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THIS VOLUME CAME ABOUT ONE summer a few years ago when Tony came up to Scotland with his family. We were wandering around the pretty seaside town of North Berwick and talking about recent short stories we’d written. Tony happened to mention that he was working on some short- shorts, which he hoped to place with Nature, and I mentioned a short-short market that I’d recently sold to, Daily SF. I then suggested that, when we had enough tales to form a volume, we should gather them all together and attempt to find a publisher. Years passed; we wrote short-shorts between bigger projects, and Keith Brooke who runs Infinity Plus Books expressed an interest in publishing Microcosms.
Microcosms: 42 pieces of flash fiction by Eric Brown and Tony Ballantyne
Published by Infinity Plus
Anna Sinfield marched into the parks, when Angel Tower burned and Dream London fell. She marched to free the city, to end the madness, to find her mother and father. The day was won, but her parents – and thousands like them – are still missing, lost to the Dream World.
And now she has a chance to get them back. A man with gem like eyes has walked into her life, wearing a bespoke suit and bearing a terrible scroll. Mr Twelvetrees claims to know where the missing Londoners are; but to find them, Anna has to give up a life she’s started to rebuild and go into the Dream World itself. Into another Paris, where history has been repeating itself for two hundred years.
Vive La Révolution!
The sky was the colour of an unpolished euphonium, tuned to a dead key.
I paused. It didn’t do to let odd thoughts pass by uVive La Révolution!nexamined. Dream London may have passed away months ago, I may have been living in plain old London once more, but strange thoughts still curled into the mind and tried to take root. If you wanted to stay sane, then those thoughts had to be examined, checked and classified. A dead key I thought. Exactly what colour is that?
The colour of this January evening, when there is no life to the world. When it’s cold, but not winter cold. When the air doesn’t burn the cheeks or fill thExtracte lungs with icy excitement, when the streets hold a chilly dampness that can’t commit itself to rain. That’s the colour.
I resumed my walk home. Beneath my duffel I wore a vest, a thick shirt and jumper. Hot sweaty air puffed from the neck and cuffs as I walked, but I didn’t unbutton my coat. They may have been relaying the gas pipes, but they’d yet to make it to Hayling Street and so it didn’t do to waste warmth.
The workmen had dug a service trench across the entrance to my road some weeks ago and had then, typically, forgotten about it. Yellow pipes lay curled up at the bottom, wrapped around piles of gravel, half submerged in puddles of dirty water. NothingSilver
The Social Worker unusual in that, the whole of London was being reconnected to the rest of the world, pipe by pipe, wire by wire. I used the narrow plank bridge to cross, jumping over the sickly puddle that covered one end, my heavy carrier bag banging my leg as I landed.
In Dream London, one of the many thoughts that had taken root in people’s minds and flourished was that females were incapable of looking after themselves. Many of the people living in Hayling Street no doubt still imagined I needed a man looking after me. I could see the curtains twitch as I made my way down the street. Funny that, all that concern about my moral wellbeing, whilst other neighbours were left to go hungry.
I rang Mr Hiatt’s bell.
“Corned beef,” I said, holding up the carrier bag as he opened the door. “I tried for some milk but there was none left.”
“Maybe next time,” he said, pulling out his wallet. I could hear music playing softly in the background, and I shuddered. Mr Hiatt handed across a couple of Dream London dollars, the once bright patterns faded to dull mustard.
“You’re a good girl, Anna. How’s your Mum and Dad?”
“I heard that they found another whale skeleton under Cooper Street. That makes four.”
“I heard that, too.”
The sound of violins playing on the radio wove their way through the house. Violins weren’t so bad, I told myself. Still, I felt myself trembling.
“I wonder what’s buried beneath our houses?”
“Best not to think about it, Mr Hiatt. Look, I’ve got to be off.”
“Thank you for the food. Goodbye, Anna.”
“See you, Mr Hiatt.”
He closed the door, gently. I crumpled the worthless Dream London dollars and dropped them on the pile of rubbish overflowing from the dustbin, making a mental note to take some of his waste to the communal tip down on Katherine Street.
I continued home, turning to pass beneath the dark yews guarding the garden. The house was still too tall, just like all the others in the street. Workmen had been through and erected scaffolding a few months ago, making things safe: propping up a wall here, throwing polythene sheets over the spaces where the tiles had separated on the roof there. They’d even gone to the trouble of placing braces beneath the bedrooms that had grown outwards. One of the workmen had taken a shine to me, he kept asking if I wanted to go for a coffee after I’d finished school. His gaffer had told him to leave me alone, said he wouldn’t like to think of one of his daughters living by herself. He took offence when I asked him how he’d feel if it were one of his sons, and I pointed out that there were lots of people worse off than me in London. At least I had somewhere to live.
The evening shadows made my home look as if it were dying. In the middle of this scene of unchanging stillness, the sudden movement of the woman waiting by my door made me start. She was drinking tea from a plastic cup. Something about that relaxed me a little. When she saw me, she drained the cup and quickly screwed it onto the top of a thermos flask.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“Anna Margaret Louise Sinfield?” She pushed the flask into a large bag, speaking all the time in a broad Brummie accent. “I’m Petrina. I’ve come to check that everything’s okay.”
She fumbled in her pocket and produced a laminated card bearing her name and photograph.
“Social Services,” I read out loud. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.”
Petrina was back in her bag again. That irritated me. It’s not so difficult to keep things organised. Perhaps if she’d got herself a briefcase with separators instead of that impractical handknitted ethnic bag…
“Sorry to take so long, but as you can imagine we’ve been very busy! Oh, where is that… ah, got it! You know, I haven’t had a moments rest since I was – bloody pen’s leaked everywhere – seconded here last week. Ah!”
She looked up and smiled, a pad and pen in hand. “Shall we go inside?”
“I don’t think that will be necessary. I’m perfectly okay, thank you. I don’t need any help.”
Petrina made a show of looking up at the crooked house. It was dim in the shade of the yew trees, the scaffolding further enfolding us as the January evening descended.
“I saw from that notice at the end of the road that this house isn’t back on the grid yet.”
“It will be in March. In the meantime there’s plenty of candles at the distribution centre. And we’re fortunate enough to have fireplaces and chimneys here…”
Petrina scribbled in her pad. She was going to patronise me, I just knew it.
“Anna, I don’t think anyone would say that you’ve not been doing a fantastic job of looking after yourself. You don’t need to tell me – oh, is it too much to ask for a pen that works? Ah, that’s it – tell me about how brave you’ve been. But you’re – how old, I had it written down here – sixteen, was it?”
“I’m seventeen. I’ll be eighteen in two months’ time.”
In other words, old enough to be legally responsible for myself.
Petrina pushed her pad under her arm and fumbled some more in her bag
“Seventeen!” she mumbled, pen clasped between her teeth. “Sorry, this is bloody ridiculous! They expect us to do all this extra work without bothering to update the records…”
I tried being polite. “I can see that you’re busy. Why don’t you just skip me and go on to your next client? There must be far more urgent cases than mine.”
It didn’t work. Petrina gave me that look that some adults give when they think they’re cleverer than you.
“Everyone is important, Anna.” She turned her attention back to her bag. “Now, I’ve got your school records in here somewhere. According to them, your parents are missing…”
“They got sent to the workhouse on the last day of Dream London. They were marched into the parks…”
Petrina glanced up from her search.
“Marched into the parks? You’re the third person today to say that. Is that some kind of euphemism? Are you saying that they’re dead?”
“No. I’m saying they were marched into the parks. Didn’t they brief you about how Dream London ended?”
Even if they had, it wouldn’t have mattered. If you weren’t here, if you didn’t live through the changes, if you didn’t experience how the streets moved around at night or how people’s personalities were subtly altered, if you didn’t see the casual cruelty, the cheapening of human life, the way that easy stereotypes took hold of people… If you weren’t there, you’re never going to understand what it was like.
Petrina adopted her experienced persona. Didn’t she realise it would have had more credibility if she was dressed in a suit and not a baggy tie-dyed skirt?
“I’m from Birmingham Social Services. I was seconded here to help sort out the mess. Look, this would be a lot easier if we went inside…”
I was tired of standing in the cold, and she clearly wasn’t going away. I opened my duffel coat and pulled out the heavy door key that I wore around my neck on a piece of string. Dream London had turned the door into a gothic arched portal of dark timber. There’s a knack to opening the door: pull on the handle, a half twist and then push with your shoulder as you turn the key the rest of the way.
I tumbled into the hallway.
“Wait there, while I get some light.”
Petrina wrote something on her pad as I felt for the box of matches on the shelf by the door. She really began to scribble as I struck the match and began to light the candles. Yellow pools of light sprang up one by one, illuminating a hallway that was slowly creaking its way back to its walnut-panelled glory.
Petrina followed me gingerly inside, careful where she trod. A line of orange Le Creuset pans marched down one side of the hall, ready to catch the drips from where the room above was separating from the rest of the house. Drips plip plip plipped into the pans at random, in A-flat, a quarter tone above E, a little too flat for middle C.
“It smells so damp.” Petrina wrinkled her nose.
“That’s because the house is leaking. It’s okay in the kitchen.”
I led her there. The warmth from the Rayburn smelled so good.
“I’ve always wanted one of those,” said Petrina, crossing to take a closer look at the oven.
Her face glowed orange, and I saw that she was really quite pretty when you stripped away the worry. I thought I knew her type: she’d spread her compassion wide and shallow, rather than engage on the specifics. Or maybe I was being too harsh. She was here, after all. She was trying to do the job.
“Where do you get the fuel from?” she asked.
“There’s a bunch of sheds in the back garden. I’ve been pulling them apart.”
“Why did your parents have a bunch of sheds in the back garden?”
“They didn’t. The sheds turned up when Dream London was dying. You really don’t understand what it was like, do you?”
Petrina didn’t like that. She didn’t like being told that she didn’t understand. She placed her bag on the table and took a careful look around the kitchen, noting the unopened cans arranged in a line, the clean plates on the drainer by the sink, the opened cookery book on one of the counters.
“You’re feeding yourself properly?”
“I get free lunch and dinner at school as part of the Emergency Support Grant. I also get a food ration twice a week from the distribution centre.” I didn’t mention that I shared some of it with Mr Hiatt. She was here to see me, Mr Hiatt was someone else’s problem. Actually, Mr Hiatt was no one’s problem. That was the problem.
“What about water?”
“The water still runs. The downstairs toilet is working.” The upstairs toilet had been blocked with mackerel. I’d scooped out as many of them as I could and buried them in the back garden. The section of the pipe that I couldn’t reach was now filled with rotting fish, but I didn’t feel the need to share that information.
Petrina seemed to remember something at that point. She was back in her bag, rummaging. I can’t begin to tell you how irritating that was.
“Always too many – what’s that doing there – got it!”
She pulled out an orange plastic folder and began to flick through it. I read the words on the front: London Disaster Zone Protocols, Ver 1.1
“I’m sure I saw it in here… prostitution, dog attacks, native and non-native birds… Ah! Here it is. Water supplies… I see. Thought so. It says here that not all water supplies can be trusted. Do you know if yours has been verified?”
“I always boil the water before drinking.”
“It might be better if you were to get your water from somewhere else.” She paused to suck her bottom lip, to look concerned. “To be honest, Anna, I’m not that happy with you living here on your own. What if someone were to break in?”
“Did you see the door? I’m safer in here than I would be in most places in London.”
“What happens if you get ill? What if you need help?”
“My boyfriend’s family makes sure I’m alright. I go round there sometimes.”
Petrina perked up at that. I could almost see her thoughts, her excitement at the thought of teenage sex.
“And does your boyfriend ever stay the night?”
“No, his parents won’t allow it.”
“But you’d like him to?” she prompted, a little too eagerly.
“What? So I can have unprotected sex in a damp house followed by the possibility of pregnancy and a delivery at what used to be Dream London Hospital? Yeah, now you mention it, that would be a far better choice than studying Physics at university. Thank you Petrina, I think I’ll give him a call right now and get him round here.”
“I can see you’re a sensible young woman.”
“Don’t patronise me.”
“I’m sorry… but you say this is a damp house?”
“Of course it’s damp! All the houses in London are damp. The buildings are slowly shifting back to their normal form and now nothing fits properly. This house is as dry as anywhere else.”
She shook her head.
“It isn’t, Anna. There are places that have been fixed up.” She was looking thoughtful now. She was solving a problem. I felt my stomach tighten. “To be honest, Anna, you shouldn’t be living here on your own. I think you’d be happier in a teen hostel amongst people of your own age.”
“I can look after myself.”
“Even so, that’s what I’m going to recommend.”
“Why?” I was struggling to remain calm. Start shouting and she’d mark me down as a hysterical little girl. I had to remain calm. “Why? I’ve managed on my own for nine months. I’ll be eighteen in March; in eight months’ time I’ll be at University. Don’t you have more deserving clients to visit?”
Petrina’s mouth became a hard line. She wasn’t listening. I ploughed on.
“But I suppose they don’t have such nice houses. I’m sure you’d rather be sitting here in this kitchen than in one of those flats on the Broomfield estate with the druggies downstairs and two drunk parents spoiling for a fight in the room with you.”
“Anna, I think…”
“You don’t want me to be able to look after myself, Petrina. You’d rather that you could help me, because that’s how you validate yourself. Well, I’ll tell you when I needed help: back when Dream London ended. Tell me, where were you then? Back home in Birmingham, no doubt. You know where I was? Marching into the parks! Whilst people like you just sat at home, I was marching into the parks!”
I could see by Petrina’s face that she didn’t understand what I was talking about, but it didn’t matter, I was angry now. Angry at Petrina, angry at all the people like her…
“You’re all here now, all the people who were nowhere to be seen at the end. You weren’t there when we were fighting in Snakes and Ladders Square. But you’re here now, and guess what? You all know what to do! You’re all here with your advice about how we should have done things! All the politicians, all the bankers, all the parasites. All the people who allowed Dream London to happen in the first place and then ran off to hide when it was spiralling out of control. It’s always the same, isn’t it?”
“Anna, I think you’re getting a little emotional. I’m only here to help.”
“But you don’t get it, because you weren’t here! And if you were, I know where you would have been. You wouldn’t have been marching, you’d have been getting pissed or fucking or fighting, or writing letters to the Dream London newspapers. Well, I was out there trying to make a difference. I saw half my band killed. I walked in another world. Then I came back here only to see the same old people taking control again. It makes me sick!”
I was shouting now. I was red in the face. I couldn’t help it. You hold in the anger as long as you can, and then suddenly it all comes spilling out.
“You saw people killed?” said Petrina, flicking through her folder once more. “… Trauma, trauma… here it is…”
She read the passage, nodding as she did so. “I realise it isn’t nice to get so angry, Anna. I realise that later on you’ll feel bad for shouting at me like that, and I want you to know that I don’t blame you. No, I don’t blame you. It’s just a reaction to the stress that you’ve been under. Perfectly normal, nothing to be ashamed of. But you need help, Anna. That’s why I must insist that you go to live in a hostel. Somewhere you can be looked after properly.”
I folded my arms.
“No. I don’t see how you can, anyway. I’m over sixteen.”
“That was before the Emergency Act. Anyone under eighteen living alone is our responsibility.”
“Of course they are,” I scoffed. “And what happens to the properties they vacate? Who takes control of them?”
“That’s nothing to do with me, Anna.”
“I bet it isn’t. They wouldn’t let do-gooders like you know what’s really going on. You’ll go home thinking you’ve done a good job and meanwhile some shyster will have taken control of my house.”
She became indignant.
“No, Anna, it’s not like that…”
“Are you going to drag me away?”
“I could return here with someone to escort you…”
“I don’t think that will be necessary.”
We both jumped at that. Neither of us had noticed the tall, dark stranger who had slipped into the house. The stranger who now stood in the doorway to the kitchen. Not looking at us.
Petrina’s eyes widened in terror as she gazed at the intruder. Petrina hadn’t been in London for very long, after all. No wonder she found him so… unusual.
Aethernet Magazine was launched so that readers could rediscover the joys of serial fiction. One side effect has been that the writers are rediscovering the joys of writing to deadlines. Take, for example, Ian Whates who pulled out all the stops to complete the final part of The Smallest of Things in style, or Juliet E McKenna whose fascinating take on the process of writing The Ties that Bind is detailed here on her blog.
What has my experience been like?
I went into Cosmopolitan Predators! with the story half planned. This is my usual way of writing. I find if I’ve planned a story in too great detail I lose interest in writing it, besides which, my stories tend to have a habit of wandering off course when the characters take on a life of their own. Even so, my original aim was to keep two episodes ahead of the current issue, and I’m now barely one issue ahead. This is not so bad, as I tend not to write stories in a linear fashion but rather in a random order: filling in scenes that interest me here and there and adding them to the finished piece or dropping them as the mood takes me. This means that as deadlines approach I find that I’ve already got half the story written.
But what about the deadlines? I like to follow my subconscious – my muse clearly has a butterfly mind, but nothing focuses her attention like a deadline. Cosmopolitan Predators! is a better story for being written to a deadline, I’m sure of it.
Deadlines are a writer’s friend. Deadlines focus the mind. Deadlines get you writing. Deadlines are the difference between a completed novel and three years spent with nothing more than a file detailing your imaginary world and no actual story to speak of.
I sold my first SF short story ten months after I made an agreement with myself to write one 2000 word story a month. I wrote my first novel after making an agreement with myself to have it completed by the end of 2002. I only wrote Dream London, my first Fantasy novel, after realising that if I didn’t set a deadline I would just keep on piling up ideas indefinitely.
And now the deadlines on Cosmopolitan Predators! are bringing out the best and the worst in me. Have you read the latest episode? I originally had that final line pencilled in for the end of the penultimate episode. But as the deadline for Episode 7 approached something began bubbling inside me and little voice whispered “Do it now! Shoot him now!”
“But that’s too soon!” my sensible self replied.
“No it’s not. Listen to your subconscious. You know you should.”
So I did. And I think it was right. I got Episode 7 finished and I’m now working on Episode 8. All the balls of the plot have been thrown in the air and I’m working to catch them in their new order and go on juggling, but my subconscious is having a great time and my sensible self is reluctantly agreeing that it was right.
I just hope I can rely on it as the next deadline approaches…
One of the most creepily memorable stories in modern SF
-David G Hartwell
A bumper crop of 34 stories from authors who first came to prominence in the 21st century, compiled by two of the most highly respected editors in the business….Grab this book. Whether newcomer or old hand, the reader will not be disappointed.
–Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
In my more than 40 years working in the science fiction publishing industry, I’ve seen this notion crop up every 10 years or so: ‘Science fiction has exhausted itself. There are no good new writers coming along anymore. The genre is finished!’ Tor editors Hartwell and Nielsen Hayden thoroughly refute such claims….Twenty-First Century Science Fiction will certainly be recognized as one of the best reprint science fiction anthologies of the year, and it belongs in the library of anyone who is interested in the evolution of the genre.
Captain Jim Wedderburn has looks, style and courage by the bucketful. He’s adored by women, respected by men and feared by his enemies. He’s the man to find out who has twisted London into this strange new world.
But in Dream London the city changes a little every night and the people change a little every day. The towers are growing taller, the parks have hidden themselves away and the streets form themselves into strange new patterns. There are people sailing in from new lands down the river, new criminals emerging in the East End and a path spiralling down to another world.
Everyone is changing, no one is who they seem to be.
Crunch crunch crunch. Mmmmm, mmmmm. Crunch crunch crunch.
There was someone in my room, someone crouching at the bottom of the bed eating something. Enjoying it too, by the sound of it.
Mmmmmm, mmmmm. Crunch, crunch.
What time was it?
My mobile had stopped working months ago; I hadn’t bothered getting a clock. The threadbare curtains were lit by the yellow gas glow of the street lamps. I held my breath and listened for the knocking of the heating: the prehistoric machine that slumbered in the cellar woke me every morning, no matter how warm the night had been.
Silence. It could be any time between 10pm and dawn.
The bedroom door was locked, but things change in Dream London. I scanned the dim room through half closed eyes. The ceiling was a little taller, the room a little narrower then when I went to sleep. Ever so slowly, I slipped my hand under the pillow and found my knife, still the same knife, still in the same place.
The city changed a little every night, the people changed a little everyday. Christine had gone, and not one of the succession of women who crept into my bed had ever stayed more than one night.
Had I brought someone back to my room last night? Some woman drawn to the supposedly dangerous charm of Captain James Wedderburn? I had made some increasingly strange conquests in the past months, some I hadn’t always remembered making upon waking. Was one of those women now curled up at the bottom of my bed, crunching and slurping with every sign of enjoyment? I wasn’t going to find out by pretending to be asleep.
“Who’s that?” I said to the room.
The crunching paused, just for a moment, and then the lazy consumption resumed.
“Who’s there?” I raised my head and looked to the foot of the bed. I saw no one. I crept forward, the springs creaking beneath me, took hold of the brass rail and peeped over.
Two salamanders crouched on the floor, their bodies glowing red and gold with their own internal light. They’d got hold of a green beetle the size of a dinner plate and split it in two to lap at the yellow custard inside. One of them looked up at me with little jewelled eyes, licked its lips with a purple tongue and smiled in evident satisfaction.
Two salamanders were worth a fair sum of money. I was just wondering if I could move fast enough to catch them both when someone spoke up behind me.
“Good evening, Captain Wedderburn.”
Startled, I turned to see the fat man lean from the shadows near the wall. He was balanced precariously on a little camping chair, the velvet clad expanse of his ample backside spilling over the sides. He unfolded a handkerchief and mopped at the sweat on his forehead.
“Luke Pennies,” I said. “How did you get in here?”
As I spoke a wave of nausea that had been building almost unnoticed in my stomach rose to overwhelm me. I swallowed hard against the bile that rose in my throat.
Luke Pennies held out a hand. We both looked down to the glass vial in his pudgy palm.
“Two salamanders, one antidote,” he said, and he turned to look at the red stain on the bed where I had been lying. I pressed a finger to my left shoulder and felt the sticky wetness of blood.
The fat man smiled. “One thousand sovereigns and it’s yours.”
“I don’t have a thousand sovereigns. I don’t even have a thousand dollars.”
Luke closed his hand over the vial. He waved a finger at me.
“We both know that isn’t true, Captain. They say you’ve got an interest in every young woman this side of the city.” He winked. “Aye, and a straight twenty percent from every transaction they make.”
“Nothing like so much as that.”
“You don’t deny you have money, though. It’s said that you can find a shop that will sell you anything in this city, Captain Wedderburn. I doubt you’ll find one in time to sell you the antidote you need. May I suggest that now would be the perfect time to start spending some of your ill-earned?”
I felt hot. Hot and sick. My nightshirt stuck to my body with sweat and blood, I had to fight not to throw up.
“Give that to me,” I said, reaching for the vial.
“Careful!” he warned. “This glass is thin. Any sudden shocks and I might accidentally break it.”
Slowly, I lowered my hand.
“This isn’t your style, Luke,” I said.
“Maybe not.” A spasm of anger on his face. “But you really pissed me off the other night, Jim. You crossed a line there.”
“Is there any point me telling you it wasn’t me?” I shook my groggy head. “Probably not,” I murmured. “Especially seeing as you’ve poisoned me.”
“I can see you understand,” said Luke Pennies, coldly. “So, which is it to be? One thousand sovereigns, or a slow death?”
He had a thin smile, a smile weighed out in ounces; it balanced a favour exactly with no warmth to spare. “That fire took half my property, Captain Wedderburn. It took three of my whores.”
The rent on the smile had expired. He leant forward, little eyes hard.
“Don’t play dumb with me, Jim. You could see the blaze clear to the docks.”
“My name is used a lot in this city,” I replied. “Used a lot by a certain sort of person anyway. Everybody knows that I would have chased the whores from the building first. You must know that, Luke.”
My vision was blurring now. I felt my hands starting to shake; the bite at my shoulder was throbbing.
“People change,” said Pennies, but I could hear the edge of uncertainty in his voice.
“People change,” I agreed. “This city makes people change. But not that quickly.”
Again the bile rose. This time I could not choke it down. I spat something yellow onto the bed.
Luke Pennies stared at the spreading stain. Red blood and yellow bile. His voice was cold.
“Time to pay up, Jim.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, my head spinning. “People don’t change that fast. Not even you, Luke. You wouldn’t come to my room to murder me. That’s not your style. You want me murdered; you’d get one of your men to do it. That way, if the police caught up with you, made you read the truth script, you could honestly say it wasn’t you.”
I retched again, caught the vomit in my mouth, gulped it down.
“No, not your style at all. But if you could get your victim to commit suicide? That would be far more poetic. What if you got them to swallow a vial of poison? What a laugh that would be. And much safer, should the police come calling.”
My head pounded, the sweat was cold on my skin. My tongue was thick and coated in bitter bile. Even so, I strove to speak normally.
“I think that the effect off this bite will be wearing off soon. In fact, I’m willing to bet my life on it. So I’m going to give you a choice. You see my jacket hanging on the rack there?”
Through blurred eyes, I saw him turn his head. My jacket hung there in green and gold glory.
“There’s a pistol in the pocket.” I said. “You want me dead so much, take the pistol and shoot me. Otherwise, I suggest you take your camp chair and your vial of poison and you get out of here, right now. Because if you wait too long, I’ll shoot you myself. What do you say?”
Luke Pennies didn’t say anything. Or if he did, I didn’t hear it. My stomach was rising once more and I dropped to the floor and scrabbled under the bed, looking for the chamber pot. I pulled it out and vomited, all in one movement. Curled up over the china pot, stomach heaving, I was only vaguely aware of his leaving, of him trudging past, camp chair in hand. I didn’t care, each spasm brought up more rainbow vomit. I felt as if I was dying.
Eventually there was nothing left in my stomach. Still I retched into the full bowl, until eventually this too ceased. I lay on the floor, waiting for the spinning to stop, lost in the middle of the night.
I forced myself up, looked at the blood stained bed, looked at the two salamanders now sleeping upon it, curled up around each other for warmth.
I needed to get outside. I needed some fresh air.
There used to be an underground station opposite my building. Over the past year it had metamorphosed twice: first into a railway station, and then into an inn. I remember the landlord holding court with his customers, telling us about the staircase leading down from his cellar into the tunnels through which trains had once travelled. The tunnels had shrunk, he said, tightened like sphincters. What remained of those narrowed, fat filled arteries was choked with black and green beetles, walking back and forth in long lines beneath the city, preyed on by silver snakes and cock rats.
“What about the railway lines?” I had asked. “Are they still there?”
That had been a quiet night, the few customers of the Recursive Lion had pressed up to the bar, glasses of gin and porter in hand. One of the other customers, a thin man with a huge red handlebar moustache, had laughed at my question.
“Haven’t you heard?” he said, his moustache dipped in white foam. “The railway lines have surfaced three streets south of here. They’re sliding sideways, heading towards the river. All the tracks in the city are moving!”
That must have been some time ago, I thought. Back when the changes were first taking effect and I was freshly returned from Afghanistan, a relative unknown. No one in that inn would laugh in the face of Captain Jim Wedderburn today.
Standing in the sallow street, gazing at repeated figures on the sign of the Recursive Lion opposite, I felt the nausea receding in the cold night air. I still had no idea of the time. The life of the inn gave no clue.
What is it that gives a building the feeling of life? There were people in there, I could tell, but that meant nothing. In the morning the place is packed with porters from the flower markets and the beery air is heavy with the scent of pollen. In the evenings the clerks and accountants line the tables in neat black velvet rows. The owners of the workhouse round the corner follow them in at about nine o’clock, propping up the bar as they raise a glass to other people’s industry. After midnight the ladies and gentlemen appear, slumming it after the opera or the ballet. Later come the stevedores and the butchers, hooks and cleavers tucked in their jackets, ready for trouble. And at any time there could be sailors and matelots, making the most of their time on land and looking for the sort of produce that Captain Wedderburn supplies.
There was a clock in the bar that hadn’t stopped working, despite the changes. A big white face with black Roman numerals and the name of its maker written on the front in curly script. I could stick my head around the door and see the time. I began to make my way forwards when a triangle of light swept into being across the road.
The door to the inn opened and Christine stepped out into the street. She saw me right away and gave me a tight little smile.
“Hello, Jim,” she said.
“Not you, too, Christine.” I said, tiredly. “Please, call me James.”
We looked each other up and down, checking out how the other looked. She won that battle. Her tailored suit was well made, her dark silk stocking tops visible just beneath her too short skirt. Her makeup was immaculate: bright red lips and highlighted eyes stood out against her smooth, almost imperceptible foundation. And there I stood in my frayed grey trousers, my leaking black brogues and my gaudy military jacket.
“Found a husband yet?” I asked.
“Not yet,” she said brusquely. “But I keep working my way through the list. Still giving candy away?”
“Do you want some?” I asked. “I have some in my pocket.”
I meant the offer kindly, but she gave me a withering stare.
At that point my stomach rumbled, and I realised that I didn’t want her to see me like this.
“Do you know what to do about salamanders?” I asked. “There are two on my bed.”
“Speak to Fran,” she said. “She’s got a shop down on Holcomb street. She’s good with pests and vermin.” She reached into a pocket and pulled out a velvet purse.
“Here, I got you something.” she said. “I was going to leave it with Second Eddie, but as you’re here…”
“I don’t need any money,” I said.
“I wasn’t offering you any.”
She looked so smart and confident, dressed like that with her little piece of parchment in her pocket, ticking her way through the items on the list of men she had purchased, searching for her ideal husband.
She had bought the thing as a joke, back when the little shops were just beginning to appear here and there around the old city. Back when James Wedderburn was trying to live an honest life and had decided that he needed the love of a good woman to save him. Christine had been that woman, an old flame that had reignited.
Back then it was almost a joke to push your way from the summer streets into the dark, poky interior of one of the quirky little shops that seemed to grow in the glass and concrete façades of the city. I remember the little woman sitting in the armchair by the counter, how overdressed she had seemed, with her petticoats, her grubby skirt, her knitted gloves. The effect was exaggerated when viewed next to Christine in her shorts and crop top, her sliver flip-flops; all tanned flesh and confidence. Christine had handed across the money, all in coins, and the woman had given her a sheet of yellow parchment. We pushed our way back into the sunshine and Christine unrolled her purchase.
I remember the look on her face when she realised that my name wasn’t on her list. I was expecting shock, disappointment, annoyance. Instead, she just smiled, rolled up the parchment and slipped it into her shoulder bag. She’d looked at it over the next few weeks, always when she thought I wasn’t watching. I didn’t realise she was taking it seriously, but, little by little, she had been changing even then. We all were: we just didn’t realise it.
Now, one year later, and look at us all.
“What happened to you, Christine?” I said, softly. “You were training to be an actuary. What are you now?” I didn’t say what I thought: more honest than a gold digger, less honest than a whore.
She paused, one hand in her purse, and looked down at herself, her smart suit, her silk stockings.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said, and then she shook her head. “But what about you? What’s happening to you, Jim?”
“I told you, it’s James.”
She shook her head. “James, Jim, whatever. I heard what you were doing now. It isn’t… nice.”
Christine always knew how to push my buttons. If her aim was to lock me up in sullen silence, then she succeeded.
“See?” she said quietly. “Who are you to tell me how to behave?”
“Things have been hard since I left the army,” I said. “I have to earn a living somehow.”
“You could be better than that, James.” She spoke the words softly, and for a moment there was some of the old affection in her gaze.
“I used to feel as if I was, when we were together,” I murmured.
We both stood in silence for a moment.
Then she remembered her purse. She pulled out my gift. A tiny roll of parchment.
“Here,” she said. “This is for you. Don’t dismiss it out of hand. It cost me a lot of money.”
“What is it?”
Something about this gesture hit my like a blow to the stomach.
“Christine,” I said, sadly. “Why did you waste your money on this? You know I don’t believe in that nonsense.”
“Just take it,” she said. She couldn’t meet my gaze.
“Is your name on it?” I asked.
“No,” she said, looking at the ground.
I took the fortune and unrolled it just enough to read the first line.
You will meet a Stranger…
Just as I suspected. People were still preying on Christine’s gullibility.
“It’s so vague, Christine. Of course I’ll meet strangers. This is a city.”
“This Stranger will be special.”
“Can’t you see, Christine? This is all made up. You’ve been going downhill ever since you bought that stupid parchment. Why did you bother? We had everything we needed.”
She looked at me with real pity then.
“James,” she said, sadly. “Don’t you see? I didn’t buy the parchment to confirm that you were going to be my husband. I bought it to confirm that you weren’t.”
I couldn’t meet her eye. I felt sick and lost and detached from everything. She folded her hands over the parchment in my own.
“Promise me you’ll read it, Jim. It will help you. I still worry about you.”
“The parchment is just stories. It doesn’t mean anything!”
She fixed me with a gaze. Memory imposed the blue of her eyes over the dim light.
“Please, James. Promise me you’ll read it.”
“I promise,” I said. Not that a promise from Jim Wedderburn means anything.
She gave me a brittle little smile.
“I have to be off,” she said. “I’ll see you around.”
I watched her walk off up the street, leaving me alone and lost in the middle of the city, uncertain even of the time of night and, now that the poison was sweating from my system, with an empty stomach that was telling me just how hungry it was.
It growled at a changing world, one which was moulding me into someone I didn’t want to be.
I took another look at the top line of the parchment.
You will meet a Stranger.
I shook my head sadly at the words, and pushed the parchment into my pocket.
Just then the door of the inn opened once more, and the stranger who was to change my life stepped out into the night.
The man was unmistakably a Molly. Framed by the light of the door I could see his dark red velvet suit, the striped golden shirt and tie. His red top hat was tilted at a rakish angle, but it was the foundation, the hint of eyeliner and lipstick that confirmed it. He was a good looking man, in an effeminate sort of way. And he was gazing right at me.
“Captain Jim Wedderburn, I believe!” he said, holding out a hand for me to shake.
“It’s James Wedderburn,” I replied, but I took his hand anyway. It was warm and smooth.
“Jim, James, what’s a name to a Jolly Japer like you, eh? Jim, I’d like to invite you to dinner. What do you say? A little convivial company and conversation over comestibles?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was thinking of heading for bed.”
My stomach rumbled, making its own views known.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “In fact I know that you weren’t. I’ve been watching you, my Jolly Jim. Seven nights now, I’ve come to this pub, sat in the seat by the door through the lost hours, looking through the glass, just waiting to see if you would step into the night. Six whores have come and gone from your room, but no sign of the gallant captain in the night hours. Then finally, this very evening, I saw Luke Pennies enter your building, half hidden by a glamour, and I knew that this night would be make or break. I had a bet with myself that you would survive his dreadful attempts upon your person, and look if I wasn’t right!”
“What do you want with me?”
“I want your help,” he said.
“Help with what?”
The Molly waved a hand around the elongated buildings of Dream London, stretched out thin and sharp against the deep purple sky, the moon an over-large crescent that threatened to impale its horns on the city itself.
“Look at this place,” he said. “I want you to help me to find out what happened to us.”