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.”

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