At this precise moment I am probably somewhere in the deepest, darkest Cotswolds, valiantly trying not to melt. June is rapidly drawing to a close and Summer has finally realised just how late it was running for work. It has been a while since I produced any new word based content for you to devour or ignore. This is a fact which my friend the Lady Tonksington Smythe did not fail to highlight. She requested that June be a month in which I got off my lazy-ass and actually wrote something again. I have used this gentle needling as an excuse to add 1,800 words to a short story which had been sitting unloved, and unfinished in my writer’s trunk for about a year. It represents the 4th instalment in what has accidentally become an eight and a half thousand words long series.
It joins The Starwatcher, the stand-alone piece Orange, and follows directly on from the end of The Watcher of Stars. It sees the (almost inevitable) return of the mysterious Gayane Al-Taftazânî, her hapless friend Almund Skeete, and the strange, wondrous science-fiction world they inhabit. The series was initially based on the famous “Starwatcher” image by the late Jean “Moebius” Giraud, but has since rapidly taken on a life of its own. This is the piece I cryptically hinted at two weeks ago, and it was a true joy to write and I adore every last bit of it. I hope you do too.
And so our tale unfolds…
The approaching horizon of midnight finds two long estranged friends reunited. They have ensconced themselves in the corner booth of a dark basement bar, at once strange to most, yet comforting to them in its oblique alienity. The air drips with the smell of unrefined spearmint oil, with its pungent bite; of fresh sweat, filling the room with the edge of its hungry urgency; and an undercurrent of coarse diesel smoke; It’s the kind of smell that makes you almost want to retch, yet brings you back begging for just one more sniff.
A trio of mechanised dwarves cartwheel along a corrugated iron runway. With a hiss of escaping steam and the snap of unloading springs their arms launch their cargo overarm. They hurl black tungsten shells at the clientele. Shells of helium cooled grain alcohol spun with Nïlixian flavour strings, each of them a rare and delicate beauty, the Faberge egg of the beverage world, each the product of a solid day’s work by a blind Venusian hermit who lives in the abandoned sewer panopticon three stories below the bar’s deepest cellar.
The shells cut through the air with a militaristic lethality, but the patrons do not duck or cower. With practiced grace they snare the incoming projectiles in outstretched hands, as if they were slow and sluggish things, like fish in treacle.
“Back in the old days they used to call it Target Fixation” said Al spreading his hands onto the verdigris surface of their slab table. “Fighter pilots, sailors, bikers, they all used to get so locked onto their destination or the thing they were trying to shoot that they’d be totally oblivious to everything around them. Then *BANG* they’d fly into a mountain or plough straight into a wall or something. All because they were just so dead set on getting where they were going.”
Gayane sat listening to Almund talk. Her chin cupped in one hand and the other drumming her fingers on the table, a rhythm she claimed was an old tribal war song from the Undersea Mountains or the Ammonia Lakes out beyond the Cyngus cluster, (she could never remember which) only that its strange 5/7 time signature proved to be oddly calming.
“Yes, common problem for Inner System types, your brains, they are not; what is word? Wired properly,” replied Gayane, punctuating the point by sticking out her tongue.
Al bristled slightly, only to then dismiss the goading with a wave of his hand and a heart felt “Pfha!”
One of the dwarves on the bar let out a guttural roar, setting its chain battledress a quivering, the bunched and braided electrical wires of its beard thrashing to the beat of an unseen drum. Its optical disks flashed red with cyber-fury and it heaved two drink grenades into the seating area. Without breaking eye contact with one another Gayane and Almund raise their arms and pluck the speeding shells from the air. As one they slam them onto the surface of the slab table and watch the upper casing fracture and fall away, letting out an upward gout of high-cryo-steam which rises to form a quickly dissipating white cloud on the ceiling. As the vapour began to clear the contents of these esoteric glasses was revealed: A fragile crystalline mesh, an intricately woven lattice of mind bending complexity, made from threads so fine as to be almost beyond the resolution of the human eye. The single, radiant and vivid shades of the flavour strings threaded into an ephemeral tapestry of riotous colour.
Slowly the sheen and lustre of this work of beauty begins to dull as it is overcome by minute crystals of white frost. The lattice begins to crumble, streams of raw alcohol leaking from fissures and rents, the nexuses of the strands flash boiling under the onslaught of the ambient air. Eventually its own weight is too much for the structure to bear, and it collapses in upon itself, falling into a sea of its own melt. And then it is gone. An icy pool of swirling colours and flavour eddies are the only remnants of its grand existence.
“I tried to bring some of the guys from work here once,” said Al, breathing in the rarefied scent of his drink.
“And how did that go?” asked Gayane
“How do you think? Two mild concussions, three shattered wrists, a hairline skull fracture and a broken zygomatic bone.”
Gayane laughed, valiantly trying to prevent herself from snorting her drink out through her nose. “How delightfully quaint!” she replied. “But you still have not answered Gayane’s question.”
Almund looked down at his drink avoiding his friend’s gaze, losing himself in the hypnotic spirals and convection currents within the shell-glass. He sighed. “I was only supposed to be travelling for a year and yet, somehow, I ended up out beyond the belt for over four. I’ve only been back home in the inner system for ten months.”
“Ahh, so you too were ensnared by her rapturous beauty, enchanted by her facets and endless wonders. There is no shame in this, Gayane knows this more than most. But why do you speak so much of this target fixation, dear Almund?”
“The entire time I was out there I was always focusing on the next destination, never what was going on around me. I was so determined to ‘stick to the plan’ that I never really paid attention to everything else. I nearly died last time I was out there, I nearly died a lot of times. I’m not sure I can cope with that again.”
“Yeeees!” Gayane cooed “Now you finally see! Gayane had hoped you would, but was beginning to lose hope. This is the problem with ‘plans’ they bring nothing but ill-fortune upon you. A traveller must be like the cloud on the wind or the leaf on the water.”
“You’re a bit blasé about the prospect of me getting myself killed,” Al replied with a snort.
“It is because you should not worry, Gayane will be with you. Gayane will keep you safe. It is one of my many and varied talents.”
They sat in companionable silence, each of them sipping at the liquid kaleidescope that swam in their shell-glasses. The lights of the bar began to creep out of danger-red and into the chill green of the repose. The dwarves bow deeply, until their cable bears touch the runway. As they stand their battledresses rustle and tinkle like wind-chimes in the rain. The trio pirouette on their metal shod heels stomp off the stage like parade ground war-guards. Their collected footfalls sound like a slow beating heart.
“But why me?” asked Al, breaking the quiet that had fallen over both them and the bar. “And why now?”
“Because you have been back in the inner system long enough to realise the magnitude of the mistake you have made. No matter how much you may fight it Mister Almund, you are one of us now. You are a Traveller. You belong out beyond the belt, the inner system is a cage to people like us. And if it helps, Gayane has also become quite fond of you. Tales of your little exploits have been a source of great personal amusement.”
“That’s not exactly an answer, Gayane.”
Gayane pouted. “This is true.” Reaching into her bag she pulled out a chrome-shod alabaster data-gyro. She placed it onto the slab table and set it spinning with a flick of her wrist. The gyro gave out a dull whine. As the whine began to rise in pitch it sent out probing flickers of warm blue light from its output matrices. Gayane’s face became stern and solid, like the silicon face of the Electro-Khan. She place her hand over her heart and swore.
“It is the intent of I, Gayane Al-Taftazânî; Mistress of Many Wonders; Seer of Many Things; and Walker of Many Places, to seek out and embark upon a great Adventure.”
The data-gyro howled as its core finally reached processing speed, with a grinding splutter it vomited a disc of light across the slab table. Pixel blocks resolved as the resolution calibrated and the disc became a slowly spinning map of the galaxy.
“An adventure?” asked Al “Where?”
She stretched out her finger, the map expanded and zoomed as she traced her finger across the star-trails, sketching a route past an ugly red-welt in space that the map named Hydra’s Eye and tapped the point of her nail on a swathe of empty black beyond it.
“There,” said Gayane.
“But that’s been cut off since the Nova… No one’s been there for over four hundred years,” said an aghast Al.
“That is precisely the point, Mister Almund,” said Gayane with a smile.
“But how will we even get there?” asked Al.
Gayane’s smile grew at the mention of ‘we.’ “We have been engaged by the high auspices of the Company for Far-Lands to undertake this journey.”
“And they’re providing the ship?”
“Great nebulae, no!” said Gayane with shock “We will be taking a Kilderbran and Voss skylifter, not one of the Company’s rickety old freighters. I am led to believe that it is fitted with mark XI superluminal turbines.”
“The pre-commercialised ones?” asked Al
“Yes” said Gayane, continuing to grin.
“Shit… they go like stink.”
“It also has a brace of Raijin pattern gravifoils.”
“Gayane… Aren’t they illegal?”
She snorted. “Silly Almund. Their production is illegal. The use of pre-existing models of known provenance is permitted under one of the more obscure portions of the galactic transit codes.”
“Are they of known provenance?”
Gayane shrugged. “That is what the paperwork will lead people to believe.”
“Where did you even get a ship like that?” said Al shaking his head.
“It was a gift from Commander von Roeburn of the Children of Ormskirk.”
“I… I have no idea who that is.”
“That is probably for the best.”
It had rained while they had been in the bar, the sparse yet peculiarly sticky rain that so often frequented the city during the months around the new year. It left the world glistening like it had been cast in resin. Almund and Gayane breathed in the sweet and pungent air, being reminded, like so many other visitors and residents, that when it rains the streets smell like burning flowers and hammered ginger. The pair walked aimlessly, without any real destination in mind. They stopped in the lee of a Caff-kiosk, a tiny hole in the wall from which peered a wizened and toothless old women, mostly hidden behind towers of foam jars and sagging grind bags. A gaggle of Cenobric novices passed them by. All fresh from the commune halls, babbling their esoterica and clutching at vapour-sticks that left bright laser trails in their wake.
“Gayane?” asked Al, as the old lady passed him a steaming jar of heavily spice caffeine black.
“Hmm?” replied Gayane as she sipped at her own hot jar, her face lost behind a wreath of steam and the scattered pinkish red neon glows from the kiosk’s frontage.
“This is only the second time we’ve met. How can you be so utterly confident that you can trust me? I know I probably wouldn’t in your place.”
She paused, raising her mouth from her jar, a serious and pensive look on her face. “Honest answer?”
She clipped her jar closed and snuggled its warmth close to her chest.
“I have travelled far and in that time met many people, but you, Mister Almund Skeete were one of the few who did not ask for anything of Gayane. And perhaps most importantly of all: you did not covet my cargo, did not try to prise it from my grasp or slay me for it. You did not even ask what was within my star emblazoned box. This speaks well of your character.”
“That’s it? You trust me because I wasn’t nosey, rude, larcenous or murderous?”
“Yes. And because Gayane knew when we first met that, deep down, you could be all of those things, but only in the right way. It also helps that you have been observed ever since we parted ways. The others are quite interested in you.”
“What others?” asked Al, his eyes narrowing with suspicion.
“All in good time little novice. All in good time.”
By means of deserted alleyways and abandoned byways they found themselves at the heart of the old town: a small square of brown, weathered ferrox stone; not laid out it flags or cobbles, but one flat, abraded layer of bedrock. Ancient buildings of metal struts and stained polymer panels clustered around the edges, somehow they had lasted since the days of colonisation and still stood proud, though tired. In the middle of the square sat the squat lava well of a Heliosian Brazier, merrily bubbling away and filling the square with a ruddy, orange glow.
“I’ve got to make a stop,” said Al. He walked over to the brazier and stared down into its molten heart. He unpinned his ident plaque from the lapel of his jacket. The fat coin of intricately machined zircon and titanium gleamed in the dim light. Al held it between his thumb and forefinger, following its lines and furrows with his eye. He looked back at Gayane, lounging against a rusted hab-lock door. The Tahitian mirror cloth of her gown and her jewels of shattered colour-glass caught every photon of light that passed her and made her blaze like starfire. Without ceremony, or even looking back to his ident plaque, Al dropped it into the lava and walked away.
The metal began to glow as it sank into the molten rock; glow, but not melt. The zircon shone as it refracted the light of its housing. The plaque did not melt, but oh did it burn. But all things that burn eventually go out. The temperature stresses took the plaque far beyond its exacting factory tolerances, and it shattered, the shards being swallowed by the ever hungry brazier. In the throes of its demise, the plaque projected the corporate logo into the domed heavens. A shield of perfect geometric lines and intersecting polygons of precise colours specifically engineered to tickle the dopamine receptors of any who saw it. The logo rose high and proud into the night, shinning bright and fierce. At the apex of its climb far above the city, where all could see it, it was swallowed by a white skull leaking crimson tears from its orbital sockets. The skull howled and the whole city shook.
“The contract is broken. There isn’t any going back for me now, Gayane.” Al buried his hands in his jacket pockets. “I should probably go pick up my things.”
“Gayane had a smattering of friendly urchins pick them up this afternoon.”
“But I hadn’t even met up with you, let alone agreed to come with you.”
“Oh poor, sweet Almund.” Said Gayane, lightly patting him on the cheek. “As if there was ever any doubt.”
She turned, and headed for the starport.