minutes later I hear a faint scrape, and as I pull me head back in, a tiny mirror slides under the door. I already know that this job won’t be completed. That’s a more sophisticated approach than the local police would take. There is no sound from the door. I have no idea what they are doing, because I’ve never been here before, they have never been this close, or even had a clue.

I realise that the gun is lost. I take the pieces that are most identifiable and pocket them. I risk a glance from the window. I’m lucky, they’re trying to be discreet, so they haven’t covered everything in line of sight. I’ll get a few seconds from the bedroom window. I open it, shoving hard against the safety stop, and alarm goes off. It’s a fire alarm, the windows are rigged, that’s new, I hadn’t counted on that. The is a furious banging on the door as I clip the brake on to the rope. I can hear the heavy wood starting to splinter, for some reason I feel compelled to count the bangs. There is rapid speech on radios and on bang number four I jump out the window the rope running through the brake feely. I’ve chosen a seventeenth story apartment, it now looks very far up but I fall and fall, squeezing on the brake about halfway down. The is a little sound and something tugs sharply at my clothes.

I’m going too fast and I turn my face up to see, to see…

She’s there, falling with me, in that window. Time slows as I see her hair floating upwards as she falls I catch every detail, every strand of hair, the glint in her eye, her broken dress strap, I see it all and note, she has no rope.

A powerful rush of adrenaline inside me and time slows again I see another bullet roll lazily past me and I start to reach out to her my hand moving with glacial slowness, but I have to try, I have to try.

Another pane of glass and she is reaching out out out towards me and our fingertips brush the glass for a moment, a shock, it’s warm, yielding, like touching a person not a reflection, and then the moment is gone and she falls and I hit the ground with a bone shattering crash, and for a while, I leave the world.