Loki Treize had traveled a long way in both space and time to fullfil his mission - from his home planet millions of light years away to Old Earth, at a time a few centuries before he had been born. He had managed to escape his war-ravaged world in a stolen Chronambulist-10, and had landed in one piece on the mother planet. His mission was unsavoury, to say the least, but he knew there was no alternative. The boy could not be allowed to live.
The traveller eyed his target as he walked across the park towards it. Tommy Smurthwaite looked like any other twelve year old boy - textbook early Twenty First Century, in fact: baggy trousers, scruffy sneakers and hair messed up more through affectation than through play. Loki had to remind himself that Tommy's open, innocent countenance belied the legacy he would leave when he grew up. The hitman pictured the state of the world he had left, hundreds of years from now, and steeled himself further to finish the job he had started.
Tommy continued to play, oblivious to the threat he faced. Loki carried on walking towards him, slowing down more and more the closer he got. The hitman felt his stomach churn at the idea of what he was about to do. He is only a boy... - before the thought could take hold in his head he reminded himself of the preacher this boy was to become and of the seeds he would plant for the holy war that was to rage across the galaxies a few centuries hence.
Loki brought one more memory to the forefront of his mind as he lifted his weapon and advanced on his target. He saw his wife's lifeless body as he had found it that day, seven hundred years from now, eviscerated and branded, like other unbelievers, with the mark of the Prophet Thomas. The boy had to be stopped.
Tommy looked up from his game to see a man dressed like something out of a Science Fiction movie bearing down on him and aiming a weapon at him, the like of which he'd never seen before. He froze.
"Please, no", he said in a hoarse whisper. Loki squared up in front of him and pointed the gun at his head.
"I am truly sorry for what I am about to do, but I cannot let you live."
"But why? What have I done?" His eyes were welling up.
"It's not what you have done. It is what you will do." The hitman took one step closer so that the gun was touching the boy's forehead, between the eyes.
Loki braced himself to pull the trigger but made the mistake of taking another look at the child. Tommy's eyes were wide and he was crying silently, in shock. A wet stain had appeared at the front of his trousers. He looked even younger than his twelve years. Loki knew then he would never be able to go through with the hit. He lowered his weapon, his own face now streaked with tears. Better to be a failure than a monster, he thought as he turned and ran back to the Chronambulist-10 before the boy could raise the alarm.
Tommy never mentioned the incident to anyone, but would always refer to it obtusely as the moment he realised God had a plan for him. Read more!
The band were leaving the stage to loud applause from the crowd as Death walked unseen into the venue. He checked his diary: 11:03pm, Tony Evans, goatee beard, tattoos on forearms, black leather trousers and a Motorhead t-shirt. Death sighed; locating his latest charge in this crowd could take some time and it was already 11:02:49. Then he spotted a commotion near the bar: a body lay on the floor and two men were trying to resuscitate it while a third ran to get help. A soul hovered over the body, looking confused. Death berated himself for not being there in time to greet it. He rushed to the soul, knowing he'd never hear the end of it from the Big Man if he got there after the paramedics.
"Mr Evans, how do you do? You are to come with me", he said to the soul.
"Oh come on! Now? Couldn't you have waited till after the Encore?" exclaimed Tony Evans.
"I'm afraid I am not the one who devises the schedule, Mr Evans, I merely see to its timely execution. Now please, come this way".
"But they haven't played Ace of Spades yet".
"They haven't?" said Death, trying to conceal his excitement.
"No. Nor Killed By Death", Tony Evans added slyly, sensing weakness.
"Oh. Oh well, in that case, perhaps we can stay a little longer".
The band stormed back onto the stage and the crowd cheered as the familiar riff hit the air, and Death remembered what it was like to have a pulse. Read more!
Her husband was coming home today, and joy mingled with apprehension in her thoughts. His letter, written on the hospital ward, had not been out of arm's reach since it had arrived - she must have read it over a hundred times by now, almost not daring to believe that it was true. The war was over for him: a leg cut off at the knee had seen to that.
Tomorrow, they would be celebrating his return with his parents and younger brother, but tonight she would have him all to herself. She smiled at the thought of the meal she was going to prepare, and at the way she had procured the ingredients; none of them had resulted in a stamp in her ration book. She couldn't very well feed the returning soldier powdered eggs: they would be having pheasant, and she had even got chocolate for dessert.
The chocolate had been the easiest; she had Lizzie to thank for that.
"The things I do for you", her friend had said, handing her the large bar of chocolate. There were American soldiers stationed at the village, and if anyone knew how to coax a handsome GI into giving her food, it was Lizzie.
"I even promised I'd see him tonight as well, so he wouldn't suspect I was using him for chocolate", Lizzie had continued, with a wink. A tart with a heart, her husband called her friend, and she hugged herself as an image of his smiling face flickered in her mind.
The pheasant had been trickier, and she had had to sell Great Aunt Meryl's brooch in order to buy it, which made her a little sad - but she reminded herself that Great Aunt Meryl had been a rather large woman and would probably have approved of her doing this.
Meeting with the poacher to arrange procurement of the bird had proved to be a little adventure in itself. She smiled as she remembered how nervous but also excited she had been, taking a deep breath before entering the insalubrious pub the man was known to frequent. It was not the sort of place a girl like her should ever be seen to visit, and her mother would have been furious had she known, which made her relish the memory all the more. Her husband would find it amusing, and she couldn't wait to tell him. His train would be coming in soon - it was time to walk to the station.
When she saw him get off the train, a little unsteady on his crutches, it took her all of an instant to decide that the leg he had left behind in the Ardennes was of no consequence. Though I might have missed an arm, she thought, as his crutches tumbled onto the platform and he hugged her almost tight enough to crush her.
At dinner, after she had put the plated food on the table, she sat down and found she wasn't hungry after all. He looked up from his steaming plate to see her staring at him.
"Are you eating me with your eyes?" he asked, with the raised eyebrow that had been instrumental in his courtship of her.
"Yes", she said, returning his smile, "that's exactly what I'm doing".
Not sure slice of life is my thing at all - I'm feeling decidedly "meh" about this piece. I've been preoccupied with prepping for a job interview these last few days and this was all that came to me (amputations and job interviews go hand in hand, of course). Still, normal service will resume: I'll be back on Christmas Day with some death, and maybe some aliens for New Years Day Read more!
I was still dry-heaving when the police arrived at the scene. I didn't think I'd be going for a run in this part of the woods again, somehow. The sun, still low in the east, was shining straight into my eyes, but this was preferable to looking in the other direction. Not that it would have made any difference - the image of the bludgeoned girl was plastered all over my mind's eye and was unlikely to go away any time soon.
She was young, in her early twenties. There was congealed blood on the side of her head, a dark clump in stark contrast to the fair hair it matted. A halo of cerebral matter, skull fragments and blood framed her face. She was fully clothed - I am not a religious man, but I found myself thanking some unspecified entity for that small mercy.
After being interviewed by the Detective Constable that had been assigned the case, I called my boss and informed him I was taking the day off. I holed myself up in my flat and sought oblivion through bad television and a bottle of whisky far too expensive for the task at hand. It was not till the shadows grew long again and the flush from the booze had brought some colour back into my face that it occurred to me how astoundingly pretty DC Claire Stone was. Would it be inappropriate for me to ask her out, I wondered? Would it be inappropriate for her to accept? Could anything good ever come out of an encounter brought about by a violent death?
It was dark by the time I poured myself the last of the Scotch. As the liquid trickled down my throat, I expected the familiar warmth to course through me. Instead I felt a shiver though there was no breeze coming in through the window. The temperature in the room dropped noticeably. In front of me, the dust motes illuminated by the television no longer danced haphazardly: they were taking shape of some sort. When they had come together in such a way as to form the face of the dead girl, I passed out.
I laughed at myself when I woke up the next morning - so this is why people avoid bingeing on the expensive stuff, I thought. I left for work, catching the 08:20 bus as usual, and the faces I recognised from the daily rat run served to calm me down further. I sat down at the back of the empty top deck and was just about to open my book when I felt a sharp drop in the temperature. I sat there terrified as I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. The figure coming out of the stairwell revealed itself to be a fellow I see most mornings on this service. I berated myself for my foolishness - then my heart lurched as steam leapt off the windows and formed an image of the dead girl in the aisle, next to the man. He was oblivious and carried on looking straight ahead. She looked right at me, raised an arm and pointed at the man, mouthing the same word repeatedly. It took me a few moments to realise she was mouthing "Murderer". The particles that made up her spectre dissipated, and I was left wondering whether I was going mad, but more importantly whether I wasn't.
Later I called DC Stone. She sounded understandably dubious, but said she would join me on the bus the following day. That morning I chose to wear one of my better shirts and my fanciest tie. On the bus, DC Stone sat with me at the back of the top deck, having disguised her appearance somewhat with sunglasses and a hat. I nudged her when the man appeared. Her chin dropped, and she took a sharp intake of breath. She turned to me, looking for confirmation. The instant I nodded she rushed off without a word.
A few days later I was on the sofa, watching television, when I felt extreme cold, like the other times. The spectre formed again out of the dust motes; this time she was smiling . She mouthed the words "Thank You" and came up to me. She put her arms around me and kissed me full on the lips - it felt like a bracing midwinter breeze had passed through me. She then vanished into nothing and had the phone not rung I would have remained standing there, in shock. DC Stone was at the other end of the line - the man on the bus had been arrested for the girl's murder. In a fit of inspired foolhardiness, I asked her out and to my surprise she acquiesced.
On the date, she told me that the man had been the girl's neighbour. Not believing in coincidences, she had concentrated her efforts on him, and had been rewarded with the necessary evidence to convict him. The rest of the date went remarkably well. After, I went home alone sporting a big grin, equally delighted and disappointed that Claire was not a first date kind of girl.
The grin was wiped off my face as I entered my flat and I felt a cold fiercer than I had ever experienced. The dead girl sat in the armchair, facing me. Her arms were folded across her chest and the anger in her look was unmistakeable, as was the word she mouthed: "Cheater". Then she smiled, and pointed at the television: the image changed to that of a kitchen. When Claire walked into that kitchen, my fear shot through the roof. I watched in horror as Claire's kettle exploded in her hands, electrocuting her. After convulsing a few times she lay still on the small screen. The spectre made no sound, but I could hear her cackling.
This was two years ago. I haven't been on a date since, and my evenings have been very cold. Read more!
You must understand, I meant no harm. I was only trying to help. Really, when you think about it, our people are no worse off this way. We are effectively dead already, and have been ever since They came. Ever since They interfered with the Dreamers. Don't look at me like that. You'd have done exactly the same thing if you'd had the opportunity. If you'd been the one to find the Dreamer They didn't manage to kill. If your ears hadn't already been shriveled and your fur turned coarse from living under the shadow Their world has cast upon ours.
I'm sure you remember the day They arrived as clearly as I do: the fire and smoke in the sky we all thought so pretty. The enormous beast that appeared a mile above us when the smoke cleared. How we all stood there in delight at the sight - for we knew nothing of fear, then. The smaller winged beasts flew out of the large one, down into the clearing and we saw for the first time our visitors. How we marvelled at Them! Their long limbs that made Them tower over us. Their bodies covered, not in fur, but in impossible materials. Their small, flat ears. They spoke to us in our language, and said They came as friends. How could we not believe Them - we knew nothing of enemies, then, either. Or treachery. Or lies.
I'm sure you remember how we welcomed Them, and showed Them round our land, and They admired its beauty. How we told Them that it is the Dreamers that make the beauty. We explained that in every generation, a handful of little ones are born that are different from the rest - with ears almost impossibly plump that never stop moving, and fur that glows under a certain light. That the Dreamers stand out from the rest of us in more ways than this: that they never speak, and never mate, not even with each other; that they do not see, as we see - their vision is within, but also extends beyond the outer limits of ours.
They were aghast when They witnessed the Dreamers at work, playing with tendrils of light, making the world around us grow: the trees that we live in, and the fruit that we live off. We asked, did They have no Dreamers? How did Their world grow without Dreamers to urge it along? They made Their world grow Themselves, They said, but not like the Dreamers do. I am pleased I will never set eyes on Their world; judging from the ugliness They have brought to ours it must be a horror to behold.
Remember the feeling of unease when we woke up the next day to find a big cloud over our land, making it almost as dark as night? We knew at once it was no raincloud. And the sight of rotting fruit peppered along the ground - how we milled about asking one another, what happened? Then the despair at the realisation that the Dreamers were gone. Of course, we looked to Them for answers. They denied any involvement, but even in our innocence we couldn't quite believe Them.
With every passing day, the cloud above our land got darker, until all days merged into one night. More and more fruit fell to the ground, rotten before it had even ripened, and no new fruit grew. Then the trees themselves started dying, and each and every one of us had found that our ears were starting to shrivel before their time, and that our fur was changing texture.
Remember how anger took over: we gathered in a mob and challenged our visitors to return the Dreamers. They responded by using the long black sticks that hang from Their shoulders – bursts of fire were sent coursing into our midst, bringing pain and death. We had but rocks and sticks to retaliate with. Then that commotion among Them: They piled into the small sky-boats that were still sitting in the clearing and flew up, beyond the black cloud, to the big sky-boat we could no longer see.
We scattered, our heads bowed, our shriveling ears aching. I remained in the clearing after everyone left. This was how I saw one of Their small crafts returning; its hatch opened and I saw three things being thrown onto the ground. My ears started tingling – as soon as the craft lifted off, I ran to find exactly what I expected: the bodies of the Dreamers. I covered my ears in despair – then caught something in the corner of my eye. One Dreamer wasn’t quite dead; his ears twitched a little. I carried him to my hut.
Don’t look at me like that. How was I to know? At my hut, I took a closer look at his injuries, which seemed to be mostly on his head – on his ears especially. They were covered in puncture wounds. I tended to these wounds as best I could and soon his ears started moving faster and faster and he got up and walked out of the hut. I was overjoyed – maybe one Dreamer would be enough to fix the state we were in. Then he started screaming.
You know what happened next. He held out his hands, and tendrils of light came out as they used to when he would make our world grow – but this light was a dark red; we could feel no fruit grow, and the black cloud did not lift. Then it started – in some quicker than in others, and the slower ones amongst us sought refuge as best we could. So here we sit, you and I - our fur growing longer and coarser, our teeth growing bigger and sharper, and our hunger for those of our own kind growing stronger and fiercer. I still say it’s for the best: we will be over it quicker. Read more!
I have only been dead for a week and already I've been summoned to see the Beast. Woodhouse shakes his head in that despairing way of his.
"I've been here for two years and he's not asked to see me once", he says, in his best underdog voice. Woodhouse is such a likeable fellow that no one can figure out why he hasn't been moved up a long time ago, let alone why he was sent to a hub as low as Hub 12 in the first instance. We can't ask him what he did to be brought here, of course - it is not the done thing. In prison, everyone may be innocent, but here we all know better. Nevertheless, in Woodhouse's case one cannot help but think that he might be an anomaly. Even the Beast himself is perplexed by the chap's presence, as I am about to find out.
"Would you like to earn some karma credits?" he thunders at me. "I need someone to visit the human world for me and do some detective work. You were an MI5 agent I believe?" - I nod - "That would make you the most suitable of my souls for this task. I need you to find out what Woodhouse's story is."
"Why not ask Woodhouse himself?"
"Ask a human to tell its own story? Don't make me laugh", he grunts, in no danger of cracking even the faintest of smiles.
"In all the time Woodhouse has been here," he continues, "I have received no instruction regarding his situation. I do not even have an admittance record for him, which is most peculiar. I can't remember signing him in, and neither can any of my Underbeasts. I even asked around the other Hubs, in case he had been mis-delivered, but they have no record of him there, either. When I was moving Manston up to Hub 13 for good behaviour, he happened to mention Woodhouse; if he hadn't I would still be unaware of his existence."
I waddle around the human world in the ungainly body that has been provided for me as I try to put together the pieces of the Woodhouse puzzle. It would appear no one knows for sure that he is dead - he is in fact on the Missing Persons list. One morning, he went to work as usual, had an unremarkable day at the office, and then simply failed to return home. This worries me, I must admit. As much as I like the fellow, I do not believe him to be an overly industrious chap; had he decided to walk out on his entire life, I am sure he wouldn't have failed to notice that it presented him with a fine opportunity to miss a day's work. I suspect Woodhouse may have met with foul play.
My next step is to find the people that would have known as much as there is to know about Woodhouse: the regulars at his local pub. As I head for the Pig and Whistle, it occurs to me that I haven't had a pint since before I died; I wonder whether I will be able to taste beer using this body. Upon entering the pub and seeing the selection of mass-produced beers on offer, I decide that it doesn't make any difference.
It doesn't take me long to establish that Woodhouse went missing two years ago, leaving behind a wife and a greyhound he doted on. The landlord and the three men propping up the bar proceed to tell me various endearing stories that feature a tipsy Woodhouse and I know for sure that he must have been sent to Hub 12 by mistake - I would have placed him in a much higher Hub, and would even go so far as to suggest that he might be suitable for the Other Place.
"'Twas the Shimmy on Eyres Street that got young Woodhouse".
The pronouncement comes from an old man sitting in the far corner of the pub. The landlord waves at him and informs me in a whisper that the old codger isn't currently in possession of all his marbles. Now, one does not work in Her Majesty's Secret Service for 20 years without developing some instincts about old codgers and their marbles, so I set off to investigate. I don't think the Underbeast that wired me into this body did a very good job: I can feel the beer I drank pooling inside my left ankle. This is probably for the best, otherwise I might find that I have to relieve the bladder of a body that isn't mine and, well, that simply doesn't bear thinking about.
I wander up and down Eyres Street for half an hour failing to spot anything out of the ordinary when suddenly I see what looks like a small, transparent cloud floating at chest height. I approach it and stick my hand in to try and figure out what it is - and find myself back in Hub 12, still wearing the now beer-sodden body I had borrowed. It is now clear what happened to Woodhouse, and I tell the Beast of my findings.
The Beast agrees with my deductions, and orders an Underbeast to locate Woodhouse's body and fit him back into it. Thankfully for Woodhouse it is a different Underbeast from the one that fitted me into my borrowed body. The Beast then summons Woodhouse and informs him that he is going to be sent back to the human world as he is not actually dead.
"Oh thank God", Woodhouse says, and bursts into tears.
"We do all the hard work, and who gets the thanks?" mutters the Beast under his breath, handing me a karma credit slip as he walks away. Read more!