The three men stared at the scarred and warped map of the valley. It had been painstakingly constructed by native tribesmen hiding in the forest surrounding the fortress. "We can stare at this all day long, it doesn't change the lack of intel inside." Kinetic argued, he was drawn to action, fists before thoughts. Tempest and Iblis were far more cautious. "From ours and native observations we have reconstructed in part the occupancy of the fortress." Iblis stated coldly, even in human form his voice was chilling, lacking basic empathy. "Look mate this is 'diminishing returns'." Kinetic said almost mockingly. Their passive aggressive arguments reminded Tempest of home, where as a child he had sat on the front porch trying to ignore his mother and stepfather cut away at each other with their words. They were all skirting around the real issue, this was a one way mission. The bioweapon needed to be used soon, and this was the weakest entry point to the Skraeel homeworld. They could end the War today, if only they could get through the back gate. "We will have to adapt our plan anyway." Tempest spoke up, trying to push the argument constructively. The other two men turned to him with warm but polite smiles. "No offense mate but we find it harder to adapt on the fly than you." Kinetic said, getting a short chuckle from Iblis. "Both points are valid though, the internal configuration of the base will remain a mystery until we enter. Which is why we plan our infiltration as carefully as possible. We cannot rely on force of arms in a 'gun-ho' assault on such a well fortified location. We don't even know how deep the blackgate is." The blackgates, the method of travel across the multiverse, the greatest curse to human existence ever. A trillion worlds of possibility, of maybe, suddenly real and accessible. Worse these worlds could access us, and the Skraeel were the undisputed masters of the gates. Every gate they found they fortified, spreading across existence like s virus. Countless conflicts across the multiverse had become one war, The War, the war to stop human extinction. On the map before them was the fortress that guarded direct access, hidden away on a Eden world almost bereft of intelligent life. Hopefully it was under resourced, vulnerable to metahuman incursion. "We don't have time to wait." Kinetic said, and with a nod from both men the plan was in motion.
Tempest had grown up on the streets of Clapham, in a world that had never know the Skraeel. When his powers had come through, like most from his world he’d been afraid. Afraid his parents wouldn’t understand, that it would start an argument between his mum and stepdad, his step dad never accepting the parts of Tempest that came from his father. So many years spent sitting on that porch, wondering about what he could say without giving away what he was, who he was.
Tempest kept an even pace as he jogged towards the fortress, moving through the forests along the valley edge. The fortress was constructed into a dam that powered the complex, and the constant flow of water over turbines could be heard for miles downstream. He watched the leaves fall like specks in treacle as he moved past, all the time in the world to get to the outflow pipe. Over the days they’d marked out where the cameras placements, and Tempest could move between black spots in their security faster than the cameras can turn. Tempest reached the outflow pipe, the water constantly streaming past him, the thunderous sound hiding the racket his cutting tools made.
At least that was the plan, in the accelerated frame Tempest was in he couldn’t hear the sound of water, just the screeching of his equipment as it cut through the thinnest part of the wall surrounding the fortress. Inside the nut he was about to crack lay the prize, a staircase down to the lower levels deep beneath the earth. The cutting took hours, but in the common frame only a minute had passed before he could give the all clear to his companions. From the sky far above him descended Kinetic rapidly, with Iblis wrapped round him they plunged partly into the water streaming past Tempest to mask their approach.
In the hours he’d spent cutting his way in Tempest had been left with his thoughts, that same god forsaken step where time stretched forever, the only part of his house left. As the metal sheeting gave way, the sound haunted his heart, bringing up the same swell of emotion when he’d rushed home during the blitz. The first time he’d truly used his speed, and it didn’t matter, they were already dead.
Kinetic carefully pulled the sheeting away from the wall, and the three made their way inside to encounter the dimly lit hall inside. The Skraeel were roughly humanoid in size and shape, having evolved from bipedal dinosaurs on a planet the meteorite had never struck. The fortress was large but mostly unmanned, designed to have troops from the other side of the blackgate move in if the fortress was besieged. The three weren’t an invading army, and had carefully moved into the emergency exit to the blackgate the soldiers stationed here would use to retreat.
Like ghosts they glided through the short paths in the facility until they reached the descending staircase. This was the hard part, what felt like a hundred flights of stairs. Each one of the men internally screamed as their calves and thighs burned from the same repetitive stupid motion. They paused halfway to the bottom. “This is going too easy.” Kinetic said, and the other two men nodded in agreement, well Iblis tried but he was in oil form. Too easy meant they had been spotted, worse, it meant the Skraeel had decided to wait for after the stairs had left them half dead before confronting the intruders. “I hate my life.” One of them said, it didn’t matter which one.
They made it to the bottom, each man wondering if they could fight while only walking on their hands. They opened the doors before them and proceeded into the vaulted room, at its centre the blackgate. A huge obsidian sphere, around 10 or 12 meters in diameter sat floating at the centre. Bound by unknown physics to Earth’s gravitational and magnetic fields, it was unmovable. To reach the surface the Skraeel would have had to dig an almost endless tunnel up.
They had been expected, and waiting for them were a dozen or so cyborg troops. The Skraeel didn’t just wipe out human civilisations, they co-opted them. Converting children into cyborg troops, so that if you wanted to fight back you had to wade through the bodies of the innocent you had personally cut down. The sad truth was that the trio was use to this, and as soon as they saw the the enemy they launched into combat. Tempest sped forward, time standing still for him as he accelerated his time frame to thousands of times faster than human normal.The light in the room started to redshift, going to a dark magenta that bathed the room like the silhouette of blood.
He pulled out his knives, dodging the bullets that glided gracefully through the room at where he had been. In normal time Kinetic was already being struck, his body absorbing the blows and converting it into potential energy. The bullets just went through Iblis, his oily body holding cohesion where a normal human would have been pocketmarked. The cyborgs didn’t stand a chance, but then it wouldn’t take them long to bring troops through the blackgate. Another unknown physics meant the gate could only be used one way at a time, and as soon as it opened they wouldn’t be flooded with overwhelming numbers. Kinetic started blasting his way forward, throwing cyborg at cyborg, desperately trying to get to the blackgate. Tempest ran ahead to clear him a path. Kinetic was going to overwhelm this side of the gate with thermal energy, it should be enough to force it to drawn the contents of the room in and funnel them through to the other side. Behind them Iblis was engulfed a cyborg, its cybernetics overwhelmed it started shooting at its allies.
This was the threshold, the boundary, the front porch that had dominated so much of Tempest’s life. On the other side was the end, but it meant victory. For what seemed like an hour Kinetic battled his way through with Tempest guarding him, until like a juggernaut in molasses he touched the obsidian orb, and with that they were through.
It’s ok to be sad, I told myself as I sunk into the plane seat. Around me families, couples, friends were organising themselves to prepare for 13 hours of being trapped in a metal cigar. I was in mourning, like an idiot, for something that never existed. Nothing had changed, except I had. A life of dull progress interspersed with intensely painful moments of self discovery had prepared me in part for this feeling. It was loss, pure unadulterated loss, for something I knew I could never have had.
I’d come 12000km to reconnect with an old friend. They were someone who meant far more to me than I would ever mean to them. It had been a good week I told myself, my inner monologue trying to keep my narrative positive. I wasn’t just one emotion I kept screaming in my head, I could feel dozens of emotions if I needed to. I can be happy and sad, jealous and glad, calm and raging. Such duality of feeling reveals a storm, distorting my core while I tried to hold onto the calm at my centre.
Nothing had changed, we were still good friends, chatting away over my phone as I boarded the plane. I reminded myself of logistics, that the fantasy that fought to control my heart was just unfeasible. 12000km destroys all such relationships, as it had already destroyed hers to the man she still loved. It wouldn’t be different for me, the same issues, the same result.
However that was a lie and I knew it, as soon as she talked about her new lover my part in her story was clear. I was background, a voice of compassion over the internet. I was the wise gay friend who picked her up so she was ready to meet the love of her life. I wasn’t throwing away at my shot at something better, this was the pinnacle. In a couple of years she would move on and find a partner, maybe get married, maybe find a city she wanted to stay for decades in. In the years to come I’d see her less and less, dropping further into the background. One day I’d be scenery dressing in an old photo.
I’d stopped sinking into the seat, reaching equilibrium with the plastic and metal that surrounded and contained me. The voices of the happy people around me quietened as the engines started to roar, the plane about to defy nature and soar across the sky. So I needed to defy my nature, get past my feelings rather than just burying them. I needed to move on, so that one day she would be a background character in my story as well.
It was all I had left, to take a shot with someone else. While a shot in the big black unknown future, it was a shot I was not going to throw away.
The two opponents stared across the vast wilderness of the living room. Between them lay the great prize, the TV remote. “It is my turn with the TV, the Women’s tennis is on and I will not be denied my vice.” Jeff stated aggressively. “There are no turns in this house, you can only have what you can take! I will watch the re-run of Deadliest Catch, and you will accept it. Of the two of us I am the greater Warrior, you cannot hope to defeat me, for it was I who slew the Hydra of Bromley upon Tynes, who had infested the municipal fountain.” Pete stated, and shifted it Stone Bear stance.
Jeff snorts, for while his brother is a true warrior, he is not Jeff’s equal. “Pete do not be foolish, for I was the one who slew the Great Wyrm Sykarath, that had built his lair in Barton’s children’s park.” Jeff shifts into Golden Wolf stance.
The two great warriors stare at each other, their battle of wills contrasting with the soft lemon yellow of the living room. Neither will back down, their pride is too strong, the wide screen TV too great a prize to relinquish, even for an hour. They draw their swords, though they keep them in their scabbards, for pride is not worth the death of a warrior.
“My foolish offspring!” Screeches a voice from the doorway to the dinning room. “Your fight is for nought, for I claim the sitting room and the TV. Gardener’s world will be on in five minutes, and I will see the adverts leading up to them. Shanny from down the road says they will include a trailer for Colin Firth’s new film. Do not think you can face me, for it was I who slew the Fey Lord of Thorns, and his army of nettle men, when they invaded Dunerly’s community allotments.” The brothers nod their respect at their mother’s accomplishments, but the thought of another conversation about compost puts lead in their hearts. They turn to each other and silently agree that one of them must succeed, lest dinner conversation be filled with references to worm filled rotting matter. Mother sees her offspring will not relent, and their quiet alliance form before her. She draws her iron clubs, the very weapons that slew the Lord of Thorns, and launches at her children to beat respect for their mother into them.
The living room is filled with the sounds of battle, the two brothers barely holding their own against the swift dual wielder. On the other side of the wall the neighbours cover their ears, for their pride at being adjacent to the greatest warriors of Norbiton doesn’t quieten the bloody racket.
Their mother has them on the ropes, and in a surprise move disarms both of them. They kneel to surrender, accepting that in this house only the greatest warrior has access to the prime time television. “All of you, out of the room.” Said a powerful voice from the doorway to the hallway. Filling the opening was a man the size of a bear, muscle barely contained in a Taylor Swift T-shirt. “Husband, I was just teaching our children some manners.” Mother spoke, the air tense. “A task you have mastered admirably my love, and yet you have all fought over my TV. I plan to watch the cricket.” He said and slid into the room with catlike grace. “The cricket is not on for an hour my love, plenty of time for me to watch Gardener’s world.” His wife replied, steel in her voice and in her hands. “I want to listen to the comments on the upcoming match my darling.” Her husband replied calmly, feeling that his victory was inevitable.
“You can listen to them on the radio sweety.” His wife replies, shifting into silver cobra stance. Her husband remains in open horse stance. “I want to see their faces my pudding, for my hearing is not what it is used to be.” He opens his hands and mother and children step back. He has no weapons, for he does not need them, his hands are mightier than any sword. It remains unspoken that he is the greatest warrior of them all. He slew with his bare hands the Elder Demon Xjkrtz, the unvowelable, after the fiend attempted to destroy the British Library and undo the words of men.
“Perhaps it is time we bought a telly for the kitchen?” Jeff suggests as the three of them retreat from the room. “Maybe on the weekend dear, Currys is having a deal. I’m off to Shanny’s, will be back in time for supper.” Their mother said as she sprinted out the door, using Leaping Monkey technique to fly to Shanny’s. The two brothers turned to each other. “There is an Earth elemental attacking Wimbledon?” Pete suggested, Jeff nods at this and the pair of them run out the door.
Machine gun fire sputtered behind us as I two-wheeled the car around the bend. Pike’s crew were gnawing on our back bumper, unafraid to rivet anyone as they aimed their guns at us. “Josie, put it away!” I screamed as I tried to control the car. The foolish girl was opening the parcel. “If I’m going Daisy for it, I’ll bloody look at it.” She shouted back as she drew a knife to break the tap that held the box closed. “Josie, you heard Big Man, he’ll dice ya if you peek. These my streets, no Brown Boot will beat me here.” We’d gotten a decent car, not pretty put full of muscle, more torque than a train wheel. Pike’s crew had retro’ed a Jonny-Cab, Camo’sly but slow. We needed open space, but space won’t help us if Josie screwed us.
Josie thought through my words, slipped her knife away. Bullets still spraying at us, but they were riveting ‘standers not us. I took the next corner hard, back differential clipped for full slide. Pike’s crew slipped around the corner with overslide, crossed the boundary. I felt the crunch shockwave along my neck but kept moving, my mirrors showing the nutters had headon’ed a truck. We kept speeding, we needed to drop the wheels, PolBots be on the lookout for us, but now we needed km’s between us an Pike.
“Clancy, I don’t like this, this was meant to be a pass’along. No one kills ya over a pass-along.” Josie whined, I loved her strut, but not that whine. “Pike’s a Puppy’kicker, his crew so shaky about him they take on the Polls rather than see his sad face. He’ll be busy now his crew plugged civis as they chased us. The Polls will chase him down with Sharpees.” The rules of the streets were simple with the Polls, you make too much noise and they’ll get you “Resisting arrest”, you won’t reach the sentencing room. “Josie, we need some new wheels soon, the Polls will want us too. After that we’ll meet Big Man, get rained.” I tried to smile at her as I kept my peepers on the road.
“Then north of the wall?” She said pulling a smile that pulled me. “Yeah baby, enough cash and we can buy into Canada. USers do it all the time, just got to have the right friends.” Clearly I said enough of a good thing, she went dreamy quiet. We slipped the car into a Blackspace, no PolBots, no Eyes, nothing to track us. Twenty minutes later we had new wheels and were back on the road to Big Man’s.
The sun was setting when we stopped two blocks away from Big Man’s HQ. I got out of the car and pulled my mini-skirt down a little more, didn’t help to look unprofessional. Josie was nervous but so was I, Big Man didn’t like unconventional types. He never broke a deal though, so we were safe as a banker’s bonus until we left his.
I reached the door to see one of his goons guarding, a Drumph wannabe with arms thicker than my legs. The muscle wore the suit like a dog in a costume, can’t hide the hound underneath. He nodded at Josie and me, gave us the leer, his way of saying he don’t care we ain’t milkmaids, at least for the night. He opened the door and I pulled Josie in behind me. We moved through the place, dolled up to look like a high class diner, servants and all. We finally reach Big Man, working his way through real steak. No vat’meat for Big Man, I salivated looking at the T’bone it.
“Ahh, Ms Limehouse and Ms Salvador, I see you have my package.” I pulled the box, tape still intact, from Josie and moved to pass it to him before pulling back. Big Man cocked an eyebrow, his baby blues smiling while his teeth showed, felt like a shark’s grin. “Petrov, would you please.” The other man at the table pulled out a brown bag and passed it to Josie, who looked inside, her glow telling me we were square. I handed the box to Big Man. “Your retrievers have been making noise.” Said a voice like cold honey from the front of the restaurant. Every face turned to the voice, you had to, like gravity it pulled at you. I turned and saw a willow man, taller than anyone I’d ever seen bent over to fit into the room. He was thin, more bamboo than man.
“I said the job would get done.” Big Man said, but the fear in his voice was unmistakable. I felt the world roll, Big Man feared no one, feared nothing alive. “Very well, if you would be so kind?” The bamboo man asked as he strode towards Big Man, he moved wrong, like a sail in the wind. He seemed to move like a snake with legs, more slide than stride. “What’s in the box?”Big Man said and that was when I realised he was angry. Big Man was king of the City, no one scared him on his turf. He wanted the bamboo man to pay. “You get paid, does it matter?” The bamboo man said as he reached Big Man’s table. I grabbed Josie’s hand and moved us back. Like the rat I was raised to be I knew when a ship was about to sink.
Big Man pulled out a knife and broke the tape, the bamboo man just watched him. I couldn’t read the bamboo man, he wore a suit but that was the only detail I could pick out. Big Man opened the box and inside was a crystal unlike anything I’d ever seen, carved gracefully, clear with a dark centre. Big Man snatched it out of the box and turned to the bamboo man, his eyes dilating like a cat in the dark. His mouthed opened wide, like he was trying to swallow that very cat. It took me a moment to recognise the sounds from his mouth, no man is meant to scream like that. His other hand reached inside his jacket for his gun but he was too slow. Like a snake, bamboo man’s hands reached out, one snatching the crystal, the other snatching Big Man’s neck. There was a snap, and the city needed a new king.
I started moving before I realised I was running, Josie carried in my wakes as I pulled her arm. I heard the gunfire but didn’t turn. The door opened and the guard goon had his gun drawn, trained on something past my shoulder. He started firing until he fell down, something in his throat, his white shirt gone red. The door was swinging closed but I bashed it with my shoulder and almost fell outside.
Josie was still with me as we ran for the car. Suddenly she was pulled out of my arms. I turned and there was the bamboo man holding her. “Did you look at the crystal?” He asked, as calmly as if he wanted to borrow the milk. We shook our heads, he smiled. “Good.” He said, let go of Josie. With that he was gone.
I gave myself thirty two seconds to consider my alternatives. Thirty two seconds later my predictive subroutines had showed me my odds, but nothing had changed, there was only one option. I called up my scan of the Red Giant, I focused my attention on the fifty six pixels that showed the Star Engine devouring this ancient behemoth of a star. I had snapped the image as my orbit around the planetoid finally showed it hiding in the corona. It was an unmistakable swirl of colours as its gravity drive drew in the super hot plasma of the star’s outer hydrogen shell, to be processed by the zero point singularity at its centre.
The Cthauti were clearly master Astro-engineers, the Star Engine was the size of a moon, far bigger than anything the Hegemony of Humanity had built. Despite its beauty I felt no shame over my plan to destroy it. Docked with it were two hundred Cthauti ships, a navy fleet only four hundred light years from Terra Prime. This was their final recharge before an assault on my home, where my family live.
The first I saw my great grandson’s face I knew I would end up here. My granddaughter held him so peacefully in her arms, his beautiful facing lighting my world. My partner had tried to persuade me not to join, that we had so much time left. It didn’t matter, my future was worth less than that child. A week later I enlisted, having met the age requirement long ago. Only the old fought, the young were too precious to waste on war.
I had to destroy the Star Engine, and I had to take out the fleet with it. I called up the “White-out” protocol from my encrypted drive. Minds greater than mine had considered this eventuality, and had prepared a response for it. The plan was simple and suicidal in equal parts, but it was the best odds I had. I sent the request to the helm to plot the route for the flyby round the sun. Optimising routines calculated the best chance of taking the enemy by surprise.
The point of no return was when I signalled what I was doing to Central Command. The Cthauti would detect the FTL transmission instantaneously where-ever I was in the Solar System. So I had to emit the signal when it was too late for them to do anything about it. Helm responded with an FTL jump line that took me two hundred A.U.’s from the star to a point fifteen A.U.’s from the Star Engine.
I turned of weapons, reformatted my shield array for hard radiation. I broke out of orbit and began accelerating hard. Any sane person would tell you that when you enter orbit around a Star you want zero velocity relative to that Star. No one would say I was sane. My systems flooded my warnings as my backup A.I. expressed its dismay at my plan.
My FTL drive was charged and ready by the time I hit a quarter of the speed of light. The automated condition met, I jumped to hyperspace, the otherworldly energies bathing my hull for 5 seconds. The sensation interface generally made the experience feel like being in a warm bath, however you could change the default if you wanted. I once tried to make it feel like being on a boat, like when I sailed as a little girl.
I came out of hyperspace like a cat out of a burning barn. My targeting systems alerting me to the presence of defence drones floating just above the corona of the star. They glowed like fireflies, their mirrored hulls reflecting the sun’s rays of their shiny bellies. I sped towards them, unable to change from my predetermined course. I was still accelerating, my gravity drive burning as it fought the pull of the blazing Red sun and to drive me to insane speeds. Time was slowing down as I got closer to the speed of light, it made everything shrink around me.
The hyper processors that ran my psyche emulator were just enough to keep up. I shook as the defence drones fired their long range weapons at me, most of the energy refracting harmlessly of my hull. There was no point in engaging them, I would soon be out of their range and too fast to catch up with. I tried to relax as I began to rotate to spread the strain of hard radiation across my shields.
As I twirled I thought back on when I use to dance, my body hot and sweating from the exertion. I’d fallen in love on the beach, everybody dancing to the beautiful moon whose thousand cities twinkled above us. You could be in the middle of the ocean and know when you looked at the moon that Humanity was never far away if you need them. That is unless you were like me now and hundreds of light years from home.
I missed those components of my biological phase, before I had been uploaded into my space body. There was nothing like being free in the void of space, listening to the music of the spheres. My sleek processors were faster and more efficient than any biological brain could be, however they lacked the charm of the dreams I used to have.
I picked up the chatter from the defence drones, as they tried to alert the Star Engine to me. I reset my FTL drive to transmit my message to Central Command. While I was transmitting I could jump out of here, not that I was planning to.
I approached the Star Engine, close to two thirds the speed of light. My engines were no longer accelerating me forward. They were entirely focused on keeping my path straight at the matter stream between the star and its parasite.
My sensation emulator became confused at my exhilaration, as I became one of the fastest objects in existence. The shape of the star was distorting at this fraction of the speed of light, my helm struggling to cope with the mathematics of Relativity to keep me on course. Time was running forty percent slower for me now, giving them more time to react than I had. I turned off all non-essential process operations and accelerated my perception.
The star was warping in front of me, pulling up like a vast mountain the size of Terra Prime. It twisted like a tornado, giving the impression the sun was sprouting from the Star Engine. I primed the Cascade bomb, the most powerful weapon the Hegemony had ever designed.
I hit the hurricane, my shields just stopping me being flatted like an insect of a windshield. I had the kinetic energy of a large nuclear weapon. I left a massive void behind me, as I released the Cascade bomb it detonated instantly. That void crackled with quantum instability as the matter of the star rushed in to fill the void. The plasma density jumped, feeding the monstrous reaction taking place.
When I was biological I would have ranted and raved at the inventor of the Cascade bomb. Now I was a great grandmother it was different, anything to protect what is mine. The cascade wave propagated through the matter stream flowing into the Star Engine as I made it out and began shooting into space. Anything larger than a proton became unstable within the wake of the cascade, collapsing into a soup of gluons and death.
The effect propagated further until it enveloped the Star Engine which shifted like a melting candle and then exploded. The navy docked with it had started decoupling itself, but they weren’t fast enough. The wavy encompassed them, every sentient thought converted into raw meaningless entropy.
A supernova of light exploded behind me, the wave catching me at the speed of light. My hull burned, I would have screamed if I still had a throat. My engines super heating, as pure nuclear fury overtook everything else. I was blind, aimless in space, but I had won, I’d destroyed the behemoth.
The ghost of a particle. It was the mad idea that was joked about by every second year physicist. It was up there with variable speed of light, tachyons, hyper strings. It was a solution of the mathematics, but it wasn’t real.
Well now it was, I’d done it. I’d proved the unprovable. Sometimes a mad problem requires a madman to solve. They said I was mad, that I was chasing the modern P vs NP. I’d gone hyperlooped, driven insane by the logic. The problem was as intractable as its description, did a particle exist separately of the information of the particle.
What did the question even mean? If it is separate of its information, then how do you know it is separate? Yet there was a weird consequence, that if the particle was separate, then that bundle of information didn’t need to be bundled.
You could change arbitrary components, sure there would be places the particle couldn’t exist. That just meant if it changed, it couldn’t go there. The particle could go anywhere, be anything, as long as when it changed it moved to a place that was real. It could do anything you wanted while the universe wasn’t looking.
That was what solved it for me, was the question of what was real and what wasn’t. The mathematics defined what was allowed while the universe kept tabs on you, I just needed to encourage the particle to go elsewhere when I distracted the universe.
The idea was so simple, so simple I had to build the device. It sat in my grandmother’s basement, the only place I could get big enough. She didn’t understand what I was doing, just glad I fixed the boiler. The device was a rat’s warren of pipes and wires, the size of a family fridge. It wheezed and whirled as it cooled ten caesium atoms down to close to zero.
I couldn’t have done this on my own ten years ago, but science marched on. I could have shared this. I didn’t know with who though. I’d haunted my childhood, and I was a phantom in my adulthood. I’d been there with everyone else, but no one remembered. I seem to leave no lasting trace. So here I was alone with my particle, a single electron floating around a caesium atom.
I think it was Tuesday, when we still had them, when I switched the device on for the first time. It took two weeks for it to cool the atoms down enough so I could do my trick. I realised that when the universe wasn’t looking, all that gunk that was matter could do whatever it liked. It could be on the other side of the universe, travel back in time, go to the distant future. I just needed to keep the universe distracted while it did it.
When it was finally ready I remember having a ham sandwich to calm my stomach, I wasn’t hungry but when I was nervous my dad would make me a ham sandwich. If he was around he would have done that for me.
I flipped the switch, the super magnets began whirring, steadying the contents of the device. Ten caesium atoms spun in precise orbits, blurring into one another until suddenly one pops out. All that excess energy goes with it. Not enough energy, the others are moving but don’t have enough energy for all them to move, so they take turns. While the universe is looking, they move, when the universe isn’t looking, they don’t move.
So you have nine atoms acting like they are eight, and floating on the very edge of an atom that temporarily doesn’t exist is an electron. Something that doesn’t exist, at the edge of something that doesn’t exist. For more than a quantum beat, it does whatever it wants. That was the last Tuesday for me, for most other people. Turns out that when you break such a fundamental rule, the universe gets confused. If an electron can do whatever it wants, why can’t an atom, or a molecule, or a sun.
Everybody remembers how things are meant to be, they just aren’t any more. Sometimes I’m here, sometimes I’m there. I don’t know what happened to my Grandmother, I haven’t seen her since. I like to think she ended somewhere nice, she always like Florida.
One day that electron will find its way back and the universe will calm down. When it does I’ll tell people it was me, that I did it. Maybe I’ll get a noble prize, maybe they’ll hang me, probably both.
I wiped the blood of the last guardian of my sword. When it was clean I sheaved it, and turned to look at the young man. He barely had a beard, I thought about the life he could have had, while the priests dragged his body away to join the others. Like the rest of us he had given everything for the ritual. The Bishop came over to congratulate me, his words felt empty. “Why do so many of them have to die?” The question slipped out, I knew the answer though. “My Lord, the ritual is clear. Your soul must be branded by the blood of the innocent, while you remain innocent. They are all sacrifices.” I thought about the young men, I had been them a decade ago. Now I was the sword, and they were the lambs of god.
I followed the Bishop away from the arena. My body ached from constant battles. I had proved my strength, all the pain was worth it. The Bishop led me into the song chamber. The monks were already chanting, their voices beautiful in their harmony. The chant was old, few remembered the true meaning of the words. The emotion was real, everyone here had seen me fight each guardian. Their sorrow and hope was woven into their chant as I was led by the Bishop up the central aisle.
There was a momentary quake, the room shaking and the lights flickering. No one batted an eye. The bombardment was closer everyday as the Enemy closed on the capital. The Bishop reached the pedestal adjacent to the Pit. I walked to the base of the steps that led to the Pit. I kneeled down and began my silent prayers as the Bishop began his recitation.
“Since the time the Great ones walked the earth, our civilisation has stood as Guardians against the Stars. We fought the angels of the other side. We sacrificed so that others may live, today we have done it again, today we give our greatest!” The Bishop turned to look at me, his hands gripping the pedestal. “He who remained innocent, while he killed the innocents. His soul is marked with their blood, so the beast may feed. His body is strong so he can fight. His heart is pure so he can resist.” The Bishop was translating the old words. The poetry of the scripts was beautiful, the symbolism deep, meaning obscure. “Do you renounce the love of God for the love of Man?” Every eye was on me. I rose from my prayers and took the Bishop’s hand. “I do.” “Do you understand what you are undertaking? “I will never be forgiven.” Not forgiven by god, though everyone else was counting on me. “My life will be hours.” Even the strongest couldn’t survive the beast for long. “My name will be forgotten.” Not that I had ever been known.
“We honour this man!” The Bishop roared, and the monks roared with him. I walked up the steps and carefully descended into the Pit. The walls had been painted with the blood of the boys/men I had killed. Eldritch symbols in the language of the Great Ones, carefully repeated from scripture for eons. I was the latest in the long line of the Sword against the Stars, our one weapon against them. I began my prayers, calling on the Beast that slept in this Pit. Once it touched my soul I could never enter heaven, my soul damned to sit at its doors for eternity. I was innocent, and could not be sent to hell. My soul was barred entry above and below.
I felt the darkness of the Pit reach up for me, my blood cooling in its presence. I had been warned and maintained my prayers of embrace. Without sin the Beast could not banish my soul to hell to ride my body. We would be partners until my body failed. The Beast could not bind with me unless I had blood on my hands, I had killed innocents. It was a loophole god had not thought off, and I would never be forgiven for abusing it. I would join the ranks of the other Swords, who sat at the gates of heaven.
The darkness could taste the stains on my soul. It enveloped me, sliding into my flesh. My blood froze in my veins as the Beast tried to usurp my soul. The Guardians against the Stars had prepared me since birth. I took hold of the Beast in my mind, bound it, mastered it. The Beast’s power flowed through me, my heart quieting until it stopped. I opened my frozen eyes and spoke my last words. “It is done.” The monks and the Bishop ceremonially turned their backs on me, so they would remember me as the man I had been. I rose out of the Pit and began the long walk to the surface.
The city around me was quiet, the civilians hidden in bunkers beneath the surface. Rockets flew overheard, while the automated defences shot down as many as it could. Enough got through to start fires all over the city. I needed to get out of here quick so they could tend to the damage. I took a deep breath, for a moment forgetting I didn’t need to breathe. My limbs were no longer tired from battle. I was decaying, but I had never felt so alive. I began to run towards the enemy. My feet had known these streets since I was a child. Now the ground felt soft on my cold feet. Suddenly I was at the edge of the city, the main gates open to allow me egress. I sped through towards the enemy.
The sun was starting to set as I reached the enemy. Their equivalent to radar must have seen me while I was miles away. Rockets were flying at me, I brushed past them. Floating tanks turned to face me. I could feel the fear from the enemy, they had their own stories about the Swords against the Stars. Merciless monsters faster than a rocket, deadlier than the plague. None of them wanted to die on an alien world so far from home. They were only here because a noble safe in a castle far away wanted our world for its collection. It didn’t matter if the soldiers were innocent, I was the killer of the innocent. They would be more stains to feed my beast while our body decayed.
My phone was losing battery as I played through another round of candy crush. I had spent too much time and money on that, and it was all my mother’s fault. She couldn’t let my sister go to the mall alone, but didn’t have the time to take her herself. So I was babysitting not just my sister, but two of her friends. I’d already had the snickers of other kids from school who’d seen me chaperoning the trio of babbling brats.
Life was going badly before I heard the screams. We were near the middle of the mall, far enough from entrances so I couldn’t see what was going on. I grabbed my sister’s hand. “You need to stay close to me.” I said and started pulling my sister with me to the nearest exit. I didn’t know what was going on but if there was a problem with the building we needed to get out of here. “What is going on?” asked Patty, my sister’s nerdiest friend. One day she was going to be making more money than all of us, but until then she was reliant on my sister to solve her problems for her. “I don’t know but let’s go to Charlie’s ice cream parlour.” Charlie’s was on the other side of the shopping centre of town, and a go reason for us to leave. The girls started following, distracted enough by the thought of smoothies to do what I said. It didn’t matter, we didn’t make it three feet before the crowd around us started pushing away from the door.
I could feel the shift. I had always been intuitive, I got it from my dad. A sixth sense about people and situations. I could feel the bells ringing in the back of my head, we needed to get to safety. I couldn’t get the girls out but I could get them somewhere safe. I changed direction and pulled them with me, flowing in the same direction as the crowd. When I spotted the nearest entrance to a shop I pulled them in. I was too focused on the crowd, when I looked around the shop I realised it was Ann Summers.
My face went bright red, I just hoped whatever was happening outside would be enough of an excuse to my mother, that she wouldn’t kill me for dragging my baby sister and her friends into a “sex shop”. “Errr, Pete, why are we in here?” Jess asked, my sister’s cute friend. In four years time she would be a real looker, but right now it was just making this all kinds of wrong. “Jess, we need to get to the back of the store now!” Sandy, my sister almost screamed. I caught her eyes and saw it, the same instinct I had. I hadn’t realised she’d inherited it, my Dad’s hunches. Now the fear was coming of the both of us in waves. It was crazy, we didn’t even know what we were afraid of. Before I could over think it I grabbed Jess, and Sandy grabbed Patty. We dragged them both to the back of the shop just as a shop assistant came over to shoo us out.
By the time she got to us she could see the people panicking outside. It got her to pause before she reached us, that probably saved her life. As we rushed to the back of the shop I could hear the sound of glass smashing, and then the bells started crashing in the back of my mind. I ran and so did Sandy, her friends carried in our wake. I reached the sales assistant at full gallop and pulled her along as well. To this day I don’t know why, she tried to fight me but I had enough momentum that I pushed her along with me. We hit the back of the shop as the screams hit a crescendo. I turned around to finally look at the crowds outside. Swirling around the people were swifts of red. My brain hadn’t encountered this before, so my eyes took what like an eternity to make sense of it. The crowds were being attacked by birds.
The birds filled the air, and as a fluid started spreading out, heading towards us. I pushed the girls and shop assistant behind me. My hand reached out and grabbed a pole I didn’t know was there. I could feel the instinct get into overdrive, the bells in the back of my head had changed to drums. They pounded with my heart, my body syncing with something primal. The birds flew at us and I swung hard, smashing into the first wave. Some of them swarmed round my bat, which turned out to be a mannequin’s arm. They went for my face but I stepped back and swung hard taking them down. To my left I saw a leg flying around, realised my sister had grabbed a mannequin’s leg and was following my suit.
My sister had always kind of bugged me, I thought she was alright but I’d never felt pride in her before. Today I saw the family steel. My arm swung before my brain could react, knocking more of the birds out of the air. “They’re Robins!” Patty screamed, my brain taking two beats to make sense of it. She was right, they were robins, their red chests covered in the blood of the crowd. This was insane but I kept swinging. I heard an ‘oomph’ from my left. The shop assistant had tried to get up but caught my sister’s backswing, right in the baby maker. Back home we called that an ovary punch.
I started stepping forward as I swung, buying room for my sister to swing without hitting anyone else. Outside the crowd were covered in blood, people fending off the birds with their bare hands. Most of the crowd had run into shops, but not Ann Summers like us. I wondered if we were the only ones who lacked the decorum. I made progress towards the door. The odd robin getting past me and nipping at my arms or head. “I’ve got to get out of here!” screamed the shop assistant. She was panicking, too used to ‘I can’t even’ culture to actually handle a crises. I saw that Patty and Jess were holding her down, keeping her out of my sister’s way.
I started hearing roars of something, my brain battered by too many crazy events to make sense of it. It seemed to coincide with volume of robins abating. To my amazement soldiers were pushing through the crowds, carry flamethrowers on their backs. They were char grilling the robins out of the air. The robins clearly knew they were losing and had started flying off. A soldier turned to look in the doorway at us. “What the hell is going on?” I stammered, events starting to catch up with me. “Too ignorant to say thank you?” I just blinked at his absurd question. He shook his head at me like I was a fool. “Don’t you get it, army saved you, you’re welcome.” With that he marched off with his flamethrower buddies. I held the mannequin arm close, the only thing in my life currently making some vague sense. Well at least the army is handling this, I thought.
They want waffles, by God they will get waffles. Waffles are basically pancakes and I’m good at making pancakes. I move around my kitchen pulling ingredients out of my overly large cupboards. My left side hurt, more from my rabies shots than the dog bite. I never thought needles would hurt so much, worse than when I broke my arm.
Waffles are basically pancakes, I just needed the shaper. My sister had been in the kitchen last, so everything was in the wrong place. The kitchen had become a reflection of her mind, and it was muddled. My side throbbed, the flesh was too warm, almost feverish. I went and washed my hands, didn’t want my family catching whatever I might have picked up.
I opened the milk but it smelt weird. I couldn’t work out if it was off or not, it was richer, creamier. I broke the train of thought and returned to the task at hand, having finally retrieved all the equipment I needed. I began beating my mixture, it seemed too thin, however I wasn’t sure it needed more flour. The eggs were probably weird. Should I keep going, all the food was weird?
Waffles, they demanded waffles. I could have just made pancakes, essentially the same food. Everything is approximately a pancake. Or we could have just ordered out, so many people in the house we could have gotten a good deal. Don’t know why I was getting so tetchy, could feel my skin itch. I focused on the task at hand, so close to getting the waffles done. The scent was so strong.
The horde rushed into the kitchen, hoovering up my waffles. Where was the gratitude? I’ll just have to interpret fast eating as appreciation. I could barely finish my waffle, my stomach was off. I should really talk to a doctor, something wasn’t right. I needed to get out of here, I could feel everyone else in the room on my skin. The air was too thin.
I apologies to the others, I get out of there. Waffles, I had achieved waffles, not surprising, they are basically pancakes.
Nature is red in tooth and claw. Poets can encapsulate the sentiment, scientists can describe the process, but in the end the wars of nature and the wars of man are about the same things. Young men have always fought; to protect or to claim. This is no different than the lion and the buffalo, they both fight over the buffalo’s flesh, the buffalo just got there first.
Violence is the action of last resort, when you want something that cannot be bargained for in any other way. Terrorism is the violence of last resort, resorted to by those less capable of violence than others. Those with ideologies that demand the obedience of others, but without the armies to force compliance, send children to blow up children. Terrorism is the greatest show of weakness, you cannot persuade, you cannot overwhelm, you must frighten. It is the choice to shoot one dog to put the others in line, by a man who only has two bullets in his gun.
For decades we have lived in the shadow of this new world, were the actions of the few can cause harm to so many, and we have never been safer. People think we have grown accustomed to violence, when the new normal is piece. You would not trust a man who solves his arguments with fists any more. A century ago you would not respect a man who couldn’t.
To understand how we really feel about violence now, we need to go back. Go back to when red in tooth and claw was as true of us as the beasts of the wild. Let us go back a thousand generations, two thousand generation, three thousand generations.
The girl screamed in a language I didn’t understand, in time she would learn our tongue, speak like a lion. Until then she would need to be quiet. I smacked her hard, knocking her to the ground. Her screaming stopped and she began crying. The girl in my brother’s arms stopped crying when she had seen what I had done, I had killed two birds with one stone. I picked the girl of the ground, and with my brother took them back towards the rest Lions.
The Lions were waiting, we were the last to get back. The girls had run far from their camp, seeking to hide from us in the grass. It was foolish, the Lions are the best trackers, we know the land and the land knows us. These interlopers were not of the land, though with time the girls would learn, their sons would know the land. The other Lions had been successful, two more girls and two boys. Our Elder walked forward and inspected the interlopers, he smiled. “It is as it should be, they took from the tribe, and now they have repaid. Let the Lions forgive them for the blood they have taken.” He turned to my sister, who eyes swam with grief. “They took of your blood, now you may claim theirs.” My sister nodded, though I could see it was little solace. She had no sons, they had taken that from her when they stole her husband.
“I want the boy,” she point at a child less than ten, held in the arms of one of the men. The boy was frightened, he gripped the man who held him tightly. The boy had blood on him but it was not his, the Lion who held him was touched by the blood as well. It would not serve to ask him of it, it was part of the price they paid when they took from us. “I want those girls.” She said finally, pointed at the girls with my brother and I. They were older than the boy, perhaps fourteen and twelve. They would be good daughters for my sister, I would see to it.
The Elder turned to the last victim in the tribe, she was old, they had taken her son, so she could not claim first. She nodded to show she would take the others. The Elder turned to the rest of the tribe. “Let it be remembered, these are our lands, the lands of the Lions. The Lions claim with blood what is theirs. The Buffalo would steal from us, and when we roar they cower. It was not enough for them to cower, they must sneak at night and take what is precious from us, they would steal the lives of our sons and husbands. They will not scare Lions, by harassing us in the dark. We have dealt blood for blood, for what they have stolen we have rightly returned. May their flesh nourish the tribe, for we do not claim what is not ours, their flesh has paid for flesh.”
With that the girls were lions now, may they strengthen the tribe.