Part 2 – The Relationship

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

And then promised to show me what lovers do.

I get shivers.

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

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

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

___________

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

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

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

“Why would that make any difference?”

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

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

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

“And that means?”

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

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

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

“I’m your moral support, John.”

“Moral Support?”

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

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

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

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

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

After a while, I had a question.

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

“Tell me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not immune.”

“Nevertheless.”

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

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

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

“Sort of.”

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

________

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

“I need coffee.”

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

“I don’t want it.”

“Don’t be petulant.”

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

“You’re being a five year old.”

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

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

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

“What was in that drink anyhow?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________

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

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

There are exceptions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super.

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

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

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

________________

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

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

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

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

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

___________

A thought occurs.

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

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

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

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

____________

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?” I interrupted.

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

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

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

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

“Um, well,” Let me stop my tale here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We realise it’s a flaw.” Says Ellie.

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

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

“’Bulk me up’?”

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

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

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

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

“Six weeks, we reckon.”

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

“Lance.”

“Lance and the bastard sword,”

“Sabre.”

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

“Yep, no brain, no download.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________

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

________________

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

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

“No.” I say.

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

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

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

“We bought some dogs.” Ellie shouts back.

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

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

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

“It’s called a ‘yurt’.” Ellie says.

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

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

“How long was I asleep?”

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

“No kidding.” Ellie held up her hand.

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

“Sure?”

“He’s got to know how it is.”

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

“You did what?”

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

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

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

“But that’s just wrong!”

“Sayeth the assassin.”

“But…” Ellie interjected,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Reflected?”

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

“Er, right.”

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

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

“Yes,” it came out as a whisper.

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

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

“I am?”

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

___________

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wolves ran off leaving their three bound comrades behind.

_____________

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

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

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

“How?”

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

“Alright. What about the dogs?”

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

“And that’s it?”

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

A long, really long, conversation ensues.

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

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

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

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

“How does the gravity work?” I ask.

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

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

“You’re not supposed to be here.”

“What do you mean?”

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

“Why?”

“Because we need to you to kill someone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The conversation following her announcement was difficult.

“Kill someone?”

“Yes.”

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

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

“Because I made a moral choice?”

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

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

“Then you owe them.”

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

“Other one. What changed?”

“I grew, well, connected.”

“And you’ve been alone otherwise.”

“Yes except for…”

____________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know what is right any more.

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

______________________

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

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

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

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

I made it better.

______________________

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

“What then?”

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

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

“In what way?”

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

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

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

“He’s causing the ice age isn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

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

“You didn’t say ‘our world.’”

“No.”

“You’re not from here are you?”

“No.”

“So where are you from?”

“There’s no way of explaining it.”

“But you’re from Earth.”

“Yes. Not your Earth.”

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

“Um. No.”

“No?”

“We think there are a couple of hundred.”

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How come you know so much?”

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

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

“You’re me.”

________________

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

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

“How many of us are there?”

“Maybe a dozen?”

“And my government knows about this?”

“Yes.”

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

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

______________

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

When I turn again, she is looking at me.

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

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

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

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

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

I spend my time in thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

“Galaxies.”

“Not on that scale. But in realities.”

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

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

I could give it up.

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

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

“We know.”

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

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

_______________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m moral, I’m a moral man.

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

It is wrong.

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

And then…

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

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

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

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

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

_________

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

_________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, here it is then, John.”

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

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

Help me.

Help me.

Help me.

Help.

Me, me, me, me, me, me me me….

_________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So it’s real.”

“Yes it’s real.”

“And I’m not going mad.”

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

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

“A fairy-tale.”

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

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

“Then she will die, never have existed.”

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

“That isn’t possible.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about me,” I say.

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

“And you want me to kill this fellow.”

“Yes.”

“I’m dreaming.”

“No.”

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

“Come with me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m ready Sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________

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

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

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

“Have you been there before?”

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

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

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

____________

It’s forty-five minutes later.

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

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

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

It’s eerie.

____________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We dress quickly.

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

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

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

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

The suit immediately warms up.

____________

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

We were very nearly dead anyway.

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

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

___________________

There is a crackle on the radio.

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

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

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

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

“Me too.”

“But we’re not.”

“No.”

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

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

“It’s later than you think.”

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

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

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

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

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

I can’t think.

It’s not real.

_________

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

“Is it not?”

“No, it’s hard to explain.”

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

“What has Sweet got to do with it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is this place?”

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

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

“Right.”

“So…”

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

______________

It is some hours later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are we?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I ignore her, and go to dinner.

________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Turn this boat around!”

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

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

“Because of logic.” Hicks is unperturbed.

“Logic?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______

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

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

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

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

“Knows what?” I’m old fashioned look.

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean in the long run?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Check.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________

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

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

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

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

It keeps submarines away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Admiral Hicks. Permission to come aboard.”

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

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

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

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

“Just wait.” I wait.

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you Ma’am.” They say.

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

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

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

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

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

“Prepare yourself, ” says the Captain.

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

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

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

She is holding a sign that I am not.

It says “Prepare yourself.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Blood.

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

A small dolly.

There is a bullet hole, and blood…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now maybe, there will be some answers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You would be surprised what I can understand.”

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

“What peace?”

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

“Is that true?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve got the gun.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I kill people for a living.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________________________

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

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

“I have been sent to kill you.” He says quietly, “but you have been in my dream, or I have been in yours. I waited for you there for a long time you know. Years. Fortunately I am not a complicated man. Still, I was mad when you found me. Mad. I am not sure I am not mad now. I have been sent to kill you, but I cannot. It would kill her I’m sure, and we have a higher purpose now. I must run, my friend, so that I live for that purpose.” He holds his hand out. ”You saved me. You are my brother.” I look at him, not entirely understanding, but one thing I do understand.

I say with a dry throat…

“Run, my brother. Run.”

Polokov is gone.

I realise shortly after how many questions he could have answered if he knows about her. Either I’m still dreaming or she is real and I’m experiencing something other.

I get up from the hospital bed and wince in pain, this has to be real, my legs hurt. I take a look, the scars look just like in my dream, how long have I been here? I realise that I’m still hooked up, and unlink all the bits of plastic attached. Withdrawing the catheter is painful, but I’m careful, I’ve heard tales. There is beeping, a nurse comes in and starts fussing, but I’m not in the mood and blank it out while I go to the bathroom. She is flapping about, but I say nothing; the floor is cold, but I note, very clean.

I close the door of the bathroom, and look in the mirror, not without some trepidation, but all I see is a bearded me, quite a bush too, I’ve been out for a while. I take out the cannula in my arm as well, and run the shower.

It’s good, I have run it hot. I notice sore spots, bed sores I assume, I’m not as gentle with my skin as I should be, I notice some larger flakes coming off. I have been laid up for a good while, and there are other signs too, in my muscles and in my bones.

Everything aches.

When I exit the bathroom after about half an hour or so, there are two men in the hospital room. Unfriendly men, with badges. I look at them, then out the window, then at them. Hong Kong skyline, British Secret Service. I’ve never had any contact, I don’t know what to expect. I pull on a dressing gown and sit on the bed.

“Hicks,” says the shorter one, “and Charles.” Hicks opens his coat, taps a gun. ”Just so you know not to try anything.”

“…” I try to speak but it turns into a cough. Agent Charles reaches over and pours a plastic cup full of water. In deference to my theoretical skills, he pushes the wheeled table over to me, rather than trying to hand it over. I take a sip.

“Before you ask, I don’t know what I’m doing here.”

“You were trying to shoot someone.”

“I know nothing.”

“You’re lying.” Hicks is all business, he thinks he can bully me. Charles is waggling his eyebrows out the window as a Chinese nurse, she rolls her eyes.

“You can’t know that, how long have I been out?”

“Twenty-Six weeks.” I look up at him. There must be something in my eyes, certainly my heart is thumping, six months! Charles engages.

“Really, yes. Why do you think your legs healed so well? You broke then in seventeen places. We’re surprised you can stand, let alone walk.”

If I wasn’t already sitting on the bed, I would have to sit now. Hicks sniffs.

“You’re pretty professional by all accounts. We know who you were trying to kill. Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“We’re wasting our time here I see. Well, look when you’re prepared to talk, ring this number.” He hands me a card. ”Escape, don’t escape, we don’t care, we’ll track you down. In the meantime, you have to deal with the Hong Kong police, and you’re too weak to run.” They turn to leave.

“Wait.” There is a pause.

“I’ll come with you.”

“That wasn’t on offer.”

“You have to give me something if you want information.”

“You’re in no position to bargain.”

“Then the UK Government will have to have its curiosity unsatisfied then.”

“We’re at an impasse, good-day to you.” A hand on the door handle. I play my only card.

“Polokov.”

“Polokov.” There is a pregnant pause.

“He was sent to kill me. He left an hour ago.”

“He’s good, what did you do to him.”

“I saved him, he owed me.”

“Polokov owes no-one.” Charles steps out the door and talks into a radio. Forgive me, Polokov, I can’t be in the hands of the Hong Kong Police. Foreign secret service is better. Yeah I look like a Brit, but I was born here, my passport, passports, say Hong Kong. It’s China now, they take a dim view of assassination.

“He owes me, and if you want more you have to take me with you.” Hicks looks out the window at Charles, Charles nods.

“Are you strong enough to dress yourself?” And surprisingly, I am, though it hurts. Everything hurts. I’ve been lying down for most of six months. I need something though, a pen and a piece of paper. The girl, she’s in danger. I write “Police coming, get out” on a sheet of notepaper I find by the bed and go into the bathroom and hold it up to the mirror. I see her holding up exactly the same piece of paper reversed. Damn, that means they’re coming now. I smile at her as she smiles at me, and then I exit rapidly.

“We have to go.” I say. ”Now” Charles speaks more into his radio urgently and there is a movement of people on the hospital floor, a sudden influx of black coats. I dress, not bothering with modestly or dignity, and it is not lost on me that my clothes are black linen.

Staff are hustled out of the way, and I barely have time to don a pair of shoes before Charles and Hicks grab me both arms and hustle me to the lift. Hicks has a priority key and turns it before the doors have closed, and the lift plummets twenty-six floors down to the basement car park. We move quickly to a large black Range Rover, and the rest, the rest is a car chase through narrow streets.

Chapter 1 – Failed Mission

The first time I see her, in a mirror, I think I’m dreaming. It’s a shock, that hair, those eyes, that pale skin. She’s not me, it’s a shock.

I’m expecting a sun ripened face, lopsided, a beard, jeans and t-shirt; nothing exciting at the end of a day bumming around the house, writing. That’s what I do when I’m not killing people, for money. A lot of money. Important people, people who can afford protection. Important. People.

And then, when I’m not preparing for it, or doing it, or recovering from it, I write. Romantic novels. Trashy romantic novels. Because it makes money, enough to live on if work is light. It means I don’t have to be seen much, don’t have to mix. I’m an author, my neighbours know me, I hold little parties every now and again. We have a foursome for bridge.

I’m a prolific writer, I can usually find an excuse to be in whatever country I need to be in. I charge a lot of money for my real work. Governments use me. It’s a dirty world out there. I have a cat.

I see her standing there as though she’s me, moving like me, not like me, she’s graceful, I’m not. She’s cute, but young, in this warped day and age she could be fourteen to thirty, but I convince myself she’s about twenty-two, teenagers move less carefully, with less assurance. Her hair is black and long, really long, cascading over her short, tight fitting black dress. Hah, look at me, I see a strange girl in the mirror and I’m interested in how she dresses. This isn’t the inspiration for a romance, it’s a mental aberration, I’m hallucinating. I can’t afford it, I have be focused, either to write, or the other thing.

I go into the bath room and splash some cold water on my face. My beard seems wrong, she’s not in this mirror, but my beard seems wrong. I fish around in the bathroom cabinet behind the mirror, I have some shaving gear there. It’s a bowl and a brush, there were safety razors, but they don’t look all that safe now. There is a straight razor and a strop.

I hang the strop on the peg, pulling it to be sure it won’t come off. It’s not dusty, it’s been rolled up, so it curls annoyingly. I roll it the other way carefully. The straight razor still looks sharp, it’s always sharp. I strop it well, it takes some time to get that edge, that glint and shine. A hair splits, but it’s not good enough, I run the water freely into the sink without a plug, so that it gets hot, and strop the razor some more. I don’t put the plug in until the water steams. Then it’s too hot, add a little cold, because I don’t want to burn, but I need it hot, hot as I can.

I look again, to check she isn’t there. It’s still me, and that beard still looks wrong. It’s a year or more of growth. More. Since.

Never mind.

I take the razor to under my nose, a trace of shake before I begin, I recognise it for what it is and damp it down. I cut each hair cleanly away, the slight pain and the scraping noise telling me as a I close my eyes where I’m shaving and how close. It feels good. I have always done it thus, blind, I know where my face is, where all the hair is, as I know where everything is, once I have seen it. It’s why I’m such good marksman.

It’s gone, my beard lying in the sink, in the water. I look up to the mirror to see what I look like and she’s there, turning her head this way and that as if inspecting my shave, my face as if she is me. I drop the blade, and with a start I hear the noise, a glance down, and she is gone again.

I have work. And a book published in Hong Kong, for which I have to visit. I get a woman, Jessica, to sign books for me, they; the public, think it’s her. But the publisher says I must be there. For questions. It’s arranged.

The target, a wealthy businessman. Dirty, in the business sense. Wife and kid. Pity, soon to be a widow. It’s cruel, but that’s not my business. Someone else would do it. I have rules, others don’t. I have to make sure this idiot provided for them before he goes. My clients, they don’t like that sometimes, the notice needed, the research. I’m a burglar and forger too, paper and electronics; and because of that, I have to know about law. To get it right. It’s an ethical matter, you wouldn’t understand.

These people, the ones I kill; they’re above the law, sometimes, beyond the reach of normal assassins. These ethics, they cost, they cost me a lot; but you can’t let go of them, or we’re nothing.

I can’t get the image of the girl out of my head. I see her wherever I go, in darkened windows, mirrors. I’m not focused, it’s bad. I consider putting the job off, difficult, but not impossible. I could reduce my fee, the client would understand. I’ve had sick leave, you can’t have a sneezy assassin. It would be unprofessional.

What could I say though? I’m seeing a girl in my waking dreams, I’ll have to put it off a few days? For a cold or ‘flu they would get it. Not for this. I have to carry on.

_______________________

I never bother trying to smuggle guns, if I was going to do that I might as well just a put a flag up. Sometimes I transport a weapon in the hold, declared, as a weapon for a club. I’m a member of several internationally. It’s a hobby.

Here, to Hong Kong, I don’t. I just buy something on the black market in cases like this. Oh I could arrange an accident, but who would know that the interred has annoyed someone. It would just be an accident. There would be no point.

The place is busy, it’s always busy, but there are spaces in every city where it is quiet, I soon find mine. My contact meets me, Pierre; supposed to be French, an oily little stain of a man, but a good gun runner. All the French people I meet back home have a little class, they think they’re better, and maybe they are. They can cook for a start.

He talks almost constantly, about his health, his wife, his daughter in a broad French accent that seems to have no region. He gives away too much always, or too little, but I guess he’s at least telling the truth; his stories and complaints have a history and an inconsistency that tell me he misremembers something and edits others.

I walk around town.

The next day is bright and sunny. The little paved streets are warm underfoot, the red and silver taxis lazily buzzing through the narrow alleys, tyres thudding over the paving slabs. People walk around sometimes peering at me curiously, I use a little broken Cantonese to get some food, a noodle soup. There are signs in English, “Hair Avenue” and blue poles outside a barber’s shop, shuttered at this time of day.

The day saves me for a while, I don’t see her reflection, my reflection, in the glass of shop fronts; but then I catch sight of her wearing that same black dress, putting her shoe back on, in exactly the same attitude and position as I have taking a piece of gum off my shoe. I catch this out of the corner of my eye, as does she, and our eyes meet at the point where I should be looking at myself. I’m not; I see her, and she is tall, as tall as me in her heels; she’s putting her hand up to the side of her face, I feel my lack of beard, the unaccustomed smoothness.

An old lady asks me if I’m ok and I turn to her seeing my companion turn as well. I’m ok, I think I’m ok, I tell this old dear, and she carries on walking, drawing me with her and when I look up the window is gone and light has changed, so when I disengage it’s just me standing there, looking. The old lady looks back at me again and I start moving, saying “Xia xia” in passing, she bows uncertainly at the westerner trying to be polite.

Unless you have been to Hong Kong, it’s difficult to relate how narrow and busy the streets can be, how odd it is that they go up and down and up again in a pale imitation of San Francisco, except that it’s no imitation, it’s just a circumstance. I don’t place too much emphasis on coincidence, the world is large, things happen.

I’m alone in the crowd. I’m looking for that high vantage point, the unlikely place, far from my target. I’m lucky, it’s one of the things that makes me so good at what I do, there is always somewhere from me to work from, some apartment I can hole up in for a few days. Someone is always away.

I settle myself in, jimmying the door was the work of a few seconds, and the sheet of glass took care of the alarm.

There’s nothing to do but wait. I’m used to waiting. I make some arrangements. A tape over the door, just sticky tape, careful not to leave a print or anything as crass as that. That little tearing sound will warn me if it open unexpectedly. A fire-starter, easily removed but effective, for a quick exit. A rope and a brake. Never used. Just in case. I settle down to write, why waste the time? Another romance, a sauciness I don’t usually put in. A description of her creeps in, I erase it.

Hong Kong is never really dark and I let the light flood in, but live in the dark for tonight. The brightness of the screen lights my face and the keyboard, but there is only that. I write and write, the words pouring from me like a river, I’ve been able to touch type for years and I let my mind drift as the well-worn passages are wrestled into new shapes, new titillations, some of it erotic, but it leaves me cold; I can be touched, I’ve been with women, I enjoy it, but writing, making it up, it’s a profession, not a turn on.

I don’t need much sleep and it’s three in the morning before I feel the first touch of fatigue hit me, my fingers stumble on the keyboard and I know it is time to stop. The old routines take me, I pack everything into the rucksack, make up the bed with clean sheets and sleep in it. The police never check even if they find these places. There is nothing left of me, the gun is packed up and I go to brush my teeth before hitting the sack. There is a mirror. There is always a mirror, not so much because humanity is vain any more, but because of health. We like to see our teeth clean. When I look up she is there, hair tied back, black pyjamas protecting her modesty, she moves her face like me, grimaces like me. I still have a mouth full of toothpaste and saliva and go, she bobs her head down to spit, and so do I. It’s not a volitional act, I do it because I’m doing it, and her too it seems. I have a wrinkle near my eye, I check it and pull it, not as young as I used to be any more, she is doing all these things, she hasn’t a wrinkle I’m sure, it’s all imaginary.

It’s all imaginary, I can’t be seeing her, she’s not there.

She. Is. Not. There.

I resist the movements in the mirror, try not to do what she is doing, but that damned eyebrow hair has been annoying me, it will put me off my shot tomorrow, I scrabble around in the bathroom cabinet for tweezers, as I close it she brings them up to our eyebrow and plucks, just the once. A relief, I won’t worry about this. I smile involuntarily as she does, for me it is like seeing the sun come up, she is dazzling, perfect; but I’m done and we turn away from the mirror. I don’t see her leave. She’s not there, it’s all imaginary.

I sleep fitfully.

Dawn comes and I’m up, exercising, it’s important when cooped up, exercise, stretch, don’t be inactive. I drink coffee, one cup; then tea.

I go to brush my teeth again, she’s not there, just me. I’m disappointed. A bitter little feeling comes. I push it away, today I take a life. I have done everything, those left are well provided for, I have nothing to fear. I wash up for the last time, I think I catch a reflection of her in a glass, but it’s momentary and I have better things to do than chase ghosts.

Not better things, more important things. Let’s not kid ourselves, I’m no angel. I do something important. But I’m no angel.

There isn’t any more time. With perfect assurance I take out the components of the gun and begin to assemble it. It’s big, I take some time, everything must be perfect. There’s a knock at the door, I ignore it, but I’m still. This is the worst time, the most risk, when I’m assembling equipment, it’s when I’m most vulnerable. The apartment is one big room, a bedroom and a bathroom, I silently pick up my stuff and move into the bedroom. The knock doesn’t repeat, but a few minutes later I hear a faint scrape, and as I pull me head back in, a tiny mirror slides under the door. I already know that this job won’t be completed. That’s a more sophisticated approach than the local police would take. There is no sound from the door. I have no idea what they are doing, because I’ve never been here before, they have never been this close, or even had a clue.

I realise that the gun is lost. I take the pieces that are most identifiable and pocket them. I risk a glance from the window. I’m lucky, they’re trying to be discreet, so they haven’t covered everything in line of sight. I’ll get a few seconds from the bedroom window. I open it, shoving hard against the safety stop, and alarm goes off. It’s a fire alarm, the windows are rigged, that’s new, I hadn’t counted on that. The is a furious banging on the door as I clip the brake on to the rope. I can hear the heavy wood starting to splinter, for some reason I feel compelled to count the bangs. There is rapid speech on radios and on bang number four I jump out the window the rope running through the brake feely. I’ve chosen a seventeenth story apartment, it now looks very far up but I fall and fall, squeezing on the brake about halfway down. The is a little sound and something tugs sharply at my clothes.

I’m going too fast and I turn my face up to see, to see…

She’s there, falling with me, in that window. Time slows as I see her hair floating upwards as she falls I catch every detail, every strand of hair, the glint in her eye, her broken dress strap, I see it all and note, she has no rope.

A powerful rush of adrenaline inside me and time slows again I see another bullet roll lazily past me and I start to reach out to her my hand moving with glacial slowness, but I have to try, I have to try.

Another pane of glass and she is reaching out out out towards me and our fingertips brush the glass for a moment, a shock, it’s warm, yielding, like touching a person not a reflection, and then the moment is gone and she falls and I hit the ground with a bone shattering crash, and for a while, I leave the world.

Here I am a Discordian.  Want to know what the religion is about, in as far as it is a religion?  Read The Book.

Alright, if you’re even slightly of a conventional turn of mind, or you like order, or you can’t jump around in thought, of you like linear reading, or any  number of other reasons to do with not like complete chaos, you might not make sense of it.

I’ve been a Discordian for a while in a very non-serious way, as is the case with many followers of Discordia, but coming to Huddersfield, an ethnically and religiously diverse community, (and a very happy one as far as I can see), bought the question of religion into sharp relief.  For the first time in many years I got asked what religion I was, because here it matters to people; you might be of any religion, any, but people think it is a suitable topic for conversation.

Alright, so much for my personal view of the local demographic.

I am a Discordian.  Discordians, as far as I can tell are extremely diverse in their beliefs, and might schism in their own heads about the religion.  I take it very seriously now, it has been a source of great wisdom, once penetrated, for me, and I have come to believe deeply in the lessons it gives us.   I am an unorthodox Discordian, because I take it seriously, as an experiment in finding wisdom; it has not failed me yet.

This then is lesson one.

Exclude no-one.

Let us examine why…

There is a card that Discordians sometimes give out, depending on their mood, penchant for chaos whatever…

The bearer of this card is a genuine and authorised Pope of Discordia

Pope of Discordia Card

Now what an extraordinary thing we have here; this card says that the bearer of the card is a Genuine and Authorised Pope.  We use the term pope to mean the head of a religion, a person with a direct connection God, or Goddess, or Gods, or Goddesses.  It should be clear that each bearer of this card is the head of their own religion, and that they touch the mind of God, (using a short cut term this time).

This is an early card, so it says

So please treat Him Right Good Forever

Later Cards amended the “Him” to “Him/Her” in recognition of the idea that the language clearly discriminates, something that any decent Discordian would not want, and we know this, because of the text on the bottom of the card.

Every man, woman and child on this Earth is a genuine and authorised pope.

In other words, irrespective of being given the card, everyone, absolutely everyone, is included.  I guess astronauts can take some time off if they are in space; but Discordia does not exclude anyone, for any reason.  Anyone can be, and is part of Discordia.  One could disown it, and that would be their choice, and as embracers of chaos, we, Discordian would praise it, because that would be righteous.

So are we forcing people to be part of the movement?  Certainly not, that would go against the very heart of Discordia.  That, in my view is why we have the Pope card; it recognises those we think have embraced, or might embrace, or be appalled by, the Discordian movement.  We do not exclude on any grounds.  Think about that.  Think about the idea that we do not exclude, think of the worst possible cases; heck we would not have excluded Hitler and his cronies.  We wouldn’t have excluded Ghengis Khan.  We don’t do that.  Rememer also, now that you’re a bit feeling a bit appalled that would not have excluded Mother Theresa, or Gandhi.  We are all humans beings, with a little prodding the worst of us might have been better, and the best of us might have been worse.  Chaos makes us all bedfellows in this respect.

This idea has a consequence.  It is important in my view.

The most powerful way to get people to hate, to destroy people, to kill, maim, commit genocide, rape for military purposes, (a foul deed, as if rape wasn’t bad enough), and generally be bad to large groups of other people is to invoke the idea of “other”.  they are not us, they are not in our tribe and thus less than human.  Reduced to the single underlying idea, this is reduction of empathy; it turns out for example that it is important in the training of soldier to desensitise them to battlefield killing…

I’m transcluding this from http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=536561

Originally Posted by Excerpt from “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows”, Melanie Joy
Unnatural Born Killers

There is a substantial body of evidence demonstrating humans’ seemingly natural aversion to killing. Much of the research in this area has been conducted by the military; analysts have found that soldiers tend to intentionally fire over the enemy’s head, or not to fire at all.Studies of combat activity during the Napoleonic and Civil Wars revealed striking statistics. Given the ability of the men, their proximity to the enemy, and the capacity of their weapons, the number of enemy soldiers hit should have been well over 50 percent, resulting in a killing rate of hundreds per minute. Instead, however, the hit rate was only one o two per minute. And a similar phenomenon occurred during World War I: according to British Lieutenant George Roupell, the only way he could get his men to stop firing into the air was by drawing his sword, walking down the trench, “beating [them] on the backside and … telling them to fire low”.1 World War II fire rates were also remarkably low: historian and US Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall re-reported that, during battle, the firing rate was a mere 15 to 20 percent; in other words, out of every hundred men engaged in a fire-fight  only fifteen to twenty actually used their weapons. And in Vietnam, for every enemy soldiers killed, more than fifty thousand bullets were fired.2

What these studies have taught the military is that in order to get soldiers to shoot to kill, to actively participate in violence, the soldiers must be sufficiently desensitized to the act of killing. In other words, they have to learn not to feel — and not to feel responsible — for their actions. They must be taught to override their own conscience. yet these studies also demonstrate that even in the face of immediate danger, in situations of extreme violence, most people are averse to killing. In other words, as Marshall concludes, “the vast majority of combatants throughout history, at the moment of truth when they could and should kill the enemy, have found themselves to be ‘conscientious objectors'”.3

1: Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in war and Society. New York: Back Bay Books, 1996, 12.
2: Grossman, Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door. New York: Broadway Books, 2005.
3: Grossman, 15.

[Spellings corrected]

When empathy is removed, we can kill others, let them die.

I haver to say that the saddest fact of my life is that I avoid adverts about dying people in Africa, because if I empathise too much, nothing else will be important to me, and I will have to leave, because they die, and it is criminal how little the rest of the world does about it.  In Mexico Drug Lords run amok, and we do nothing; the world over Women are Raped, their rights repealed; we do nothing.  I cannot be empathic for everyone because I would have to do something.  Ultimately I would have have to rule the world with an iron fist, in surveillance state the like of which the world could not possibly imagine right now, and it can imagine much; because I want people to be good, but we value our freedoms too much, and so humans are free to make war, rape and pillage.  However much chaos I embrace, those are bad things, and yet I embrace chaos, because NO MATTER what I think, people are going to keep doing their thing.

Can I reject all those people?  No, because each and everyone is a Pope of Discordia, each and every one has a hope of redemption, each and every one is of me, and I of them, however reluctantly.

Lesson one.  Discordia is inclusive.

Notes on lesson one; sometimes inclusion is hard, if one cannot embrace it, it is because the human condition is hard, and chaotic.

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas.

I’m a bit rubbish at Christmas, and this year more than ever. But this year, for me, has been an important year for growth and connectivity with friends. I have reinvented myself, and Jenny Oldroyd and I have reinvented our relationship in many ways.

I have become closer to some friends, made blissful visits to some friends, and struggled to visit others. So be it, embrace chaos.

So here I have a gift for you, and it is words because words are all I have, but they are from my heart, and thus, I give to you all what is precious to me.

Get back, daemons, for my army of the just is with me,
Go to your hole, you foul creatures, for you cannot hurt me,
I am blesséd.

My army is the square of their number,
For their shield of love is not their love for me,
Which I see, mine eyes have been opened.

My army is strong, for their love for each other,
As hand in hand they march against you, O daemons,
As they cover me in their impenetrable cloak of love.

And here are the call to arms. O daemons,
That ye shall hear and be afeared.

We love you, just as you are,
But if you shall change,
Then we shall still love you.

We know you love us,
With all your heart, each and everyone,
And our hearts, they are more for it.

We know you think of us every day,
Even if you are distant and away on the planet of your life,
You are not alone, and thus, nether shall we be.

And should you call, then my love, we shall come,
and should we call, my love, then you will be there,
For you are of us, and we of you.

So be afeared my daemons, for you face my army,
And my friends and lovers, stand tall,
Stand tall agin your daemons,
Stand tall, for I am your warrior, your daemonslayer,
And am invincible, my friends, in the armour of your love.

Patrick and Dave

No Haiku, just a memory of two men who died recently.

Dave Brubeck.  I saw him a few years ago in concert, some silly ass afterwards, an autograph hunter, precluded more than a word, and I have blurry picture to remember the event by, better than nothing at all.  he played a new piece at the concert, Um, I think it was called London Calling.

Brubeck started my deep love of Jazz.  I’d always liked it, but Brubeck fired something in me that I had not known was there.  I know so much more about Jazz now, and still I know hardly anything at all, because really, there is so much to know.  I’d heard the pieces of his music, Unsquare Dance, Take Five, Kathy’s Waltz from that seminal album, and I never grow tired of listening to it, got to know the music of other members of the quartet, particularly Paul Desmond (d.1977), and as I penetrated the Jazz world I realised, a few years ago, that most of my musical heroes, unlike Brubeck and Desmond, are black.  I had never known, because I had not seen pictures.  Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and so many others, they define for me what is cool, that laid back music and beat of what came to be the “Birth of Cool”, (and you should look at say, this, if you want to see what I mean).

In the end though, for me, I keep coming back to Brubeck, the Goddess know I love trad jazz and jazz funk, but Brubeck and Desmond took my already deliberate, purposeful listening to music and moved to to a higher level.  Brubeck got in my soul, and he’s never leaving.

He’s going to have to make room though…

I never met Patrick Moore, apparently I used to do a rather good impersonation of him when I was drunk, alas, that situation no longer obtains, I’m too cheap a date, and my impersonating days are long past.

I read early, very early, (um, get over this), and so by the age of I don’t know, four, I was reading his books, his fiction, his commentary about the stars.  He was a prolific writer.

I am also half way through his self written biography in which which he settled something it had never occurred to me was an issue.  He never married because his sweetheart was killed in the War, THE War, the second big one.  He was so forthright about it, and so simply stated that there was never anyone else for him, that I was instantly struck by the profound love he must have had for his girl, and I cried for days for this loss, and as I write this, I am tearing up even now.

Patrick Moore was in my life, as in the lives of so many others, as someone who could explain and fascinate, who could make the complex simple, and the very complex comprehensible by mere mortals.  He started, for me a lifelong fascination with science and space.  He lived a good long life, and was a funny and intelligent man.  I don’t have the words to properly articulate all the feelings I have about his passing, but I would have the world know this; I have been the greater for his existence, and all unknowing he has contributed so much to my life, and I will miss him for the rest of my days.

 

For Daisy

Waves wash upon sound
Echoes of a life ascend
The heavens await

We weave our basket
Bereft of hearts silken thread
Love remains, inside