Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Symbiosis - Implantation part 1

2543 (27-5th-7) New Calendar - Prima Centurai

“You want me to do what now?”

Baroth sighed and rubbed the heels of his hands over his eyes. Cailin could be distinctly trying sometimes, especially when she’d just finished her shift. He suspected that woman she worked with was probably responsible.

“I want you to actually meet Arla and talk her through the advantages of having an implant,” he repeated, fighting hard to keep any emotion out of his voice. “The sooner she can start to learn things by herself, the sooner she’ll progress.”

“Baroth, I know you find it perfectly easy to talk to people regardless of their race or class, but I find it perfectly impossible myself,” Cailin snapped. Behind her, Inge winced at the volume of her voice and glanced through the vitruvium at Arla, who was very carefully dismantling the wash-unit, oblivious to them. “What if I go and give her a mental breakdown? Or tell her too much? Or something?”

“You won’t,” Baroth said calmly as Inge rubbed one pointed ear. “I’ll be in there with you, don’t worry. Just try and answer her questions as completely as you can, and if she pauses half-way through a sentence don’t interrupt.”

“Is she a genius yet?” Cailin asked plaintively. “Because I hate High Intellects.”

“You know, I’m standing right behind you,” Inge muttered. Cailin snorted.

“You’re a Symbiote, Inge, you don’t count. Her? She’s a freak of nature.”

“Cailin,” Baroth began, but Cailin waved a hand dismissively.

“I know, I know,” she said irritably. “Fine. Take me in. But you owe me at least three drinks. Or a voucher for a professional hitman, either’s good.”

“How about I help you save the universe?”

“Baroth, that is so clich├ęd.”

They arrived at the door and Baroth keyed it open whilst Cailin fidgeted impatiently. She was partly right, in fact, or at least had the potential to be; Baroth had no idea whether or not Arla would be okay talking to Cailin, given her recent mental state. But they had to try. Hopefully, exposure to small amounts of Cailin wouldn’t prove fatal.

The door slid open, and Arla looked up expectantly. She smiled as she saw Baroth, a genuine expression that lit up her face, and in seconds she was on her feet and darting for the shelf. Baroth grinned and stepped into the room, Cailin trailing behind him. It seemed that today was one of Arla’s ‘good days’.

Arla pulled the pot off the shelf, and suddenly Baroth found himself nose-to-pot as she thrust it excitedly towards him.

“Baroth, look! Nut grew! Nut became Sprout!”

Sure enough, a thin green tendril was just poking out of the earth, barely a centimetre in length still and curled at the tip. He smiled at Arla, lifted by her obvious joy.

“So it did! Well done, Arla. You must have taken good care of it.”

She looked bashfully proud of herself, and hugged the pot to her chest.

“I watered it,” Arla said. “Every day, like you said.”

“Very good,” Baroth said gently, looking at her carefully. “Can I ask you something? Why have you now changed Nut’s name to Sprout?”

And instantly, Arla deflated, self-doubt riddling her expression.

“Shouldn’t I have?” she asked, uncertain. “Is that bad?”

“Not at all,” he told her firmly. “I’m just curious as to the reasoning behind it, that’s all.”

“Oh.” Arla looked down at Sprout, thinking. “Because… just because it’s a Sprout now,” she said. A thought struck her. “Do you mean Nut is still there?”

“Yes, it is,” Baroth nodded. “Eventually it won’t be, but for now, Nut is still under the soil. It’s just got a sprout as well as roots now.”

“Oh.” Arla stared at the pot in her arms, apparently thinking hard. “It looks different,” she said at last, in the voice she used when making conclusions. “And it has a sprout now as well. But… it’s the same. It’s still Nut. Just with… extra things.”

“Yes,” Baroth said simply. Arla smiled her I-got-a-question-right smile, and Baroth grinned.
“Anyway,” he said, stepping carefully to the side so that he was standing near Arla, “this is Cailin, a friend of mine. And hopefully of yours. She’s come to meet you.”

“Hello!” said Arla brightly, and Baroth breathed an internal sigh of relief at her lack of reserve. She brandished the pot eagerly at Cailin and said, “This is Nut! He has a sprout, now.”

“Er… so I see,” Cailin said, with the look of someone who secretly knew that small children were poisonous and had just met one masquerading as an adult. Baroth hid his smile. “Very… green.”

“Isn’t it?” Arla agreed happily. She did seem to like green, Baroth had noticed. “I watered it. Do you know any puzzles?”

“We’d like to talk about something else, actually,” Baroth said gently. “Hopefully it’ll stop you being bored. Cailin?”

“Have you ever come across a computational unit?” Cailin asked. Arla smiled brightly, and nodded.

“Can I fix one?” she asked eagerly. “I only have the wash-unit to fix here, really, because I’m not allowed the vitruvium. And I have to break it first.”

“Actually, I was thinking you could use one,” Cailin said, apparently dryly amused in spite of herself. “A high-info one. So you could learn all about – well – everything, really.”

Arla’s jaw dropped, her eyes round. “Use one?” she asked. She seemed astonished. “I – I can’t, I’m… no, I’m not anymore…”

“No, you’re not,” Baroth said firmly. “So, if you want to, you can use a CU.”

“It’ll just require you to have a cranial implant,” Cailin said. “I have one, they don’t hurt.”

“What’s a cranial implant?” Arla asked, keenly interested. Cailin winced.

“That’s… a bit more complicated to explain…”

“Don’t,” Arla told her. “If I can learn everything after I get one, then I can learn then. When can I have it?”

“You know, that’s really not good logic to take through life,” Cailin said. Baroth ignored her.

“Right now, if you wish,” he said. “Inge has one ready for you. He can explain all the details to you.”

“I don’t want details,” Arla said stubbornly. “I want the implant.”

“You’ll still get the implant,” Baroth assured her. “But you should always find out what it is you’re getting.”

Arla paused to consider that. “In case it’s bad,” she said, more or less to herself. “Okay. Now?”

“Now,” Baroth smiled, and went to fetch Inge.


********

I got bored of waiting to do this story, so I've started again. I can't remember a lot of what I planned, so it won't be as good, but what the hey. You'll all just have to deal with it.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Socks


Saturday, 27 October 2007

Ffion

Right. This isn't too hard. Just a film. Not like we have to talk or anything. Oh my God. We're going out. We are, aren't we? Shut up, Ffion.

Oh, God, what if he changes his mind? He doesn't know me that well – what if he finds out what I'm really like?

No, no, it's fine. I've hidden my Girls Aloud CDs and Tom and Jerry DVDs. Damn, now I have Sound of the Underground stuck in my head.

Anyway, he might like Girls Aloud. Don't be a spaz, Ffion, no boys like Girls Aloud. Maybe gay guys. Don't say that, it's probably not PC. God.

And since when do you blaspheme so much? He might be a Christian. Oh, bugger, you'd better not offend him, or he'll dump you so hard. That'd be so embarassing – dumped after one day. The beat of the drum goes round and around ... Urgh.

Hang on. Who's THAT? I don't remember a midget in this film. Oh, Christ, I have no idea what's going on. What if he asks my opinion afterwards? I ... is that the girl from before? I thought she'd left for New York. Damn, damn, DAMN. Maybe I can phone someone to get me the plot off Wikipedia.

He's probably really into the film. Hmm. I sort-of want to hold his hand. You idiot, Ffion, like anyone wants to hold your skanky hand. Something something with the lights down low ... Stop that. You'll start singing it out loud or something.

Wonder what music he likes. Wish I knew. Then I could change my tastes accordingly. Hope he doesn't like rap. Dunno how I'll ever like that.

Damn, he might ask you about rap. Think. Stephanie likes rap, right? Or is that R and B? Is there a difference? Which one is Fifty Cent? It's the sound of, it's the sound of, it's the- That song's so catchy. Anyway, focus on the film, Ffion. He's clearly not going to ask you about rap.

I want to look at him. But he might see. He's so pretty. Want to touch his face. Urgh, that sounds creepy. Never, ever say that out loud. Okay. I'd like to kiss it, though. Like, a peck on the cheek. How long do you have to be going out before you can cheek-kiss? Hmm, my lips are dry. Better not kiss him yet.

I looked! Mwahaha. Dude, did you just do a maniacal laugh in your head? You're such a freak.

Bored of this film now. Want it over. Want to talk to him about it. Wait, no, not about the film – I still have no clue what's going on. Ooh, was that Brad Pitt? Note to self – read the credits carefully.

What if he asks to come over my place? Hope he does. I can ask Zoe for advice. She's brilliant at all this, I bet. She's so effortlessly friendly.

Wow, this has been the best two days ever. Aliens and ice cream yesterday, film with Dylan today. And Dan's party's on the weekend. I should invite Dylan. Wait, what if he says no? That'd be devastating. "Didn't bring Dylan, then, Ffion?" Dan will ask. "No, he's found out I'm awful company, Dan," I will say. "No surprises there, then," Dan will reply, "but it might take the next guy a bit longer to work it out".

I don't get why Dylan likes me. He doesn't seem to have any personality faults at all. Surely people that perfect don't settle for people like me. Don't be so emo, Ffion.

HE HELD MY HAND! HE'S HOLDING MY HAND! YES! YES! OH MY JESUS GOD CHRIST BUGGER ME SIDEWAYS! Wow, that was extreme. I DON'T CARE, HE'S HOLDING MY HAND! YAY! Did you just say "yay"? YES I DID! YAY!

New Byllk #1: The First Night

I followed him, though I didn't know why. He'd lied to me, but I found myself forgiving him. I didn't know his reasons, but I couldn't help but assume that I would accept them. He left, and so did I. I felt I owed him more than I owed anyone else. More than my friends? Perhaps. More than my family? To tell the truth, I hadn't thought of my family at all. I just followed. I trusted him. I still do.

-10001-

In the films, action is neat and straightforward. Everyone knows what to do. It's streamlined, and often elegant. In my experience – limited as it is – "action" is a confusing knot of strangers, nobody knowing what to expect, and nobody knowing what to do. We escaped far more easily than I'd expected. But then, we also had a passenger, which I had not expected. I assumed we would be chased, but I had no idea what was happening outside of this self-contained bubble. The spaceship.

-10001-

We land in an enormous field. I didn't realise anywhere in the world had such large areas of grassland left, let alone in the UK. I don't know where we are, and neither does Trenavass. He doesn't know much of Earth geography. Our passenger, we learn, is an interpretor, but his English is far from perfect. His name is Garnoff, and he's terrified. He'd come because he'd always wished to visit Earth, but now he's frightened – Trenavass was his prince, and he's stuck with him in this field for the time being. Where else could he go? I try to imagine how I'd feel, trapped on an alien world with Prince William or Harry.

-10001-

One hour later, and I feel myself coming to my senses. Trenavass and Garnoff have been speaking hurriedly in their own language. It's difficult to know what they're talking about, but Garnoff seems frightened still, and Trenavass seems determined. Neither seems to be angry, which I take to be a good sign. Left on my own, I check my phone. Plenty of text messages and missed calls, mostly from my housemates, Greg and Jeremy. None from Mel. And none from my family yet. What will I tell them?

-10001-

"Laoren?"

"Hmm?"

Laoren opened her eyes. She must have fallen asleep in the ship. Trenavass had taken off his helmet, revealing his light-blue skin and flat nose.

"The ship's invisibility drivers are hiding this entire area," he said. "Doesn't look like people come here too often, so we shouldn't be disturbed."

"How's Garnoff taking things?"

"We're still discussing things," said Trenavass. "He's scared of the future, but not of us. For the time being, he's not going to be difficult. But we still need to come to an understanding."

"What's the plan?" asked Laoren. "I mean, I can't stay here forever. I have friends, family ..."

"I've got some ideas," said Trenavass. "But it wasn't fair for me to lie to you before, and to exclude you from decisions. I shall keep you informed of my own intentions, and it'll be entirely up to you whether you wish to help me further." His nostril eyelids blinked. "If you want to leave now, I've managed to secure a map of the area. There's a train station nearby."

Laoren smiled.

"That's reassuring." She frowned. "And I have to consider that. Won't decide tonight, but eventually, I should get back to the others." She checked her phone, and was surprised to see that it was only eight o' clock. "Still time to phone the others. Do you mind?"

"Not at all," said Trenavass. "But ... it might be best for you to leave this area. Phone signals might disrupt the invisibility field.

-10001-

Laoren didn't reach the edge of the grassland. Because suddenly, she spotted someone – certainly not an alien.

She ran towards the figure, but the damage was already done.

"What on earth ...?" he said

"Sorry, sir ..." started Laoren.

"What are the odds?" the man was saying. "Everyone going mad over these aliens, and I end up finding them." He looked at Laoren. "You look human. Suppose it's a good shape."

"I'm human," said Laoren, a touch reproachful.

The man then removed something from his pocket; a wand-shaped device with two buttons on the side. He pointed it at Laoren, and clicked a button.

"Suppose some good's come of this, then! One more ruled out."

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Runick - Chapter 2

They stared down at the Mediation Chamber, hidden in the shadows of the highest balcony. Far below them six children stood alone on the floor, neatly lined up and presented in their Dedication outfits as they tried their hardest not to fidget. Shanarad kept staring around themself, mouths agape, drinking in the sight of the Centre between them. Rikka was childishly glad that they were so obviously disoriented. Ever since he’d met them he’d been wrestling hard with his own culture shock.

Which was odd, wasn’t it? Especially considering his own career path, so carefully chosen and tailored for him. He’d known all about Hasyol; about its population who came in braces with their minds somehow linked, about its religious nature, about its agriculture and mineral wealth and chief imports and exports.

And somehow, Rikka had merrily believed that this qualified him as knowing all about Hasyol. That was odd, wasn’t it?

Then he’d met Shanarad. And yes, they were a pair of people who shared the same name and apparently some sort of mind-link; but exactly how had they evolved that? Why was no one like that in Akona? Yes, they were religiously-minded. But what religion? What exactly did they believe? Yes, of course they did things differently, they were foreign and Rikka knew that one should expect strange behaviour from foreigners, but then…

Then the phrase ‘cultural differences’ had very suddenly been demonstrable, and Rikka had realised that he’d never, ever come across any cultural difference of any kind before. And that was odd.

“This happened to you?” Shanarad chorused quietly, dragging Rikka’s mind back into the room. That was so weird.

“Yeah,” Rikka whispered back. “To everyone here, on your sixth birthday. I was dedicated into politics. I’m good with languages.”

“Impressive.” Shanarad glanced at each other. “We have priests who select our children to be melded. When they are three, though, rather than six.”

“Melded?” Rikka glanced at them in surprise. “You aren’t born like this?”

“No,” said Shanarad, shaking their heads in perfect unison. “We are chosen by the priests and matched up, according to our qualities.”

“How do they know?” Rikka asked, fascinated.

“How do your High Ministers know?” Shanarad asked. “They are your Wise People, like our priests.”

Ah, yes. The High Ministers. The glue that held Akonan society together, that chose the futures its people would receive, whose sanctity of Akonan culture was the closest thing Rikka’s people had to a religion, and whom he’d sneaked Shanarad in to see when they would be performing their most sacred of duties that no one was allowed to see. Shanarad appeared to have really brought out the devil in Rikka.

Except now he was really having second thoughts.

The enormous door to the chamber opened below them, and a pair of musicians stepped out and played a small fanfare. Rikka’s fingers clenched the balcony’s guard rail tightly, the skin on his knuckles whitening. Here it was, then. No going back. Unless he dived Shanarad to the floor quickly before they saw anything, of course, but somehow Shan’s impressively muscled frame acted as a deterrent.

Behind the musicians the shadows in the doorway moved, and three Akonan High Ministers stepped into the chamber, faces painted bone-white and crimson robes swirling; and Shanarad’s gasp seemed to Rikka to fill the whole Centre, bouncing and echoing off every surface. He jumped violently and leapt away from the balcony, staring about them for non-existent enforcers he was sure were about to come swooping in at any moment.

“What is it?” Rikka whispered tersely, nerves jangling; but Shanarad could only stare in stunned disbelief, jaws dropped as the first Mediation began –


The gong sounded, and jarred Rikka awake. He’d fallen asleep, he realised stupidly. He hadn’t meant to do that. Had he really been that tired? Maybe he was ill from sitting in a hospital.

He certainly felt sick as he pushed himself up onto his feet, but then, he always felt sick if he slept out of routine. Rikka liked routines. They helped him define the world. Even weirder than Shanarad having two bodies, he felt, was their complete lack of system or procedure in their lives. They had an utter disregard for things like set times of day in which to eat, or sleep or pray or anything else; they didn’t know how to queue to save their combined life; and, of course, nothing was too weird or unnecessary to say.

Stretching awkwardly to get the kinks out of his back, Rikka glanced out of the small window the room used for light and saw the last few Hasyolans heading home. It was a long process: every time they met another dyad or pair they had to stop and talk to them. Which, on reflection, explained the small size of the city, Rikka realised. The Hasyolans would probably take three days just to walk from one end of a Main Level to the other. They were absolute menaces to the Anti-Congestion Laws.

Carefully, Rikka folded up the dirty clothes he’d worn for the last week and pushed them into his backpack to fester at the bottom. He’d been looking forward to getting them washed once they’d reached the city, but it struck him that if they had to use Shanarad’s masterful getaway plan he’d have no time to get his clothes back. Hopefully, they wouldn’t have to flee the country for a day or so; quite apart from getting clean clothes, Rikka hadn’t realised just how much he valued mattresses. He finished packing, dressed to go, sat on the edge of the small bed and waited.

After half an hour, the streets outside were finally clear and Rikka heard a very quiet knocking on his room door. He opened it and Narad winked at him, beckoning him with a finger on her lips to follow her. Silently, they crept out past the darkened, curtained cubicles containing pairs of sick-beds, and Rikka resisted the urge to hold his breath lest there was anything airborne and contagious around him. Really, whether he caught any illness or not, it didn’t seem to matter. He was going to need a week just to let his nerves recover.

They were almost at the archway out of the hospital when Narad grabbed his arm suddenly and pulled him into the shadows. Rikka glanced down at her. He couldn’t hear or see anyone around, but then, that assessment included Shan. It was very possible that he was hidden somewhere outside and watching the doorway for them. After about a minute of waiting, they heard the shuffling of feet, and a dyad wearing medical uniforms on both bodies came in, laden down with bundles of some sort of long, grass-like plant. They carried their load through the room and into the back of the building, presumably to the storerooms, and Rikka and Narad slipped quietly outside.

The moons were bright, both approaching full, and they turned the otherwise short scurry to the squat Temple building into simultaneously the longest and shortest scurry of Rikka’s life. The light made him feel exposed, and he stared mistrustfully at the tiny houses they passed, certain that every window contained two voyeuristic faces eager and waiting to leap out and demand of them what exactly they thought they were doing. It never happened; but all the same, Rikka was extremely glad when they reached the doorway to the Temple and could hide in the shadow of the carved lintel.

They were odd carvings, actually, at once familiar and foreign to Rikka, but nerves and impatience made him push them out of his mind and face Shanarad. Both bodies were wearing a mingled look of reluctance and deep unhappiness as they stared up at the Temple doorway, and Rikka sympathised. Showing them the Akonan Mediation ceremony had been treason on his part; but this would be heresy for Shanarad. The High Ministers were governmental. The Priests were religious.

“It’s not too late, you know,” Rikka whispered as quietly as he could. “We don’t have to do this.”

“No,” Shanarad murmured back, summoning a look of determination from somewhere. “We do. And you know that. We have to know.”

Which was true, but the gravity of the situation, combined with the lack of any sort of planning to follow - and therefore the lack of a safety net - was suddenly weighing very heavily on Rikka’s mind, now that they were about to commit themselves. He glanced about the deserted city one more time. It was so silent and peaceful. Would that change tonight? Was Rikka about to make the good people of Hasyol form a pitch-fork wielding mob who would be after their blood for heresy? What even was the punishment for heresy here? Maybe it was to have people go and sit in your house; foreigners were weird.

Of course, Rikka thought slyly as Shanarad eased the door open softly and began to slip inside, forming a mob would involve them all coming into contact with one another. Knowing the Hasyolans they’d end up chatting inanely about whose melds hadn’t quite worked and whether all the recent rain was good for the harvest, rather than actually forming said angry mob. That was comforting.

He slid through the door and stopped, allowing his culturally-retarded mind a few seconds to catch up with his senses. The Temple was as alien a place as Rikka had ever seen, as different from the Akonan Edifices as water from stone. He was accustomed to splendour; marble and gold and painted plaster, coloured windows and all the bigger the better. Here, they were standing in a low corridor, the floor blanketed in a thick sand-like dust that swallowed all sound and seemed to dry out the air. An overpowering smell of spicy incense assailed Rikka’s nose and throat, making his eyes water and leaving him wanting to cough. The walls were a simple, rough plaster affair, uneven and cobbled in places, although it was hard to be sure; the only lighting was a pathetic attempt from a string of stuttering rush-lights set at intervals along the walls at head height, which dazzled Rikka more than if they’d simply been in the dark.

But, someone had made an attempt at decoration. The carved marks from the doorway were painted onto the walls in an elegant tumult of line and colour. Rikka quickly decided he didn’t like them. As he turned his head the light played tricks on him, and the paintings seemed to move on the edges of his vision. Probably, he thought, because they were Religious paintings; religions always seemed to be trying to freak out their followers in some way.

Shanarad set off in front of him and Rikka very quickly found that walking on the sandy stuff was hard work, more so without vision. Shanarad, of course, seemed fine. Did having two bodies afford one twice the balance? If so, he seriously had to grow another body, especially if Travelling was going to be his life now. And that seemed likely, since he was a treasonous heretic. Maybe he should learn to run faster, too. A hidden piece of spitefully jutting flooring tripped him up, and Rikka elected to simply lay a hand on Shanarad’s shoulder in the absence of having a second body himself.

They continued for what felt like far too long, considering the size of the Temple from the outside. After a while they reached a staircase and Shanarad paused, looking back along the corridor in confusion.

“There should have been three doorways by now,” they murmured uneasily. “They must have been removed while we were away.”

“Ah.” Rikka sighed, dread settling in like lead. “You don’t know the layout of the building any more, then.”

“No,” Shanarad muttered. “We’re sorry, Rikka. We didn’t expect this.”

Both bodies placed a hand each on Rikka’s arm, still holding Narad’s shoulder, and he felt oddly comforted. Despite how weird he still considered double-bodied entities to be, they were wonderfully companionable.

“It’s fine,” Rikka told them, forcing a smile. “It’s not like we had a plan anyway. We still just need to wander aimlessly until we find a priest.”

They squeezed his arm briefly and let go. “Onwards, then?” Shanarad chorused.

“Might as well,” Rikka said, peering down the stairs into the gloom. “Are the paintings getting thicker, by the way, or is it just me?”

“They are getting thicker,” Shanarad informed him. “Do they bother you?”

“They’re giving me a headache,” Rikka said, rubbing his forehead with his free hand. “Well, them and the smell and the lights combined. I keep thinking they’re moving.”

“You’re meant to,” Shanarad said as they began the descent. “It’s an illusion, we think.”

Rikka stopped himself from questioning that. Until Akona, this had very much been Shanarad’s religion, their system of belief and way of looking at the world. They had probably believed for years that the paintings were moving. As they picked their way down the uneven staircase, Rikka thought he could see them watching the paintings, faces unreadable.

They were almost at the bottom of the staircase when Shanarad suddenly did a double take at one marking and leapt backwards, almost trampling Rikka’s foot.

“What?” he hissed, staring around wildly and shuffling his feet back. “What is it?”

“That symbol,” Shanarad said quietly, voices thick with dread. “That’s us.”

“You?”

Rikka stared at the strange fresco. The offending mark was a symmetrical swirl of line and colour, almost like a stylised depiction of a tree. Narad reached out one hesitant arm to touch it, and Shan grabbed her wrist, stopping her. It was the freakiest thing Rikka had seen them do yet; hearing them speak independently had actually been weird, now that he understood them, but he’d never seen them behave independently like that. Evidently they were in two minds on this, and somehow it scared him.

He crept closer. “What do you mean, ‘you’?” Rikka whispered.

“We have marks,” Shanarad stated. “Birth-marks. They aren’t especially clear when we’re born, but they become so after melding, particularly among dyads. Dyads’ marks become the same, in fact. Just reversed.”

“Like Brekallan,” Rikka breathed, remembering the patterning beside their eyes he’d tried so hard not to stare at.

“Yes.” Shanarad was clearly distressed, voices rising. “When the birth-marks are overlapped, you have the symbol for that person.”

Narad tore her arm from Shan’s grip and pulled her sleeve up to her elbow, brandishing her forearm. Even in the weak light Rikka could see her birth-mark. It was like a crescent with branches.

“You see?” Shanarad said. “This is us! We are on this wall! But we don’t know how!”

How, indeed? Rikka’s heart was thudding painfully in his chest, and he fought his suddenly overly-dry throat to swallow.

“Could it have been painted on when you were melded?” he asked quietly. Shanarad shook their heads.

“The marks evolve. This is current.”

“Is anyone else here?” Rikka asked. His mind was racing. “On the wall, I mean.”

“No!” Narad scrubbed the heels of her hands against her eyes as Shan double-checked the walls around them. “It’s just us! But how?”

“Right.” Rikka stared at the crawling fresco. “Okay. That’s incredibly creepy, I can see that. We have one minute to be scared.”

Shanarad lapsed obediently into silence and they all stood unspeaking, looking up and down the staircase and back at the symbol on the wall. Did the priests know they were coming, then? Rikka wondered. Was this a message? A warning? Or simply a coincidence? Thinking about it, options one and two were probably fairly likely. They must somehow have known when Shanarad left that they’d come back asking questions. Maybe the painting was meant to be intimidating. Which, in fairness, it was, so they’d done their jobs if so…

But if the priests here did know they were coming, they would be walking into a trap.

Crap. This wasn’t going as planned. Although, probably if they had planned it it would be going considerably better, actually. People didn’t plan enough.

The minute passed, and they all looked at each other, strengthening their resolve.

“Okay,” Rikka said. “Let’s move on, yes?”

“Yes.” Shanarad’s determination was back, and with a final glance at the symbol on the wall they pressed on, moving to the bottom of the staircase, albeit rather more hesitantly than when they’d started.

The stairs deposited them into a distinctly abbreviated two-metre long corridor where the walls were so thick with paintings they were almost black. A solid-looking door greeted them, and Rikka bit his lip. If that door was locked, they were going to have problems. He’d never seen an onomatopoeic object before; it exuded words like ‘solid’ and ‘impregnable’ out of every grain in the wood.

“Will it be locked?” Rikka whispered, eyeing the massive iron plate nailed to the door.

“No,” Shanarad murmured uncertainly. “At least, it shouldn’t be. Locks are… exclusive.”

“Antisocial,” Rikka offered with a small smile. “That would be sinful. In a temple and everything.”

Shanarad forced a pair of weak smiles onto their faces, and stepped forward, palms up and facing out as if to greet someone. They placed their hands onto the iron and, with one last glance at Rikka, they pushed gently at the door.

It trembled in a most non-impregnable way that left Rikka feeling almost disappointed and shrank backwards a few inches, before sliding noiselessly sideways into the wall. They all froze, squinting into the dim light through the doorway. Blackness seemed to be on the other side; a room so big that the pathetic best efforts of the rush-lights didn’t stand an ironic prayer. Barely visible a metre through the doorway was a balcony guard rail, apparently a solid half-wall in the Temple instead of an actual rail. Rikka remembered Akona and fought the urge to laugh maniacally at the symmetry.

“Come.” Shanarad whispered. They stepped through, and leaned out over the balcony wall.

At first, Rikka could only see black and the burned-on after images from the rush-lights as they slowly faded. Even Shanarad was barely visible next to him. They didn’t speak. Rikka stared down, widening his eyes as far as he could. There was something down there, he was sure of it; as his vision acclimatised he could just about make out something pale and circular directly below them.

In fact… Now that he looked, Rikka could vaguely see a few more. Maybe they were floor decorations of some kind. How far down even was the floor? Impossible to say in the dark, really, although his vision was clearing faster now, so he would probably be able to tell in another minute. Rikka squinted, hard. It looked like there were tiny pin-pricks of light between the pale areas, like minute candle flames or lit match-sticks.

Rikka was about to ask Shanarad what they thought when he heard their sharp intake of conjoined breath and murmured Hasyolan curse. He tensed, straightening up hurriedly to look at them.

“What?” he hissed. “What is it?”

“It’s them,” they breathed.

Rikka felt his stomach drop into his feet and he looked back over the wall. How could they tell? It was so dark it was difficult to be sure; all Rikka could see still were the pale circles and those tiny little beads of light…

…Which flared suddenly and grew, becoming a pale, sickly white glow that threw illumination and shadow everywhere across the chamber, and Rikka bit back a yell.

He’d thought he could see something pale down there; floor decorations, he’d thought. The white-painted faces of the Priests stared up at them, waiting in silence.

Friday, 12 October 2007

House of the Rising Son - 4

IV


"Eldar!!!" The voice screamed over the vox as Xan cradled his head in his hands. He'd been right, they should have investigated the seemingly insignificant ship that was hiding behind one of the moons.

He scanned the monitors and saw the Imperial Guard pinned into a narrowing valley. Beyond the narrowest point was the source of the signal, but between them were an unknown number of Eldar with tactical advantage. The gallant Astartes were leading from the front, and the Guard were throwing their all into pinning the Eldar to the rocks.

Xan leaned back in the cockpit seat and steepled his fingers, thinking about Thunderhawk's arsenal of support weapons. "We couldn't provide some kind of cover fire, could we?"

"Orders from Venerable Hyr, sir," the Pilot replied, "If they have heavy weapons the ship could be damaged."

Xan knew that the Astartes weren't quite as thick-headed as he would have liked to think they were. They were testing the water, he was certain; sooner or later they would be forced into a retreat but not without learning the strengths and weaknesses of the Eldar defense.

**

It was a hopeless failiure, Tyran resigned to himself. He was standing in file with his soldiers, concentrating their fire on the dimly outlined rocks above them. Lasguns wouldn't win them the day. Not even the battle-stims could but them victory, they'd need a miracle.

His body moved independently of thought. Years of training and hard discipline had shaken the last of his early life from him. The Guard were his family, they were everything to him. They'd taught him self-respect, aspiration, given him structure and goals. Now all that seemed to be unravelling. His first mission an absolute failiure. Lack of planning, lack of foresight. The Astartes had wholly usurped his position, and understandably, given his inability to lead when it was needed.

Until he'd joined the Guard he'd never known the concept of shame. Morality had been something that the Emporor had taught him. Theft and vandalism had been part of his daily life. He thought of Syrene and instantly bile seemed to fill his gullet, burning in his chest. Misery shame fuelled each pull of the trigger. Not like this, he thought, I wont go down like this.

Light seemed to burn in front of him, and time slowed to a deathly crawl. Lasbeams hung in the air like tracers of blood-red energy. A voice whispered in his ear. It was sweet, angelic – the words indistinct, but their meaning was clear.

In an instant a vision came to him. He could win the day, it was all so obvious, all he had to do was go against all his instincts as a soldier and break rank.

**

"We've learned all we can," Hyr shouted down the vox. Xan nodded, satisfied that they could still regroup and organise a counter offensive. "I'm ordering the retreat."

Xan nodded to the pilot and the high orbital circling pattern changed steadily into a controlled descent. He ignored the plans for the pick-up point and instead concentrated on the import of the Eldar's presence. They were ancient, even before the days of antiquity they were old. Their motives were as sharp and erratic as their battle technique – in and out before anyone could flinch. The implications of why they were here, risking a prolonged defense of a position was worrying. He had to know what was behind this mysterious Imperial signal. He had to know the source.

**

Shuriken fire hissed and whizzed all around him, dancing off rocks and making that distinctive tearing sound that so embodied the alienness of the Eldar. Tyran's legs moved swiftly and unhindered in the low gravity. It lent him strength, speed and an unprecented agility that felt liberating. Maybe this was what it was like to be an Astartes.

The thought hung in his mind. It felt wrong, heretical to make such an arrogant presumption. As if he could ever know what it was like to be truly superhuman. The Inquisition would have a field day with him, that is if he survived this suicidal attempt of his.

At the head of the valley he staid low and watched as the lithe Eldar scoured the rocks, chattering incoherently. They were taller than the Astartes, which in itself seemed impossible. Their thin bodies coated in plates of pearly white armour. In the distance he could see the glittering form of the wraithbone portal. If he managed to destroy that then they would be cut off until reinforcements could reach them via their ship. It was a tempting target but his resolve was to find the source of the signal, it was what the voice in his mind wanted.

Risking capture, he leapt across a small gap and began to crawl through the dust and up a slope towards the crest of the crater. Over the vox he could hear the Astartes calling the retreat. Part of him was horrified, the rest was glad of the distraction. Maybe now the Eldar wouldn't be scouring the rocks for him.

At the lip of the crater he peered carefully into the unknown. The nebula, which was responsible for most of the light in this system, was unfortunately against him, but he could roughly make out the size of the crater. At its centre he was certain he would find the source of the signal. With luck a light appeared near the base of the fallen object. It was a green flare, Eldar in origin. There was someone down there examining it. The light picked up sharp details on the body of the object. It was large, reinfocred in plates of metal and largely unrecognisable in its origin.

Then he saw it – the Imperial Aquila. His heart skipped in his chest and he almost lost his grip. By now he could hear the Astartes screaming down the vox for his hide. His secret was out. They were calling him a traitor, but Tyran was re-affirming his faith in the Imperium at the sight of the most beloved symbol. "It's here!" he barked, "I've found it! For the Emporor!" he bellowed as he stood up and threw himself into the crater. His legs catapulted him down the slope in striding bounds. He ripped his las-pistol from its holster and shot aimlessly in the direction of the lone Eldar. It was too late to defend itself as Tyran landed on top of it.

Dimly he heard the roar of engines above him, the blasting bark of bolter report, deafening in the enclosed space.

As the world dissolved into light around him he heard a single, angelic voice whisper to him, "Thank you."

**

When Tyran woke up he found himself unable to move. His joints were rusty and his limbs were dull. As he opened his eyes details began to make themselves known. With an increasing sense of worry, he recognised that he was staring up at the ceiling of a detention cell.

The walls were made of reinforced steel and stone, designed to contain a rampaging Ork and perfectly capable of keeping Tyran enclosed for an eternity. With great effort he managed to push himself into a sitting position from where he could better survey his surroundings.

For some unknown reason he was wearing a white habit, not unlike that of an Adept. Memories from the battle in the crater came back to him. Flashes of bright white light. Angry voices. The sense of euphoria and divinity in his very being. He remembered rapture and joy. The whispered thanks.

"He's awake," he heard a voice clearly state from outside. The door shifted as the gears inside its robust body began to turn, swinging the mass into the alcove in the wall. Beyond, the light was brighter and Tyran found himself squinting. A small man entered the cell, sat on one of the benches opposite Tyran's and considered him with the full weight of his years and experience. Judging by the amount of Imperial paraphenalia dangling from his brown habit, both appeared to be considerable.

"What do you remember, boy?" The Remembrancer asked sharply.

Tyran shook his head and tried to speak through a mouth-full of phlegm. Coughing, he spluttered, "Not much."

"How convenient." The Remembrancer stood up and adjusted the adrenal valves at his neck. "You've casued quite a stir. First you broke ranks, then undertook a suicidal attempt to get to the source of the signal and now you've started spouting the words of the Emporor. In your sleep, no less."

Tyran frowned. All he really remembered was the white light and the voice.

"Did you recover the source?"

"Oh yes," the Remembrancer replied darkly, "We recovered it alright."

He gestured to the guards outside who swiftly obeyed, linking their arms under Tyran's and lifting him to his feet. The journey through the ship, past curious and hostile eyes all the way to the cargo hold passed in a flurry of unanswered questions. The voice in his head grew in its power the closer he got, his state became lucid and the walls and faces around him blurred into one mass.

Tyran's eyes shot open as he hit the deck, unceremoniously dumped in front of a giant pod. The Aquila seemed to glow on its surface. Beneath it, writing flickered across the surface in an ancient script. Tyran had never been able to read, he'd been too old to fully grasp even the basics, but these words proclaimed their meaning to him.

He crawled forward in disbelief to stroke the letters, needing to be certain that he understood what they meant. From the shadows people were watching. The Astartes loomed, threats and violence hung in the air unspoken.

"The Emporor be praised," Tyran muttered, his fingers finding the catch under the lip of the plating. With a hiss, the pod began to unfurl like a petal. "We are in the presence of the divine," he gasped, trying to translate for these mere mortals what he could see, "We are in the presence of a Primarch!"

As the light poured out of the pod, its glow bathing the room in song and power, Tyran stood up and peered into the heart of his dreams. Sitting on a bed of silver blankets, amidst a sea of coiling machinery and armour was a baby. Pearl-like in its fleshy glow and beautiful beyong all comprehension.

Tyran was too absorbed in this moment of perfection to notice the clamour of weapons behind him. Las-pistols were raised, bolters cocked and the room erupted in a wave of shouting. Many words were used in that moment, but one stood out above all the others.

"Heresy."

Runick - Chapter 1

“So… that’s a city to you?”

Rikka stared out at the village below them, shading his eyes from the afternoon sun with one long-fingered hand. From where they stood on the cliff, a sprawl of houses, buildings and roads filled the tiny valley from the sea to the nearest hills, barely a mile all round and with ample amounts of greenery left over among them all. He could make out people, moving in pairs about the place and pausing at street corners to talk, and what looked like a market place at the water’s edge, thronging with trades people. Beside him, Shanarad grinned, one looking down at the picture of urban life happily, the other watching Rikka playfully.

“Not all things are defined by quantity, Rikka,” Narad told him mock-sagaciously. “In some circles utilisation is considered more important.”

Hearing her speak independently surprised Rikka. Usually the bodies spoke in unison; Shanarad must be more distracted by the sight of their home than he’d thought.

“But it’s tiny!” Rikka protested, ignoring the jibe. “Back home our villages are bigger than that! I’ve known houses bigger than that! Oh, sorry…”

He paused as Shanarad shuddered in synch. They had odd customs concerning houses, he remembered; when he’d invited them into his own back in Akona Shan had jumped and looked close to fainting. It had taken a full two hours for them to accept the idea, and when they finally had even Narad had looked ready to run when they’d seen that there were more than two rooms. It had been Rikka’s first experience of culture shock. And, indeed, probably Shanarad’s.

“It’s not a problem,” Narad smiled. The bodies looked at each other, and then turned to Rikka.

“Shall we go down?” Narad asked. Her eyes were gleaming with excitement, making them look almost silver in the sun’s glare, one half-closed against wisps of hair that were caught on her eyelashes. Shan reached out and wiped them away for her. She gave no sign of acknowledgement. “Then you can see the Temple!”

“Although tonight, rather than now,” Shan put in. “We won’t be able to get near it during daylight. We’re hungry,” they added together.

“So am I,” said Rikka with feeling. “Let’s go down and eat, I want my first taste of foreign cuisine.”

Native cuisine, Rikka, native cuisine,” Narad said, shaking her head. “Honestly, and you’re training to be a politician.”

They set off down the cliff, along a path that Rikka was sure had only ever been traversed by one-legged goats prior to that moment. Shanarad bounced on ahead, their excitement at being home obvious. Would he feel the same on seeing Akona again? he wondered. Travel was certainly a taxing and intimidating experience, full of exploration of the unknown and abandoning what was familiar and safe. It probably would be refreshing to return to an understandable and secure society afterwards. Particularly, Rikka thought with a stab of apprehension, after meeting more of Shanarad’s people. Their ways already seemed miles apart from his, and he’d only met one pair. Or was that one person? It was hard to know what was the correct vocabulary.

“Hey, guys?” Rikka called ahead as he slid smoothly down three metres of scree. “Are you a ‘pair’ or a ‘person’, when taken together?”

“We are a person.” They spoke together now, which never failed to freak Rikka out slightly, even though it was their standard conversation mode. “The official word is a 'dyad'. But not everyone else in Hasyol is. Those whose melds were not perfect are simply mind-mates. They’re pairs.”

“So does that make you, like, social elite?”

“Yes.” Shan looked back at him, letting Narad watch the path as they continued to speak together. “We are a single person, a dyad. We can easily interact with others, rather than only ourselves. We are Preferred in our society.”

A tendril of thornyleaf caught at Rikka’s shirt, and he paused to pull it out of the cloth’s folds.

“So, mind-mates share a mind link, rather than sharing a mind, like you guys?” he said as Shanarad stopped to wait for him. “They’re in constant telepathic contact, but are still two people.”

“Well understood.” Shanarad grinned, although Narad looked slightly impatient. “Whereas we are one person with two bodies.”

Rikka tore the last of the thornyleaf away and fell after Shanarad as they continued to leap merrily down the track, apparently with perfect ease. He was jealously impressed by it. Certainly, he was a city boy; wild, unmanaged paths like this were new to him, whereas Shanarad clearly came from a civilisation that practically lived outside and so was entirely capable of clinging to near vertical rocky tracks like monkeys. But, that said, Rikka wasn’t emotionally incapable of going to a dinner party; a skill which Shanarad definitely lacked.

They reached the foot of the cliff finally, and joined a road made of compressed dirt and straw. As roads went it wouldn’t have passed an Akonan inspection with a blind maintenance officer, but after the uncomfortable downhill climb Rikka’s aching ankle joints informed him in no uncertain terms that it was a superb road with a quaint rustic charm, and if he disagreed he was welcome to walk on his hands in the ditch instead.

Presently, they approached the town’s south gate, and Rikka suppressed another thrill of nerves as he saw the lookout climb down from the tower beside it and disappear from sight. Shanarad sped up slightly, Shan’s long legs effortlessly eating up the ground as Narad all but broke into a run.

“What are you most looking forward to?” Rikka asked casually as they neared. The gate was taller than he’d thought, a huge wooden construct with massive doors twice his height and stained with age and rain. Beside him, Shanarad pondered the question, and he could see the side of Shan’s dark, bearded face creased pensively.

“We don’t know,” they said thoughtfully, and Shan looked at Rikka again as Narad watched the road for him. “Speaking to the Priests, obviously, but also small things. Being welcomed back officially, for one. We will be highly honoured.”

“How will they react to me?” Rikka asked. His nerves were growing with every step they took towards the gate.

“They will welcome you, Rikka,” Shanarad smiled at him warmly. “As long as you enter no one’s house. Our culture is based around social interaction. Everyone will wish to interact with you.”

“Positively,” Narad added with a grin. “They will wish to interact positively.”

Rikka grinned back, the knot in his stomach dissolving slightly. That was good. He could take positive interaction. That was fine.

They reached the gate just as it opened, with a protesting squeal of rusted hinge that made Rikka wince. Around fifty Hasyolans stood inside the gateway, making a sort of channel for them to walk down that lead into the ‘city’. They stood in pairs, all garbed in similar fashion to Shanarad, but in different cloths, some dazzlingly ornate, some plain. Now that he looked, Rikka noticed the rich patterning on the fabrics Shanarad wore, although their clothes were dusty from travel along Akonan roads.

Shanarad stepped forward, and said something in their native language. Several dyads answered at the front; all, Rikka noted, dressed in the more intricate clothes. A volley of interchanges bounced back and forth between them all, and then Shanarad walked down the channel of people until they reached the men and women in plain clothes, where they broke off from each other and spoke to them all separately. Rikka watched, fascinated. It was difficult to be sure, since they were speaking a language that was utterly unfamiliar to him, but he got the impression that the words spoken were nothing more than pleasantries, as though the assemblage in front of him had all turned out to welcome home Shanarad in order for them to chat about the weather.

The couple – or dyad, Rikka corrected himself – at the front of the line turned to him, and smiled. He smiled back, nervously, and tried not to stare at the elaborate birth-mark beside her eye; but when he looked at her male body, Rikka realised that the man had exactly the same mark, but reversed; a mirror image. Abruptly he caught himself and focused on their mouths. Now was not the time to mortally offend anyone, especially as they’d never met anyone like him before.

“Brekallan,” they told him, gesturing to themselves, still smiling.

“Rikka,” he answered, and copied the gesture; a flat palm to the chest, fingers slightly splayed. They beamed, and everyone around them murmured, apparently happy. Rikka relaxed slightly. So far, so good. Although the weather was probably coming next, so there was still time for him to violate some important social code and be chased out of town.

Brekallan raised their arms and gestured to the sun with the same flat-handed movement they’d used earlier.

Tar sye harloga immue,” they said.

Crap, what had Shanarad taught him? Well, a lot of plant names, the correct application of a barley poultice, racial tolerance and that something was very wrong with his society, but apart from that… was mada ‘good’? Or was that ‘bad’, and dorra was ‘good’? Mada felt like it ought to mean ‘good’…

He went for broke.

Mada,” Rikka said, nodding and smiling like an idiot as every muscle he had tensed. The people in front of him gasped delightedly as one, and then all started talking at once, and stepped forwards to press their palms against his. He’d been expecting that, at least – it was Shanarad’s standard greeting. Slowly, Rikka relaxed, and they pulled him into the city.

It may have been small, but it was the most beautiful city Rikka had ever seen. Everything was open-air, with vegetation growing between every building and little seats set facing each other at the end of every street. Shanarad rejoined him to point out various areas: the market place was a large, circular clearing ringed with a line of evergone trees that bordered the pier; the school was a paved oval area, open to the elements, that contained stone desks and seats built onto the floor that all faced each other, to enable easy conversation. An entertainment area further on was built in a similar fashion, just an open area with no walls or roof and a stage at one end. There was no governmental building. When Rikka asked why, Shanarad shook their heads.

“We don’t have a government as you do,” they explained. Now that their impatience to be home was sated, the bodies had swapped roles; Narad looked at Rikka while Shan watched where they were going. Rikka suspected that one of the bodies had to be looking at whomever they were talking to at all times. “All important decisions are made by the priests. The Temple is our government, really. But the Elders gather on the beach to discuss things sometimes. Brekallan leads them.”

“So your religion runs your lives?” Rikka asked, nodding. It was an alien idea, but it made perfect sense after their revelations about the Akonan High Ministers.

“Yes,” Shanarad nodded. “In just about every way. There’s the hospital.”

Narad pointed as Shan continued to look at Rikka. He wondered if he’d ever get used to it.

The hospital, surprisingly, had walls and a roof, and seemed to be an actual building. As they watched a dyad approached the open archway that was apparently a door, the female body clutching at the male, her leg bloodied. They went inside without a problem. Evidently, the cultural restrictions on house-sharing didn’t apply to the hospital.

“Where will I be staying, by the way?” Rikka asked. Shanarad grinned.

“Under a bush outside,” they teased. “Unless you build your own house. No; there are guest rooms at one end of the hospital, where people can stay, away from the patients. You can have one of them.”

“You know, if I get some kind of terrible disease in there…”

“Then you will be treated immediately,” Shanarad answered. “You’ll be in a hospital, Rikka. Where better to get ill?”

“True. Although I can think of many better places to not get ill.”

“You complain too much,” Shanarad informed him. “Learn to see the silver lining. It’s better for your health.”

“Yes, it is,” Rikka nodded acquiescently. “Better than sleeping in a hospital, anyway.”

“Wouldn’t it be good,” Shanarad pondered randomly, “if you could get every illness you’ll ever have out of the way in one go? Just, you know, check into a hospital and stay there for a year or two until you’re done, and then live a healthy, germ-free life?”

Rikka blinked. Shanarad said this sort of thing a lot, and he was never quite sure how to answer. As a training Akonan politician there was never room in Rikka’s life for hypothetical situations that couldn’t plausibly be achieved; everything had been treated as a debate, and if it wasn’t worth saying, it should never be said. Shanarad, on the other hand, had obviously been taught all their lives that if there was anything to say it should be said.

“Yes,” Rikka said eventually, and Shanarad giggled. They in turn found his lack of understanding hilarious, obviously.

“Anyway,” Narad said, dropping her voice as low as it could go while Shan tried his hardest to look at the floor with her. Obviously they were trying to appear as though they weren’t saying anything. The Hasyolans ambled by around them, oblivious to their conversation. “We’ll come for you tonight after the tenth gong, when everyone goes Inside. It should be dark enough by then to get to the Temple.”

“Do you have a plan for once we’re inside?” Rikka asked back. Shanarad started to shake their heads, and then stopped.

“No,” Narad murmured. “But if it all goes wrong, we’re just going to run away as fast as we can. We feel this is the best plan we can manage right now.”

Rikka sighed and nodded. He thrived on plans, and rules. The lack of one now made him uncomfortable, even when shrouded in Shanarad’s easy-going deadpan humour; but it didn’t matter now. They couldn’t go back. He steeled himself for the night ahead.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

House of the Rising Son - 3

III


"Something on your mind?" Syrene muttered from the doorway to the balcony. Tyran Karr was watching the twilight settle in over the city. Spires of metal, towering chimneys and columns of smoke snaked their way into the coming night. In the distance the cathedral Chapter House of the Seraphim glowed.

"Many things. None of which matter now." He turned to face his wife. The gulf of time lingered between them like a barrier, a force of will denying intimacy and corrupting whatever affection they had once shared. He thought he'd loved her once, when he was much younger. Now he felt that they respected each other as fellow matyrs. He did his duty for the Imperium as did she, and that at least kept him content.

"Come." She held out a hand for him to join her. The light from within glowed around her like a halo, reminding him of another time. He joined her in the living space where their children had cleared away the dinner plates. As a gesture of good will Tyran kneeled on the carpet and waited until they all joined him.

"Cthyn, will you lead us in prayer?" he asked humbly, looking up at his eldest. The boy stood there in his unnaturally white robe, his shaved head glowing in the harsh artificial light. Cthyn nodded and kneeled next to his father.

"We thank the glory of the Emporor for providing us with the bounty we have enjoyed this night. May His blessings rain down on us all." Cthyn said reverentially. Syrene and Tyle nodded their thanks, rose and departed from the room.

"Here boy, help an old man to his feet." Tyran held out his arm to Cthyn, who put all his weight into pulling his father up. "Thank you." Tyran said, noting the boy's strength. "Join me on the balcony."

Dread filled Tyran's chest as he led his son onto the balcony. Cthyn smiled distantly at the sight of the Chapter House dominating the skyline.

"Your mother tells me you're still persuing entrance into the Adeptus Astartes." Tyran began the conversation he'd been dreading ever since he'd received Syrene's last letter.

"I am." The boy replied defiantly. Tyran blanched uncomfortably at the defensiveness of the reply.

"It's a worthy aspiration." Tyran said hollowly, "I've served with them many times. I'd go as far as to say that some of them are my friends, after a fashion."

Cthyn snorted.

"War does strange things." Tyran snapped, angry at his assumption. "Men and Astartes fighting together in the name of the Emporor. It's a wonderful thing to behold."

"I know." It was Tyran's turn to snort at the origin of his son's knowledge. His books and writings. The record of ten millenia's worth of fighting, written in glorious detail.

"Do not put your faith in books to tell you the whole truth."

"Then whom should I trust?" Cthyn muttered. They were both tired before the argument even began. It didn't need to be voiced. Tyran disapproved of Cthyn's choice to join the Chapter, to undergo the staggering physical transformation to become an Astartes and Cthyn disapproved of his father's lack of ambition. Even now the boy was clearly struggling to understand why his father had chosen the Guard over the Seraphim. Why choose the lesser glory? Why indeed, Tyran though, casting his mind back to when he was young.

"I was an urchin. No more than a rat, living off scraps in the gutter. No one thought about joining the Space Marines – I didn't even know what they looked like until years later." Tyran said, gazing up at the Chapter House, wondering whether he'd have chosen the mightier path had it been offered to him. "The fact of the matter is the Guard got to me first. They offered me a way out."

"You were unenlightened?" Cthyn muttered, horrified.

"Oh yes. I didn't know the Light of the Emporor until I was educated." Tyran replied, hoping this would have the softening effect he desired.

"You were one of the unfortunate. That makes sense." Cthyn nodded. "I misjudged… I am sorry."

"Know this." Tyran said, sensing the breakthrough. "I do not disapprove of your decision, I am merely uneasy – jealous in many respects of what you are about to embark on."

Cthyn smiled, relief unwinding the knots in his shoulders. "I haven't passed the tests yet."

"Together we will guarantee your place in the annals of our history." Tyran said humbly, clasping his son around the shoulders.

**

Translation from the warp always made Xar ill and this time was no exception. Every four steps he found himself doubled over and retching into the machinery that filled every space that wasn't taken up by the living.

"Keep up, scrivener – I haven't got all day to indulge your weaknesses." Valdus Arten chided, striding down the corridor in full battle-plate. His gold armour glistened under the bright red interior lights of the ship. Xar coughed pitifully and moved as quickly as he could to catch up.

A draft hit him in the face as the door opened to reveal the embarkation deck. One wall of the massive hangar was open space – a string of asteroids loomed in the distance, menacingly highlighted with light from a distant nebula.

Xar watched as Sergeant Karr ordered his men onto the Thunderhawk transport ship.

"Ah, Valdus, I was wondering when you'd arrive. I thought you were going to miss the fireworks." Hyr Urukhan boomed jovially, stepping out of the bow of a support column.

"We haven't seen action in nearly a year Hyr. I wouldn't miss this for all the glory of the Emporor." Arten replied, laughing with his comrade. Xar grimaced, he'd had to put up with their comradely shows of unity and affection all the way here.

"Apparently there's an unknown craft in this sector, hiding behind one of the outlying moons. The scrivener thinks we should hold back." Arten chuckled. Urukhan gasped in a show of mock horror before cocking his bolter in a show of bravado that made Xar feel even more ill. He couldn't quite believe at times, that these beings were the holy architects of the Emporor.

"I only wanted to wait until we were certain WHO they – oh never mind." He gasped with frustration. They were already parrading away, arm in arm. Singing, no less.

Xar followed them onto the Thunderhawk. A servitor adept handed him a rebreather and showed him how to put it on. "There'll be little to no atmosphere where you're going. Precaution, you understand." Xar nodded imaptiently, eager to be away. The sooner they could find the source of this damned signal the sooner they could be on their way home.

He was directed to a cage chair and assisted into its industrial grip. Safely encased and ready to go he barely felt the take-off or the shift in atmosphere as they glided out into space. Several holo-screens lit up in front of him and a vox-communicator put him through to the Astartes veterans and the pilot crew. Space encompassed his vision in stunning clarity. Every star was visible and the nebula seemed to pulse with hidden energies. "We're on a alpha-seven descent vector for planet Index - 44173.445." One of the pilots announced. In the distance Xar could see the planet looming, its grey atmosphere highlighted with swirls of silver. It looked awful and barren, but at least he didn't have to trudge through it like the Guard and their Space Marine overseers.

The closer they got to the signal the more Xar was filled with unease. The signal pattern wasn't entirely unknown, he recognised it as being an Imperial signal, albeit very different. The problem was that this signal pattern wasn't on any record he could summon from the Imperium's data network; which left one of two very unsettling possibilities, either it was so old it pre-dated the records or it was so new it had yet to be integrated into the system. Uncertain of how to proceed he had opted to keep this information to himself. In due course the source would be found and the answer would reveal itself. He just hoped they were prepared for what they found.

**

Tyran adjusted his low-environment suit uncomfortably, wriggling under the itchy membranes that were designed to protect him from the vacuum of space – not, he regretted from the irritation of chafing.

In his hands he held the weight of his lasgun and ran his hand over the reinforced wood body. The habit was comforting and a little ritualistic, it was something he'd never have admitted to an Inquisitor, they took thse things far too seriously he felt.

The ardours of the journey had taken their toll on him. A lot of time had been spent contemplating his fate leading up to this point. He was a nobody, an urchin drafted from the streets of his homeworld, inducted into the ranks of the Imperial Guard, given an education, a structure and a sense of self-respect. But he was still a nobody. No family, nobody to remember his name or his actions should the inevitable happen – all except one. Unconsiously he felt for the pict of his beloved pressed to his chest. Dearest Syrene. Even now he could see her face, the soft contours of her chin, the way her hair fell onto her shoulders. He would make her proud. He would carve himself a history that she would be proud to remember.

**

The wind gently played at the net curtain that lined the window. The room was dark and Syrene was lying down on her bed, waiting.

After an age she heard the sound of boots on the floorboards and from the corner of her eye she noticed the shadow in the door frame. Slowly he took off his coat, uniform, gloves, boots and cap, all neatly lined up on the simple dresser. She could smell the musky leather and suede from across the room. He had a distinctive smell that she remembered. It was that above all else that confirmed that this was her husband. The time they'd spent apart was so long she'd almost forgotten everything else about him. All apart from her duty and the memory of something she'd felt a long time ago.

Did she love him? It didn't seem to matter anymore.

She held her breath as he paused before getting in next to her. Suddenly she wished the bed was twice as wide so the presence of his body so close to hers wouldn't throb between them. She listened as his breathing slowed and drifted into sleep before allowing herself to fitfully doze before dawn.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

House of the Rising Son - 2

II

"Ten millenia of war," First Remembrancer Xar muttered, "A glorious struggle to maintain and expand the Emporor's might against the the countless hoardes of xeno scum… and here we are." Xar stepped back from the window and gestured at the view beyond. The city of Pylonia spread out at their feet, an ancient and simple city on an ancient and simple world. In the distance loomed the wall that divided it down the centre. Ork Waaargh! banners plastered the fifty foot tall mountain of concrete and reinforced fibre steel, drowning out the glorious Chapter standards that Xar had helped scribe.

"Stop whining scrivener or I'll have you shot for sedition." Growled Ylar, Captain of the fifth Company of Seraphim. Xar smiled, this was his second death threat of the day which meant the towering Astartes was in a comparatively good mood.

"Our whole society is designed around warfare, it's all we know," Xar mused, "So the very idea of deliberately enforcing a stalemate on a world we could take in an afternoon's work seems… unsettling." Xar continued jovially.

"Are you quite done?" Ylar said.

"Oh I could go on, but something tells me you might actually follow through on your threats and throw me over the wall."

Ylar laughed and stood up, all eight foot of him. The sight of an Astartes still made Xar feel cold with fear. It was unsettling seeing the Emporor's vision of human perfection made manifest. It was like being in the presence of the divine Himself. Xar readjusted his habit and alighted the stool next to his tall desk. He was working on a translation for the city wall. Green-skin was such an awful language to deal with, it had even fewer words than Terran, which in comparison with the Tau or Eldar tongues seemed primitive in itself.

"One day," Ylar muttered, "The need for a stalemate will end and we'll get our war. Until then, we wait patiently and do the bidding of the Chapter."

"Indeed, and I'll be dead by then and you'll have shrivelled up from boredom." Xar said, "You weren't designed for governing."

"If it weren't for the arena," Ylar chuckled, clearly feeling uncomfortable voicing a genuine opinion with anyone who wasn't Astartes. "I might go mad."

Xar indulged him with a laugh but secretly believed every word. His role here was purely administrative, he hadn't expected to become fond of the lumbering giant. Long periods of time spent cooped up with unlikely people begot unlikely friendships. Working with a Seraphim Space Marine was on the surface an honour, but in practice it was a glorious insight into the wonders of the Emporor.

A transmission report, tucked under a mountain of tedious paperwork caught its eye. It was stamped with a priority seal.

"Interesting," Xar muttered, reading an intercepted transmission recorded from an Ork hyperlink. It didn't take much to get the gist of what it was saying. "There's a strange signal emmanating from an outlying system."

Ylar turned around, his long pure-white habit whispering in his wake. "Oh?"

"The Orks aren't interested, it seems. One of their long distance probes picked it up."

"That would put it on one of the Outer Systems, practically on the edge of the Galaxy." Ylar said, hovering over Xar. "They don't have the resources to investigate. If they had I daresay they'd be more interested in wiping us out."

"The same is true for us." Xar replied, thinking. "The interesting thing is the signal definitely isn't Ork and they can't pinpoint its cultural origin."

"A new species?"

"Or an old one." Xar muttered, rifling through a pile of notes for a communique he'd received a few days before regarding the Imperial Guard troops being garrissoned in the city over the coming months. They were harmless enough in small numbers, as far as the Orks were concerned. "We could send a squadron of Imperial Soldiers to investigate." Xar suggested, careful of the pitch in his voice.

"That could be done…" Ylar replied, his curiosity heightened, "Even if it's nothing, it'll give them something to do. Summon one of the lower Sergeants."

Xar ran his finger down the column of names on the Officer's manifest and came to the bottom. Newly promoted and as green as a sapling. "Sergeant Tyran Karr. He'll do."

**

Tyran climbed the stairs as slowly and deliberately as he could. He was coming face to face with a Space Marine. What could he possibly have done to deserve this? He hadn't offended anybody. Certainly, many of the higher officers regarded him with some disdain, but that was only natural in a chain of command.

The Astartes of the Seraphim Chapter, one of the smallest outlying Chapters in the Imperium, kept its cathedral HQ on his homeworld – technically speaking, their homeworld. Physus III was a backwater Imperial capital that was smaller than most Chapter's moons. He'd once seen picts of Ultramar and the images had blown him away. A civilian population of thirty million was nothing next to the countless billions the Ultramarines lorded over.

The door loomed in front of him ajar. Light spilled across the floor and into the dark stairwell that led from the bowels of the headquarters below.

"Come in Sergeant," the rich timbre of Captain Ylar's voice bounced off the walls. Tyran found his legs moving independently of his brain as they led him into the room where Captain Ylar kept his office. The place was a mess, the floor covered in scrolls and datapads. An official remembrancer in a rich brown habit and Imperial insignia dotted around the floor picking up stray pieces of paper.

"Good. At ease, Sergeant." Ylar appeared from the shadows, every bit the image of physical perfection. Tyran tried to relax a bit but his back didn't seem to want to let him. "I've summoned you regarding a mission I think would best suit your talents." Ylar shot a brief glance at his remembrancer who didn't seem to acknowledge it. Tyran's heart dropped in his chest – he'd only just arrived from a thrity day translation and a year long campaign. He wasn't mentally prepared for another mission. Protocol and fear stopped this from showing on his face. Much.

"Intelligence suggests that a beacon of unknown origin is broadcasting on an open channel from the Galaxy's rim. Other than that we know nothing. I would like you to take a small company of men and investigate on my behalf." Ylar finished with a brief smile. Tyran was speechless.

"I don't know what to say, Captain," he muttered.

"Of course, you wont be going alone, I can at least spare some of my Veteran soldiers to oversee proceedings. Prepare to leave within the week, Sergeant. Dismissed." And with that Tyran found his body snapping to attention like an obedient puppet and marching out.

The journey down the stairs and across the city to the nearest bar passed him by in a blur. An Astartes had hand-picked him for a mission of his own. He hadn't been punished – he was being rewarded, surely. His mind worked quickly to sift through the pieces as he strode past boarded up buildings, ancient ruins and comparatively modern elements. The streets were part road, part mud bath and reminded him of home.

Could the Captain have chosen him because he was disposable? He noted that he was only sending one Astartes to accompany them – would that be enough? Were they really that good? Then again, his ego and the arduous last year demanded he take this as a compliment and a step on the ladder to promotion. If what they said about this world was true he'd need every opportunity he could get to prove that he was worthy of greater things.

**

"You'll be going with them," Ylar said, looking Xar straight in the eyes. The remembrancer tugged at the adrenal arteries that fed into his neck. His immediate reaction was terror.

"Do you think it necessary, Captain?" Xar stammered, "I mean – what about your filing, who will do that if I'm gallivanting across the cosmos on a fool's errand?"

Ylar smiled fondly and settled a hand on Xar's shoulder, turning him gently to face the window which looked out over the city. "I need your eyes to see what I cannot. You must understand that I'm putting great faith in you Xar, more faith than I would lightly entrust to a mere mortal like yourself."

Not even an appeal to Xar's ego could counter the ball of dread in his stomach.

"How can I expect an Imperial Guard Sergeant to adequately report back on what he finds? I need you to lend your knowledge and experience to the task." Ylar continued sadly. "I wish I could go with you."

Xar tried to take heart from the confidence Ylar was showing in him, but Xar knew why his eyes were needed. The troubling nature of the signal's origin was perhaps too great a puzzle for soldiers to decipher alone. Ylar needed someone who could recognise its origin and make a decision on what needed to be done in the greater interest of the Imperium.

"Thank you for this honour." Xar muttered.

"Do not worry," Ylar boomed, turning away from the bleak view, "I am not sending you alone. Some of my best men will be accompanying you. Sergeant Karr will lead his troops and you will observe under the protection of Hyr Urukhan and Valdus Arten."

Xar smiled. He was familiar with the decorated veterans. They had so many Oaths of Moment pinned to their armour it was difficult to see the gold armour peeking through underneath. Xar resigned himself to the journey and dwelled bitterly on how much he hated space travel.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

House of the Rising Son - 1

I

In the grim darkness of the future, there is only war…



The grav-truck rattled down the dirt ridden alley between the titanic factory wall and the shanty dwellings on the other side. Captain Tyran Karr adjusted his leather gloves and turned up his collar against the familiar smell of his homeworld. It had been too long, but still the smell offended him.

On his left the Private driving the vehicle changed gear in order to navigate a narrow bend onto a wider avenue. The city had spilled into every available space, and this included disused aquaducts. Years of overpopulation had transformed the foundling world into an industrial giant, producing half of the System's raw material. But still its people were living far below the Imperial poverty line, and given the state of things, it was a fairly generous line.

Karr had seen other worlds, witnessed the barren worlds and the wealthy ones too. Physus III had at least a glimmer of hope.

He was unwilling to admit, even to himself, that he was looking forward to meeting his family again. Secretly, all he wanted to do was give everything up, enrol in a factory programme and wait to see if they'd accept an old veteran like him into the ranks. But this was a dream, a fantasy he couldn't afford to indulge in. As an Imperial Officer he did more for his family than any other citizen could. Thanks to him they were comfortable, the only sacrifice was that he never saw them and in many ways this was a relief. There were far greater sacrifices, he considered, looking darkly at the Chapter fortress which dominated the horizon to the north, looming over the spires of smoke and iron like a cathedral of death.

"Turn left here," he directed quietly to the Private, who nodded sharply. He could tell that the Private was eager to see his own family. He may not see them for a long time, if he was lucky, thought Tyran, remembering the long winters he'd spent on campaign with only a pict in his pocket and the warm scents of home locked in his memory. If the Private was lucky, he'd remember Physus as "home" for another few years to come, if he was unlucky, the memory and the reality wouldn't match up even now. Things changed and the nature of the beast they laid down their lives for changed, subtly at first, then remarkably and painfully later in life.

The grav-truck listed idly into a corner and kicked up dirt left in the wake of energy keeping it off the ground. In the distance, over the grumble of the engine and the ringing of the industry around them he could hear the shouting of children. Tyran smiled to himself, locking the image of play in his mind. Even in the most desperate of places that one concept continued to thrive.

He shifted in his seat as the neighbourhood, despite its cosmetic changes, began to be recognisable. A rotting lampost here, an old fuel pump there – the occasional sign or smell that stirred uncomfortable memories. He was close and he found himself fighting the urge to tell the Private to turn around. But it was too late. He was there. Here. Home.

"Stop," he commanded. The grav-truck pulled to a halt and rattled idly as Tyran leapt unsteadily from the roll cage to the mud. "Return in two days. No more."

"Aye Captain," the Private replied, eager to be gone. Tyran nodded and pulled off his cap. The wind, bringing with it the stench of sulphur and burning fuel, filled his nostrils. With heavy footsteps he strode towards the stocky block of flats that stood over the river of mud. Each step up the stairwell felt like the hammering of nails into his fate. Would they remember him? Would they care? Could they possibly have thought about this approaching moment as much as he had?

You're over-thinking this, he told himself, rubbing his face unconsciously.

His footsteps seemed to ring in the hallway as he approached the door. The whole block looked older, more worn and abused than it had. It all seemed to reflect how old and tired he felt. With great trepidation his fist hovered over the door. Tyran willed it to fall, but before he could force it down the door burst open.

"Syrene," he gasped, her presence filling the space left by the door. She looked older, more composed and twenty times more beautiful than he remembered, but a force unlike anything he'd faced on the battlefield kept them rooted to the spot.

Finally, her hand shot forward, took his and pulled him into her home. Unconsciously he felt his hand pulling off his cap as if they were courting again. His legs had turned to slime inside his uniform. Uncertainly, his eyes consumed the flat. The furnishings were a little different, still plain and Spartan – much like the rest of the planet. Here and there he spotted touches of colour or personality – excesses and indulgences that were almost hidden. He smiled, relaxing as the smell of home filled him.

"I heard you were coming. It was on the vox-cast." She said, holding his one gloved hand in both of hers. "I stopped myself from going down to the embarkation platform. I knew you wouldn't want me there."

Tyran nodded, after so long he didn't know how to feel. She was right, of course, her prediction and understanding of him seemed to run deeper than his regarding her, but her presence, the memories. They were intoxicating.

"Thank you," he grumbled, clearing his throat as she led him into the living space. The room was mostly bear except for a tall lectern and stool in one corner next to a window. On one wall hung an effigy of the Emporor, the only decoration in the room. She led him to a couch in the centre of the room and let him descend. He watched her dart into the adjacent kitchen and return with water.

"The boys are out." She said neutrally, looking down. Tyran looked over darkly at the lectern and the heavy book that sat open on it. He knew what it was and the thought made him feel cold.

"Is he still… adamant?" Tyran asked.

Syrene nodded, her golden hair bouncing on her shoulders. "Cthyn, well, he's changed much since you saw him last."

"That was five years ago."

"I know." She replied sharply, "I know."

"They are happy, I hope."

"They are. Tyle is soon to be apprenticed to the Mechanicum and Cthyn spends much of his time," she nodded to the lectern and continued, "at his studies."

"I remember you saying that Tyle was good at handling the machinery. I read your letters, very carefully." Tyran said. He had all of their correspondence tied up in a bundle that he kept on him at all times.

She didn't really need to answer, she knew.

They both looked up at once when the door closed in the hallway and voices filled the passage.

"You asked for it." The younger voice pronounced stubbornly.

"I asked for nothing." The older, deeper voice countered, equal in stubbornness.

"You didn't have to break his arm."

The two boys appeared as silhouettes in the doorway and bags of groceries spilled to the floor and danced across the space between them. Tyran stood up quickly and hovered, uncertain of how to procede.

"Father!" the younger voice cried and Tyle appeared out of the darkness. Tyran felt the boy jump into his arms, a child he'd never met, and squeezed. All of his relief and happiness seemed to seep out of him all at once.

Cthyn stepped over the groceries slowly and revealed himself carefully. He was older, harder and far less the boy he'd known. A transformation had undertaken the son Tyran barely knew and he didn't know how to deal with it.

"Cthyn," Tyran said, "Shake your father by the hand." He finished, offering his hand tentatively. The boy looked at the gloved hand and then at the lapels and insignia.

Cthyn took it and shook firmly. "Welcome home, Captain Karr of the Imperial Guard." The boy intoned stiffly, more like a Chaplain than a son. The artificiality of the greeting shook Tyran. Tyle dropped to the floor and attacked his brother fiercely with a kick and a headbutt which Cthyn deflected easily.

"Leave him alone, C-thuck," Tyle retorted, his face red with frustration, cutting through the tension like a knife, "He's not an Astartes."

The pun on a childish curse was so ridiculous in Tyran's ears that he couldn't help laughing, despite the hurt look on Cthyn's face as he gathered the fallen fruit. The family broke away and the atmosphere relaxed. Tyle seemed happy that his father had accepted him and Syrene helped Cthyn serenely but Tyran didn't miss Cthyn mutter under his breath. He ignored the comment because there was nothing else he could do, but its impact shook him.

"No. He's not." The words rung in his ears, part insult, part disappointment. Tyran couldn't work out which was worse.

Monday, 1 October 2007

ASBO-Boy - The Saint

Omen couldn't believe his eyes. The whole of the parade ground was full of people, taking up every space inbetween all the tents and caravans. Men, women and children draped in drab and dirty clothes for the most part. Omen had never seen people this poor before. Many were lying down on the gravel and patches of dirt. There were cries of pain over the din of activity and all the while the Sandfields blossomed with fire and smoke in the distance.

"When did this happen?" He stammered. Swarm shook his head, he eiher didn't know, couldn't speak or both. Omen took a tentative step forward towards the nearest group. An old woman spotted him and grabbed his arm.

"Help me! My son is burned!" She dragged him fiercely over to a man lying comatose in the mud. His age was unreadable as a massive burn ran from his head to his waist, the ruby wound glistening angrily.

Without thinking, Omen began to drag the man towards the caravan. Swarm and Locus stumbled over to help him, too stunned to speak. Between the three of them they managed to get the man into the caravan and onto Omen's bunk. On auto-pilot they swept around the impromptu staging area and gathered the worst of the wounded and carried them into the caravan. Soon the cries and moans of pain filled the narrow and cramped space of the caravan while the families hovered outside.

"We need a healer." Locus muttered, her eyes flitting over the wounded.

"The paramedics are all busy." Swarm muttered in reply.

"No, I mean a Healer. It'll take the Authorities ages to get through them all. We need someone who can…" She didn't finish. They were drawn by the sound of commotion outside. A hush rippled through the parade ground, spreading like wildfire.

Omen cornered a lost looking woman and asked her what was going on. She merely pointed to a crowd gathering in the distance and shrugged. "The Saint."

Omen shared a quizzical look with Swarm and Locus. A blue form wriggled its way through the throng and loped over towards them.

"It's a girl, she's walking around healing people." Spout gasped inbetween breaths. "Some of them were nearly gone, but she stepped over them and just touched them – taking away their pain."

They set off without a word and moved quickly through the crowd to get to the girl. As they got closer they met more and more resistance as people were clammouring for her to help them. The noise became unbearable and the sense of panic threatened to break down into an all out riot, but eventually they pushed through to the front. The atmosphere of the mob changed dramatically the closer they got to the centre; no longer were people shoving for attention, they were just standing and watching. A hush descended as they reached the middle and found a small girl in a jet-black skin-suit.

Omen felt his legs go numb. It was Malady, a girl he only recognised because he'd seen her in a dream.

"What?" Swarm asked, frowning. "You said something… malady?"

Malady turned her head to where Omen and the others were standing.

"Yes?" She said, her voice small and weak. Despite the calm veneer the girl was pale and wan looking, her legs and arms shaking, her skin red and blotchy.

"Your name," Omen began, "I'm right, aren't I?"

Malady nodded. The woman at her feet groaned and rolled over, holding her head. Her family rushed forward and helped her to her feet. Every other word they whispered tearfully was 'thankyou'.

"We need your help." Omen said, sounding glib and heartless among a sea of people with the same request. Malady merely shrugged. "We can help you, we're Others like you."

The crowd who were watching this with unease seemed to back away from the mention of the word.

"Others…"

"When you're done we'll need to hide you. The Authorities will take you away." Of this, Omen felt certain. Part of him wanted to blurt everything out at once, but he felt the eyes of the crowd on him.

"Gather all you can. I can help them better when they're all together." She said, dismissing them with a nod. The crowd parted like water to allow them to work. A buzz gathered pace among the people as an organised spirit drove the effort to gather all they could into the closest possible space.

When the work was done, Omen slipped away and watched for the approach of the Authorities. They'd sent a token effort to deal with the casualties, but the bulk of the effort was centered around the Sandfields wall where fire crews were pouring water into the blaze. But the streets were too quiet, there simply weren't enough of them.

Spout appeared at his side and gestured back towards the circle of penitent observers, silently watching the miracle unfolding before them. "Who is she?"

"Remember my dream of you and the sea?" Omen replied quietly. Spout nodded uncomfortably. The memory was still raw and fresh in their minds. "I had another one and she was in it." Spout nodded again. This was all the explanation he needed.

The Only-Slightly Sad Story of Llyr

Here is a story about a man named Llyr. Llyr is twenty-seven years old, and lives alone in the city. He's quite noteworthy because of his group of friends.

The size of the group is very large, but that's not why his friends are unusual. After all, many people have large groups of friends.

What's unusual about these friends is how varied they are. He has kind friends, and nasty friends, and generous friends, and greedy friends. He has funny friends, and serious friends, and strange friends, and wise friends. Some of his friends are lazy, and others are hard-working. Some are meek, and others are dripping with confidence.

In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone with as varied a group of friends as Llyr. You might have guessed by now that Llyr isn't like most people. Indeed, there's something very unusual about him - one might even say something special.

Let's see if you can guess what it is. I'll give you some clues.

Last week, Llyr met his friend Caytlin for lunch. Caytlin is a waitress, and always takes her break when Llyr comes to the restaurant at which she works, so that she can share her lunch with him. Caytlin is an eco-warrior; she often campaigns to preserve the environment, and to adopt forms of renewable energy. When they meet, Llyr is always as excited as Caytlin is about the environment, and helps her to brainstorm ideas to get her message across.

Have you guessed it yet? I'm very impressed if you have, with such little information to go on. Otherwise, here's another clue.

Llyr is a police officer. Until recently, his partner was Zoe. Zoe's intelligent, and values intelligence in turn. She's friendly and excitable, and always willing to put a lot of effort into her work. She liked Llyr, because he always worked hard on the job, and everything he ever said to her was friendly, intelligent or both. He always seemed excited to see her, and did all he could to help her with her own work.

Now have you guessed? If not, here's one final clue.

Llyr has spent a lot of time with a mysterious man who calls himself One Thousand And One. This mysterious man wears a mask - indeed, he wears a full costume - and keeps his identity a closely guarded secret. Few people know what One Thousand And One is actually like, because he rarely talks about himsef. Llyr, however, knows exactly what One Thousand And One is like. One Thousand And One is a determined man - incredibly determined - but also very giving. He likes to help others, but he also expects them to help him in return. He remembers every favour he's ever done, and will often ask those he's helped to return the favour somehow.

Now do you know what Llyr's gift is? Well done if you've finally guessed it! Don't worry if you haven't, though - I'll explain.

You see, Llyr has the unusual ability to emulate the personalities of those around him. Sit him down next to the greediest man in the world, and Llyr would become equally greedy. Likewise, present him with one who is kind-hearted and thinks only of others, and Llyr would become equally generous.

This is why he gets on well with people like Caytlin and Zoe; they value people like themselves, and when he's with them, Llyr becomes exactly like them. This is also how Llyr knows what One Thousand And One is like - when they're together, Llyr is just the same.

Llyr lives alone, because he feels that he must keep hold of who he is. When others are around, he's no longer the true Llyr, but a different man entirely. Indeed, the change is so substantial that Llyr has enjoyed the food in every restaurant he's ever been to, because he's always surrounded by other people who like the food. He also finds it difficult to enjoy watching television or reading a book unless he's in the company of someone who likes that particular programme or book - but when such people are around, he finds that he enjoys all sorts of entertainment, from horror, to drama, to documentaries, to light entertainment, and plenty of others besides.

Few people know of Llyr's strange characteristic, and even fewer understand it. His employers are aware of this, of course - it's important that they provide him with a very capable partner, to ensure that Llyr himself becomes capable in return. They also strive to minimise his contact with criminals, as he would otherwise take on their properties - not the best news for a police officer.

They must also keep Llyr away from Barry, the chief constable. Barry is a hypocritical man. By this, I mean that he is, for instance, very impatient, but hates impatience in others. He's also arrogant, but is very annoyed by other arrogant people. Furthermore, despite being foul-mouthed, he punishes bad language sorely when others are responsible. Llyr's employers know that it's far better for Barry to see very little of Llyr, as otherwise, Llyr would take on the chief constable's own flaws, causing a great deal of tension for all concerned.

But one question remains. What of Llyr himself? What is he like, away from the shadows of others?

The truth is that the real Llyr is childlike. He's unknowledgable, he's uncertain, and he's terribly, terribly afraid. The world outside scares him, because in the outside world, he has no control. Yet he knows that outside, the fear also leaves him. So, every day, Llyr leaves his home to counteract the terror that grips him in every waking moment he spends alone. When he returns, he remembers a lot of things, but he can't retain the knowledge of so many people - and as such, he can make no sense of the knowledge he retains.

For years, Llyr has only returned home to sleep.