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.

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