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The Beatrice: A World Cup 51 RP [Complete]

A battle ground for the sportsmen and women of nations worldwide. [In character]
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Candelaria And Marquez
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Posts: 207
Founded: Feb 22, 2007
Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

The Beatrice: A World Cup 51 RP [Complete]

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Tue May 24, 2022 9:45 am

A decade or so, a lifetime, generations… Call it what you will, for the passage of time – if such a thing can even be said to truly exist – is nothing if not relative across this multiverse. What is beyond question is that it has been many years since the nation of Candelaria And Marquez emerged from the backwater region of Rushmore to become one of the multiverse’s great sporting powers for, like, five minutes, before retreating back into obscurity again.

Why? Why did a country that won multiple world championships in multiple sports and played host to arguably the multiverse’s most popular domestic football league suddenly just… stop? What exactly was going on while the Big Blues were off playing their final matches in Paripana? Just what were MediocreDarren, NeoFascistAlan and Zlatko2 trying to tell readers of the Albrecht Herald Online all those years ago?

A dozen years of Candelariasian time later, two out of three of these questions, and possibly several others, will finally be answered.

Possibly. Ish.


* * * * *


Well. Bit of an odd one, this.

Most of you, noticing this thread lurking betwixt the Wife Carrying World Series 13 Sign-Ups and the Domestic Cheese Rolling NewsWires and idly clicking upon it, will either not recognise the name of Candelaria And Marquez, or do so only from perusing the list of all-time World Cup winners (according to Sporcle we’re officially less memorable than Dorian and Sonya, so don’t feel bad about it). My Big Blues won two World Cups and lost in a final in between (all against The Holy Empire, for some reason), won a couple of rugby union and field hockey world cups, the Di Bradini Cup a few times. My domestic league, the CMSC, attracted a fan base of a solid half a dozen enthusiasts, and was a leading force in the UICA competitions. I accidentally turned the non-sporting region of Rushmore into one of NS Sports’ big two, and marginally less accidentally engendered the creation of Esportiva too so, y’know, soz.

That’s about it, really. Mildly big deal, for about three and half years. Then toddled off. You may pay me no further heed, because if any of the above is news to you you’ll get absolutely nothing out of this thread.

Thing is, even if you remember all the above as though it was yesterday you’re unlikely to get anything out of this thread either. This is really just about some extremely belated Closure for yours truly. Honestly, you really would be advised to stop reading at this point. Leave it, mate. It’s not worth it. Ramblings of a madman. Gowon. Shove off.

But if you do plan on sticking around at least for a few paragraphs longer, here’s the backstory. And prepare ur butts, because things are about to get self-indulgizzle up in this thrizzle.

When I concluded my participation as Candelaria And Marquez in the NSWC with World Cup 51, I did so with the fullest intention of returning, probably no more than a year later. I mean, I very much enjoyed doing this… whatever it is we do here, so why wouldn’t I? Apart from anything else, I really wanted to wrap up the storyline(s) that I’d left dangling. Over the course of the next few months I began writing what would ultimately become the following, sort of, with the intention both of doing just that, and setting up a new status quo for my nations. Real life once again got in the way of completing that particular project though, and by the time I’d summoned up the sinews to become properly active on NS Sports again I was in the mood for tossing all that to one side for a while and starting with something fresh.

As it turned out, Seunem soon proved to be anything but fresh – and the prospect of actually turning it into a proper country, at a time when pesky RL stuff was starting to get in the way once more, saw me throw in the towel after just a couple of cycles. Instead, after making my final appearance on these here forums prior to today at the World Cup of Dreams, I went back to working on the Continued Adventures of Candelaria And Marquez intermittently for a while, shrugging off various misgivings I had… principally about it becoming too long to know what to do with, with a side order of concern that at least one other NS Sports person was doing something rather similar, and far better than I ever could, around the same time, and a tertiary nagging conviction that it was all completely shit and pointless and a waste of my time. Which, obviously, it was. It’s imaginary sport, it goes without saying.

Also, iirc, the old nswiki went kaboom at pretty much the moment I was planning on making heavy use of it, which was… frustrating, somewhat. Just a tad.

Ultimately, though I got pretty deep into finishing the damned thing, the third of those concerns won out and I abandoned the project. I still regularly gave thought to coming back here, ‘cos, y’know, I missed it, and even some of you shower, with various different possible new nations or a further reinvention of C&M or Seunem. But invariably, RL stuff would get in the way again and put it on the back burner once more.

In late 2020, I happened to have a couple of TG conversations that inspired me to go rooting around my old files to see what I still had lying around. I ended up cobbling together a few old NSwiki pages for my CMSC teams and sticking them up on the new nssports wiki, and added a few more in the middle of last year and then the final tranche a couple of weeks back, alongside some other bits and pieces relating to Gordon Bay City (you want pillywiggins, we got pillywiggins!) and a newish nation page and wotnot. At the same time, I also rediscovered The Beatrice, something I thought I’d deleted in a fit of pique years ago, and figured I might as well do something with it.

Reading through it made it clear that I’d really lost my writing mojo by that point. I mean, not my ability to spew out this gibberish at a prodigious rate. Lord no. This thing is fucking novel-length. There’s more words than Sense and Sensibility. It’s just that it was, y’know… shite. I’d very much put lore ahead of lols, whilst simultaneously sacrificing any kind of coherent plot. It still had some comforting hallmarks of me-ness – utterly uncompelling protagonists and wafer-thin, identikit, personae with inconsistent yet strangely similar speech patterns generally; people explaining the plot down implausibly long corridors; people turning around to look other people in the eye so often they must have serious neck problems by their fifties; seemingly important characters wandering off halfway through; other extremely important characters being introduced out of nowhere… It was also derivative yet naïve of its source material, has some quite bafflingly dull chapter titles, no footnotes, is so absurdly self-referential that following what’s going on – if that’s even possible – requires a solid grasp of my Jolt-era throwaway RPs going back to our Baptism of Fire run beyond even my own memory… In general it was just such a waste of any theoretical reader’s time, my own included.

Still, though… Having reread a bunch of my old stuff I steadily began to hear the cry of several million Candelariasians wanting answers. They deserved them, frankly, even though I knew full well that this wouldn’t really provide any particularly satisfying ones. It was intended to be as much set-up as conclusion, after all. So I knuckled down for a while and rehashed parts of it, removing chunks where even I didn’t understand what I was driving at, brutally massacred some topical references, pretty much totally rewrote certain parts ravaged by the passage of time, and added a few sections that had been left as XXX FILL IN LATER the first time around as best I could, which… turned out to be not very well at all, because I’ve barely written anything in the past decade and it turns out it’s just like riding a bike, in that I can’t actually ride a bike.

(Are you still here, btw? Jesus. Glutton for punishment, you. Were you privately educated, perchance?)

This was mostly in late 2020 and early 2021. While I’d intended to finally get this done and dusted a year ago, 2021 proved a pretty shitty one for ol’ Camcam here, and I gave the whole ghastly business no further thought until this year when I finally thought: fuck it, rolled my sleeves up, and ‘finished’ it. The result is not at all how I’d intended to conclude my plots leading up to the close of WC51 – I think I’d completely forgotten that within about a month – nor is it exactly what I wrote tennish years ago, nor is it what I’d write now. It’s a hideous chimeric monster, of a kind that no-one outside of maybe a few US states and El Salvador could possibly be expected to bring to term.

Is it worth anyone who enjoyed any of my stuff over a decade ago reading this? I hope I’m selling you very hard on a ‘No’ vote. I’d be amazed and slightly appalled if more than one or two people at most even end up so much skimming a quarter of it. It’s not as though I’ve read any of your crap over the past decade. I should probably do that sometime, shouldn't I? Ugh.

(I jest, I jest. Love you all as if you were my mothers, obviously. And like my mother, contact is best kept limited and restricted to telegram.)

Never the less… it’s here. This, in-characterly speaking, is why Candelaria And Marquez left the wide world of sports, never to return. This, with some tweaks for the sake of the passage of time, is where I would have taken the country next if I had returned as planned. It’s here if you want it, I guess.

Once I’ve finished spellchecking and putting up all twenty-eight chapters over the next few weeks, anyway, unanticipated illness or death or the justifiable homicide of the man next door notwithstanding.

Oh, and I checked with a nice manly mod man that this slightly unconventional (at least, in my day, as far as I can recall) use of the NS Sports forum was acceptable. Turned out it was, regardless, and in any case I’m C&M and – quote – “should be allowed to do what you want, when you want”, an ethos I intend to take into the rest of my life, no doubt propelling me into Downing Street before too long. #satire #hignfy

Anyway.

* * * * *


Presenting...


The Beatrice

Being an account of certain events occurring in and pertaining to the Candelarias archipelago, specifically if frequently tangentially in relation to the fifty-first World Cup of association football, and the absence of the national team of Candelaria And Marquez from subsequent editions of this esteemed tournament


Last edited by Candelaria And Marquez on Tue Jun 28, 2022 4:37 am, edited 8 times in total.
The Republic of Candelaria And Marquez
Our national sports team have won some international tournaments

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Posts: 207
Founded: Feb 22, 2007
Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Tue May 24, 2022 9:47 am

The following is not “what happened”, per se.

Wouldn’t dare be so presumptuous.

Think of it as what happened… somewhere.

And somewhens.

Because you love all that timey-wimey shit, right?

Right?


* * * * *


APERTURA


One. The Offering


His heartbeat pounded crimson his head. He felt tiny, and weak, and helpless. And moist, also moist. There were voices, indistinct but with a familiar timbre of detached concern, amid more distant whisperings.

All in all, there was something reassuring about it. One day the voices’ concern would drain to business-like resignation, and he would probably be in no fit state to hear them regardless. For now, they carried the prospect of sponge baths. There were worse thoughts to drag oneself awake to.

“He’s got to be coming round this time, right?”

“Perhaps. We may have underestimated quite how unwell he is. We perhaps should have left him there…”

“Anything might’ve happened if you’d done that, what with the ‘riots’ you lot keep banging on about. He could’ve died or anything.”

“He might yet. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any member of his strain, or… whatever he may be. Either way, his family – assuming he has one – would know rather better than we how best to treat him.”

Male, this one. Youngish, maybe thirties. Well-spoken. More than a hint of lavender. Not nearly as conflicted as his words suggested. No real emotion there. For him, his was just another body waiting to die.

“If they were looking for him, Surrogate would have found them by now. So you should go and find her.”

Female. Younger still. Marginally more genuine-sounding concern. Bit more promising on the sponge bath scale, but honestly any port in a storm.

Oh God, his head. Thump, thump…

“I can assure you, I am as knowledgeable regarding the anatomy o–”

“There’s different kinds of knowledge, Surrogate says. He’s waking up, it would be better if she was here. And a Selkie.”

“We don’t need… we can manage. Surrogate is well versed in treating your ailments, and my mem–”

“You heard him! He was having nightmares before. Surrogate can’t treat that, not properly. Not anymore. It’s only going to get worse, I can feel it…”

Half the words meant little to him, if he was even processing them correctly, and the strange whisperings that accompanied them were really beginning to needle. He tried to lift his head, but it was like lead. It took almost as much effort to wrench open his eyes, to be met with a sickly yellow light illuminating only grey blurs.

“I fear he has rather more significant problems than nightmares, your holiness. But… as you will it.”

Now he could make out a shape, like a balloon on a stick. Two big eye-shapes, a little mouth. Possibly. Enough for that infant part of the brain to scream ‘human!’, to think of food and protection. And like a suckling he tried to reach towards it, and found himself armed with arms that felt shrivelled and feeble and disinclined to follow orders.

“Go, then. And find a Selkie, please.”

“I can send others in my stead, there’s no reason for me to leave you.”

“Can we not have an argument about this, Wonder? You know I’ll win. Just find Surrogate. And no, before you ask, I don’t need you to send anyone else in. I’ll be fine.”

“You shouldn’t be left alone with him. I’ll get Tread or Nomad to watch you both whi–”

“No! This is my bedroom. And there’s no way he can hurt me, not when he’s like this. I’ll scream if he does. Like last time. That was so funny… I hope you’re not thinking of disobeying me,” added the female voice, playfully it seemed but with just the hint of something more.

“I… Very well.”

He heard a few footsteps, the mechanical grumbling presumably of a door being opened, a brief flurry of impossible to decipher voices and then the door sound once more. And then silence, save for the banging in his skull. The bearer of the female voice remained still, the mutterings hushed. He tried to enjoy it for a short while, before coming to the conclusion that there was little in this scenario that seemed worth savouring.

His eyes opened rather more easily this time, and the light soon dimmed. A round, brown face regarded him with an inscrutable expression. He could make out features now, the prerequisite nose and a pursed little mouth. Big brown eyes, dominated by eyelashes like a dairy cow and thick black eyebrows that seemed intent on colonising as much face as possible. She wore a headdress of some kind, from which dangled any amount of… what was it… tink?

“Hello boy.”

Bling. That was it. It looked like her neck must ache as much as his did, from the weight of her jewels. He tried to make out the rest of her. She was sitting at the end of his bed… or, a bed, at any rate. It was a single, but long. Too long. The far end was just a little too far away. It took up most of the room, and she pretty much the rest. It wasn’t that she was fat, but just… big. Too big, not for the bed but for that face, that voice. She looked and sounded like a young girl, but the perspective was… all wrong.

“Hello? I know you can speak, you were talking in your sleep. Screaming, actually. Couldn’t tell what, but they were definitely words. Do you have a name? My name’s Goddess.”

Now he was coming to a little more, her voice was becoming all the less pleasant. The return of the simultaneous whisperings didn’t help, nor the hints of voices from beyond the door in the far right of the otherwise bare and windowless little room, nor the irregular thumping coming from… not just his head, he realised now, but from above, or maybe below, maybe both. And as for her voice, it was… strange. Childish, if articulate. Unaccented, which was to say his own. But there was an oddness he couldn’t identify.

“Murrrgh,” he offered.

“Not a great name,” Goddess informed him, with a slight shake of her head. “A bit too camel. I shall call you Offering. That’s what you are. Not one of the best I’ve had.”

“Erg. No?”

“You can speak, then. Surrogate said she thought you could. Properly, I mean. You’ve wet yourself,” she added, evenly. “I think Surrogate’s left another sheet in here. I make my bed sometimes, even though I’m a living deity. Surrogate says it’s important to learn self-reliance, just in case. And I can probably find you some clothes.”

The newly-Christened Offering hadn’t noticed the additional door in the far end of the room. Goddess slid it open just wide enough to allow a shimmer of salmon to escape and for her to slip through, then slid it back until only a chink of pink remained. Offering tried to pull himself upright and, despite the weight of his head and a new array of fireworks within it, ultimately succeeded.

“You could be a camel,” Goddess’s now disembodied voice said from beyond the door. “Part camel, anyway. You’ve certainly got the head for it. Surrogate says it takes all kinds, though…”

The voices from beyond seemed louder now. An argument appeared to be taking place.

“I should probably warn you, if you try anything funny I’ll just scream, and then my worshippers will come and you’ll be for it.”

The Offering swallowed. He couldn’t begin to imagine what might worship a six-foot little girl, but it couldn’t be good. Images of white robes and ceremonial knives flickered through his mind.

“I’ll… try not to,” he ventured.

“You’re not the first, you know,” Goddess went on, as if he was in danger of feeling himself special. “They like to bring me offerings. They bring me lost boys from time to time. I think they think I find them entertaining.”

“Do you?”

“Not for very long.” She re-entered the room, a large pile of linen in her arms. “Clothes,” she added simply, tossing him the offending items before pointedly turning her back. The Offering took the invitation to waste little time in removing the billowing white one-piece thing he’d only just acknowledged he was wearing anyway, and pulled the beige tunic, black undercrackers and what appeared to be jodhpurs on without much investigation. The swiftness of the act helped elicit a new and interesting range of protestations from inside his brain.

“I’m, er…”

Goddess turned around and eyed her gift critically. “Not a pretty sight, honestly. Tried my best with the clothes, but I don’t get out much these days and Surrogate’s choices have always tended towards… frilly. You’re not into frilly, are you?” she added, contentiously. “Surrogate says everyone’s allowed a Thing. Is yours your nails? Your hair could do with a cut too. Or is that just what people look like on the lower levels these days?”

The Offering stared down at his hands. He’d been trying to avoid them, but here they were and… they weren’t his. He was really quite sure of that. He knew the back of his hands like the… like… he knew them really well, okay, and these were not they. They were… new, for one thing. And brown. Not weathered-by-the-sun brown, but of entirely-the-wrong-ethnicity brown.

“They’re usually a bit livelier than you. My previous offerings.”

“I could tap dance for you if you’ve got the right shoes,” he muttered, distractedly. He was starting to get more of a grasp on proceedings now, and it really wasn’t helping matters.

“They tend to talk more, too.”

The Offering sighed. “‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ea–’”

“It wasn’t a criticism,” Goddess said. “I don’t need them to talk.”

The Offering regarded her suspiciously. He wasn’t terribly at home with small girls. He’d had boys, and boys who’d had boys, not that he ever really saw them, and had laboured in a boy-driven profession for his entire working life. There had been his sister, but he barely remembered their early childhood together. He was having a hard time placing Goddess’s utterings on a sliding scale from guileless to worryingly lascivious to just plain threatening. The possibility of screaming for her worshippers himself and having done with it was starting to seem appealing.

“Do you want to see my special area?” she continued, brightly.

“Now… look, young lady, I don’t think you should be showing strange men your…” he fished around for a phrase, “sparkle cave?”

She stared at him nonplussed for a second, before revealing two rows of perfect teeth. “Yes, that’s a good term for it. Come on!”

Before he could summon up any protestations, Goddess had taken him firmly by a limp hand, slid open the far door with the other, and dragged him inside.

The new room was, indeed, sparkly. Pink walls and the ceiling shimmered with sparkles of every other colour. And around the room, rather larger than the first, was… stuff. All the stuff. Dolls of all shapes and sizes available to man and girl (which was to say, a mixture of tragic anorexics and chunky special needs babies) variously stood, sat and slopped drunkenly on shelves and tables. The Offering’s eyes cast over animals and building blocks. Goddess was clearly not someone at home to ‘There are poor children in Djocoranga who’d love that old stuffed monkey’. The detritus of many years’ recreation remained stubbornly uncharity-shopped. Much of it, he began to realise, was in some way broken, or else faded or grubby. The fashions on more than one or two of the dolls seemed more reminiscent of his own youth. He peered at a large stack of Mammal Cards, the Pozdnyakov ones Nick’s eldest had been obsessed with for a while. A Santazuelan dissident squirrel peered up and him from the top of the deck. It was a shiny.

Sitting not far away, between a little wooden horse and a knitted chicken in a straw boater, was another collection that caught his eye. The bobbleheads had formed their own small republic, clustered some distance from any mere faded dolly or headless bear. They stood in pride of place, a welcome oasis of boyhood.

The Offering knew them well. They came in numerous forms – some pricey, some free with your cornflakes, though there never seemed to be much difference between the two. Footballers, with a little body and an enormous head, designed with such exaggerated features that only the barely legible surname on the base provided much of a clue as to who each was. The kits helped. These two were early international era Albrecht FC, this one the unmistakable lilac of Radyukevich. A recent vintage. Caires Sports, God knows which Yaforite. The orange of Marquez-Onwere. The blue… of a Big Blue. Was that Gwynfardd Lopulalan? It had to be. He peered forward for a closer look.

“Narav, ye’d fe lati forshun demfings! Ninodem…”

The Offering turned back to Goddess. “Pardon you?”

“Yewa, ah?”

They stared at each other in mutual incomprehension for a moment before the girl broke into a grin, reached out a hand, and gave him a sharp clip around the ear. He blinked away the explosions and shook his head.

“Well, that takes me back.”

“I was saying, of course you’d want to investigate those. Boys… It’s a good collection though, isn’t it? There aren’t all that man–”

“Sorry, what just happened there?” he asked. It wasn’t just the unfamiliar words, the sound of Goddess’ voice had been different… subtly so, but different. Also, the whispering that accompanied her speech had stopped briefly. Also, it had been rather a long time since he had been slapped by a woman.

“You need to flick the bean.”

That too.

“It… What?”

Goddess rolled her eyes. “You were talking to yourself in Old, Surrogate thought. When you were having nightmares. We can’t speak Old, well I can’t, anyway, not properly, although Surrogate says my oral comprehension is getting better, so anyway we shoved in a speaking bean. My supplicants don’t need them, but we’ve got plenty around. There used to be quite a lot of visitors passing through, Old speakers included. Pilgrims, traders from Kez, that kind of thing. It’s much quieter now… so they tell me, anyway,” she added, resentfully. “I don’t get out much anymore. Are you from Gamboa?”

“Um… No?” he answered, truthfully. “Why…?”

“Wonder thought you might be. They still speak Old there, some of them. Surrogate wasn’t so sure, she said it’d be a long way for a kid to wander from. But… you don’t talk like a scrub. Are you a dud, then? A ronion, I mean. You… kind of look like one. There’s nothing wrong with that,” she added, hurriedly, “just not normally on these levels, you know? Also, you’re a bit too symmetrical.”

“I’m not a dud,” the Offering decided. He glanced back towards the bobbleheads, as something normal to cling to as the conversation slipped away from him. “Is that Gwynfardd Lopulalan? The number two?”

“I… That’s what Linesman says, yes. So you’re a football person, maybe? Or are your family just star cultists?”

Now he was watching her again, he realised that the girl’s lips weren’t actually moving in time with her words. The effect was subtle too but, once you noticed it, it was disconcerting. If anything, it was the pattern of the meaningless whispering that was more in tandem with what he could see. So this was the… bean’s doing, was it?

He screwed up his face and tried to concentrate on the words he could understand. Cultists didn’t sound good. By the sounds of it there were already too many forbidding cowls set to imminently enter his life as it was. “Aye. Football person. That’s definitely… you could definitely say that about me. I’m not sure I know a lot, but I know football.” Used to, he added, mentally. Can’t even tell what players most of those are. Aherskh Valinial, the Caires Sports one, maybe? Too obvious?

“You don’t really, you know. That’s what Surrogate says. People don’t really remember…” She trailed off and turned away, as though she’d said the wrong thing. “I should change those sheets. Surrogate or one of the Maids do usually, but I…”

She turned on her heel and slid though the crack between the two rooms, jewellery jangling behind her. The Offering let his eyes wander back across the sparkle cave, taking in board games and model aeroplanes. Pink ones, mostly. There were cars too, and some kind of fat little propeller-less helicopter.

“I don’t… really… see many other kids,” Goddess’ voice came in from the little room. “It’s dangerous to be out, and…”

“You don’t go to school?”

“No. Surrogate teaches me… sometimes. I’m clever,” she added, suddenly defensive. “She gives me tests sometimes. Maths and things. I get high marks. I think.”

“High marks,” he echoed, thoughtfully. He chewed the words around his mouth for a little while before turning towards the door. I mean, why not? Sod it. “Um… My name, you asked… It’s… Mark Baker.”

He received no response. He wasn’t too sure why he’d said it now. It was as though uttering it might somehow drag him out of this dream and back into the real world, one of doctors and nurses not goddesses and cultists.

It didn’t matter much now in any case. For now he could see the mirror on the back of the door, partially hidden behind a sparkling purple dress. He pushed the latter to one side and stared at his reflection.

The big little girl had had a point. It was a face only a mother could love, for a polite period of time, then gently push its bearer out the nest. It also, more to the point, wasn’t his. It wasn’t weathered by decades, but smooth. It wasn’t tanned by years spent screaming on touchlines but a natural brown, darker even than Goddess. His eyes were big, his ears small, his nose barely there at all. The head as a whole was outsized, and almost rectangular, and sat on a thick neck atop a comparatively scrawny body. No wonder it felt so heavy. To look at him, you’d think he’d be incapable of standing up unaided. She hadn’t been wrong. It wasn’t a pretty sight at all.

It couldn’t be him. It wasn’t him. It was a magic mirror, the evil twin of the one that showed the fairest of them all, but… his hands…

The fabric noises from the bedroom had ceased, and Goddess slid the door between open wider to stick her head through. “What did you just say your name was?”

“Uh… Clark? Laker…?”

She gave a half shrug. “I’d’ve stuck with Murrrgh, you…” She paused, shut an eye and cocked her head towards the unopened door, listening closely to the washed-out voices from beyond. Her mouth broke out into a beaming smile. “That’s Surrogate! She’s probably found your family.”

“Oh… good.”

“You… you don’t have to go just yet, I mean… You are my Offering, after all.” She appeared momentarily conflicted, but shrugged again and grabbed his hand. “Come on,” she said, pulling him out of the pink room and towards the other door, to meet her worshippers.
Last edited by Candelaria And Marquez on Thu May 26, 2022 8:14 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Founded: Feb 22, 2007
Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Thu May 26, 2022 8:38 am

Two. The Supplicants


Mark Baker had been exposed to a lot more than a Candelariasian of his vintage had been supposed to. It came with the territory of having been the head coach of the country’s national football team for a few years, but it was more than that. Thanks to his sister, the washing line of his life was always liable to bare the repercussions of mixing linear whites with temporal colours, so to speak. He tried not to think about how old he actually was. Forty-odd, ninety-plus, who knew, because the maths had made his head hurt even when it was the standard shape. And throughout, he’d made the wrong enemies and probably some even more poorly advised allies. In the parlance; he’d seen some crazy shit. Yo.

The sight that now confronted him didn’t, in all honestly, make even the top five of the bonkers parade. He’d shaken scarier looking things out of his slippers. That didn’t, however, mean it was expected, nor especially welcome.

This room was comfortably larger than the first two combined, and contained a dozen or more… people. For what of a better term. Unless you’d ever heard the word ‘robots’, that is, in which case that was a better term. He deployed it now.

“Your worshippers are… robots?”

“Supplicants,” said one, with an even tone Mark quickly recognised from twenty minutes previously. It was the being that he had seen briefly through blurred eyes, the one the girl had called Wonder. Its face was certainly humanoid, but there had clearly been little attempt to mimic that of any given human, nor humans in general, and there had only really been lip service paid to the -oid. It was a ghostly pale, indeed slightly translucent, and had no features beyond a small and perpetually open mouth and large almond-shaped eyes… or, at least, eye shapes. They were mere off-white indentations in the face, with no pupils or colouring of any kind. “You’re doing better, I see?” it asked him.

Mark nodded, an act not without its discomforts. “Um,” he added helpfully, trying to take in as many as Wonder’s… colleagues as possible.

Several others had broadly similar, humanoid shapes. Among the remainder was a tracked machine about his height and possessing a single eye on a stalk that stared at him unblinkingly. Another was a large – although it was still hard to get much of a sense of perspective – mechanical goose, which stood at the heel of a giant of a man, stripped to the waste and bearing a general resemblance to the kind of aboriginal Rushmori that lived far to the south of the continent, or at least Mark’s idea of one. It could pass as a human, for about five seconds. A feminine-looking creature wasn’t quite as lucky – its face made a decent stab at that of a young woman, but the strangely twitching body was a thin silvery monstrousness lacking skin and offering only air where a heart or lungs or stomach should be. It did however, Mark couldn’t help but notice, possess breasts.

Standing off to one side of the mechanical menagerie was an actual young woman, into whose arms Goddess now bounded with a shout of “Surrogate!”

“Goodness me, child! I haven’t been gone long!”

Surrogate possessed a low but attractive voice. She was perhaps a foot taller than Goddess but otherwise looked not dissimilar – the same skin, the same long brown hair, but her clothing was altogether more austere and she wore no jewellery nor the extensive eye make-up. She turned eyes hidden behind spectacles towards Mark even as she held the girl, but as she opened her mouth to address him it was a slightly muffled Goddess who spoke again.

“This is Clark Laker. Did you find his family? He’s a football person. He seems much better now. Did you bring a Selkie, I told Wonder t–”

“So many questions, your holiness! A football person, you say?”

Goddess released herself from Surrogate’s embrace and turned with irritation towards Wonder. “You didn’t bring one, did you?”

“I’m afraid I couldn’t find one.”

“Well that’s not true, they’re everywhere!” Goddess chided.

Surrogate squeezed her shoulder. “Wonder wouldn’t lie to you, child. The Selkies are very busy at the moment, you know that. In any case… all livings have nightmares. More so now than ever. I’m sure Clark here will be a brave boy, won’t you?” she added, her eyes ever fixed on Mark.

All livings… That seemed an odd way of putting it. But Mark had seen enough of Surrogate’s eyes now for realisation to dawn. They weren’t quite right, in a way he couldn’t quite put his finger on, and neither was the rest of her. Her face had a mole here and there, effort had been made, but it was clear that she – it – could fool no-one for very long. She was no less a ‘supplicant’ than Wonder and the others.

“I’ll do my best,” Mark assured her, in his bestest big brave boy voice.

“Which. Club. Young. Master. Clark?”

This was a new voice, words put together inexpertly from building blocks, and emanating from a hitherto unregarded supplicant lurking behind Wonder. This being was much more solid-looking than most of its compatriots; comprising a square body and square head atop two oblong legs. Two oblongs for arms swung wildly as it spoke in such a manner that it was all Mark could do not to laugh. Together with a face of two blue lights for eyes and a rectangular mouth that opened and shut for every word, the machine was about as textbook robot as it was possible to imagine. Body, limbs and head were all the same dull grey; the latter topped off with a bent antenna ending in a satisfying nobble.

“Indeed,” Wonder said. “Drains and Nomad found you slumped not far from here when they were returning with refreshments. Had you got lost?”

“I… don’t know?”

“Hm. Well, if it is possible for us to locate your people it would only be good citizenship to return you to them. Should her holiness so decree it of course.” To this Goddess gave an unconvincingly disinterested little nod. “Which club? Or cult?”

“Uh… Albrecht?” Mark hazarded, plumping for the former.

“Which?” asked yet another robot, in a tone Mark could only think of as withering. “You’ve got three to pick from, make it convincing.”

“Tread, please,” Wonder implored. “The poor boy is unwell, lost… He’s probably confused, and more than a little scared by all we supplicants. Give him time to get his words in order.”

“He can talk perfectly well Wonder, we heard him and Godd–”

“You were listening?” Goddess snapped, appalled. “I’ve told you about listening in on my rooms!”

“Technically I wasn’t…” Tread said. Beside it, a smaller robot lowered its dish of a head bashfully and blooped.

“Radar…” Goddess said, disappointed. The supplicant shuffled wretchedly sideways behind Tread.

“Albrecht FC,” Mark decided. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, the most obvious choice. Sure, it had been his club as a boy, after they’d left Gordon Bay anyway, but he’d never been on their books nor managed there. It was at Albrecht Turkish that he’d made his name as a coach, taking them to an unexpected second place in the league and from there being offered the C&M job for the Baptism of Fire. No-one else would have had him down as a Scorpions man. But you never forgot your first love, did you?

“Are you sure?” Tread said. It was a metallic if distinctly feminine voice, but one apparently more capable than most of the others of conveying tone. In this case, suspicion. “You don’t look…”

“The Scorpions are vast in number,” Wonder decreed knowledgably. “They have levels all to themselves. No doubt they come in forms we’ve never seen.”

“Dud ones, specifically. At best.”

“That will do, Tread, I’m sure. If you’re certain your people are from Albrecht FC, Clark, then it would not do to hold you here. We will take you there, tomorrow. It shouldn’t be more than a day’s trav–”

“I’ll be coming too,” Goddess interrupted.

“Nope.” This was Tread. “That isn’t going to happen. Too dangerous, your holiness.”

“It never used to be! Do you know how long it’s been since I even left the apartment? I’m going. This I decree.”

Mark couldn’t make out Tread’s expression, on account of it – her? – neither having one nor the means to make one. Atop a broadly humanoid body was a white egg with the appearance of a loudspeaker, upon which no effort had been made to place even a superficial mouth or eyes. It simply lit up dully a split-second before her words blared out, and switched off momentarily after. But despite that, the supplicant’s irritation was perfectly clear.

“Things have changed in recent months. Days, even. There are patrols, roadblocks… Ever more slides. Riots now, thanks to all this goblin crap. Never mind the disease, and…”

“Everybody else seems to manage. Or are all other fleshies indoors all the time too now?”

No further answer came from Tread. Indeed, that rather seemed to be that. A certain amount of pushback could be ventured, but the Goddess had spoken, and Her word was to be followed.

It was at this point that Mark couldn’t help but emit an audible groan. Perhaps it was adrenalin that had seen him through these strange last few minutes, but now the ever-present pounding of his heavy head was catching up with him.

“Young. Master. Clark. Requires. Sustenance.”

“I think you’re quite right, Linesman,” Surrogate told the quadrangular robot. “When did you eat last, child? You’re a growing boy.”

“He should hope so,” giggled Goddess. Surrogate gave her a pointed look, took Mark’s hand and led him through the crowd of supplicants to a table in the centre of the otherwise conspicuously spartan beige room. He gratefully grabbed a chair for what, until mere hours ago, he would have referred to as ‘a nice sit down’.

The meal, when it arrived, was provided by Linesman wearing, Mark was contented to note, a large chef’s hat. Besides a tumbler of water it consisted of a slab of something pink and gristly, a small square roughly the appearance and consistency of a flapjack, and half a cucumber. Goddess, seated opposite, was already tucking into hers with every sign of relish. The supplicants stood rather awkwardly around them, watching her eat. Mark shrugged. No explanation for any of this was forthcoming, the inference being that any resident of… here, wherever here exactly was, would be expected to know what was sitting on his plate. He took up a knife and fork with some trepidation and directed them towards the pink block.

As it turned out, the offerings were… fine. The origins of the slab were hard to pinpoint; it was unexpectedly warm inside and tasted like… passion fruit? But peppery? Mark wasn’t too sure. These weren’t, after all, his taste buds. Dessert, or the second course, or whatever it was, when it came, comprised a bowl of sensationally green soup, possessing rather too much flavour by half and that made his eyes water, and something vaguely akin to a toffee apple. There was quite the crunch as he bit inside and choked. A spray of pieces of what were quietly clearly parts of grasshopper soon littered his corner of the table.

“Shurrogate saysh there’sh shtarving kidsh in Kezh…” Goddess began, unimpressed, through a mouthful of hers.

“I expect she does,” Mark acknowledged weakly. But at least the final proffered morsel took the taste away; an unappetisingly grey block that fizzed and frothed pleasantly enough in his mouth. A subsequently once-over with his sharp little tongue suggested it had done what was no doubt its job, and stripped his milky new teeth clean of foreign bodies.

He was barely aware of how the following period of time then transpired, as he was led to a reassuringly ordinary bathroom and then back into Goddess’ Hall of Miscellany via another door he hadn’t spotted first time around and that had presumably been hidden behind more hanging clothes.

Well alright, it hadn’t been that ordinary. There had been the pair of rather sad, slowly and irregularly blinking, white eyes embedded in the wall that had narrowed when he’d seated himself upon the gently grumbling air cushion above the shitter, as a blue light spilled out from beneath his undercarriage. A very calm, quiet, voice not unlike Wonder’s had crooned “Unfamiliar Anal Print” as he’d hopped off the unseen john shortly after, apparently largely to itself, and a chipped and hazy glass panel on the opposite wall to the eyes had briefly flashed through an array of wholly unclear numbers, algebra, and words that were gone by the time he’d pottered over to it, or more exactly had done so by the time he’d looked back after glancing around to watch his excreta vanish with a sudden whoosh. The wash basin next to the screen was but a metal tray beneath a vent. He waved a hand beneath it vaguely for a moment, and watched dispassionately as a viscous green substance oozed out, covered his little hands and frothed for a bit, before apparently declaring its work for the day done and sloughing off onto the tray, upon which it too vanished in moments. This was all accompanied by a yellow light that shone out of another hole in the wall, regrettably one far too high up to even consider curiously sticking his penis into as was his right and responsibility as a man, that made his face tingle and his nose itch.

But apart from all that, and by comparison to the events of the previous hour and, frankly, the last few years of his life, the toilet experience has been almost disappointingly mundane.

Lying now in the darkness, on a camp bed set up on the floor, he listened to the silence. Most of the distant thumping had ceased, and the lack of the whisperings were an even bigger mercy. They had to be, Mark was beginning to realise, his new acquaintances’ original voices, drowned out by the translations provided by the bean. He wondered how much that he was hearing was even accurate.

‘Darkness’ was rather pushing things, mind you. The doors in the place might have been decent at soundproofing, dulling the continuing conversation from beyond to the barely audible, but yellow light was spilling in from thin cracks above and below. Mark could see why Goddess slept in the adjacent room, a veritable sensory deprivation chamber compared to the sparkle cave. He lay awake, physically and mentally exhausted but stubbornly insomnolent.

He could be dreaming already, he knew, but the knowledge of that fact was surely enough to confirm it wasn’t a dream. That wasn’t the same thing as it being real, however. He’d been through too much to take everything he saw on trust. It had to be more than a mere practical joke, but the machinations of the Ministry? A cruel trick by one of Gordon Bay’s less civilized citizens? Simple madness? Or had time… gone wrong? Again? Had the fools with their spinning orb ignored the lessons from two years earlier and cocked up royally once more? Was that even still possible, now, after Beatrice?

He found himself back on his feet and drawn towards the plinth and its plastic footballers, and picked up the nearest. There was the merest hint of gold lettering still on the little man’s base, but only by squinting at the mostly paintless indentations could he try to work out who the big-headed monstrosity was. An S, certainly. The letter Y? Or.. V? Sve…?

Sverus, he decided. Ignacius Sverus, yes, that made sense. Starblaydi lad, not one of their finest, Albrecht FC centre-back for a few seasons? Mark didn’t think he could much remember him playing, but then it would mostly have been during his… lost period. If he’d been paying much attention to football at the time, he couldn’t recall it now. He’d learnt about these players only later, after he had dived back into his initially rather unwelcome role as the Gordon Bay City manager and tried to immerse himself in what he’d lost. It wasn’t as though he’d had very much else to do at the time, and football has always provided a distraction from the lunacy of the real world.

He tried the presumed Sverus’ apparently fellow Scorpion. R…O…N…D…? Rondags? A coach at the Smudgers from before the Event, Mark knew him as most recently, though he’d been a solid if journeyman top-flight right-back in his day. Mark had even considered him for his Baptism of Fire squad; an alternative to Damien Sono, his own full-back at Turkish. He’d picked… someone else, instead, he thought. He couldn’t recall. Nor could he remember Darwin Rondags in Scorpions blood red, but maybe he’d had a spell there late in his career, while Mark had been… away. It was all so long ago, in any case. Thirty-odd years. Or less, or more, or… It was so hard to tell. Lord knew he wasn’t alone in that, but…

As he replaced Rondags in the dusty circle left by his little base, he noticed that the glass upon which they stood was not as clear as he’d first thought. Little letters and numbers were lain out in the faintest green text. Behind the players, he realised, was a small screen, not wholly unlike that from the supplicants’ lavvy. He plinked at it vaguely a couple of times and tried hitting the letters, but was unsurprised to be met with no response. Whatever it was, a brief search for an ‘On’ button proved fruitless.

The muffled voices from outside were becoming more distracting, and Mark found himself inching over the camp bed and across the floor towards the door. He could make out the odd, largely meaningless word, now, but the bean was being no help. As carefully as he could manage, his wizened little fingers slid the door a few millimetres open.

“…tting away from the fact that he called himself Mark Baker,” Tread was saying insistently.

“Radar may have misheard. It’s a very similar sounding name.”

“Oh pull the other one, Wonder, it’s got a nobble on. He pulled Clark Laker out of his unique little arse. I don’t see the point of half of us trooping over to the Park, with all that might entail, if there’s not anyone there who’s going to accept him in! Never mind the fact that if we were going to go anywhere it should be Turkish, or wherever Baker’s own star cult is based.”

“Do you know where that is?” a voice Mark thought belonged to the cylindrical creation called Drains.

“We. Could. Find. Out. I. Would. Also. Note. That. His. Cult. Believe. That. Baker. Was. Brought. Back. From. The. Dead. And. Tha–”

“Humans believe all sorts of things,” Surrogate admonished Linesman, in a rather harsher tone than he’d heard from her thus far, “if you start taking too much of their silliness seriously your circuits will melt. Trust me on this. Turkish is so far away, in any case. All we know is that he’s a lost boy who needs our help, and says he has people who will take him in.”

“And I don’t wish to sound callous,” Wonder added, “but if the Scorpion King doesn’t turn him away – and from all I understand of the man that seems unlikely – he’s no longer our concern.”

“If you didn’t encourage the others to bring back all these waifs and strays we wouldn’t have this problem in the first place,” Tread grumbled.

“Her holiness appreciates their presence, however brief.”

“Oh well, that puts a full stop on that then. Our lady of eternal stroppiness has spoken, bring on the boys. You’re still intent on letting her come too?”

“I have to agree with Tread here, Wonder. It’s dangerous out there.”

“Surrogate, my fingers have been deactivated. Unless Goddess changes her mind in the morning, then we must bring her too. I don’t need to remind you, my dear friends, that it does not matter what we think of her decisions, onl–”

“Only that we respect them and carry them out, sure, sure. Look… I know we’ve been dancing around this all evening, so obviously it’s going to have to be me that says it…”

“Tread?”

“The kid’s a pinny. And a freaking…” She lowered her voice, “cyborg.”

This elicited a variety of groans and worried bloops. “We do not know that,” Wonder told her, “not on either account.”

“Come on. He doesn’t look like any scrub I’ve ever seen. He’s not a dud – sorry, Surrogate, ronion, for promotion’s sake – since when have they left kids on our levels? Never mind functioning ones. If they were going to pass him on they’d chuck him into the Outside and hope some Manichean rummagers found him. You must have scanned him, because I certainly have. Duds don’t have that kind of tech, barely anyone does, and they’re too busy shambling around going ‘Awuuurgle-Wuuurg’ and making pretty pictures out of their faeces to bother themselves with that kind of engineering in any case. He’s got as much hardware in that big ol’ bonce as I have.”

“He’s one of us?” asked another voice Mark couldn’t quite place.

“Nope. His body’s flesh and blood, brain stem’s intact. I know none of us have seen a true cyborg for years, and there hasn’t been a pinny that anyone’s spoken of… eh, not since the vortex, I reckon. You’d know better than me, of course, Wonder.”

“That is correct, I believe. Making it all the more unlikely that you are in your identification of him as such, I have to say.”

“If you say so. But all of you know perfectly well what the penalty is for harbouring a known cyborg. There used to be posters up, back when they were actually a thing, they’d come down on us like Arrigo. Do you want to be decommissioned? And if he is a pinny then we really are in over our heads. No offence, those of you without one. If we’re going to deliver him anywhere it should be to the Selkies, ‘cos if I’m right then he’s their business, and if not then they’ll pass him on to their best buddies in the Morticians for scrapping, or whatever they want to do with him.”

“I don’t trust the Selkies…”

Surrogate’s words were left hanging in the air. If there was any responding communication it was non-verbal. Mark wondered vaguely whether they even possessed that capacity. Concerned that the silence might indicate his detection, he slid the door back as quietly as he could and tip-toed back to the camp bed.

He slept soon, a dreamless sleep punctuated twice by stifled screams emanating from Goddess’ room. On the second occasion, long dormant parental concern was activated sufficiently to slide the adjoining door slightly ajar. If Surrogate, standing by the girl’s bedside, noticed him she made no sign and continued singing to her charge in a low but flawless tone. Perhaps the words were too arcane for the bean, or maybe it hadn’t been… programmed? taught? bred, for music? Whichever, it improvised and added its own song in a tiny, tinny whisper.

The wheels on the bike go round and round, round and round…

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Posts: 207
Founded: Feb 22, 2007
Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Fri May 27, 2022 9:04 am

Three. The Rodents


As he drifted back into sleep that night, Mark was deeply uncertain as to what he’d wake up to the following morning. Perhaps he wouldn’t wake at all or, if he did, it would be to a light blue uniform and an upside-down watch. That was becoming frequent enough these days as to no longer be much of a shock even in those first blinking moments, although at the Gordon Bay Assisted Living Centre you did at least get the fun of guessing whether your nurse would be human or not. He liked the tikoloshe woman they had the best. There was something about being woken up – and possibly kept alive – by a five foot frowning teddy bear that was oddly comforting.

The face of Surrogate wasn’t a terrible sight to wake up to either, even once you knew it had probably been designed on a computer. She peered down at him through glasses that, he suddenly realised, there was no reason to suppose she actually needed.

“How are you feeling, my dear? Better than yesterday?”

He groaned a reply. “Rather… thirsty. Headache.”

“It’ll be a long day today. We don’t have to go if you don’t want to. You only have to say the word, and…” She seemed to be almost pleading with him.

Could he say no? Would staying put, at least for a while, be better than venturing out into a world that promised answers and the unknown in a wholly unclear measure? Was he actually safer amongst an apparent child deity and her – or possibly, Her – mechanical celebrants? The supplicants had seemed to find the prospect of travelling to find his ‘family’ at Albrecht FC an unwelcome one, but nevertheless a journey they were willing to undertake. And right now, football seemed about the only normal thing present in this whole situation.

Maybe that wasn’t the seemly way of looking at things any more. In the space of barely more than two years, the sport – all sport, really – had gone from being the focus of the nation’s attentions to something widely seen as detestable, and even most ex-players and managers seemed to concur with that assessment. Somehow, despite everything, Mark didn’t. If Albrecht FC could be a home, at least for someone, then it had to be worth a punt.

He allowed himself to be buffeted through the following half an hour of food and ablutions; and now stood in front of the door presumably leading to Outside alongside Goddess, both of them pensive. He didn’t see an awful lot of outside these days, though that was nothing terribly new. It had been the same during his spell at the Liverpool Hills Sunshine Memory Towers. Or in the Hole, come to that. Especially down the Hole.

“You’ll want a cloak,” Surrogate told him, and attempted to manhandle him into a blue edition of Goddess’ purple number. The hood wasn’t a great fit, though Mark had been looking at his head in the mirror again and could concede that not a lot would be.

“Alright, alright, I can dress myself,” he muttered. It was like being a child again. He got enough of that at the Centre. “And do I really have to wear this? It’s boiling as it is.”

“Do they have a different climate at the Park, Surrogate?” Goddess asked the supplicant as she clucked over Mark’s hood in an attempt to find some way of keeping it over his rhomboid skull. “‘Cos if you think this is hot, Offering, you must hate it during Run-In. It’s cold, if anything. And getting colder…”

Neither Mark nor Surrogate could answer before Wonder appeared silently at their shoulder. “Surrogate, your holiness, Master Clark… Are we ready? Linesman and Tread will be joining us outside momentarily.”

“None of the others?”

“Pet shall be accompanying us, I believe,” Wonder told him, a smile somehow leaking into his normally flat voice. “Otherwise not. Your kind… humans,” he added, as though deciding the clarification was beneficial or possibly just to try to convince himself, “are inclined to find the presence of too many supplicants in one place… disquieting. It reminds them of… from before. Shall we?”

Wonder nodded towards Surrogate, who reached over Mark and pulled across the door to reveal the world outside.

For a moment the only light that spilled out was that from the room behind, before a lamp opposite appeared to detect their presence and flooded the surrounding area with a now familiar yellow glow. They were standing now in a thin corridor, curving away gently to both left and right. The walls were a patchwork of metallic black and greys; colour being mostly provided by rust. Patches of wall poked through apparently more recent additions of corrugated metal, revealing a faded mosaic in which half the small tiles were missing. White numbers were spray-painted on doors here and there – 5468, 5473. Bags and cartons lay motionless on the black, dusty street. There wasn’t the slightest breeze; the rhythmic thumping and the occasional more chaotic clatter coming from below insufficient to ruffle the rubbish. Questionable whiffs cut through a smell of… freshly baked bread? He wondered if the residents were supposed to find it cosy. He didn’t, at least. He found himself longing for the all-pervading reek of cabbage that inexplicably greeted any traveller arriving in his Albrecht.

Candelaria And Marquez didn’t even grow cabbages on any great scale. No-one had ever worked this one out.

He glanced upwards, hoping for at least a glimpse of sky, but was treated only to a confused mess of wiring and pipes, some hanging loose and broken. The supplicants’ apartment, if that was what it was, has been bare but clean at least. It seemed though that any houseproudness they possessed stopped at the front door.

Though he knew it had to exist, Mark had never really seen poverty up close. Oh, he’d travelled, he’d seen some spectacularly grim cities, but not Candelariasian poverty. He’d had no reason to visit the forgotten apartment blocks where the country’s most desperate migrants and indigenous detritus alike holed up, nor or the miseryvilles of El din. This was just one block though, and one storey within it, where the apparently feared supplicants could be found. No doubt Outside had more to offer.

He readjusted his hood for the umpteenth time already and glanced behind him as Wonder and Surrogate put on their own cloaks. He wondered why. It seemed unlikely the robots felt the cold, and there wasn’t even any of that. Surrogate at least wore clothes normally, presumably for the look of the thing, but Wonder was essentially naked while indoors and now looked rather comical dressed as Little Red Riding Bot.

Lights illuminated more of the corridor as shapes came towards them – the swinging gate and arms of Linesman, the heavy footfalls of the faceless Tread and…

“A… giant capybara,” Mark said. It wasn’t really meant as a question, as such. If there were such a thing as donkey-sized capybaras, especially ones strong enough to carry a large sack of provisions on either flank and… yes, trail a buggy large enough for four behind it… then of course you were going to have one. It chirruped at him or, more likely, at Goddess.

“Problem?” the girl asked, pushing past him to pat the noble beast.

“It was more of a comment than a criticism… Although, it… seems an odd mode of transport for a living goddess, if you don’t mind me saying. Shouldn’t it be a chariot driven by cats or something?”

“I expect you’re funnier in Old,” the deity replied in what she and the bean both probably imaged to be a withering tone. She was dressed down compared to the previous day, wearing a much simpler dress and lacking the jewels. She still sported a copious amount of eye make-up, though. There were, presumably, Standards. She’d been quiet over breakfast, avoiding eye contact even with Surrogate.

“Your chariot awaits, your holiness,” Tread said cheerfully. Mark was getting the distinct impression that not all her worshippers were quite as deferential as Wonder.

Goddess ignored her and instead rummaged around in one of the placidly snorting capybara’s sacks and brought out a smaller bag. “Go and put this in the buggy,” she demanded of Mark, jabbing it towards him with a disdainful expression.

“What did your last offering die of?” he muttered, not particularly wishing to discover the answer, but did as he was told. The whispered voices were starting to get to him again, not to mention the constant headache, but that aside he was feeling strangely elated. For all he knew, indulging in the kind of humour that the nurses described with fixed grins as ‘impish’ was chancing not just his arm but his very life. Accidentally insulting her holiness might well see him strangled and left for dead by an irate robot. But what did it really matter? A light, briefly reignited, had gone out after the Gordbaysian central council had taken away his football team. It had been back downhill towards pain and confusion and hollowness rapidly thereafter. The rest of the Candelarias had their own turmoils to cope with, and could spare little thought for an elderly football manager with a foot in God’s waiting room already. In truth, the last couple of years he’d been little more than marking time and waiting to die, when he’d even been cogent enough to know who and where he was. Whether this was a last hurrah or an unasked-for rebirth, it didn’t matter a lot to him. Might as well go out grinning through the pain.

“I’ll be going on ahead, your holiness,” Tread said, as Mark and Goddess took seats in the buggy. “Feel free to scream if you’re accosted.” She lingered over the final word, tilting her head slightly towards Mark as she did so. She hadn’t actually turned to face them throughout although, Mark conceded, her head was either all face or none at all. It was certainly all speaker.

As Tread vanished beyond the curve of the corridor, the capybara responded to a pat from Wonder and began loping forward. It didn’t seem to Mark to be going at anything more than a human walking pace, but perhaps it was just getting up speed. Linesman and Wonder ambled along either side of it, the corridor offering barely enough room for the three beings, while Surrogate had taken a place in the buggy with her back to the animal and looked fretfully between himself and Goddess.

Or at least, Mark thought, she looked like she looked fretfully. That was the thing about artificial faces, or indeed voices. Were you seeing and hearing a physical manifestation of the thoughts and feelings of a real thinking being, or those of whoever had programmed their programming and designed their design? Of course human beings were hardly strangers to deception, but he’d spent most of his adult life around footballers. They were a pretty straightforward bunch, by and large. Simulating an injury was about as much subterfuge as you got.

He’d played against androids, twice, or at least bellowed from the sidelines while his charges had. The Big Blues’ three-two away win in Otário against the automata of the Capitalizt SLANI had really put his team on the map, and left them well set for qualifying for a World Cup he would never get the chance to coach at. Not that he was still bitter, or anything. At any rate the Capitalizt androids could barely be told from the real thing, facial expressions and all, but the point was that they hadn’t been the real thing. They’d lost, for starters, which wouldn’t have been on the script for, if he remembered correctly, the sixth-ranked side in the worlds under normal circumstances. However accurate a facsimile, ‘their’ actions told you more about their creators than ‘they’ ‘themselves’. ‘They’ weren’t a ‘they’, ‘they’ were…

Well, you get the idea with that. The point was, Mark was trying very hard to cling on to anything that helped this situation feel any more normal. They weren’t real, as such, these non-lifeforms. Quite possibly, none of this was. It could all be a set.

Other thoughts elbowed their way to the front of his mental queue for consideration.

“How… how are we getting a giant capybara down the stairs?” he asked, mildly. Visions out of a sitcom had been presenting themselves.

“We won’t be,” Surrogate said, apparently mildly surprised at the question, “there’s no reason for us to change levels until we’re almost there. Unless we have to… in a… hurry.”

“Go all cloak and dagger?” Mark asked. Surrogate made no response and he swore at himself for saying it. He wasn’t a forbidden cyborg or a pinny or whatever the hell they were calling him. ‘They’ weren’t after him, whatever or whoever ‘They’ was-slash-were. That was his story, even if he’d let it be told for him. He was Clark Laker. He was just a boy with a fucked-up face, sitting in the back of a capybara buggy, in front of an austerely sexy robot, asking her to take him home to a football club he’d got lost from. All perfectly normal and above board.

Alternatively, he could just tell the truth. Hi, I’m Mark Baker. You may remember me from such seasons as taking Albrecht Turkish to an unexpected second in the CMSC, spending five-and-a-bit years as head coach of Candelaria And Marquez, going missing, being declared dead whilst actually being in a maximum security prison after trying to kill the former government minister he’d tried to blackmail some months previously, suddenly reappearing in the middle of a World Cup quarter-final thanks to the machinations of said ex-government official’s rogue replacement and an invisible teleporting pixie-thing called Llewellyn, re-emerging from retirement after a Di Bradini Cup tilt in an attempt to undermine the man who would go on to lead the country to their first World Cup title on the instructions of a woman with no toes, being pressganged into becoming manager of the Gordon Bay City national team and leading them to the World Cup at the first attempt… Hi, that’s me. And some other stuff, some of which didn’t come out during the Truth ‘n’ Reconciliation hearings, some of which even I don’t quite remember but which heavily involved elves. Father of two, grandfather to several, brother to a sister who’d been abducted as a child in the middle of the Gordon Bay disaster by not-actual-faeries who’d really wanted his own little blond bonce instead, and who’d spent most of the rest of her life wired to a Time Dilation Device in an extradimensional realm made of maggots. Gemini. I have my own Star Cult, apparently. Probably my own bobblehead to boot. The fact I look like a small malformed boy right now is neither here nor there. Take me to your leader?

Aye, alright. On balance… Probably not for the best. Not just yet.

The capybara hadn’t yet quite broken into a trot, if such a thing was even possible, but now the scenery was finally changing. Marginally, anyway. The stairs or lift he was still half expecting hadn’t materialised, and instead the corridor had simply given way to another, wider one. You could probably fit two capybaras down here, if that was your jam. Otherwise it was pretty much identical to the last. After another few minutes of travel in awkward silence they turned a corner – not the easiest of manoeuvres for a fully laden capybara of size – into another… street, if that was the best word, little different again. A little less rubbish strewn around the ground, a few more broken pipes hanging precipitously from the ceiling. An actual breeze, he noticed, albeit emanating from vents in the walls.

This time, though, there were people. For the first time in quite some hours, and with the presumed exception of Goddess, Mark laid eyes on other humans. There were several; mostly walking with purpose past them or towards them but exhibiting little interest towards the robot party in either case. Some swung shopping bags; one was dragging along a couple of boxes that sat on the top of a trolley behind him. Long cloaks with hoods were evidently ‘in’ this season; mostly greys and browns, a few of deep red, though here and there others displayed brighter colours and patterned designs. The people themselves were if anything less diverse, the skin that could be seen from behind their cowls being mostly the same hard to place light brown of Goddess, Surrogate and his own unfamiliar little body. That was until another rounded corner, and a figure striding past from whom Mark had to look away quickly and was still left with a glow burning in his retinas. He blinked away the remnants of the man’s golden radiance.

“Was, um… Was that a supplicant?”

“Shining Son,” Wonder answered, distantly. His mind, if that was the appropriate term, appeared to be on other things.

“You’ve never seen one?” Goddess asked Mark in surprise. “I’d have thought you’d get them at the Park, sometimes. Pilgrims and such.”

“I don’t suppose Clark is… front of house, if you like, very often, are you?” Surrogate suggested. “And you know the number of travellers has gone down a lot these past couple of years.”

Mark said nothing more but continued watching those passing by and avoiding Surrogate’s frequent concerned glances in his direction. The trickle of humans was stubbornly refusing to become a flow, but the sample size was now large enough for a few outliers to start to emerge. There were other faces in the crowd aside from the burning man; one or two of much paler skin, others of midnight black. One with what appeared to be a bone through his nose. Men and women alike – they appeared a fairly even mix – were mostly slim though seldom seemingly malnourished, though here and there he failed not to spot a couple of individuals he mentally added to the ‘proper porkers’ column. Somehow, he found their presence vaguely reassuring.

It could still be a set. He was clinging on to this fact. Every Candelariasian knew now, as well as he had for years, that the Ministry hadn’t been above creating entire artificial cities in sparsely populated corners of west Candelaria and eastern Marquez when the mood had so taken them. Thousands of football fans had boarded planes to support the Big Blues abroad, having no idea that they were flying straight back home to visit a country made up in Albrecht to stand in for a land of sapient mice or whatever else. This place looked weathered by quite some decades, but that surely wasn’t beyond the finest set dressers of the Candelarias. And each and every one of these cloaked figures could be paid extras. The light quality was gloomy enough that plenty of them could be on their third or fourth cycle round by now without him having examined their features closely enough to notice.

But what on Earth would be the point?

“Ugh! They ought to do something about them,” Goddess was saying, primly. Mark gently pushed her hand from his field of vision and followed a finger towards the right-hand wall. A very fat rat was proceeding down the street, its attendance not unobserved by people passing by but simply sidestepped without fuss. “I hate rodents,” the girl added.

“You’ve spent the last half an hour staring up a capybara’s arse,” Mark pointed out.

“Language, child,” Surrogate admonished, as Goddess giggled.

“That’s different. The packybaras take baths. Rats are unclean.”

Mark glanced around him. Nothing about this place exactly shouted of an emphasis on hygiene as a core tenet of public policy. “I was a house mouse once,” he said out loud, stifling a yawn. “Can’t vomit, you know. Never really felt comfortable chucking up again.”

“You say some very odd things, Offering,” Goddess sighed.

Corridors, though, Mark thought as they left the wider street and turned down yet another empty one. Corridors was very Candelariasian. By Rushmori standards, the archipelago was a relatively large landmass with a relatively small population and so, despite a desire to retain areas of relative wilderness, its people had tended to build out rather than up. Albrecht, Arrigo, Caires, Bove – all much flatter and wider than many of the big international cities he’d visited as a football manager. In the biggest of buildings, people loved a long corridor to dialogue down. They leant themselves superbly to bulky exposition. If C&M had a future he could picture, perhaps it was as likely to look like this as anything else. It was the first time he’d permitted himself such a thought. He hadn’t wanted to countenance it.

This particular part, of whatever this dark warren was best labelled, remained pretty much devoid of life. Goddess had nodded off beside him, and the rhythmic footfalls of the giant rodent and its supplicant companions were in danger of lulling him off too when a new noise signalled the return of Tread. She had remained distant enough from the group to be spotted only on the straightest stretches but now appeared in front of them, glistening slightly.

“Waterfall, up ahead. Hoods up. We could go around it, but it’s good for the packybara and there’s Morticians about.”

If nothing else, Mark thought as humans, supplicants and oversized rodent made their way through the impromptu carwash, he now had an explanation for the hoods. He’d wondered vaguely why there had been wet patches and even small rivulets every now and again on the floor of what was very definitively an indoors, and the burst pipe provided the answer. Even the androids presumably weren’t keen on a brief torrent pouring onto their heads.

“It. Plonks. Something. Dreadful. Young. Master. Clark,” Linesman duly volunteered. Trying not to think too much about quite what had just been deposited upon them, Mark wiped his eyes and leant to the side to try to see around the capybara at whatever magical pixie land lay beyond the waterfall. But it was just corridors, more doors, more decay. He’d enquired as to how much of this complex was inhabited, given the lack of people wandering around most of it, but ‘some of it’ appeared the most authoritative response available. Surrogate had pointed out that most people were at work, which was fair enough. He was used to crowds milling about Gordon Bay City and Albrecht at all hours, but he’d spent time in the countryside where a combination of school term time and daytime telly had turned villages into ghost towns for much of the day.

Beside him, Goddess yawned and tried to shake herself dry. “Well, that woke me up.”

“Still sounds like you slept better than last night…”

“Well, you know. People are around. You, anyway, if you even count as people. They can’t get you when there’s other people watching, not normally. I’ve had three in like, the last fortnight?”

“Oh, child,” Surrogate smiled at her, “don’t confuse Clark with stories…”

“It’s not stories, Surrogate. You’re a supplicant, you wouldn’t understand. Even football people must get them, all fleshies do. I barely ever speak to anyone human and I still know about them, don’t I?”

“Know about what?” Mark asked, more than a little lost.

“The gobble’uns. They live in the dust levels, or even lower, and they bring nightmares. They always have, but most people never saw them, but now, the last few weeks, they’re everywhere. People say they’re trying to warn us, trying to scare us that’s something’s coming, like before…”

Mark had never realised it was possible to feel the colour drain out of your own face, borrowed or otherwise, in real time. “Goblins, you… You mean the svartálfar?”

“I think I’ve heard that word, yes. That’s the Old for them, right? Have you been getting them too? At the Park?”

Mark mmm’d noncommittally. Svarts. Damnit. Fuckity-fuckity-damn.

Oh, they were usually harmless in their way. He’d been introduced to one or two by name. But the problem with svarts was that they knew what was up, and nobody likes a soothsayer. Particularly when they’re made of purple rubber and sit on your chest at night. Particularly when they’re right about… something coming. Like before.

“That’s why I wanted Wonder to bring a Selkie, back when they brought you to us. You were screaming in your sleep and, you know…”

“I… I don’t really know about Selkies,” Mark admitted. He saw Surrogate frown – an act that involved her forehead, not her mouth, because honestly Americans, what the fuck? – and Wonder turn around. The supplicants’ apparent leader had spent most of the journey in silence thus far, trooping along to the capybara’s right. Lost in thought, conserving power or with nothing to say, Mark couldn’t tell. This latest comment, however, had apparently piqued his interest.

“I find it hard to conceive of anyone within the Concordium, no matter how lacking in years, who is unfamiliar with the Selkies, Master Clark. Your corner of the sector must be a very different place from ours.”

“Well… it is,” Mark told him, with feeling. He’d been kidding himself with his earlier élan. This was really starting to get to him now. “Very. Really very. I don’t know half the stuff you things babble about, alright? Clearly I’m a child deprived,” he continued, warming to his new spirit of selective honesty. “I’ve probably been kept in a cellar all my life, that’ll be it. But I just want to go home, where we don’t have horse-sized rats or robots or Selkies or – or – or cyborgs or whatever. I just want to go home.”

He could cry, he thought, if he thought about it. It had been a long time since that had been the case. Maybe it was this bloody second-hand body.

“Selkies are wonderful,” Goddess told him, the bean adopting an awed whisper barely audible over the muted murmurings of the girl’s real voice. “They talk to the gobble’uns and take away nightmares. They’re all women, and everyone respects them, and… fears them a little bit,” she continued, with a certain relish, “and they do other things too. They can tell the future sometimes, and they heal people, and they help with childbirths and they look after the dead. I’m part Selkie, aren’t I, Wonder? I’m a bit everything. But anyway, my worshippers don’t like them,” she added, disapprovingly.

Wonder coughed uncertainly, or at least emitted a noise presumably intended to convey this notion to living ears. “It’s not that we don’t like them, your holiness, we just don’t… understand them. Or need them. Supplicants don’t dream, Master Clark.”

“Not even of electric sheep?”

“I… No? And indeed we have no need for any of the Selkies’ services. We cannot quite understand the esteem in which the humans hold them, and understanding humans has always been the last frontier of knowledge for us. At least for me, at least until… At any rate, they also have a special relationship with the Morticians, and that is… troubling too. For some.”

“Right. Jolly good. Any fear of an explainer on ‘The Morticians’, since we’re apparently doing this now?”

“The. Morticians. Keep. Us. Safe.”

“Yes, Linesman, that’s one way of looking at it,” Surrogate said kindly. “I suppose the Scorpion King keeps the Morticians at arm’s length, so perhaps it’s not surprising you’re not too familiar with them, Clark. They… rule the Concordium. They would never say so, of course, but after the vortex the government atrophied… do you know that word? Good, well there’s still the Association, I’m sure you’ve heard of them, but everyone knows where the power in this country really lies. Particularly in Albrecht. And, they’re not… not a bad thing, as such…”

“That would be a matter of opinion,” Wonder said, “but a commonly held one. The Morticians protect the people of the upper levels from that which lies below, and beyond. They organise the response to slides and the spread of disease. Thanks to them, we are largely free of the criminal gangs that plagued us after the vortex. Much… much knowledge was lost then, and after the datapurge the Concordium may have collapsed into anarchy entirely. They prevented that, and for that almost everyone is grateful. None the less, there are those whose place in their order is… tolerated at best.”

“Like… supplicants, perchance?”

“For a child with little knowledge you are not unperceptive. Yes, Clark. There are few of us left. Fewer and fewer. No-one builds new supplicants. We would serve little purpose even if the knowledge was still there to build anything more than ineffective facsimiles.”

“You can’t build any yourself?”

“No.”

This is appeared to be a sore subject. Mark attempted to change it. “I need a wee,” he announced unto the world.

Well he did. There was no shame in that. He’d had to ask for help in such things plenty of times in the recent past, but those days appeared to be at least temporarily over. Now he just needed to get a grown-up’s permission, which in its own way was just as bad.

“I. Am. Sure. We. Can. Find. A. Public. Convi–”

“No need!” Mark shouted, hopping out of the still moving buggy. Given the pace of the capybara this presented little opportunity for peril, but it still felt pleasingly daring all the same.

“A small human’s bladder is a law unto itself,” Surrogate sighed. “Wait a moment Clark, and I’ll come an–”

“Perfectly capable! Plenty of private corners!”

“It’s unhygienic…”

Mark groaned. “Who cares? Nobody actually seems to live here, and they certainly don’t care about the place if they do! It’s a dump. Your whole city’s a dump.”

He wasn’t quite sure why he was being like this. He was putting himself in danger, simply being away from the closest people he had to allies in this place. But if it was even just for a few moments, he needed to break free.

My bladder’s genetically engineered,” he heard Goddess say. “I can go for hours.”

“Maybe it’s you who’s part camel!” he shot back, cheerfully.

And then, within a few moments more, he was urine-free and about as lost as it was possible to get in such a short space of time with the minimum of effort. This place truly was a labyrinth. How far did it stretch? How many people were stuffed in here? Or… used to be, maybe, or were intended to be. Because surely most of these unseen apartments were as empty as the streets outside?

He gravitated towards voices, but paused in confusion. They weren’t familiar, and nor were they emanating from the expected direction. He wandered around an unassuming corner, was almost barrelled into by a gentleman of chunk, and realised that there were more people, in dribs and drabs, emerging from the first staircase he’d seen that day. More rats in their maze.

Attracting only the odd disinterested glance, he took a few steps down towards a more brightly lit expanse and peered down upon the scene. It was quite a wide street, enough to allow the passage of more than one capybara at a time and that was duly what was happening. Numerous people were passing alongside them, quite a few hauling boxes over a shoulder or dragging them behind on little trolleys. A man stood in the centre of it all, not exactly directing the flow like a traffic cop or lollipop man but still radiating a quiet authority. From time to time he whipped out a small electronic device and was pointing it at passers-by. He was dressed almost entirely in black – pretty much uniquely among the sea of red, grey and brown Mark had seen up to now – the only flashes of colour being a wide silvery belt upon which, off-centred slightly to the left, was a large red disk. He eschewed the standard hood in favour of a rather stylish and very black top hat.

Oh, and he also had golden hands. That was a thing, apparently.

“Clark,” Surrogate hissed behind him. “Please don’t wander off, if you want us to take you home. This is a working level, there’s far too many people arou–”

She was interrupted by a sudden series of shrieks, and the crowd began to move with varying degrees of pace off towards the unseen east of the street. Mark brushed off the supplicant’s hand and tried to get a better look at the opposite direction.

The Thing that soon appeared was massive, wrenching piping from the ceiling with his cranium simply by walking through it. He – demonstrably he in Mark’s view, whatever the kids said nowadays – wasn’t running, but simply striding down the corridor with an air that promised imminent death. He roared, flailing his arms in a manner not unlike Linesman but with a considerable quantity of raw muscle to back it up.

It appeared that a jam had formed, and several stragglers had opted not to try to push through it and were instead cowering behind the man in black. The figure had calmly put away his device, and now golden hands were thrusting into pockets to pull out a pair of pistols. “Move!” he shouted, presumably to those behind him. A couple ran to opposite ends of the street and tried to wrench open doors, successfully in one case, but the rest remained on the spot, transfixed or terrified.

As the creature made a swing towards him, the man opened fire. Mark winced at the sound of bullets impacting into flesh, but the shots appeared to have limited effect and the thing almost connected with the shooter via a wildly swinging arm. The man jumped back, then rushed forward and dived through the creature’s cowboy’d legs with a pleasing accompanying flololololong noise, jumping immediately to his feet upon reaching the other side and unleashing a series of further shots. The creature wheeled away from the crowd, and now Mark could see its face – a twisted mockery of humanity that made his own reflection look like that of a boy Adonis. It successfully knocked one of the guns out of his assailant’s hand and lunged once more, but the man took the opportunity to jump into the being’s unwitting embrace, grab a thick handhold of neck fat and haul himself towards its monstrous face before jamming the other pistol into the creature’s one massive eye. It reeled backwards a few steps with another roar and now the man dropped the other weapon, made a couple of exploratory jabs into a pocket before bringing out an unexpectedly large syringe, and slammed it deep into the creature’s neck. It howled once more, dropped him, and keeled backwards onto the ground with a heavy thud, as if a thud can be anything else. In the short silence that followed the man clambered to his feet, picked up each gun in turn and thrust them together back into their respective pockets. He adjusted his hat slightly.

Mark could have applauded. Several of the remaining people did just that, including a woman walking towards the hero of the hour. She looked quite unlike anyone Mark had seen thus far; a statuesque figure with a white dress that seemed to billow of its own accord. She wore no hood that he could see, and long brown hair instead cascaded from the top of her head in the appropriate manner. Her dress did, however, travel up beyond her neck and finish just under her nose. For a moment she turned her eyes away from the man and towards the staircase, alighting upon Mark and fixing him with a glare that betrayed sudden confusion. He felt Surrogate tug on his shoulder once more, and this time he followed her away from the stairs and back onto the dark, silent level from which they had come.

“Alright, let’s speed this up a bit,” he heard a gravelly voice say from below. “Pilgrims and traders on the left, workers on the right, haven’t got all day…”

Mark looked up into the disapproving faces of Surrogate and Goddess, and the faces of Wonder and Linesman that he suspected would have exhibited disapproval if only they possessed the capacity. “That,” he said, without knowing quite why, “was very cool.”

“Boys…” Goddess muttered, rolling her eyes.

User avatar
Candelaria And Marquez
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Posts: 207
Founded: Feb 22, 2007
Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Sat May 28, 2022 8:13 am

Four. The Market


“So… That was a Mortician? And that creature was…? A cyclops?”

“I suppose,” Goddess said. “It was just a dud, really. Or ronion, they’re supposed to be called. They come in all sorts of different shapes. They’re mostly harmless, but sometimes they come up from the dud levels and the Morticians have to deal with them. That was a Selkie, by the way. The woman who looked at you.”

“‘That was a Selkie, by the way’”, Tread repeated. She had rejoined the group as they made their way through another desolate corridor. “What is this kid?”

“He doesn’t know much,” Goddess said. “I reckon he was locked in a storepod for years and that’s why he’s run away.”

“I didn’t… So, look, assume I’m simple. Morticians run the country, right? That’s what Wonder said.”

“Is it now?” Tread said. “Wonder’s frontiers don’t spread much further than Bulent or Sorres. Do they, Wonder?”

“I’m not as well travelled as yourself, Tread, no. Do the Morticians rule the Concordium? Enlighten us, do.”

“Well… Yes,” Tread agreed, with some irritation. “More or less. Less, elsewhere. They recognise thirteen sectoral governments… Do you really know none of this?”

“Nup.”

“Maybe your parents don’t want you to know…”

“Let’s assume they don’t know either. We’re just a profoundly ignorant people.”

“Fine, fine… Outside Albrecht, they leave actual governing – such as there is any of that, these days – to local rulers. Taoiseach of the Clots, Speaker of the Onweird, Cat Mother of Din, Sultan of Rosasharn, Mara d'Atra of Bove, yadda-yadda-yadda.”

“Yadda,” Mark agreed solemnly.

“Then of course you’ve got the various pundits and chieftans of the valleys, technically part of the Concordium although they wouldn’t much see it that way themselves, the khans up in the northwest…”

“The. Green. Citadels.”

“Yes… Thank you, Linesman, the Green… Never mind them, kid. They’re empty… And then in Albrecht, you’ve got the Association. Leaders or spokespeople of all the major groups, or at least those the Morticians reckon are major. Lady Keturah of the Selkies, what’s-his-face from the porters. The drapers, desalinaters, breeders, carnificators, meat packers, horticulturalists, printers, horologists, licensed scroungers, disinfectors, scrub-wranglers, the fishermen lords. Agent of the buttockers, captain of the bogie men. Then you’ve got the headmistress of Liverpool Hills Girls Grammer School. The Wired, the ape-men, clan Adekunde, the crab people…”

“The crab people, right-o.”

“… Obviously, your Scorpion King. Leaders of some of the main star cults – the Corradinians, Innisvalians, Rosalians, Sons of the White Dick…”

“Sons of… yes.”

“…Louisians, Asdrubalians, Nakatsurans. Throw in the Benign Sisters of the Wagging Finger. Master of the Holy Vats of Puedam T’sujiecalpa. I mean, you’re a football person. You know all these…”

“Can’t not have them Puedams, absolutely.”

“Yeah, I made those up.”

“Right. Aye, I spotted that. Why would there be Holy Vats, ah-ha, I mean…”

“Of course there are Holy Vats,” Tread snapped. She turned around suddenly and brought her empty face close to Mark’s. “I have sensors in the back of my head, kid, so don’t think I didn’t notice your expression when I was listing the star cults. If you were Albrecht FC like you say, there’s no way your little face would be wrinkled up like that. You’ve never heard of any of this, have you?”

“I… Some of it. Am I on trial now suddenly?”

“Tread,” Surrogate said quietly, “It really doesn’t matter what the child knows. We’re delivering him where he wants to go, on Goddess’ instruction. Ours is not to reason why…”

“I’d still like to know who we’re risking our existences for all the same, luv. Don’t want to be sent on some, some…”

“Wild goose chase?”

“Far too far north for geese here, kid. Not that you’d know that either, I suppose…”

They trundled along in silence a little further. “Sooo,” Mark ventured after a while, “quite a complicated power structure, then. Don’t the Morticians mind that?”

Tread’s light flashed on to issue a snort. “They encourage it. Divide and rule… It’s no bad thing, really. Prevents squabbles getting out of hand if no-one’s too powerful, the guilds getting snotty and preventing goods getting around. Don’t trust them any more than the Selkies, but it could be worse.”

Worse enough to shop a cyborg to them?, Mark wondered. Who knew if that would even be a bad thing?

This latest infodump apparently at a merciful end; it was Goddess who broken the silence.

“Do they still have the dud show at Limbo?”

This apparently came rather out of the blue, and even the supplicants required a moment to readjust their hard drives. “No. Probably not, I don’t know. People can’t just move about now like they did when you were small, your holiness.”

“I know that, Tread,” the girl replied with faux sweetness, “you say that an awful lot. It’s why I’m stuck at home all the time. I haven’t even got an Interface.”

“Interfaces are illegal, my child,” Surrogate said mildly. “And I know, I know, that doesn’t stop other people using them, but it doesn’t do for us to attract undue attention.”

Goddess kicked the back of her seat sulkily. “I used to like the duds. They were funny. I want to go to Limbo.”

“Tread, we do need somewhere to stay overnight,” Wonder pointed out. “I know Limbo is a small diversion from our current trajectory, but…”

“I thought we’d agreed we’re keeping well away from the main population centres? We have camping equipment, we’ve plenty of food…”

“Blocks of magic meat, yaaay. I’m not sleeping out in the street with the rats.”

“Goddess, if you can say anything for today’s Candelarian Concordium we aren’t exactly in the midst of a housing crisis. A place to stay will not be a problem.”

“Um, excuse me? Do you remember what happened the last time we picked a random door to sleep behind? That loonbag paffordian spooner with the massive wi–”

“I’ve had my thermal sensors upgraded since then, we won’t stumble upon anyone’s home.”

“Tread, while I take your points on board,” Wonder said, “come night it may be advisable to blend in amongst other fleshforms. And while it’s fine for you and Linesman, myself and Surrogate require a working power outlet.”

“You’re just trying to find a justification for what her holiness wants,” Tread sighed. “If we’re going anywhere, it’s Thrush. It’s closer, it’s bigger.”

I want to go to Limbo!

They went to Limbo.

Satisfied, Goddess leant forward and dug into her sack. With some rummaging and mild cursing, a few objects were brought out and deposited themselves variously on the floor of the buggy and her lap. Mark bent forward and picked up a stricken bobblehead.

“Didn’t see this one on your plinth…”

“I… Used to keep it in my bag. For journeys, for when we used to go places, in case I… got, you know. Scared. I’m not like a believer or anything, not really, but it sometimes…”

Mark squinted at the little figurine. Blood red shirt, or what he thought must have once been one. Golden skin, partially flaked away. Oh. Huh. A tiny plastic bust with a… tiny plastic bust.

“Naoki Tonnelier,” he said.

Goddess nodded. “The First Lady. There aren’t many stars for girls. Apparently other countries had them, but we only really know the ones from here, from before the Concordium.”

She was Ariddian, Mark thought, but close enough. She’d spent her whole adult life here, to most Candelariasians she’d been Our Nake. To Goddess, he said: “I’m surprised you don’t have a Jhanna Young one.”

“Never heard of him,” Goddess shrugged. “He any good?”

Mark dragged himself away from a revelation that somehow seemed quiet as odd as any over the previous twenty-four hours and followed the girl’s gesture towards her lap. There sat a blue object, flecked with gold and red. More bemusement followed. “Connect 4?”

“I used to play with my worshippers until I found out they were losing on purpose. They can’t not lose otherwise. Their brains don’t work like ours do.”

This is why they abduct street urchins for you? To play you at Connect 4?”

“Not just Connect 4. I’ve got Downfall in here somewhere… What else would I want from you? Your sparkling repartee?”

Much to Mark’s private annoyance they soon proved intellectual equals, though Goddess seemed rather impressed. “You’re not bad, for an urchin.”

“I’m pretty well used to thinking in rows of four,” he’d told her, with a grin.

“I expect your jokes make sense in Old,” she’d replied, possibly with kindness. The child was as hard to read as a supplicant, sometimes.

The passage of time in this place was even harder to get a fix on, but enough of it passed that they arrived in what was apparently Limbo just as the lamps that hung from the wall in every street were dimming into what he had to assume was ‘evening’ setting. That certainly wasn’t encouraging the town’s occupants from slinking back behind their doors, however. The place was alive, in a way Mark hadn’t seen since waking up in this ‘Concordium’.

Dozens, maybe hundreds, of people were still out and about. There was plenty of laughter and conversation – too much for the bean, which satisfied itself with the occasional mutter of “General Hubbub” to its owner every thirty seconds or so. He and Goddess were standing to the side of the wide street that led into town, lined with inns and capybara saunas. Their own was stabled in one now, chirruping happily to its similarly oversized colleagues. The supplicants had found a charging station, bar Tread who had been made for long-distance travel and was off on some private mission of her own. Strictly speaking, child and pseudo-child were supposed to be tucked up in bed upstairs in one of the inns, but Goddess had had other ideas.

“Are you going to get into trouble for stealing from your… governess, or whatever she is?” Mark asked her. “And by that I mean, am I going to be your designated whipping boy, given that you’re a living deity and presumably are above a much needed clip round the ear.”

“Oh, stop fretting. It’s hardly stealing, anyway.” She rattled one of the small bags of coins that she’d pilfered from the recharging Surrogate’s handbag. “They’re not really worth anything, it’s just for the look of the thing. They won’t be happy about us being out alone, but like you say… I’m a goddess. I can do what I like. Come on, I want to see if the dud show is still here!”

She grabbed his arm and pulled him towards the nest of alleys that constituted Limbo’s market. A covered one, of course. There didn’t seem to be much alternative in this country. At least here, there was some sense that not everyone had just… given up, in the same way as most other streets. The pipes above were the usual tangled mess, but most looked functional. There were no rivulets, no rats. There really were an awful lot of people however, and Mark had to be more nimble on his feet than he had been for decades in order to avoid being crushed.

Here and there he looked up into decidedly unfamiliar faces. He’d thought he’d spotted blue-skinned individuals before, but up close he could see both blue and red-skinned people with skin like crocodile hide. Purple-skinned people too; with silvery eyes and whose lack of hoods betrayed long, sweeping ears. He’d seen several veiled people before, a far from uncommon sight in his own Albrecht these days, but only now did he notice hands of an unexpectedly masculine form. Closer to his eye line, a woman rolled past on giant golden wheels in lieu of legs. Most faces looked human at least – which was to say, brown, with only the occasional person with dairy-white or much darker tones, though he spotted more than one with eyes that were purely black.

He’d lost sight of Goddess, and opted to step out of the street and down a marginally emptier alley. It was still lined with people picking over stalls, mostly of clothing and accessories. In front of one, two figures were hunched over a pile of handbags; each with a shock of grey hair so vast it gave them almost a spherical appearance. Clawed hands on the end of spindly little black arms were gesturing animatedly.

Corrandonnets… One of them a female, which in Gordon Bay City you almost never saw. The males at least were a far from uncommon sight, but that was GBC. The rest of Candelaria And Marquez had had a couple of years to adjust to the presence of a microstate in their own archipelago bursting with non-human species but, if tourists from elsewhere in C&M were becoming almost too common now, few of said creatures ever left the little country that they had made their home to take in the sights of the rest of the Candelarias. Here were two in Limbo though, wherever that was, haggling over handbags.

He turned into the next alley, into stalls full of bric-a-brac and crockery that at least at first glance would have looked in no way out of place in any Candelariasian market, or, indeed, boot sale. Another of dolls and action figures, with a special section for robots. More than one of the tiny supplicants was moving just slightly, glancing about in an all-too autonomous manner. He passed the inevitable display of rolled-up rugs and carpets – why were there always rugs at these things, who went to a market to buy rugs? – and a selection of rather battered furniture.

One stall here appeared to be doing rather better business than most, with piles of tiny black coins being handed over with every sign of relish. Mark squeezed between two veiled men to squint at the array of goods, but as far as he could see it was simply junk. Empty boxes and packets, cheap ballpoint pens, faded novelty pencil sharpeners, piles of worn foreign coins. One of the men soon left his side clutching a bag of baby forks, the other a lidless bottle of Toilet Duck. Across from them, some perfunctory haggling was being performed over a pile of CDs, both in and out of cases, as one woman mused aloud as to what manner of fish or fowl a Burinator might be.

Mark bent down to replace a Thorgan Hazard: Scourge of the Steppes blister pack he’d brushed off the table with his elbow, and wandered idly towards a stand of battered books. The first shelf was mostly in Spanish; a language most contemporary Candelarian schoolchildren were expected to be near-native in, but the state policy of bilingualism had come in far too recently for the likes of Mark. His eyes alighted instead on a large Care For Your Supplicant hardback that he rapidly mentally filed under ‘interesting’, but it sat beneath mighty tomes on leek growing and the history of the cocker spaniel and classic car repair too weighty for his little arms to shift aside. A row of fiction presented various editions of the complete works of Georgina Guillaumin, which few Candelariasian homes were without, alongside other names he didn’t recognise. Could the people milling around him even read this stuff? It looked like it was all in Old, after all. He let a finger drift over a collection of Francisco Vasquez García poems, Wilco de Puydt’s Badger Water Days, a Julianna Morales pop-up book, cheap paperback Arak Logoths and LG Kidds. There was even a particularly battered Jharn Hamwhynd, and lord knew you wouldn’t find one of them in his C&M.

He picked up a paperback at random and turned a couple of thin, strangely slippery pages. Originally published in Candelaria And Marquez… this edition published 2094… A publisher’s note lay on the opposite page. “Sixty years after Garcia Cottone’s most celebrated work first saw print, it seems only fitting to return once more to this most classic of formats,” he read to himself. “Blahdi-blah… readers may permit themselves to laugh at Cottone’s less astute forecasts and sexual politics from another era, but The Together People remains a work of astonishing prescience to give modern audiences much to consider. The implications of the SynInt an–”

“You buying that, son?”

Mark shook his head hurriedly at the bushy-bearded man holding out a golden hand for coins and replaced the book on the shelf with a final glance at the cover – a familiar scene of Albrecht harbour, with a collection of unidentifiable greenish spheres hanging above the waters of the estrecho innomado.

He was becoming ever so slightly concerned about Goddess’ wellbeing by this point, but the next alley proved a smell for sore noses that put other thoughts out of his mind. It was one of the wider ones, and was still attracting the crowds despite the declining light. Several stalls offered broadly healthy looking fruit and veg – lettuce and radishes, kiwi fruit and tiny apples, peppers in most colours imaginable. It was hardly Felingstone Fruit Market, but it was by the far the most greenery – or indeed anything other than blackery, really – he’d seen since waking up in Goddess’ room. There were containers of less clear contents too; the pictures on the fronts showing further fruits, animals and other shapes he couldn’t make much of. Nearby, an array of fish were being packed away; salmon and trout, skate and… what appeared very much to be ichthyosaur. A remarkably musclebound woman was rifling noisily through battered tins, many of them with labels in unfamiliar scripts or missing them altogether.

He left the street with a face full of a complementary ball of who-knew-what that a woman behind the fish stall had thrust upon him. It tasted much like those Rhodesian crab cakes that had become inexplicably all the rage in the Candelarias in recent years.

He had only just the finished the morsel and was admiring an incongruously large display of rubber ducks, when his growing latent parental concern was placated by a shout from behind.

“Oi!”

“Oh, it’s you. Perhaps you… shouldn’t be running off on your own?”

“Me?” Goddess replied, doubtfully. “You were the one who got himself lost. I’m a beacon, anyway. Nothing bad’s going to happen to me. Not today, anyway. I’d know. Are you a child under eight?”

“I… Don’t think so? Hard to tell, really.”

The girl dipped into a small bag and tossed him a small sphere. “Choking hazard. Suck ‘em, try not to die.”

“Sorry, winding it back a bit… Can you tell the future? That what you’re saying?”

“Not… as such, no. People can just, sort of, read my mood. And like, if I wake up in a grot then I know it’s going to be a bad day.”

“Gosh, what a remarkable talent.”

“You can mock, but gener… Ugh, one of them.”

Why do you apply for divorce? For now, I cling to another! There is nothing to offer, nothing that wasn’t there yet…

A man in a long, sequined gown and wearing a turban was holding forth on a street corner. He rocked from left to right in vague tandem with distant music, waving a head of broccoli on occasion for emphasis.

…why should you persecute? Wonderful, and good! Like breaking the ice wall. Very allergic feeling…

“Performance poetry,” Mark muttered darkly.

Goddess nodded. “Tread says members of the Calabresian star cult should be shot on sight. Does it sound better in Old?”

…but the reality will always be there, even if she’s a heavy and naked lover…

Mark felt a wave of solidarity with the absent supplicant. “No. Look, we really ought to be getting back to the Flightless Bird, if your worshipfu–”

“Oh, phooey,” the girl exclaimed, grabbing his arm once more. “Come on, the night is still young! Let’s go gawp at some druggies.”

…the world flashes, we all whisper. Like petals in the wind, I have to fly in the hot tub…

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Sun May 29, 2022 9:37 am

Five. The Flightless Bird


Red light spilling around them, Mark and Goddess pushed their noses to the glass and stared into the dark little room.

“Why is there a window?” Mark hissed. “Nowhere has windows here…”

“It’s advertising. It’s not like this is illegal or anything, not like the Interface den that used to be here. I expect they shut that down. And the dud show, that’s gone too.”

“The decline of the Candelariasian high street is to be regretted indeed,” Mark agreed. Inside, men and women each lay propped up on something akin to a dentist’s chair. Occasionally one twitched, or indeed experienced a full-blown seizure, and had to be pinned down by the individuals standing around them. Each of those was dressed in the standard-issue cloak, in this case of a rather incongruously bright blue and yellow, though as they moved amongst their clients Mark saw that their faces were obscured by masks featuring tapering metallic beaks and grimaces as permanent as any supplicant’s.

“Kyrkoherds,” Goddess said. “If you didn’t know, which I take it you don’t, seeing as you don’t seem to know anything very much. They’re the only ones allowed to administer most narcotics and nootropics. They usually only do the latter, but Surrogate says where there’s a demand…”

“What happens if anyone else tries to… administer, etcetera?”

“The kyrkoherds break their legs. If they’re lucky. Seems to work as a system. Surrogate says the Morticians are happy enough with it, at any rate.” She yawned expansively. “Yeah, alright. I suppose we should get back. There’s a Picture House down here too, but it’ll be closed to kids at this time of night.”

They began ambling back towards the inn, passing through an alley of potted plants. Most were on a significant scale, giant ferns cohabiting with big-leafed jobs Mark couldn’t hope to recognise. He let his fingers brush though the long leaves of a spider plant. He’d seen nothing like any of this during his brief sojourn in, for want of a less unnerving term, the future. Presumably the insides of people’s homes were more, well, homely than the black and barren streets.

“There doesn’t seem to be many kids about at any time of day,” Mark said as they pushed through the inn’s saloon doors. It had been troubling him slightly for a while now. There had been the odd baby about in papoose or pram, and it wasn’t as though he nor Goddess generated particularly curious looks, but still.

“There’s more on the level above. And the duds have plenty. The Selkies don’t much help them like they do up here. Just off to the ladies’,” she added.

Mark hung about awkwardly. Upon arrival a couple of hours earlier they’d been ushered away from this den of iniquity and off to the rooms in the back (the idea of an ‘upstairs’ thus far appeared to be entirely lost on the people of the Concordium, for whom a change of level represented another world entirely), and he hadn’t had much of a chance to look around. Outside, a skeletal wire mesh that had presumably once been the basis of a more realistic reproduction of a member of the avifauna community and which provided the establishment with its name and mascot, hung above the doors and rattled in the thick, still air as anyone made their way inside. Inside, it looked… like a pub, essentially, with a dartboard and football memorabilia and the prerequisite bicycle wired to the wall. Mark wondered why he hadn’t seen more of them in use. It was surely the obvious way to get around these twisting streets. There was a roaring fire and a jukebox, though the latter didn’t look in operation and the former didn’t look real. A handful of pubgoers were still about, quietly nursing pints amid what the speaking bean defined helpfully as “rhubarb, rhubarb”. Behind the bar, a muscular middle-aged man beckoned him over.

“What’ll it be, young sir? Pint of the house’s finest?” He laughed to himself as Mark grinned weakly, and fished around under the bar. “Hah-Hah-Hah. Strawberry shake it is, then?”

Mark nodded and hesitantly fished in the little bag of Surrogate’s money for some of the small black coins therein. Who knew how much they were worth? The innkeeper waved him away.

“Three rupees if you like lad, but who’s counting? It’s all just for show at the end of the day, ain’t it? Hah-Hah.”

In lieu of the slightest understanding, Mark nodded again. He was finding his attention unavoidably drawn towards two large figures sat in a dark corner. Both, it seemed from the vantage of the barstool on which he was now perched, were covered in thick auburn hair – the head, beard, arms… so much on the arms, hanging down in great sheets.

“She a beacon?”

“Eh?” Mark said, turning back reluctantly. Those had to be a couple of the ape-men the supplicants had mentioned earlier, he thought. He couldn’t quite grasp at why they seemed oddly familiar, but he’d seen plenty of peculiar things in his time and one generic sasquatchadallian creature was pretty much like another if even these two were, apparently, real.

“Your sister? She’s got the, y’know, the eyes. Don’t see many of them around these days.”

“I guess not, no…”

“Damn shame, I reckon. Does she actually, y’know… tell the future and that. Hah-Hah.”

“They don’t really tell me much about it, to be honest,” Mark admitted, trying again for partial honesty.

“Right, right… People say it’s just, y’know… A meme. A thing people brought up from Wigu or somewhere, aborigines like, during the Great Migration. Other people say they’ve been engineered here for generations, so who knows what to make of it? Hah-Hah. Used to tell the weather, that’s what everyone says. Not much call for that, now there ain’t any. Selkies don’t much approve of ‘em, probably why there ain’t many left.” He grinned again. “Hah-Hah. Ain’t getting owt out of you, am I my lad? You from out the valleys or summat? That’s where they still have ‘em, apparently.”

“We’re from Gamboa,” Mark decided, more in the hope of changing the subject that anything else. He continued fishing about in his recent memory for useful new concepts. “We’re here as… pilgrims?”

“Arright. Don’t get too many of them these days, either! Used to be a roaring trade, ‘till the Morticians cut off most of the sectors from each other. In their infinite wisdom, o’course, may the stars alight their way, etcetera. You’re in luck, if you’re off to the Park. There’s players in town, good ones I hear, up from Allemali I think. Came through a couple of days ago. Not that the King likes ‘em much, I don’t think, any of ‘em, but he can be a crusty old bugger. Bless him. You’ll want to watch yourselves on the roads still, though. Riots and all sorts going on out there, so they tell me.”

The stool beside Mark became occupied by Goddess, who in due course was handed her own tumbler and a straw. She glanced behind the innkeeper towards the items hanging in cases on the wall – an Albrecht FC scarf, a couple of replica medals, a fridge magnet, a bobblehead in pride of place.

“You’re a Louisian?” she asked.

“Man and boy, and hopefully man for a good deal longer,” he confirmed, with another laugh.

“How’s eternal life working out for you so far?”

“Stars preserve us but you’re a sharp one, young lady, but you’ll please me to note that I ain’t dead as per yet. I’d say it’s all going to plan. Hah-Hah.”

“And yet, my governess says no Louisian is recorded as making it past their nineties, give or take for the vortex effect.”

“Well now that’s disputed, my little love. But either way, there’s a first time for everything. Wouldn’t you want eternal life, if you could get it?”

“In this place?” Mark wondered aloud, to his mild shame. Clearly the shake was going to his head.

“Too grand for this level are you, young man? Hah-Hah. Life is good, son, cheer up a touch! Food, water, all the boots you can print. That’s the joy of a post-scarcity economy for you. But me, yeah I’d like a little more. I’d like to see the worlds, y’know? Vortex ain’t going t’last forever, so they reckon. And, y’know, maybe one day we’ll get the Interface back.” To this Goddess made an exaggerated shocked face. “I know, I know, they got rid of it for a good reason. But y’know… not so long ago, we used to have trains. People could communicate, just like that,” he continued, snapping his fingers, “and we had an outside, kids, and that’s the long and short of it. Hah-Hah. I want to live to see that again. And I ain’t got the knowing of our cult’s leaders but one day, one day, they may crack the code that gave our boy François eternal life. Oh, I know there’s some who says it’s there already, but… There’s life, and then there’s living, ain’t there?”

It made sense, Mark thought, in a warped kind of way. Everyone knew that people – most people – walked around in the bubble of time they were born in. Kelsekkian footballers weren’t effected by the Time Dilation Device the same way Candelariasians are. Were. Until Beatrice. So François St-Louis, thirty-odd years at Albrecht FC without barely aging a day. Why wouldn’t he be a hero?

“Anyway kids, your folks’ll be mithering at me if we sit here gassing all night.”

“We don’t have folks, we’r–”

“Pilgrims, from Gamboa,” Mark said hurriedly. Goddess gave him a Look. The innkeeper, to no-one’s surprise, laughed.

“Hah-Hah. Saw you two come in with a bunch of supplicants. Don’t worry about it, kids. Can’t give ‘em beds here, of course, that’s treating ‘em too human. Step too far. But you don’t need to tell me there’s more than one kind of family, takes all kinds, all of that.” He leant forward conspiratorially. “Him indoors is a Turkish fanatic. Rotherwellian. Sacrifices the odd pseudogoat, but otherwise what difference does it make? Scandalised m’mother, but she came round in the end. Hah-Hah. Let that be a lesson,” he began, but was interrupted by a looming presence over Mark’s shoulder. One of the ape-men had lumbered its way across to the bar.

“Ot to be long past these ids’ bedtimes, raig,” the creature intoned, “your mouth’ll run away with you one of these days.”

“You settling up, Han?”

“Yeah. Need to et an early night, it’s a lon old way back up north…”

“Shouldn’t think the likes of you need to worry about the roadblocks, surely? Not with them muscles! Hah-Hah-Hah.”

“We’ve all ot to bow to the Morticians when reuired, mate,” the ape sighed, “if you pump us full of bullets, do we not bleed? Hansson of lotaire,” he added, sticking out a hairy palm towards Mark, who didn’t take it. “Have a ood night, ids. Stars be with you.”

“Hey,” the innkeeper hissed, with a little gesture of his fingers to draw Hansson near. “Does he seem alright? Vanders?”

“He’s fine. You know what it’s lie, once they join up. Weight of the world on their shoulders. An’t say I’m not happier for havin him around to bear it, though…”

They watched him depart with a final wave towards his still seated compatriot, and were waved at themselves by an older woman seated at the far end of the bar. Giggling drunkenly, she proceeded to remove her right eye and spin it like a top on the counter. Mark and Goddess hastily dropped to their feet.

“Ah, don’t you worry about Mrs Nancegollon, hah-hah-hah, she shows that off to all the boys,” the innkeeper said as they hurried towards the passage leading to the bedrooms.

It was hours later when Mark was woken by screaming once more. He lingered where he was, snug on a mattress that appeared to be more intelligent than the average spaniel and had soon moulded perfectly to his body. Thanks to his itinerant line of work Mark was quite the bedding connoisseur, having roomed in foreign hotels that offered everything from the finest imported Squornshelan mattresses to the grey-and-yellow, festering, clanking monstrosities preferred in countries generally named after their first President. This one, he had to concede, was quite the cut above, but he knew it was Goddess’ voice and that Surrogate and the others were presumably still recharging several doors down from the Flightless Bird. He crept in the dark towards the adjoining door between their rooms that they’d agreed to leave unlocked and fumbled for the handle.

Sliding it slightly ajar, he saw the merest light illuminating three figures. One the girl, one a woman in flowing white seated at her bedside, and a purple-black figure a little smaller than Goddess kneeling on her chest.

He could have interrupted. Maybe should have. But this wasn’t his world, these weren’t his Candelarias or Candelariasians, and she wasn’t his sister or granddaughter or anything else. He drew back the door as quietly as he could, until only the darkness remained.

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Mon May 30, 2022 8:35 am

Six. The Next Level


They assembled at first lampglow at the edge of town, amongst seemingly long-shuttered shops. Besides regular yawns, Goddess seemed none the worse for neither her unsanctioned evening sojourn in Limbo nor night-time visitations. As Linesman joined the four of them with capybara in tow, only Tread remained unaccounted for and this was soon remedied as she appeared round a corner.

“Right. We may have problems here,” she told them. “Roadblocks. Morticians all over the show.”

“Do you think they’re… looking for something?” Wonder said in what he presumably believed was his best innocent, ixnay-on-the-orryingway-the-ildrenchay, tone.

“Hard to tell. You know their official policy is to avoid upsetting the public by actually telling them anything. And under the Permanent Emergency Code they can do whatever the fuck they like. The network says people are still getting through after checks and that they’re checking supplicants, which on both accounts suggests it’s not disease they’re worried about. But there’s been an upswing in attacks since all this goblin crap started up again, Rosasharn got hit by a barbarian raid last week. Who knows what they’re actually so worried about?”

“Ooh, barbarians!” Goddess said, excitedly. “Surrogate says they slit your tummy open and put cats inside!”

“I’ve said no such thing, children…”

Wonder emitted his strange, mechanical sigh. “You know the terrain far better than I, Tread. What do you recommend? Our existences are in your hands.”

Tread turned her head momentarily towards Mark. She presumably had no practical reason to, given the particulars of her sensory apparatus. It seemed a very people thing to do, he thought. She was weighing up her options one last time. “If we’re actually doing this… Look, the treads say there’s a solid trickle of pilgrims out there so under normal circumstances I’d say we were fine, but if we’re that paranoid about getting caught in possession of… contraband, then I reckon we don’t have much choice but to go up, out, and down. Head stretchways wherever possible. Shouldn’t take more than a few hours, but you know the risks of wandering about…”

“When you say ‘out’,” Goddess said with some excitement, “are you saying we’re taking a crab? Because you haven’t taken me on a crab for literally ever! Have you gone on a crab, Offering? It’s so cool.”

Mark shrugged noncommittally and looked to Wonder, who in turn was looking back and forth between himself, the girl, Surrogate and Tread. Inasmuch as he could tell Wonder seemed far from happy with the situation, but her holiness’ mind had been made up and her word was law.

It wasn’t long before they settled into a familiar trot, serenaded for a street length by an alligator busker with a banjo.

I mean, Mark thought, that is… that is, objectively, an anthropomorphic alligator with a banjo, with a cloak laid out in front of him to catch coins, treating us to a rendition of Wand’rin’ Star. Nobody else apparently considered this worthy of a mention, and after a certain amount of internal turmoil he elected to let it pass without comment.

Whatever Wonder kept in his skull was also clearly experiencing some inner tumult. “Are you absolutely certain that you can trust what the other treads sa–”

“Yes. It’s you they think is weird. They just think I’m a sap for… doing whatever the relegation it is I’m doing. Either way, there’s a code. Tread units tell the unvarnished truth to other tread units, whatever their other agendas.”

“Good, good…”

Their progression through the endless corridors was one again becoming circuitous. Here and there they moved through busy streets as workers made their way towards stairwells leading down towards the sounds of clanging, pumping and various other assorted onomatopoeia. At one stage the spitting image of Tread passed them, flashing its light towards her and receiving one in response. A little later, the group had to swerve to avoid a man, clearly blind and quite possibly deaf to boot, clumsily feeling his way down the street via the wall. Otherwise few paid them any heed, barring the occasional collection of gently rocking men and women standing largely unnoticed by their countryfolk against street walls, and who stared at them with eyes agog. It was Goddess who picked up on Mark’s interest.

“Don’t worry about them, they’re just Wired.”

“They’ve had too much coffee...?”

“What? No, look at their eyes.”

“It’s pretty hard not to, they’re bulging out of their sockets.”

“Alright, don’t look at the eyes, look around the eyes. You see the wires? That’s to keep them open all the time. The Wired don’t sleep. Ever. So they say, anyway.”

“I would have thought that would send them mad.”

“Oh, bonkers in the nut,” Goddess agreed cheerfully, after a brief pause in which the speaking bean attempted to provide Mark with an appropriate translation. Surrogate tutted at her.

“We don’t use language like that, do we child? Clark, the Wired simply believe in constant vigilance. Or… well, they used to. Right now there’s suddenly a lot more of them, by all accounts, and most of their number are just terrified of going to sleep. Because of the… well…”

“Svartálfar.”

“Yes, indeed. They seem to spend an awful lot of their time just standing around street corners although, to be fair… Why not, really?”

“They don’t need to work?” Mark hazarded.

“Well, no-one does,” Surrogate told him. “I’m not sure how much your family has told you about…?”

“Assume nothing, always,” he replied, a touch more spikily than he’d intended.

“The Concordium is what you might call a – what is it, Goddess?”

“A post-scarcity economy,” Goddess intoned, rolling her eyes.

“Excellent. Yes, the factories produce plenty of food and water for all the humans on the Inside, at least, the printers can handle most other material goods one might desire. Everything else is just people trying to… well, fill their time, really. It’s different in some of the other sectors, especially in poor Kez, although most of them have plenty of scrubs, but here rupees are really just a way of keeping score, so people say. Some go to great lengths to gain them, there’s really no need for people to risk going scrounging in the Outside, never mind getting up close to the Edge for vortex flotsam or bird eggs and the like. People die doing it, all the time, but it’s all about the glory, I’m sorry to say. It’s no different for us, really. We were built to work, one way or another, to do human jobs, but they don’t even have a need for us, anymore. Supplicants are some of the most idle of all the Concordium’s denizens, I’m afraid. Is it so very different, as a football person?”

“No, not really,” Mark said. He knew she and he must be thinking of very different things, but in a roundabout way he was very familiar with what she described. As a manager, never mind a top player, it hadn’t taken long before you’d earned enough to never need work again, certainly by the time of the International Era. Everything you did after that was… keeping score.

It all made a certain sense. No-one here looked starving, and few particularly dishevelled. But they just looked like a people who were… going through the motions, really. Or who had simply given up. Maybe it was different in the other ‘sectors’ or ‘levels’ or whatever, or different parts of the labyrinth generally. But here, he saw a people without purpose. If life was a game, then what this game needed was a goal, and it didn’t seem very much like they collectively had one. He glanced sideways at Goddess. Maybe that explained her, he thought. The supplicants were built to work. She provided a reason to do so.

While the supplicants were back in an explanatory mood, he decided to address another issue that had been tickling at the back of his neck, such as he had one as distinct from his head, since last evening. “What d’you know about… apes? Ape-men. Big hairy sods? Taw’ lie this? What’s their game?”

“Oh, I know about them,” Goddess said, eager to impart some of the Concordium’s enviably deep lore herself. “They’re du–, uh, ronions, really. Or the first one was, anyway. Marvellous Ifewa, this Djocorangan guy, I think? During the Gene Mania they pumped out all sorts, and he came out all hairy and muscles. But he thrived, and had loads of sons, and the sons had sons, and… Well, there we are, really. Considering they’re not football people or anything, there’s loads of them now, all over the Concordium. Oh, and they take the name of the sector or wherever they’re born, because otherwise they’d all be So-And-So Ifewa and that would get confusing.”

“They don’t have ape-women?”

“The girls are just baselines, mostly. It’s a chromosome thing. Sometimes they do have ape-women though, and they become like queens. Pretty much worshipped,” she added, scoffing slightly as if there were any other obvious tangible target for veneration than herself. “There haven’t been any for ages though, Surrogate says.”

“Some people will worship anything,” Mark said cheerily, to a sharp glare from Wonder. “And they can’t pronounce their Gs or Ks, right? Or is that just the beans? ‘Cos that’s going to be pretty rough for someone from the Andelarian Onordium.”

Goddess giggled. “It’s both. It’s a thing about their throats, Surrogate says. It takes a lot of elo-ootion lessons to get over it. But also, yeah, the beans are just assholes.”

This last comment arrived in Mark’s ears in a peevish tone after several seconds’ delay, following another disapproving tut from Surrogate.

At length the group turned into a stairwell, which was a neat trick. Coaxing the capybara up the steps whilst avoiding crushing anyone trying to get past on either side proved less arduous than Mark might have expected, though it was still accompanied by some anxiety on Wonder’s part.

“Are you sure we can’t go down instead? It would be easier on the poor creature.”

“It would be easier to dump her here and make a runner for it,” Tread replied, “but you gave me the whole spiel about dear ickle tired human legs and here we are. As for ‘down’, do you really want us to plough through the working levels?”

“We’d have more cover. Crowds to get lost in, fewer bandits.”

“All true,” she conceded, “but far more officialdom per square metre than uplevel. And we wouldn’t get five minutes trying to make it through the deads or the duds. We should head for a transit level, or thereabouts.”

This appeared to surprise the other supplicants. “Are. They. Even. Accessible. Anymore?”

“Wouldn’t suggest it if at least one wasn’t. Now hush up and let me concent… Damnit. Shush.”

Tread held up a hand and Wonder brought the capybara to a stop. They had climbed two flights and were standing in an alley outside an unusually ornate wall, or at least one that possibly had started out life as such many decades previously. Mark wriggled about trying to see what was of such interest, before a man strode out of a room at the far end of the corridor and stood with his back to them. The long black cloak Mark recognised from the Mortician who took down the grotesque dud the previous evening billowed impressively behind him in the vent-born breeze.

“Let’s just clarify this, four or three? Three and a tread model moving ahead? Right. And a baseline girl in beacon get-up? Okay. Weird. Shouldn’t exactly be hard to find. How many undertakers have we got out…? Stars alive, maybe they will be hard to find, then… Well sure, but if Morrison’s so clear this kid needs to be found then he can spare us a few more… Alright, fine. They’re not going to make it far unimpeded if they’re trying to make it through the ronion levels. Meet you on Launzer Sub-Five? Right.”

And with that, the Mortician was gone. Really gone, leaving a rapidly dispersing yellow mist at the end of the corridor behind him.

Technically, there was no reason for supplicants to hold their breath, on account of not having any. They let it out all at once all the same.

“Well,” Tread said, breaking the silence. “We just got extremely bloody lucky there.”

“They think we’re on the ronion levels, though?” Surrogate said. “That’s good, right?”

“Those untrustworthy old tread units come through once again,” the voice of the featureless supplicant grinned. “Dud information, bdum-tish. So much for the code, that’s me shunned for a century. It’ll buy us some time, but not a lot else. Come on, we’re only half a dozen streets away from a potential bit more luck. Unless we get spotted on the way there, in which case we’re unscrewed.”

They followed her, as quickly as they could without arousing the curiosity of the few passers-by. “This level’s mostly active in the evening, children,” Surrogate whispered to the humans, “theatres, concert halls, that sort of thing. We probably won’t encounter anyone, and I’m sure our presence won’t engender any confusion…”

I’m not,” Tread muttered. “If we had any sense we’d dump the pinny here and dust our motherboards of it. You two are going to get us disassembled. Fuck know this could be the final excuse they need to pull every supplicant left in the Concordium apart.”

“It won’t come to that.”

“You think? You know what they did to the amazons and they were just a strain. Never mind every remaining gegnome,” she added, the bean helpfully pronouncing the silent G. “If they can do that to fleshies…”

“There were extenuating circumstances in both cases, Tread.”

“Yeah, there always are until it’s your own people or cult or whatever in the firing line. Now shut up again, I need to concentrate here.” Slowly, she moved down the destitute corridor stopping for just a beat outside each door before coming to rest. “We alone?”

“I believe so.”

“Good.” Tread turned and her stubby digits rattled rapidly over the number pad outside the door. Mark had noticed a few of them on his travels, though most homes – even if they were occupied – appeared disinclined to bother with them. There was a satisfying click, and Tread slid the door aside.

“Are all these doors supposed to be automatic?” Mark asked. It probably wasn’t great timing, but it had been bugging him.

“Yup. Haven’t swooshed since the vortex. Need to conserve power, apparently. No doubt the doors on whatever the relegated level you were spliced together on are different, somehow,” Tread added with her now traditional sarcasm. “Shut it behind us, one of you.”

As Wonder did so, Mark surveyed the room. It wasn’t large, and dingy despite the lamplight. One feature dominated about all else, the remnants of a fat glass case. Some form of plant life appeared to have smashed its way out, or otherwise taken advantage of external forces to leave its moorings in search of new nourishment, but that had evidently been quite some time ago – only skeletal residue stuck to the far wall, and a slight discolouring of the peeling paint, attested to the prior existence of greenery.

It rapidly transpired that while his attention was drawn to the former terrarium, Goddess and the supplicants were greeting another corner of the room with an awe that the Candelariasians Mark knew would have reserved only for World Cup winners. Once, anyway. It was a staircase.

“Unlicensed stairs? We’re really in deep now, aren’t we?” Surrogate whispered.

“And whose fault is that? Anyway, the treads insist the Morticians haven’t caught this one. Selkies don’t know about it either. Only us. It’ll take us up to the train level. But I don’t know what we’re going to find up there, kids. You ready?”

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Posts: 207
Founded: Feb 22, 2007
Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Tue May 31, 2022 8:18 am

Seven. The Crab


Perhaps disappointingly, for the sake of Drama, what Mark and the supplicants found after pushing the struggling capybara up one final flight of stairs was… very little indeed.

There were, however, the promised train tracks. They were illuminated, barely, by lamps spaced out further apart than along the corridors of the lower levels, and even then at least one in every three or four didn’t flicker on at all as they moved towards it. Moths careered excitedly into each of those that did. The tracks themselves were barely visible amongst congealed former liquids of mercifully uncertain provenance, mushrooms, clumps of mind-your-own-business and liverwort, pieces of ceiling material and rust.

“You’re safe to walk along these without going all fizz?” asked Goddess, concerned.

“They’ll be fine, child,” Surrogate replied from the seat opposite her. “The lines haven’t been electrified for years.”

It was warmer still up here, and Mark and Goddess both instinctively removed their cloaks. The droplets falling occasionally onto their heads were a mercy too, whatever they consisted off. They weren’t as alone as he hadn’t first assumed, either. Shapes amassed in the unusually high ceilings, the leathery ripping of – possibly, hopefully – bat wings accompanying occasional squawks.

“This is unpleasant,” Surrogate muttered.

“Yeah,” Tread agreed, “but at least you have ears. This is royally unscrewing my echo location. Keep an eye out for a turning to our left, those who have amy.”

Rodents, even great big massive fuck-off ones, don’t pant. Famous for it. None the less, it was obvious the capybara was struggling. Mark experienced a rare moment of solidarity for the animal, and suggested they get out the buggy and walk for a while.

“Oh, turns out human children can walk after all,” Tread said, “you’ve been lying to me, Wonder. Go for your life, Master Laker. Try not to tread in anything.”

This, it turned out, was part of the appeal of capybaras. They ate their own faeces, and those of their colleagues. Where capybaras did not pass, shit still happened, and stayed happened. Thick, black bluebottles droned around his feet. He couldn’t smell much, but then his olfactory receivers had essentially gone on strike the previous day. The crunch of roaches and large woodlice underfoot provided an aural palate cleanser to more frequent squelching.

As they drifted towards the left-hand side of the tunnel in search of Tread’s desired turning, Mark glanced at patches of illuminated wall. Speckled mould, crap, unidentified slime, more skeletons of vines, it was quite the patchwork. No-one had bothered with this place for quite some time, that was very clear. It also made it apparent that, against immediate evidence, people did exhibit a degree of thought towards cleanliness down below. Someone must have cleaned the walls down there from time to time. Here they passed an alcove, the material of which was apparently less conducive to microbial colonisation, and graffiti could just about still be made out. We Must Descend. Numerals aside, it was pretty much the first writing he had been able to decipher since falling asleep in his own bed two nights before.

Had it been his own bed? Certain doubts were forming in his mind, but he pushed them aside for future consideration as they finally reached a turning Tread found acceptable and they left the main tunnel. The alley was barely passable, and Surrogate ushered Mark and Goddess back into the buggy as capybara and supplicants began wading through an unpleasant mulch. Ahead of them, Tread brushed aside great cobweb bushes.

“I’ll concede maybe this wasn’t the best choice of exit,” Tread muttered. “But at least we’re not going to get spotted here. The odd spooner might be up here at worst. What happens when we get towards the Park though, that’s anyone’s guess.”

It was slow going, crunching as they did over mummified rats and through thickets of bramble and periwinkle, and past more than one rusted bicycle. Whether they were contemporary with the trains, or part of a later effort to make some use out of this level before it was apparently finally abandoned, Mark couldn’t guess nor be arsed to ask. After passing across several further train tunnels and connecting alleys however they began to reach paths that appeared to have been used rather more frequently and recently. Just as notable was the noise, a growing rushing sound that Mark couldn’t identify but which was developing alongside a definite breeze. Presumably they were moving back towards an area equipped with functioning air vents.

“Are we nearly there yet?” Goddess asked and, in a blatant infringement of standard protocol, it appeared they actually were. Wherever ‘there’ was, Wonder was pointing down the alley towards it – a window with glass so thick it was impossible to make what lay beyond. A large green button squatted on the wall to one side. Tread pressed it, and the window glowed green.

“Well, that’s something at least.”

“What happens now?” Mark asked after thirty awkward seconds.

“We wait,” Tread said tersely. Several hundred more passed in much the same vein before a shape blocked out what little light made its way through the glass. A further minute went by, filled by uncomfortable sucking and crunching noises before the window shook for a moment and then slid aside.

Beyond the former window there was now, or possibly always had been, a space about the size of a minivan, with walls so curved the room appeared more-or-less spherical. So did its only occupant, a middle-aged woman who regarded the group with interest.

“Stars alive, you’re not thinking of hauling that on here, are you?”

“Hm?” Wonder said, momentarily nonplussed, before following her gaze towards their rodent companion. “Oh. No, I suppose not. I’d not given it a lot of thought.”

“You can’t get a capybara on a crab, my love. There’s a music hall song about it, let me see how it goes…”

“Please don’t, there are children present,” Surrogate said tightly. She stepped out of the buggy and indicated to the other occupants to follow. “I’m sure she’ll find her own way back to a sauna station,” she added, brightly. Mark wasn’t overly convinced, but it seemed to satisfy Goddess who, as the animal’s bags were removed and hauled onto Linesman’s square shoulders, gave her a final friendly pat.

“Is there even enough room for it to turn arou–”

“Yes,” Surrogate insisted brightly. “Hop into the crab, children.”

It proved a distinctly snug fit for the seven of them and some rearranging was required before the glass could reappear and the sad reflection of the capybara became a brown smear on the other side. Moments later the sucking and crunching returned and they began to move.

“Where to, my lovely?” the woman asked Wonder. The question needed to be almost shouted over the constant rushing sound from outside the dome. It was Tread who answered for him.

“The Park. A couple of levels down, but nothing so close that we… Well, just need to…”

“Say no more, young fella-me-lass. You goes where you need to goes, I ask no questions more. Ours ain’t to reason why, you know the code of the crab people.”

“Ohhh… Crab-people,” Mark found himself saying out loud. “I’d been thinking, y’know… crab people.” He put fingers to thumb on both hands and performed the universal sign for a sapient crustacean.

“Don’t be silly,” Goddess said, “crabs aren’t people. You’ve probably never been on one, have you? Such a sad life, locked in your storepod…”

There were windows all around them, but getting a good look out was something of a challenge. Their seats within the sphere were constantly adjusting to keep them upright, making it hard to find a fixed view for any length of time. What vistas he could see were smeared by the lashing of rain but, with some practise, Mark was able to follow the passage of a large silver claw as it slowly clamped down upon… something, held on as the sphere swung to the right, then released its grip. He adjusted himself again. A brief let-up in the rain revealed the ‘something’ as a thick ledge jutting out from beneath a glass window much like the one behind which they’d stood waiting for their ride. And there were more. Many more. Many, many…

Mark looked up and down, side to side, and in every direction there they were. Ledges, windows, on occasion just spaces where either should be. There appeared to be only four or five more floors above them, but below there were another… twenty, maybe thirty, all the way down to the raging dark sea. That in itself made it, as Candelariasian buildings went, a pretty mighty block of flats, though by the standards of some countries he’d visited it was practically a squat little cottage. This was, after all, a world in which the Aeropag Tower could host 90% of a Summer Olympics alone. It might not even have been as tall as the TV1 Tower, for decades Albrecht’s highest point.

But it just went on. The block appeared without end. Albrecht was built around its eponymous cove, its shape was unmistakable, and here it traced the coastline in one endless black edifice. To the north it seemed to curl in on itself towards Bove and couldn’t be seen, but to the south the black smear picked up again towards the general location of the town of Dyce. How much of the country could be covered with this structure? Just Albrecht and its environs? Just the coast? He squirmed again, trying to get a good look behind him, but even on a clear day in his own Albrecht you had to be in the right place to be able to see the lights of Arrigo over the promontory of Blackwell Island. Through the driving wind and rain he thought he could just make out the shape of the darkness across the estrecho and, though less uniform than the buildings – or building, singular? – on this side, it was by now all too familiar. To the south-east, Laborde and Knee were flat islands home to few. The northern Brantan coast of the supercontinent of Rushmore lay beyond that, but all Mark could see was a swirling grey expanse.

“We picked nice weather for it,” he commented weakly. The crab person, hard at work pulling and pushing the levers that dragged the metal monster’s claws to new hand-holds, laughed.

“You’re a card, young man! Or is this your first time in the Outside?”

“That’s what he says,” Goddess confirmed. “He’s not ours. He got lost. We’re taking him back to his people.”

“Very community spirited of you, my love. You’re good people, supples. Always said it. Nah, young man, this is pretty much a good day, vision-wise. Bit dark, mind you, but we’ve got our lamps on. Winds’re so bad these last couple of weeks it’s actually clearing the rain from time to time, though. If you squint you can prob’ly even make out some of the citadels.”

“The citadels?”

Surrogate repositioned herself and pointed further to the south-east, where from certain parts of Mark’s Albrecht you could just make out the eastern quarters of Zapata on Green Island. “Do you see? In between the rain… They’re glass structures, at least as high as ours. No-one’s lived there for generations though, there’s not even anything left for scroungers. Pretty things, by comparison to the Inside.”

He could see a couple, now. Not a contiguous monstrosity like here, but wispy trophies of buildings. Taller than any he’d known in the Candelarias by a very long way, and probably thicker too before this week. “Why wouldn’t anyone still live…?” he began.

“Got everything we need ‘ere, haven’t us?” the crab woman beamed. “Those things’ll collapse before too long, people’ve said that for years, constant buffering like this.”

“And the storm? It’s been here for ‘weeks’?”

“Oh that ain’t no storm, my love! That’s the Vortex itself!”

“Oh…”

“There for as long as anyone here’s been alive… well, more or less anyone. Probably long after we’ve all snuffed it too, present company possibly excepted. Nothing in, nothing out. Nothing alive, anyway… Oof.” She made a show of shivering, though beyond the confines of the big black erection from which they had emerged it was indeed rather chillier by half. “Doesn’t do to dwell on it, I reckon. Can’t say I does, much. See it every day, but… Well, it’s like your, your, legs, ain’t it? How often do you really think about your legs?”

Mark, who had spent much of his early life thinking about his legs and had been acutely aware of them in recent years too, declined to comment. He turned back to the vast wall that was all he could see of Albrecht. Here and there he could make out other crabs, their spherical bodies and four great clawed legs clinging to the side of the dark structure, most dormant but others moving sideways across it. It was obvious from where they got their name, though their movement was if anything more like that of a monkey, swinging from branch to branch. Many of the battered ledges on which they grabbed showed signs of having been used for this purpose for a long time, and quite a few had evidently snapped off altogether.

Here and there, there were flashes of colour. Not just the green lights, presumably guiding crabs towards waiting commuters just like they had, but billboards. There were fractions of faces, faded and torn, and abstract symbols that meant nothing to him, along with a surprising amount of Hanja characters. But in amongst them… Beef Shack. He knew that logo. And Tucker’s, the ubiquitous supermarket chain. Now he was spotting them they were coming thick and fast, and he supposed they must have stumbled on a shopping district… or what had once been one. HarryHall, the bookies. If anyone was going to survive a national cataclysm it’d be them, damn them… Kitchen Universe. Russell House Hot Tubs, he’d had one of them in more moneyed days. Tae-Mart… Santé!, the veggie fast-food place the hipsters of New Cockyard and Hill Side frequented. About two thirds of a pretty girl was glugging down a can of Guaraná Muqirana. And Meccioccolato, the nobby Nord-Brutlandese chocolatiers Elizabeth had loved before… everything.

And the big blue bent ellipse of Samseong. And M&S… Mehmet & Sarigiannidis. Finest All-Candelarian Kebabs. This was Albrecht FC country and no mistake. Or had been, maybe. Once.

“God, I could murder a kebab,” he muttered.

“There’s plenty of meatstuffs in the sack if you’re hungry,” Surrogate said. Mark, who had been harbouring increasing doubts about the ‘meat’ to ‘stuff’ ratio within the pink slabs on which they largely subsisted, demurred.

“Not going to have much luck looking for a kebab out here, my love!” the crab woman laughed. “Much have been quite the sight though, once upon a time. The little bees, buzzing all across the stretch, stopping at windows. I know they didn’t have the vortex then, but I still wonder how they didn’t smash into each other all the time. But they didn’t! Or so they says. Remarkable times, seems to I. ‘Least we got the crabs out of them, though.”

An image from the previous day flashed in Mark’s mind; that of one of the book covers he’d seen in Limbo market. Albrecht’s harbour, buzzing with large spheres not unlike a declawed crab. He’d dismissed it as science-fiction, but maybe that was just a standard scene decades from no… from then. His then.

“They could fly? The spheres, you could fly them across the estrecho?”

“Oh yes, and people did. If only they still could, but the vortex would down you in a moment. I’d love to see Kez, myself. Never have. Driven m’crab up to Bettney once or twice, but it’s not my manor beyond that. They say it’s a mess…”

“It is,” Tread intoned.

“Well, even so.”

“You can’t take the AA Integral, ma’am?” Mark asked, trying a modicum of unaccustomed politeness.

“Where’s that to, my love? And call me Diz, please, or Dittany if you must. I ain’t no madam.”

“An underwater railway that once linked Albrecht with Arrigo,” Tread said. “So I’ve been told. Fell apart decades ago, as far as I know. Remarkable that you’d even have heard of it,” she added towards Mark, a bite in her tone.

Dittany glanced over her shoulder at Mark. “He’s a rum one, ain’t he, your boy there?”

“He really is,” Goddess agreed with feeling, via a mouthful of mystery meat. “I’m so looking forward to meeting his family, if they’re as weird as he is!”

Surrogate duly admonished her in the pointless little way of a nanny to a divine being, but Mark hardly noticed. He wondered what counted as ‘weird’. His family were dead, after all. Parents, aunts and uncles, they’d all passed on years ago. Debbie… well, who really knew? Nick and Rob, though, and the grandchildren. He knew them as living breathing people even if he barely knew them these days at all, but… They’d be dead, wouldn’t they? Whenever and whatever he’d somehow woken into, they’d be long gone. Did the dead count as weird? There were more of them than there were of the living, after all.

Or maybe there weren’t. The corridors that went on forever, the one endless building that stretched as far as the eye could see. How many people could live there? How many did? How many had?

Did it really matter, if his people were gone? Every player he’d coached. Well, maybe not everyone in Gordon Bay, some of them were probably immortal, but was that city even a thing anymore? Every nurse who kept him just about ticking. President Van Dijk, well, no great loss there. No Mr Mehmet or Mr Sarigiannidis, that was for sure. No Greasy Dongwon, and his all-you-can-eat noodles in New Cockyard. No…

No-one. No-one he knew.

The crab swung on, for how long Mark didn’t know or much care. But eventually, they came to a halt.

“This’ll be you, I reckon.”

“Yes, I’d say so,” Tread said. “Wonder, pay the lady would you?”

The supplicant reached into the sack sat between himself and Goddess and poured out the contents of a smaller bag into Dittany’s outstretched hand.

“Oh, that’ll be more than enough, my love! Hardly needed anyway, these days, is it?”

“Please, for such a smooth journey,” Wonder said. “You have given us a most excellent ride.”

“My!” the woman replied, buffing her hair and reddening slightly. “Aren’t you just the best angel, love?”

Mark had never seen anyone attempt to flirt with a robot before, and was happy the experience wouldn’t last beyond the next few minutes.

“Cheers drive,” he found himself muttering by instinct as he made to leave.

“Not at all, little sir. I hopes you finds your family all right. Mind your backs in there, won’t you? I’m well out of it, out here, but other passengers are telling me of riots, roadblocks, dire warnings from the nightmare goblins, all sorts. It’s odd vibes out here too, I’ll tell you that. Strange days, these ones, my loves…”

It didn’t take long for them to leave their carriage and be deposited back behind another window amongst who-knew-how-many thousands. The alley was more kempt than many, but still opened out into a corridor that evidently hadn’t seen human life for quite some time. There were no longer train lines – Dittany had dropped them down a couple of levels – but a familiar smell hit Mark anew, of the shit of ages past and mummified rats.

As the supplicants fussed with bags, he watched as an even more familiar sight flew silently down the street, lamps here and there popping up and soon dying again as it did so. A chonchon, a floating head. Mark smiled weakly. Between that and the corrandonnets from yesterday, a little of his Gordon Bay City was still alive here in this Albrecht.

“How deep is this place?” Mark asked. “Not down, I mean… out. How far does it stretch into Candelaria? And, and… how much coast? And no, before you ask, no no-one’s ever told me. Never been told anything. Storepod, innit.”

“Apart from about the AA Integral, for some reason,” Tread said flatly. She pushed past him and began tramping along the corridor. “How far does it stretch? From Allemali, up the coast, curls round Rosasharn, Caras, Clotaire, then across to Kez. It’s thin there, ‘till you get to Din. Then down to Arrigo, what’s left of it, and then out to Onwere. Never been that far myself. Few have. How deep? Out as far as Sorres, Liverpool… Bits of them, anyway. Depends what you’re asking, really. Depends when.”

“Assume I’m asking… I don’t know. In relation to the geography of the early twenty-first century.”

“Right. Well… I don’t know. There’s a lot of guesswork… kid. After the datapurge, we all just have pieces to put together, and they don’t all fit. There used to be millions of people in the Outside, in the west of Candelaria, out on the islands. Never mind the rest of the Concordium, of course, on Branta and beyond. Wigu and all that, Bkyki Island. Vortex cut us off from all of that. This is the Concordium now. The Inside. There’s a few people eking out an existence in the valleys and elsewhere, Margaret knows why. People go out there to scrounge, pick around in the ruins, escape from this or that, and there’s stuff that comes through the vortex too, but there’s nothing much else out there. Humans need masks, special clothes, if they don’t want to die young. It’s no fun out there even for supplicants, let me tell you…”

“So, all this was built… because of this vortex?”

“Oh no,” Surrogate interjected. “The Inside was here already. They built over the old cities. They had printers, like the ones we use now but much bigger. More and more people came, so they built more and more storeys. Apparently the government of the day wasn’t too keen, but the jabes had welcomed them here, the more human resources the merrier, and they needed to live somewhere. It was only supposed to be temporary. So it’s said, anyway, it’s all really just legend at this point. But millions came…”

Millions? To C&M?”

“C&M, hm… It was the Concordium by then, but yes. There was war, famine, pollution. Much of the continent was becoming uninhabitable as temperatures rose. So people left, some to Sargossa, the polar regions, other places… but mostly here. They didn’t think they’d stay, they thought they’d be sent to the off-world colonies, but the programme faltered, and… Well, it’s hard to know. Some did leave, that way or otherwise, but most… Stayed. Put down roots. And then… The vortex.”

“I think that’s going to be my next question…”

“I rather feared it might. No-one understands the vortex though, Clark. Not the science of it…”

“Wonder did,” Tread said. “Wonder understood everything. Didn’t you, Wonder?”

“That will do, Tread…”

Wonder brushed aside Surrogate’s protestations. “I understood, yes. I understood many things. All things, very nearly. It was my blessing, my curse. And my curse now, since the datapurge, is that I no longer do. I know little more than anyone else. But I will tell you what I do know… The vortex is a bubble, young master Clark. A tempestuous bubble, from which there is no escape. At least, as far as we know. People do escape. They flee through it. And they are never heard from again. We can only assume they end up in much the same shape as those who occasionally come through to our side, which is no shape to be in at all I must tell you. When did it begin? I couldn’t tell you that either, not exactly. The vortex affects time as well as space. Some of the things that come through, the remains of people and fish, battered crates of goods, are from centuries ago. Millennia, sometimes. Maybe more.”

“Anything from the future?”

“What a curious question… No. Not that we’re told, at least. Maybe that’s not possible. Maybe there is no future. Maybe there’s no present, either. We assume that out there the Sargossan and Palmouthian and Euran empires still fight on for every scrap of blasted heath, for every moonlet that Falconfar and Cosumar and the Vakali haven’t claimed already. Maybe there’s a government-in-exile in Ssotapel or Peregrinus City still working on a way to reunited the Concordium. Or maybe that which survives inside the vortex is all that there is. That’s not what people believed to begin with, though. When the vortex began, in Gordon, it was slow, you see. It took days to even cover that sector, by which time many of its residents had been evacuated. As it sped up, thousands and thousands were moved, eventually out of the archipelago altogether. The politicians, the chairpeople, the best minds of the Concordium, they were sent to the continent to try to find a way of ending the crisis and destroying the vortex, or at least stop its advance. But as it expanded, so its advance sped up. They could never have evacuated everyone. Even then, they had little idea how many people lived on the Inside. Outside, those towns were depleted considerably as people fled. Some tried to swim, but… Well.”

“What happened when people were… sucked up, though? As the vortex grew, if going through is so dangerous?”

“It was thought by those on the outside that they died, I assume. But they didn’t, of course. Only those left inside knew that, though. But for whatever reason, that only applied when the vortex hit you. Those who tried to outrun it, to flee through it… Well, those who remained would find evidence of what happened to them, and it sent a salutary message. Others took their own lives in sheer dread of what might be coming, in some cases on mass. It was a time of seers, you see, seers and beacons. Even before the vortex, the people of the Concordium were embracing old faiths, new insight. False prophets led their poor followers into destruction. Coílín Ó Briain, we all know that name, marched hundreds of his admirers away from Clotaire and into Lake Wessex. Drowned to a man, I suppose. Those of Malcolm the Magnificent all… Well,” Wonder paused, with a glance towards Goddess, “it really doesn’t bear thinking about. I wouldn’t wish such a fate even on the worst of livings.”

Mark didn’t even have time to take a breath to digest this information and formulate another question before Wonder ploughed on. Baker couldn’t quite determine if the supplicant was genuinely keen to educate his temporary new charge, had a few things he wanted to get off his chest, or just liked the sound of his own voice. Whichever, it was pretty convenient.

“And as for the beacons, well… Some say they saw it coming. They told people to stay, you see. Some blamed them for that, and blame them yet. Perhaps they were correct to, I cannot say. Whichever… the vortex stopped. It had reached beyond the western shores of Candelaria, hit the islands of east Kez, the southernmost extremities of the islands of the south. It reached a mile into the sky, and it is believed as much below. And then, for whatever reason, it stopped growing. Perhaps those on the other side succeeded in their mission. We may never know. But still, it rages. Its winds buffet our home, deposit such volumes of water upon its highest levels that many have caved in. After Arrigo was largely lost, an effort was made to shore up these buildings. They are safe now, I believe, though I have heard it say that Clotaire in particular remains all too damp. But we are safer than anywhere in these benighted islands, certainly.”

“That’s nice to know. How many… how many people are left? In the… Inside?”

“I doubt there was even a census taken of this place even before the vortex, young master Clark. Millions of baselines, I am sure. How many ronions, how many scrubs, I could not say. The Morticians provide governance, of a sort, but if record-keeping is one of their strengths they do not alert the populace to this.”

“Who died and made them ‘governance’?”

Wonder emitted what was presumably intended to be a mirthless laugh, possibly cribbed from the Flightless Bird’s proprietor. “Ha. Hah. Ha. Everyone dies eventually. Most everyone. And they are the Morticians. They were founded to hold power over death. After the vortex, after the collapse of the jabes, the desalinator massacres, they stepped into the vacuum and expanded their purview to life as well.”

“So… All in all, it’s an awful lot like, y’know… what’s-their-faces? Ossidiacqua?”

Again a silence as laden as a swallow. “The fleshforms,” Wonder said quietly after a while, “do not, in my experience, care to mention that name. It depresses them so. Don’t get them started on the Squornshelan pocket. Tread, on that note, are we alone here?”

“Yep. No-one human-shaped close enough to hear us. That’ll change in about… five minutes, I should think. We may need to drop down a level first, I’d very much doubt they keep the lifts running up here. And then things may get sticky. If the network blubbed as I hoped then there’s probably Morticians swarming Turkish right now, but that doesn’t mean they might not have a few people on the ground here too. If you want to call time on this fool’s errand Wonder, now’s your chance.”

“We see it through to the end, Tread,” Wonder said stoically. “We’ve come too far.”

“I take it, on that note,” Mark said, “that we couldn’t have just teleported to… wherever? With all the yellow and the piff-paff-poofing.”

“Gosh, why didn’t we think of that?” Tread said bitterly. “No. The Morticians ha–”

“A monopoly on that? Heavens. How did I ever guess?”

“A virtual monopoly, at least, yeah. Although you hear things about those Liverpool Hills girls…”

Nope. No, don’t even ask. Stop indulging this. Not your world, Mark Baker, not your time, and just as likely as not to not even be real.

Although, if this whole experience ended without him finding out why the Candelariasians of the future-slash-past had opted for such a patently irrational approach to resolving a sudden housing crisis as building this… thing, apparently directly on top of the most densely populated strip of land in the islands rather than, say, for argument’s sake, in the otherwise useless east of Marquez, he knew was going to be really quite peeved.

Distant sounds were becoming distinctly louder now and, as they passed through another unplanned shower and turned down a new alley, Tread help up a hand. “Now. Voices to a whisper, please…” She upped her pace and walked on ahead of them until she reached a gap in the wall and grunted with satisfaction. “Well then. We would appear to be ‘home’, Mr Laker.”

Mark joined her with some trepidation, but he could barely see over the low wall into the void beyond and was greeted initially only with the sight of more corridors beginning anew. With a little effort he gained a foothold on a sheet of metal plating the wall and pulled himself up to gain more height. He looked up at a distant ceiling, no different to any in the Concordium thus far beyond its mighty altitude. And then, steeling himself, he looked down.

And here were a new set of understandable words. Just the two, in white on mottled red and white, disrupted by grey holes here and there and little insect bodies of humans passing through the letters… but legible to anyone, all the same, from this lofty angle.

THE LENPY.

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Posts: 207
Founded: Feb 22, 2007
Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Wed Jun 01, 2022 8:24 am

Eight. The Park


They’d built around it.

This was Songstress then, the district of Albrecht most synonymous with football. Presumably, far below where they stood were the remains of a once heaving city. Had they demolished it all to make way for this vast structure that Tread claimed now snaked its way from Allemali to Onwere? Or was it down there still, built upon layer after layer, being slowly crushed by the weight of passing decades? Did people live in those old Victorian terraces and unaffordable newbuilds still, beneath the endless corridors of the Concordium?

Either way they’d built over the Tristar Songstress Stadium too, eventually. There had to be at least a few layers even further above, given that the black mountain the supplicants called only ‘Inside’ must have been at least twice as high as the TSS, at least judging from what he’d seen of the Inside’s Outside. But they’d left a respectful gap, a void into which Mark now stared. And the stadium itself, while it had clearly seen better days, was undeniably intact. The green expanse of Songstress Park in which the TSS he knew had sat was, presumably, long gone. Of the children’s pitches, the playgrounds, the llama petting zoo, there was no sign. But the big red bowl itself, surrounded by its sexy swallowtail curves… there it sat, as incongruous now as when it had been the half-finished Pak’s Folly; as glorious as when it had been the most magnificent stadium in Oygruppen.

It wasn’t his stadium. He’d grown up watching the Scorpions at New Park; later under the ownership of the Alber City Wasps but dilapidated even before the collapse of professional football in C&M. He’d managed Turkish at Morgan’s Field; turned into luxury flats years ago. His C&M had played at the Millerman Sheppard Stadium; probably long since built over just like the rest of the city. The TSS, he’d sat in only as an invited guest. But for those handful of years during which it had been Albrecht FC and the Big Blues’ home, you could seldom avoid seeing her on the telly. Flaunting her curves, her polychromatic seat covers, her vast Lenpy…

“Clark,” Surrogate said softly, a hand on his shoulder, “we should attempt to make our way down. I can’t promise that… we’re worried about…”

“He knows,” Tread said shortly. “Let’s not leak about. He was listening at the door the first night back home when we were discussing him. Are you ever actually going to tell us what the relegation you are, because the moment we get down there we could be accosted b–”

“You don’t have to come with us if you don’t wish to, Tread,” Wonder said calmly. “You’ve been an extraordinary help these last few days, as ever you are, but we can find our own way into the Park, I’m sure. If you’re concerned about being disassembled…”

“I’m concerned about all of us being disassembled, her holiness included,” Tread snapped. “But you know as well as I do I’m not going to leave now. We’re going to need to find a staircase.”

Before then, the group’s first mission was dragging an awestruck Linesman away from the ledge. The supplicant seldom said much, what with there being far too much dialogue to handle already, and of all of them Mark hadn’t expected the most conventionally robotic of them to be the most impressed. He was still beeping softly to himself as they made their way away from the vista in search of stairs.

Earlier, when they’d finally happened across and stopped at a still functioning water dispenser to fill up for himself, Goddess and the capybara, Mark had inquired as to where Linesman had in fact run the line. The robot had taken some time to mull the question over before realising what he was being asked.

“Oh. No. I. Was. Not. Made. For. The. Football. Young. Master. Clark. How. Wonderful. That. Would. Be. No. I. Worked. An Assembly. Line. Producing. Bionic. Limbs.”

“Oh. And they couldn’t just use a bunch of big robot arms for that, presumably? It needed artificial intelligence?”

Again, Linesman had appeared to give this comment his full consideration. “No. I. Do. Not. Believe. That. Was. The. Case. Young. Master. Clark,” he’d replied eventually.

At this juncture Goddess had loudly announced that she had spotted a rat, giving her a healthy fourteen-nine lead, and the matter of Linesman’s purpose in existence had fallen once more by the wayside.

“I take it we are heading to the stadium itself, young master Clark?” Wonder was asking now. “Presumably your people live somewhere in the streets that lie beyond? Or are there dwellings beneath it too?”

Trusting that not even Tread had any more clue about the place than he, Mark attempted as authoritative an answer as possible and indicated that they should, indeed, head towards the main entrance. Whether that was actually the best thing to do was anyone’s guess.

Quite some time passed before they found their way down another couple of levels and into the path of a stream of cloaks heading purposefully to the north. It was clear that Tread, well-travelled as she clearly was, had never bothered to explore this place, and it was for want of any better alternative that she and they slipped into the sparse crowd’s footfalls. Then suddenly, in front of them, the way forward was blocked by another void that Mark was grateful to see soon remedied by the arrival from below of a clunking elevator, wide enough to take not only his party but a collection of other wide-eyed travellers and even a couple of capybaras. Whoever ran the TSS presumably had power, literally as well as figuratively.

Packed in like sardines, Mark resigned himself to the view of an ample if mercifully cloaked backside for the minute or so spent juddering downwards at an unhappily wide assortment of speeds. A thump indicated that they had reached ground level, a drawbridge descended, and their motley collection of travelling companions began to pour forward at the behest of a couple of the red-faced and crocodile-skinned people he’d seen here and there before. These ones were dressed quite unusually for the Concordium – in cloaks, as per, but thin-looking ones covered by garish yellow jackets. He had no time to pay them further heed before the pair began hauling the drawbridge upright and the platform began its slow ascent.

It was hardly a matchday atmosphere, the thin crowd shorn of chants and shouts of recognition and children high on life. But as a player-turned-manager-turned-VIP he wasn’t much used to all that anyway, nor finding his way into a stadium via the main entrance. He felt Surrogate take his hand and draw Goddess nearer to her with her other, while the other supplicants attempted as best they could do melt into the mass of more fleshy bodies. There was conversation all around him, but evidently of enough accents, dialects or languages that the bean again couldn’t cope, and Mark satisfied himself with trying to spot some of the more distinctive archetypes he’d picked out during his time in the corridors. It wasn’t hard – indeed, this assortment was more diverse than any crowd thus seen. There were veils, and visible skin tones of every unnatural hue. They wore cloaks of many colours, or entirely different outfits. Several were taking no chances and were bedecked in what appeared to be full plate armour. There were golden hands, even golden legs, though thankfully not worn by anyone who appeared to be a Mortician. There were, regrettably but undeniably, cat people. There were a number of those he thought of now as ‘The Porkers’ – hardly a specific subset of humanity in themselves, though it was presumably notable that most of their number here were wearing what appeared for all the world to be sink plungers on their heads. More than one rolled past him on mobility scooters no different in appearance, beyond a general shabbiness, to those that had been frequently employed by his fellow residents of the Sunshine Memory Towers in his pre-GBC days.

Among the walking people of width, two such now parted to allow him a proper if brief look at the east stand it all its glory – or, at least, the rear of it that housed the stadium’s main entrance, positioned to welcome the rising sun. Mark, ever more aware of a growing somnolence, had long since lost track of the time of day… but doubtless, in a place such as this, it hardly mattered. There was no sun to greet, after all. Even outside, sitting in the crab, it was rendered a mere golden smudge behind the upper limits of the raging vortex.

They stepped into the bowels of the stadium, Mark feeling as they did so the hush rippling like a physical force through the visitors. Now this place, this he recognised. He dimly remembered being given a guided tour a few years earlier. But it was a distorted recognition. The walls were mostly bare brick, stripped of paint. The glaring lights that had hurt his eyes were replaced, not even with the ubiquitous lamps of the Concordium, but candles. There was no mindless pop music pumped over the tannoy. There was singing however, soft enough that you had to strain to hear it properly yet it echoed through the halls all the same. The voices were by turn low and masculine, high and childlike; the melody beautiful in its discordance, in its twisted familiarity.

“Ohhhh… Fran-swah S’nt Loooo-ee…”

Not even here could a person escape Seven Nation Army.

“Where now?” Surrogate whispered to him. Mark glanced around. Other travellers were spilling off in all directions, towards rooms outside which more of the yellowjackets buzzed hopefully. There were – there had been – shops here, selling replica kits, memorabilia, beer and pies and all the rest of it at the traditional rip-off prices. Entirely uncertain of his next move, Mark ignored the nanny and lingered on in this hall. Spaced throughout it, just as had been the case when he’d visited last, were statues on plinths. He broke away from Surrogate’s grasp and walked among them. They were worn; once sharp features now rendered into generic human mush. Several, as per convention, were missing noses. Most, at least, still had the little plaques that had been placed there for the benefit of the non-aficionado, who-knew-how-long before.

“Fred Forster,” Mark whispered to himself as he moved from one to another. “Benji Fu.” His captain, one of them at least, with C&M. A pair of drumsticks had been laid at his feet. Here stood Marcus Mestre, sans his arms, a giant of a centre-back who’d retired shortly before Mark had had a chance to select him for the Baptism of Fire. A pair of feet appeared to be all that remained of the little legend, Steven Fritz. Wayne Thorpe, another striker from the early CMSC era, easily recognisable by a conk the size of a fist but marked with a plaque of apparently rather more recent vintage and the description ‘Unknown’. Horace Hedge, whose own retirement had been a century old even in Mark’s time. He hadn’t even played for Albrecht FC – they’d been Deevin FC back then, ‘Hotlips’ Hedge both their player and manager…

“Oh, Mis-ter Pak! O-oh Mister, Mister Paaak!”

“Laker,” he heard Tread hiss, “we’re not here to sightsee. If you really have people here to find, we’re not going to find them on plinths!”

“Hush, young supplicant,” a plump and blue-faced yellowjacket who looked about sixteen said, calmly. He rested a hand on Tread’s shoulder. “This is a place of worship. May I interest you in a scarf?” he added hopefully.

“Do I look like I need a scarf?” Tread replied, but she kept her voice low.

Mark had taken advantage of the scene to follow a collection of… pilgrims, if that was what they were, towards a staircase, falling into step amongst a group including a small silver supplicant, a giant-eared panotti, and several creatures he didn’t recognise, of a species little taller than himself. One turned a passably human but vaguely chimp-like face towards him and beamed happily. Mark relished each step, the ease of moving to another level without pushing a capybara ahead of him or avoiding a stream bobbing with rubbish.

Just as he remembered it, the second tier offered more statues. Kim Daeeui, then another he didn’t recognise and which lacked a plaque… A woman kneeled in front of another tall figure, whispering to herself and sniffling softly. She heard his echoing steps on the hard floor and turned her face towards him.

“My son,” she said quietly. “He’s… about your…” She appeared to be attempting to say ‘age’, but frowned at Mark’s hard-to-place face and reached for ‘height’ instead. “Taken by the elves… If anyone could help…”

She was placing a small pot of what looked much like Goddess’ boiled sweets from the market at the player’s boots. Mark leant in and glanced at the plaque.

“Casper Richardson…?” The top-scoring Candelariasian of the CMSC’s period in the international limelight. Great lanky bugger. Around at the same time as Ignacio Vélez and Ramiro Novo, never got much of a chance with C&M. Taken by the elves? Hah. Yes, Mark thought, everyone knew that story. Cas Richardson had been due to sign with Raynor City, it had fallen through for some reason, he spent a season in the wilderness, ‘finding himself’ or whatever before returning to the Candelarias and signing for the Scorpions.

“Some say it’s silly,” the woman blushed, “but his star cult… They said this was the place to come. Maybe he’ll help me, or tell me where he is…”

“I’m sure it’s not silly,” Mark said kindly. “You’re… expecting him to speak to you? Like a… friendly ghost?”

“Perhaps… Oh, no need to stay and humour this poor wretch, my love. There’s players, out on the field. You don’t see that very often, these days. You should go…”

A stern “Clark!” could be heard from behind him, coming from Wonder or Surrogate or whoever. Mark didn’t much care. There were still players, then? There was still football. Oh, of course there were still the trappings of football, this place attested to that, but the game itself? He’d seen no evidence of it thus far, nor even much evidence of a love for any particular club over any particular long gone footballer. As if drawn by a higher power he found his feet moving across the hall, down another turning and towards ancient turnstiles that screamed as he pushed through them.

And there he stood, in the Leonard Prettyman End, one of a few dozen figures seated or wandering amongst eighty-odd thousand seats. The pitch, neatly trimmed, stretched out in front of him. And there were indeed players, tannoys booming out voices as the speaking bean struggled to keep up and do all the accents.

“Hark! Mine fledgling compatriots, do not thee blanche! Thou hast the making of these brutes! For elbows cannot cleft in twain nor knees bear schism in thine sanguinity!”

“Feeble currrr! Tenderrrr youth! It is I who will laugh the last this day! Forrrr I have yourrrrr boy deep in mine pocket!”

“I fear his words betray a greater truth… He carrieth the scars of a thousand battles past! I lack experience, I cannot hope to breach him…”

“Raise thine head! For are thee not the boy from Bong?! What experience you lack you possess in speed! If thou art good enough, thou art old enough!”

“Your words carry truth, indeed. Amongst my kin I am but a naked babe, but thou instructeth I as a scorpion born! Our foes shall knoweth our vengeance, and our choir shall drowneth their shouts and tears alike.”

“My compatriots speak of he who standeth afore the enemy ranks, but mine eyes rest upon this one… this child of Ilbon. How strange it is that this peasant boy of a shatter’d land beneath our heel is painted as a hero by these Westerners. Friend Songji speaks well of him, and I weep that these brothers born must face their fate at my feet. For the one be but a boy, and the other no man at all!”

“He thinketh me milk, but I wanteth not for strength for I hath hearts twain, spirits twain, feet twain… And what of the tender here? Oh, how sicketh shalt this corsair be, when he is witness to my skill once more. Cower, neighbour!”

“Caramba! Mother of God, and swabeth the deck cleaneth of poop! The stories of thy talents be true, it seems, dear Jesse! But thou breaketh my ramparts not, boy! Think not me a braggart, but thy lands be weak. Soon thou shalt knoweth the rule of mine kind, and I shalt send thee personally back to the dressing room, to the locker of David Jones himself! Jamlid!”

By this point Mark’s legume linguist was falling hopelessly out of synch, and evidently struggling badly with the general concept of ‘eth’. The final of this group of speakers had already finished addressing the crowd, such as it was, on the opposite flank and, upon a hail of mocking shouts of “Behind you!” had swivelled, lowered his visor, and began charging away from his position in front of the vast badminton net that stretched from one corner to the other across the short end of the field. Like several of his cohorts he cut a striking figure, with what appeared to be multi-coloured feathers protruding from his face and hands. Equipped with the now covered eye patch and buckled shoes that glinted off the floodlights, the whole ensemble carried the general impression of the result of a terrible teleportation accident involving a pirate and his parrot.

The being’s attentions were now fully taken by the rather more anonymous young man who had picked up the ball and was running with it towards the corner flag. While such phrasing was common enough in football-talk, Mark was intrigued to note that the player had indeed picked up the ball and was holding it close to his chest. With nimble feints, and 360 dodge away from the scarred individual with the cylindrical Rs that included a passable tour jété, he made it to the corner and rammed the ball down into the quadrant to widespread applause.

“Such sorrows they sing! For level be we, anew!”

“What marvel is this boy? So light his dance, so sharpeth his eyes. So bless’d are these men of islands far… But this day shalt yet be ours! For we hath tasted their poison once, and survived. We lions of the north, led by one of their own, possess’d of our silver son and the golden girl-child of Elfame. Beneath our paws, shall they shaketh and suffereth!”

Maybe this all rhymed in New, Mark thought. Or… Newe, possibly. And scanned, for that matter. There was probably all sorts of Subtext going on as well. He decided he was better off out of it.

His eyes roved around the players as they reassembled at the half-way line. There were rather fewer than twenty-two of them, though the rolling subs and regular costume changes – some of those in crimson swapping into dark blue and vice versa on several occasions already – made a full headcount challenging. Several of the others bore similar modifications to the human standard as Captain Parrot – fur, tusks, nipple-length nose, a rather floppy extra arm. To Mark’s mind, and he would happily have conceded the challenge provided by his distance from the pitch, all these additions appeared rather tacked-on, more amateur dramatics than genetic mutation, but who was to say? Perhaps these were some of the famous duds, sorry, ronions.

“Thou doth frighten me not, thou two-faced kestrel! Mayhaps in another place thou wouldst be worthy of mine brotherhood, for were we not both tempted by the siren song of foreign lands and found wanting? But this host that circles us shall never forgive thy treachery, Hawker. Doth thou tremble at their judgement?”

The Captain’s opposite number, its voice – or at least the bean’s impression thereof – muffled beneath the billowing white sheet of a shit ghost. Reuben Uwakwe? No… no, if Mark’s suspicions were right it was a long time after that, even after the ‘bouncing on the ground’ years of big Harry Rosalia. Arian, the… Starblaydi? Krytenian? One of them lot. Hmph. Couldn’t trust a chap named Allen Morris who called himself ‘Arian’. Carried the whiff of a man who was ever on the edge of uploading his manifesto before shooting his mother first.

“Forsooth and alas and bloody ‘eck as like, for the enemy hath expung’d our first drawing of blood and now advancesethetheth upon us. I am as my appellation once more, this poor glum elf. I cannot offer defence against such a squadron as this… But I will spilleth their blood yet! I hath known these many centuries and will know so many more, but long after I hath returneth to her bosom these Candelarians will knoweth the name of Morose!”

The old manager pondered the latest speaker, purple skinned and tapering of ear, as the players variously kicked, threw and punched the ball back and forth. Antis Morose, or whatever frilly elf name he taken on in later years, Mark couldn’t recall? It added credence to his working theory, that what he was watching was a recreation – with quite a degree of artistic licence, a licence at this point with several points on it – of one of Albrecht FC’s greatest, not to mention final, matches. The Champions’ Cup final, at home as it happened, against Dunboor Futebol Clube. He’d watched it – not in the stadium, he didn’t think, but these last few years were such a blur – and in doing so had joined what had seemed like the whole nation in cheering Torrealba’s Tots on to victory.

“Such woe! My heart doth grieve… I hath been far from this country mine for too long a day. Out of sweet Luís did come boys of such promise, each touch’d by Margaret’s very breath. This I knew, but I have meddl’d not with mere striplings, but men! And with mirth and song do their own audience greet their deeds… Yet these lions of mine be ahead by a rogue, and we shall sing yet of glory! What say thee, Jerry? Amend your mood, Melfanosion! We must be bold, anew! Stick it in yon mixer!”

Granted, Mark was pretty sure Fahmi Hamizi’s first goal had been the opener rather than the equaliser, but given that the referee was attempting to attract the attention of – if he was correct – Gijs Van Aulen after a particularly iffy tackle on Jordan Hawker by means of extravagantly waved handkerchiefs, such slips could probably be forgiven.

With the referee’s back turned ‘Hawker’ himself, his extra head somewhat floppy and forlorn by this point, turned to the crowd, one hand on his hip, the other making the other end of the teapot in a gesture seemingly intended to suggest he’d successfully conned the man in black, and was roundly rewarded with pantomime booing from the crowd. Mark didn’t recall that as too accurate either, though it was hardly a poor assumption. As a Candelariasian playing for a club outside the CMSC – one of the legion of voluntarily exiled diegos and bowlers, half of them in Cafundéu – he would normally have expected a rollicking from the crowd, and his manager and fellow Candelariasian Javier Sanchez likewise. As it was, amidst the joy of what ultimately proved to be a pretty comprehensive victory, there was little heart to throw too much invective at one’s fellow countrymen. These had been strange days, in the weeks that followed the Beatrice. Most weren’t even really beginning to process the trauma, national solidarity was still high… even with sportspeople. The recriminations would take weeks yet to rush towards the point where they could barely be contained. Matches were coming more thickly and quickly than ever, yet almost everyone knew by then that these might be the last they’d watch in the flesh for quite a long time indeed.

The ambivalent attitude of this sparse crowd towards the purple woman Mark had reluctantly pegged as ‘Lúthien Anwamanë’, as she jinked past ‘Van Aulen’ and narrowly failed to score a… touchdown, possibly, of her own thanks to the desperate dive of ‘Arian’, was about right, though. Normally she would have been honoured with a righteous barracking of her own, after all the goals she’d scored for Green Island, all the titles she’d denied the Scorpions, and at the end of the day it would all have been in good fun. Lil’ Lúthien, one of our own really, God knows why the Eesseff won’t cap her, we should do a Dionísio and call her up ourselves after all these years, even if she’s gone off and taken the Cafundelense vintém.

And then… things had changed, you’d never look at those albino Maasai in quite the same way again, and you weren’t really quite sure how you were supposed to treat this blonde babe turned elven baby.

Lost in his own reminiscences he barely noticed Hamizi score his scheduled second, and let the speech from the figure in the plastic mask he took to be Matteo Corradini’s little lad Enrico, a teenage right-back starting the biggest game of his life, trail mercifully into the background. Did he ever play again, that boy, after Albrecht FC faded into dust? Was this really the last hurrah for Candelariasian football? Mark had been barely cognisant of his surroundings half the time, these last few months, but he recalled reading that Martin Tejera, presumably the parrot-thing in front of the net, had become Sargossa manager, oh just a few weeks ago. A whole career, done and dusted in the space of a Candelarias year, while a kid like Enrico was kicking his heels and feeling his dreams of glory and trophies and money and girls fade away along with his country’s confidence, its identity…

These last couple of years, they could only have been a pause in the Big Blues story, surely? There had to have been a sequel to the CMSC? Did we really just… give up? Were there not a whole slew of star cults out there, a tranche of bobbleheads, of future stars from beyond Mark’s era that Goddess and the supplicants just hadn’t happened to drop into conversation yet?

Currrses! We arrre undone! We, who arrrt title victorrrrs at home, must we so crrruelly crrrumble at the last, in the very den of these forrreign snakes!? I sayeth nay, by Marrrgarrret’s grace! We battle on!

Dunboor won the Cafundelense league, not the title, that year, Mark thought. Funny how gubbins like that stuck, but not the boys’ birthdays, or how to work the lavatory…

At this juncture a player who Mark had decided was probably George Morrison, the Sarzonian winger, whose inexplicable mane of blue hair was rendered a distant secondary concern in the face of his astonishingly tightfitting white trousers, took hold of the ball and danced through the feeble challenges of Batoré and Jerry Kirkpatrick, displaying the kind of toe point to make a Lhaan sister weep. He projected a lengthy giggle, and shook his locks. More than one female figure amongst the meagre crowd held their little binoculars up to their face and took in the cultural enrichment provided by the working man’s ballet.

Mayest thou calleth me a sinner! A curly knave, a Mary, a Bulghar! Shalt it be thee who art bent out of shape! Thou thinketh me cow’d, weak and limp, but thee shalt limpet yet! For though I be born of gentlewoman foreign, and carry the scars of the spur in mine flank, yet I be a scorpion true, and shalt I sting, and shalt I pierce!”

Though it was evidently challenging for the beleaguered bean to provide tone as well as the thees and thous, Mark began to become aware of a brewing disquiet among the players and a hubbub emerging amongst the scattered, or indeed scatter’d, bodies in the Lenpy around him. Hunching down a little lower into his seat, he craned what little neck he possessed in an effort to locate the source of the disturbance. It didn’t take him long.

A number of individuals, each dressed in the billowing bridge coats that appeared to be the uniform of the Morticians, were making their way down the Morfydd Road End and fanning out onto the pitch. Dunboor’s Jerry Kirkpatrick, caught in mid-soliloquy, his absurdly long arms waving with passionate drama, finally noticed his fellow actors’ urgent pointing and glanced behind him with a “Well, really!”.

It appeared that the arrival of the closest thing the Concordium apparently had to authority signified the inevitable end of the hot thespian action on the pitch, the puffing players stumbling their ways back towards the players entrance in the west stand. Not all could keep their eyes off the striding figure at the centre of the group of newcomers, and Mark didn’t even try not to do the same. A shaggy auburn Ifewa was impossible to ignore.

“Alright, you don’t need telling twice,” the man-ape shouted to his colleagues, in the manner of one who was helpfully about to tell them twice for the benefit of onlookers and readers alike. “Four suppliants, one beaon, and one fu-knows-what. One of them a Tread unit. You heard Morrison. Sour the stadium. Eztala, Balode, you’re at round level. Robinson, Hammoiya, take Timpson’s Place and the Buet of Rabbits. Slistols and Fedotov, yo–”

You would DARE!?

And this, a new voice. Mark heard a collective intake of breath from the few football people still seated in the Lenpy, and again squirmed in his seat to get a better look. The newcomer strode down the steps towards the pitch, yellowjacketed attendants bustling at his heel. Strips of crimson fluttered behind him, an ornate pointed headdress in red and black perched, as is tradition, on his head. Beyond that Mark could get no better a look at the figure as it marched past his row towards the silenced man-ape.

“You would dare invade a holy place!?”

“Your highness, I…”

The headdressed apparition concluded its march at the Ifewa’s feet. He was tall, Mark supposed, judging by the entourage around him, but reached barely up to the man-ape’s chin all the same. For his part, the sasquatch stood his ground but his tone was altogether less certain and the other Morticians appeared disinclined to follow his instructions right at this minute.

“Don’t you ‘your highness’ me, young man! This is the oldest concordat of them all, the oldest! No-one, not even a Mortician, treads this ground without my say-so.”

“Sir, I… There is urgency. I was instruted to… I was, I was following orders.”

At this the ape first bowed his head, then appeared to decide that this wasn’t quite enough and kneeled. ‘His Highness’ looked down upon him.

“I’ve lived a long, long life, young Vanderpent. Seen many things. And I’ve heard ‘I was just following orders’ far too many times.”

“We meant no disrepet, but we’ve been told to find four suppli–”

“I bounced you on my knee, do you remember that? Lucky for me I have strong knees. I knew your father well…”

“I know, your highness, I know…”

“A fine man. And how is your dear mother, Vanderpent?”

“I… Better, sir. After my father’s passing she… But she’s, um, but she’s Wired, now. She says it helps, a reat deal.”

“Hm. Even I confess that the dreams, of late, have beco–”

“Gaffer.” That emanated not from either figure currently facing each other, as much as they were able, in a spot just irritatingly left of the centre circle, but from an anonymous-looking Mortician who’d been twiddling his thumbs awkwardly during the previous conflab. Via the bean, his voice was little more than a whisper, though this was evidently an issue of distance over intent. Mark realised that both Vanderpent the Man-Ape and the mysterious newcomer spoke with natural booms; projection of a kind to make any of the players hang up their up their berets. “Not wanting to speak out of turn sir, but Morrison was very clear…”

The Mortician turned and nodded to two of his colleagues, who began walking with purpose towards the Lenpy.

His Highness didn’t drag his eyeness away from Vanderpent, but adopted a less cordial tone to utter the word: “Stewards…”

At his command, the red-faced and yellow-jacketed football people of the TSS began to emerge in greater numbers, spilling out as if from nowhere over the peeling plastic seats of the Lenpy. Several lit flares, soon filling the bowl of the stadium with red smoke. Mark realised that, without much chatter, the few remaining onlookers were choosing this moment to retreat back into its inner bowels, and by the cover of an encroaching fiery darkness he hurriedly did the same, scrambling back up the steps as fast as his little bow-legs could manage. The tannoy, now bereft of players, switched to an apposite soundtrack on a general theme of We Can Seeth Thou Sneaking Out.

The corridors of the stadium were even gloomier now, as though the candles had been uniformly switched to power-saving mode. Plainchant still poured from the speakers within, the recorded singers impressively managing to make Luís Enrique Torrealba Is Magic actually scan to a fantasia on a theme of My Old Man’s a Dustman for the first time ever. Here and there, stewards directed the trickle of human, posthuman and nonhuman traffic away from newly roped-off stretches of the stadium.

Mark waited for a little while in the shadow of a convenient bust of the long-time Scorpions Academy manager David Stone in the appropriate sculpting material, unnoticed by the passers-by, before ducking slightly with equal lack of heed under a cordon. Beyond a general aspiration not to be disassembled, he had little idea of a plan at this point. It was presumably only a matter of time before the Morticians gained entry to the innards of the TSS, if they hadn’t already, and even in a place this big there could only be a limited number of hiding places. He was taken however by a new determination that every extra half-hour of life on offer should be clung to.

He turned a corner and another, walking smartly but trying to prevent his all-too echoing footsteps from sounding like a small human in a little too much of a hurry. This area was deserted, though recent scuff marks and the odd food wrapper suggested that this wasn’t usually the case. That assessment was soon backed up further as he turned once more and came face to knee with yet another statue.

He glanced up, into the quite lidderally chiselled face of Stupid Sexy Carlos Panadero.

This gave Mark pause for thought, despite his urgency. There was no mistaking that coat, nor that jaw line, but Panadero had never managed Albrecht FC. Unless he had, of course. As far as Mark was concerned, the last match at this stadium had been a clash – or a rattle, really, maybe a jangle – between the Seunem national team and… Ca…? Carmadin? Camwood? Camerania? One of those, there were far too many. Before that, in the weeks following Beatrice, the Scorpions had played out a home defeat to Vephrese opposition, if he remembered correctly, which he probably didn’t, in the Champions’ Cup. That was three years ago now but, well, only to him. To everyone else in this crumbling multi-storey country it was… who knew? Centuries, presumably. What was to say the TSS and Albrecht FC hadn’t had their time in the sun again?

Panadero, though? Really?

Carasatoga?

His confusion was dispelled as he walked just a little further, to be confronted with more statues. Andy Le Lan, Elgin Dannat… Now he remembered. The powers that be at Albrecht FC had been nothing if not keen to promote their shiny new ground as the national stadium as well as the Scorpions’. He’d even been invited here himself, to this short hall of C&M managers, to witness the unveiling of his own…

And there it was. It was his face, a touch discoloured, a little warn by the grease of generations of children picked up by parents and encouraged to run their fingers over the face of the Big Blues’ managerial pathfinder. Not a face he’d worn for long, not of his childhood nor adolescence, nor his playing career, nor the shrivelled old man who’d looked back at him in the mirror for far too many years now, never mind the misshapen little boy that stared back now. But it was the face of Mark Baker that his country knew. The manager of Candelaria And Marquez. Not a champion, when all was said and done. Not a Dannat, not a Le Lan, not even a Kris Healy. But you never forgot your first.

Cataduanes?

The noise level from beyond had increased slightly, though individual voices were too far away for the bean to pick out any choice morsels of conversation. At this moment the plainchant also cut out, a bing-bong followed, and then a message blared out of the tannoy in a business-like tone.

Mwah! Mwah-mwah-mwah, mwah-mwah mwah-mwah. Mwah mwah-mwah. Mwah. Mwah-mwah.

Mark gave this due consideration for a moment, shot a foul look at the paunchy grey head of Lloyd Donnelly, and turned down another corridor. Tiredness had replaced any rising panic now, and he was oddly pleased to see that the large room into which he had wandered appeared to be a dead end. For once there was an open door marking the way, and he heaved it shut with as much force as his limp little arms could muster.

The light here was grimier still, barely illuminating an array of glass cabinets. His eyes flitted around tarnished trophies and medals, and what appeared to be battered old matchday programmes, but were drawn instead to the display case directly in front of him, from which a handle protruded and in which sat a large, faded book. He squinted at the words in cloudy blue. The Ultimate History of the CMSC’s International Era… Fifteen Seasons That Rocked The Worlds, a subheading read.

“By Morgan Fattori,” he read aloud, dimly recalling an earnest young reporter at press conferences past. The handle, it soon transpired, operated a trembling black mechanism within the case that leafed through the book page by page, and this he did so now. It was heavy on tiny text, light on pricey pictures, but there was still familiar face after familiar face. Every now and again the flow was interrupted by a spread devoted to the national team, and after a while he turned the handle in the opposite direction to filter back through the seasons towards his own Baptism of Fire.

There were his boys. Short shorts, ruffled hair, tashes. Reuben Uwakwe and the other keepers looming over the seated figures at the front. Benji and the Damiens and little Joey Pipes. Who was that fella? Joel Grillo, that was it, little striker, overly fond of cats. And that one? Mark’s mind wandered back towards the array of little figurines stood in Goddess’ bedroom. Darwin Rondags, right. Back-up right-back. Couldn’t remember picking him. Must’ve been a quiet presence in the dressing room. But there were always some who slipped the mind. Not everyone could be Jorge the Floating Head, or ev–

It occurred to Mark that he’d never really known true darkness. Even without the sun, there were still stars more often than not, the moon, streetlights. Even out in the sticks. Even down in the Hole, lights had never been switched off entirely, and the Things that could normally be expected to go bump in the night merely fumbled around in the shadows instead and cursed.

Yet here, in this room and presumably at least several others nearby, the candles had chosen this moment to switch off. Deep in the TSS, buried dozens of floors within the unending Inside of the Consortium, there was nothing for even the trophies to glint off. The only sounds were distant too, and his own ragged breathing. It was all rather amniotic. Lordy, it would fuck with your circadian rhythm, this place. At least he’d had practise not getting out in the sun, thanks to his time in the most maximal of maximum security prisons in the Candelarias. And in an old folks home, come to that.

Mark turned, arms outstretched to feel for the bare wall. After a few moments he found the anticipated corner, and slumped down into it. Hungry, thirsty, alone, he pulled his cloak around himself, and waited for the Morticians, and his doom.

Cadarnia?

No… Cascratia, that was it. It had been the occasion that had mattered, a football match in the Candelarias once more, not two foreign teams of which he cared nothing. Still… His memory wasn’t totally unreliable…

Perhaps he shouldn’t just wait. If anything, these last few minutes, he’d felt truly alive for the first time in months. He’d been thinking on his, or at least someone’s, toes. Making decisions. Candelariasians, as a breed, tended to do what they were told. They followed orders, drifted through life. Oh gosh, they could be peevish about it. Sarky, passive-aggressive no doubt. Apparently they’d even pass that onto some of their mechanical supplicants, eventually. But there was a reason why this little country had become, at its peak, arguably the leading power in international team sports, or at least those they actually played. They was a reason why the Candelariasian Conspiracy had been maintained for so long, in an actual democracy, with an even vaguely free press. It was left for the odd duck who swam against the tide to take charge. The Machiavellian little sods, all elbows, who knew what the country needed and that rules didn’t apply to them. The disruptors, nature’s jesters. The too selfish, the too lustful by half.

He’d been all the above, at one time or another. But now… now he wasn’t sure if he even wanted to ‘feel alive’. He was too old to be making decisions. He wanted a stern but fair nanny to take him by the hand and make everything okay, and drag him to where he needed to be.

He just wanted to drift… to drift… drift…

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Posts: 207
Founded: Feb 22, 2007
Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Thu Jun 02, 2022 8:14 am

Nine. The Dream


Slinky, kinda sexy, all in black, Mark Baker scampered through the black halls of the Tristar Songstress Stadium, cat-like, keeping to the shadows. Each corridor looked very much like the last, but he knew what he was searching for.

He pushed open a shining white door and there, at the passageway’s end, stood the gleaming marble statue of Mark Baker, Football Manager. It had no nose, but the real Mark’s expedition wasn’t nasal in nature. Instead, his eyes narrowed upon the object resting between the figure’s hands. The sphere that haunted his days and dreams, the cause of all of this. Black and white panelled, tempting, beguiling.

Between Mark and his prize were lines of red, beams of light from wall to wall and wall to floor. With reflexes honed on the field he manoeuvred his way through them, slowly… slowly… carefully… until he stood before his giant inert self and the very real orb it held.

“Please…” Mark whispered. “Please… can we have our ball back?”

“It’s not yours to take, Surrogate says.”

Mark turned sharply. Standing where he had just been, her face bathed in the red glow of the lasers, stood Goddess, arms folded in disapproval. He recoiled instinctively, from the little girl that dwarfed him, her massive head balanced precariously on her shoulders. She grinned at him, horribly, smile stretching from ear to ear, showing great pink slabs of teeth.

“It is,” he insisted, his voice small and strange.

Goddess screwed up her face once more. “No. It belongs to the statues now. Come and play!”

With a giggle she turned on her heel and ran, leaving Mark alone and entirely unsure what to do.

No… No, not unsure at all. His statue. His ball!

He reached forward on tippy-toes and grabbed it from the statue’s arms, and almost immediately a hundred alarms blared and the yellow lamps the lined the stadium’s walls flashed menacingly. Clutching his prize to his chest, Mark turned and ran back down the passage, through the red beams that clung to him like string and wound themselves around his body.

He turned this way and that, hearing the distant hammering of urgent feet getting ever closer, before he found himself smashing blindly into the big double doors of an emergency exit and out, out into the sunshine of a perfect Candelarian day.

The garden, vast, rolled out in front of him, as far as he could see. He narrowly avoided tripping over the stone rabbit – God, how Elizabeth had loved that rabbit – and ran in the general direction of the little figures on the horizon.

“Gaffer!” he heard them call, excitedly. He squinted in the light until he could start to make them out. His boys, his little lads! Mamdooh Momtaz, he could see, with Rex Sandstrom and Ignacio Vélez! Dan Davis, Pomola, and One-Who-Giggles-At-Otters! Jos Cornelisse floating towards him, O’Sullivan Caras and Gnuraxai in tow. Kai Thomson lumbering along, his solemn black monkey eyes peering out from a face covered in shaggy black hair.

“We’ve been waiting all year, boss-man!” Cornelisse called. He whizzed around Mark, ears flapping wildly.

Caras appeared to concur. He waved his stump in the manager’s general direction, whilst gesticulating emphatically with his one remaining arm. “We doing drills? Tactics, fitness? It’s the game tomorrow!”

Mark looked around hopefully for Ricardo or Steve or one of his other right-hand-men, or even Aino, but there was no sign. He was in his element, but suddenly he realised he had nothing to offer any more. The game had moved on. He belonged to the statues. He let the ball drop from his grasp.

“Um… Seven versus seven?” he suggested, “attack versus defence? Jos-lad, you… you need to work on your passing…”

“Don’t have no feet, gaffer!” the winger, C&M’s prince of the step-over, exclaimed cheerfully, but the others were nodding and Joey Pipes soon had the ball in his hands and was charging towards the corner flag. “You’ve got red on you,” Cornelisse commented, before flying off to join the others.

Mark looked down at the tangle of string entwining his body. Boot laces? Or were they… rat’s tails?

“You don’t want to horde those, amigo, they’ll give you haemorrhagic fever,” José Felipe Cassumba Domingos told him. “Trust José, he know,” he added, preening his whiskers.

“What now?” Bm-Chm shouted, before Mark had time to respond. “Set plays?”

“Yes! No! Uh… No, heading, you need to work on your heading…”

This seemed to satisfy the group, but Mark’s heart was pounding. All the drills he’d spent years honing, he couldn’t remember a word of them! An Under-9s team wouldn’t be impressed with this standard of coaching! Where was Steve, he needed someone to put the cones out. He should’ve been more hands-on, he’d have won more… But he could talk, sure he could, he could talk for C&M! He could be an inspiration, but… his mouth was dry, and only nonsense trickled out.

He patted himself down, tugged at his jacket, and at the red rat tails. Except… they weren’t, were they? They were lights. Christmas lights, wrapping themselves in knots around him like they always did.

Something made him turn around to look back at the house. There, out on the patio, were Elizabeth and the boys. They sat around the bare tree and waved at him, and he waved back weekly and began to walk towards them… but behind him he could hear the shouts of his players, and he turned back once more. Christmas… There’d never been time for Christmas. Not as a player, not at Turkish. Too many games, too much training. There had to be sacrifices, he’d given them a good life, damned good, but… Too many Christmases away, in some hotel room. Too many nights in Caires, on the wheels. Some floozy and/or strumpet, somewhere, or, yes, alright, a former YTS player, God, it was one time, a long time ago, are you going to bring that up every time, Jesus Christ. The lights dug into him, and the more he struggled the tighter they felt.

The players were marching towards him, and the mood… the mood was different. The low winter sun had gone, replaced by an oppressive blackness, and the wind whipped at his clothes. There was anger on the faces of the nearest players, now. He had nothing to offer them anymore. He’d failed them. He’d lost the dressing room. And they weren’t alone, either. Elizabeth marched with them, and the stone rabbit, and was that…? Yes, the great hairy bulk of Vanderpent the Ifewa, Morticians in their top hats flanking him, and President Robyn Morton in her suit. And those young agents from the DUH, oh yes. Yes, he remembered that now. It had been downhill all the way after that.

He stumbled backwards, falling to the grass with a thud. The football, sitting to his side, large and leaden, shook. He thought it the wind, until light began to spill from cracks opening between the seams of the black and white panels, and he watching in horror as a shape emerged from it, pale as bones and almost as thin, undulating towards him, milky fluids spilling out and onto the grass.

“D… Debbie?” he whispered.

“It should have been you, brother,” the creature slithered. “They wanted you…”

“I know, I know! I’m sorry…”

“And she’s coming back… You’ll have no more time…”

“She’s not wrong,” Robyn Morton told Mark, and she and the group advanced upon him. “It’s all our faults. You should kill us…”

“You should kill us, gaffer,” Caras agreed, with an ambivalent waggle of his stump.

You should kill us,” Speed Wang added, hopping forward on his base, giant head contorted into a horrible grin.

Mark tried to scramble backwards across the grass, but the Christmas lights were twisted around him like predatory vines. Still they marched upon him, players and politicians, Morticians and the stone rabbit and Elizabeth and the Cheese Man and the boys from the DUH.

“You should kill us…”

“These won’t help you kill us,” the Cheese Man laughed, throwing processed slices at Mark’s face. He caught one, and chewed it miserably. Vanderpent loomed over him.

“You should kill us…”

In some final act of desperation or defiance, Mark reached out a hand and grabbed the Mortician by a thick, hairy arm. But his grip was weak, so weak, and he stared at his own arm, and then looked to his other, in desolation. These weren’t his arms. These were weak, tiny, shrivelled. These were old men’s arms. Pathetic.

“You shou…” Vanderpent began again, before pausing. The Ifewa furrowed its brow, which was not an unimpressive sight. Mark smiled, and licked cheese residue from his lips.

“You can’t pronounce your kays,” Mark muttered, sleepily, “and many is the night I dream of cheese,” he added, and he opened his eyes to look straight into the watery orbs of a very panicked svartálf.

The crumpled, purple-black little figure jerked its head back and forth between Baker’s face and its own rubbery little arm, held fast as it was in Mark’s grip.

Let gan! Let gan iv wor!

“Shan’t. You know you’ve just wasted your time, don’t you? You can’t make me hate football, not really, and you sure as hell can’t make me hate officialdom more than I already do.”

The creature struggled further, but though Mark could summon very little strength into his pudgy little hand it seemed unable to break free. “Howa deeyuhn this?! Ha gan yee..?!

“A friend taught me the knack a while back,” Mark told it, with a yawn. “Annoying, isn’t it? Almost as annoying as being sat on while you’re trying to sleep and having your head filled full of nightmares.”

It’s wot wuh dee! We nee’t tuh! Let gan!

“You don’t need to like this though, do you? Specific dreams, making yourselves known like this. It’s just like before, and we all know how that ended up. What’re playing at, lad?”

The svart appeared to relax slightly, but stared into Mark’s eyes and twisted its mouth around as if trying out an internal monologue. After a while, it appeared to reach a conclusion.

Yee remembor… Wey aye, whey aye ye dee. Yee know the mistress… But it’s neet just leek befawa. It is befawa! She’s comin back. You’ll hev nae mare time!

“Look, I don’t… This isn’t my… I don’t care,” Mark insisted, “I mean, I don’t…”

A’ve got tuh gan! Got tuh tell othas! She’s coming baaack!

And with this, and one final failed attempt to pull itself free, the svart disintegrated. Hundreds of little black maggots fell onto Mark’s chest before shrivelling, and vanishing.

Baker flexed his stubby fingers, feeling absently for the arm in the space it had just occupied. He looked down at his chest, such as it was, but saw only dappled light.

The candles in this room remained unlit but the door between here and the corridor of statues beyond had been opened, and through which a murky yellow glow illuminated the trophies arrayed around him. Two sets of footsteps approached. In every sense, aside from his arse coming to a point, he was cornered.

“See-see, Janitor find boy, Mister Martin pleased with Janitor!”

“Positively delighted, Janitor, yes. Have a half-holiday.”

“See-see! Janitor know Mister Martin looking for boy, Janitor find boy in corner! Janitor tell Mister Martin, and Mister Martin says that Jani–”

“Yes, Janitor, what have I told you about the running commentary?”

“Mister Martin tell Janitor not to tell audience, yes-yes, but Mister Martin not understanding that audience need telling, becau –”

“Ah-ha!”

This last exclamation came as the two figures entered the room and soon spotted Mark cowering in his corner. They regarded him critically, while the old manager did the same to them. Rather the taller of the two was a man with the uneven red skin that appeared de rigueur among Albrecht FC’s quote-unquote football people, though unlike the stewards – or indeed anyone else he’d seen in the halls of the Concordium – he was wearing a black, if slightly faded and generally shabby, suit and a crimson tie. The other was barely half his size, perhaps slightly taller than a svart and indeed built much along the lines of Mark’s own novel body, dressed in blue overalls and brandishing a little mop. He hopped from foot to foot as he glanced back and forth between Mark and, presumably, Mister Martin.

“This he, yes-yes?”

“It would be a bit of a coincidence if there were two of them running around the Park, yes. Can-You-Under-Stand-Me-Young-Man?” he continued, addressing Mark.

Baker nodded. “Although I’d probably find it easier to follow if You-Didn’t-Talk-Like-This.”

“Mm. So you would be Clark Laker?”

“As I live and breathe, sure, why not?” affirmed Mark, his eyes drawn unavoidably back towards the janitor, who was now spinning around on one foot, clutching his mop to his heart in every sign of quasi-sexual ecstasy.

“Very well. Janitor, you can leave us now. Very well done. Help yourself to a sticky bun.”

The homunculus looked as if it could cry with joy, then appeared to wrestle with whether or not to hug Mister Martin’s leg, thought better off it, and scampered off happily back amongst the statues of Big Blues coaches. Mark, having clambered to his feet, peered round to watch the little man skip along for a few seconds, jump in the air, perform a leprechaun kick whilst leaning a hand on Elgin Dannat’s ample thigh for support, and run off out of view. Mister Martin graciously gave Mark time to digest this before clucking his tongue a little sadly.

“Scrubs. Wouldn’t be without them, at the same time you just can’t quite help wishing they’d never been bred. But they do so love to serve. Quite the collection, isn’t it?”

First shaking his head at the abrupt change of conversation topic, Mark now blinked his eyes as Martin plinked vaguely at the dome covering a candle, which flickered into life. He nodded.

“Can’t imagine what that smell is… I’ll have to get Janitor back, once we’re done here.”

Mark, who prior to the somnolent encounter with the svart had felt his way for a suitable receptacle and, he now realised, relieved himself in the eighteenth UICA Super Cup, remained silent.

“You wouldn’t be the first small boy who’s stolen away from his party to take a gander at this place. We don’t keep it open to the public all the time. No real reason why not but, between you and me,” the suited man continued, conspiratorially, “it all adds to the mystique. Keeps the pilgrims coming back, you know? Just on the off-chance they might be honoured with a glimpse. An incomplete collection, of course,” he sighed, “but still… Two of the Champions’ Cups, five CMSC trophies, three CMS Cups, although the veracity of one of those is rather disputed, I’m afraid… Two dozen medals. Joe Cunningham’s CMSC Young Player of the Season award from ecs-ecs-vee-eye. So much lost, but… We do our part.”

Mark nodded again, his attention now drawn away from the replica cups and other gongs spread around the room and towards a large cabinet on the opposite wall. A portion of plastic tubing took pride of place. Martin beamed.

“Ah, yes. That always captures the attention. A piece of the true crossbar, we’re desperately fortunate to have it in our possession. The star cults have generally hoarded the world-class relics, of course, and a lot of what we do have is far too fragile to put on public display. We have the drumsticks of Benji Fu, you know? Real ones. Several balls, shin pads, Stan Draper’s dentures. Have you heard of the Albrecht FC Mr Potato Head? Only three are extant, and we have two of them. One still sealed in its original packaging. The weeping statue of Robert Golos, although opinions are divided on that one. Suffice it to say however, we have much to be proud of here. Turkish lost almost all of their trophies, never mind relics. They’re reduced to endlessly arguing with the Schmudgers as to which of them possesses the holy prepuce of Niv Cohen… Oh, and of course… Should I?”

“Be a devil.”

Martin screwed up his nodose countenance in uncertainty, and began hopping from foot to foot much in the manner of the departed Janitor. He appeared to reach a conclusion. “We-ell… As a special treat, young man. Since you’ve had quite a day, and I suspect may well have quite another to come.” He crossed the room towards another wooden door, unlocking it, opening it, and switching on a candle-lamp. Mark blinked as his eyes adjusted, before he joined Martin at the threshold. “I know it may seem strange to keep it in what amounts to a cupboard, but… There are always, ah, security concerns. Every club and half the cults in the Concordium would give their right arms for this. Well… Apart from the Carasians, I supposed. They’ve generally given their right arms already.”

“The World Cup,” Mark found himself saying aloud.

It was an odd thing. Once you’d seen it, and then turned away, you could never quite describe it. If you tried, no two people ever provided quite the same account of the most famous artefact in international sport. But replica or not, unaccountably amorphous in form though it was, you still knew it when you saw it.

“The forty-fifth, to be precise. His highness, as I’m sure you know, once ruled the Association, long before the Concordium even existed. He saved it, the trophy itself I mean, for our club. For our nation. For all of us… To keep the dream alive…”

As Martin turned back towards him, Mark made an involuntary little jump back. The man’s face was changing. Lump by bump, his skin was shifting from a rich Scorpions red to snowstorm white, and thence to C&M blue.

“Polychromatic pigment,” Mark breathed.

“Of course,” Martin replied, and frowned. “Young man, do you know who I am?”

“Uh. Mister… Martin…?”

“My name is Martin Hole-Simpkins. I’m Direc–”

“Director of Football at Albrecht FC,” Mark echoed flatly. “Long-time Director of Football”, he added. “Long, long, time…”

The newly blue face broke into a smile. “Well I can’t say the surname Laker means much to me, and the Tread unit seemed doubtful as to your credentials as a true football person, but Margaret knows there’s a lot of levels and plenty of you I’ve yet to meet. But I suppose you must have some family around here?”

Mark shrugged noncommittally. What could he say? What on earth was his endgame here?

“Hm. Although, for what it’s worth, I’m actually rather new to this role. Perhaps your family knew my late father, Martin Hole-Simpkins.”

“I can see where confusion may have arisen, aye.”

“Fourteenth of my name, myself. Well, we think. You know how it is, with the vortex and the datapurge… In time, although I hope it won’t be for a goodly long while yet, my son Martin will take the role. When he’s grown.”

“When he’s grown,” Mark repeated, and wondered to himself if they were quite thinking of the same biological process. Who knew, in this place?

Suddenly, Martin snapped shut the door to the World Cup’s cupboard of solitude and locked it. “We should be getting on”, he said, “I’m sure your… companions are concerned for your wellbeing. As much as they can be, I suppose. Who can say?” He peered down at Mark as if observing him for the first time. “The young lady told me you bite.”

“That sounds like the sort of thing she’d say, aye.”

“They also told me, quite correctly, that you speak Old. Are you sure you’re not Gamboan?”

“I’m not sure of anything very much, Mister Martin,” Mark sighed. “Um… You do know that, um..?”

“There are Morticians looking for you? We had noticed, yes.”

“Are you going to hand me over?”

“I’m not sure. That would be a matter for the Scorpion King. My fathers have served his highness for many years, Clark. I’m sure that his decision will be a fair and just one. And in regards to that… Come. We’re expected.”

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Founded: Feb 22, 2007
Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Fri Jun 03, 2022 2:12 am

Ten. The King’s Head


Mark followed dumbly as Martin led him away from the trophy room and through the motley collection of C&M managers, casting a final glance at his own nobly outstretched right hand as he did so. Soon they were walking through corridors marked with large faded team photographs and action shots, or pale spaces where they could once have been found, perhaps centuries ago. A portrait of a very serious-looking Cyril Mastini, the club’s long-time owner-chairman, was positioned between a near life-size action shot of the striker Joe Cunningham and a squad photo of young half-naked brown boys, of a kind to make Mark’s old managerial compadre Matt Sampson retire to his bed with a damp flannel, and which had presumably been members of a youth team of the Scorpions’ Jesseltonian onetime feeder club Kolombong.

The passageways were otherwise devoid of life; the only sounds distant save for what he assumed was the scurrying of scrubs. Despite his disquiet, Mark tried to savour it. The private innards of the Tristar Songstress Stadium were the first ‘streets’ – newly-honed instincts meant he couldn’t think of them any other way – he had seen for days that didn’t totally scream of decay, despite being at least decades older than the structure that rose far above them.

Though designed by denizens of the Eternal Celestial Regency on behalf of the Samseong corporation, and bearing superficial external hallmarks of Han architecture in order to politely ram home the point to the people of downtown Albrecht; the insides of the TSS were very much of the Candelariasian Revival school, viz., that it consisted of miles of tightly wound intestinal corridors to verbosely explain the plot down. This Martin unaccountably elected not to do, but instead paused halfway down a particularly anonymous passage-to-nowhere, reverentially laid a hand on the bronze groin of the club’s founder Elijah Wright, and stood back to allow a stretch of wall to slide sideways.

“The Scorpion King’s office is soundproofed,” Martin said with appropriate hush, “but nevertheless, young man, discretion would be appreciated.”

He stepped inside, leading Mark up a barely lit spiral staircase as the door skated silently back shut behind them. Soon they stepped into a new room: circular, blood red, with wide windows but curtains drawn. They weren’t alone.

“Offering!” Goddess exclaimed, sleepily but happily. Mark proffered a weak smile towards her and the two supplicants seated awkwardly around a corner of the large desk. Tread stood resolutely to Wonder and Surrogate’s side, greeting Mark only with a grunting red flash of her head. His erstwhile companions couldn’t attract his attention for long however, with eyes inevitably drawn to the figure seated behind the desk. A pointed headdress sat to one side upon it.

The face that stared back at him, bathed in a white light from the ceiling, was comfortably the oldest Mark had ever seen. Nothing at the Liverpool Hills Sunshine Memory Towers or the Gordon Bay Assisted Living Centre came close. Granted, a number of the residents of the latter were believed to be well into their second millennium, but such beings tended to age gracefully. This man had not. Facial features had been all but absorbed into a confusion of wrinkles that hung limply upon bone. Earlobes stretched like mouldering fruit. Two small dark eyes peered out from the umbrage of thick sockets, the bags beneath them dribbling away like wax. They blinked, slowly.

“Hungry, Clark?”

“And thirsty,” Mark confirmed.

The face nodded, more sharply than Mark felt a head that appeared set to crumble from the neck at any moment had any right to. “There is water in the machine to your left. Martin, please fetch our guest refreshments. Perhaps a mint tea, hm? I found the strawberries a touch sharp at breakfast, but a younger constitution may find them more palatable. Tooth gum as well, I think.”

All eyes, and whatever Tread had in the way of sensory apparatus, upon him; Mark crossed the floor to the indicated machine and poured out a tumbler of water.

“I’m sure my peperomia would appreciate one too,” the face added, an equally wizened hand produced to indicate a rather crestfallen houseplant which, together with the hat and a Newton’s cradle, constituted the morning’s desk paraphernalia. Mark nodded, pouring a second glass and resting it with care upon the table before taking his seat again.

Slow but strong, it hadn’t been quite the voice he’d been expecting to emanate from the face. This was silly, he knew, given that he’d heard it only the day before, arguing with Vanderpent the Man-Ape, but it still seemed incongruous. From context, it presumably belonged to the Scorpion King, though the man had neglected to introduce himself and Mark didn’t feel it appropriate to ask for confirmation. Clark Laker was, after all, a Football Person, and doubtless wouldn’t have to have His Highness pointed out to him. He was probably supposed to have been ceremonially bounced upon his royal knee as a babe, before being dipped in the team bath, washed with the magic sponge and anointed with Vicks VapoRub.

“Well. Greetings, Clark. I am the Scorpion King,” the Scorpion King said, helpfully. “You’ve had quite the adventure, haven’t you, according to Mr Wonder and Ms Surrogate here? But now it’s doubtless time that you were reunited with your family. They must be worried for your safety, in these difficult times.”

Mark gave a noncommittal nod. The King’s little eyes bore into him. He felt he was being assessed.

“Do you know which level you live on, Clark? Your apartment number?”

“Clark indicated that we should take him to the stadium itself, h–” Wonder interjected, but was bade silent with a flick of the Scorpion King’s wrist and a rustle of cuffs.

“Hm. Then this may take some time… Especially today. Have you noticed anything about today? Anything unusual about the Park?”

Mark gave the question some thought. “I… Well, it’s quiet. I know we’re in the backstage areas, so to speak, but there’s no-one much about, I can’t hear Kouakou Kouamé Nuts Are We over the tannoy now or anything…”

“Indeed. There are but a few souls at the Park this morning, and we constitute a sizable chunk thereof. Do you know why that might be?”

“Evening kick-off? Or… Because of me?” Mark suggested, with trepidation but also a degree of satisfaction. At least he was going out with a bit of a bang.

“Perhaps. It will not have escaped your attention, I’m sure, that we were all but flooded with Morticians last night and that – thank you, Martin,” the king broke off for a moment to say, as Hole-Simpkins re-entered the office carrying a tray, “that is most curious in itself. But no, what I refer to is the rapidly increasing disturbances across the sector, and beyond. It’s not just ronions who are, as it were, revolting. Individuals, sometimes larger groups, of other humans have been attacking each other, burning shops and factories, even attacking Morticians. Screaming all the while that – quote – she’s coming back. That we have no more time. Such episodes have, so we’re told, begun to reach epidemic proportions in certain areas outside Albrecht, and in the last twenty-four hours have progressed considerably here too. What do you make of that?”

Surrogate issued her redundant little cough. “We didn’t see much evidence of all that on the way here, although we kept uplevel mostly. One or two people did say that their sleep disturbances were getting worse, an–”

“Madam, if you please, I would like to hear from young Clark.”

Mark swallowed. “That… That sounds like the work of svarts, sir. Your highness. Sir.”

“Doesn’t it just? It’s said that the Selkies have a relationship with the svartálfar, that they can influence their worst inclinations, which may be why we in the capital have avoided the worst of their attentions thus far. But regardless, even people who have yet to experience an encounter with these creatures – if they exist at all – have become fearful. They know the stories. They fear… the Beatrice.”

“I, um… I had a svart encounter myself. Just now, really.”

“Indeed? Not too traumatic, I hope? Well then you would not be one to deny their existence as some still do,” the Scorpion King continued.

“Told you so,” Goddess said sulkily toward the supplicants, as she leant across the desk to grab a strawberry. “And the weather’s all screwy. It’s dark, and cold, and all windy.”

The king raised what may once have been eyebrows. “You can tell? Are you a beacon, child?”

“Uh-huh,” Goddess confirmed, through a mouthful of strawberry.

“Whose?”

“Ours,” Tread replied sharply, her ever blank face somehow contorted into an expression that dared the king to comment further. Mark was momentarily taken aback by the Scorpion King’s apparent surprise, but as he glanced back at Goddess he realised that the girl’s trademark make-up had been washed off or otherwise allowed to fade, and her by-now days’ old clothing had been replaced with an Albrecht FC replica kit, with a big number two and, he could just make out through the crumples, the name Tonnelier. The nature of the Concordium’s economy was still something of a closed book to him, but given the limited number of little black discs still in the supplicants’ possession he assumed this one could be put down to a continuing legacy of the old chairman Pak Man-shik’s famed largesse when it came to free shirts.

“Indeed? Everybody has to believe in something,” the monarch murmured. He returned his attention to Mark. “Whatever others may say, the svartálfar have been part and parcel of life in the Concordium since before it was even founded. Some have tried to harness them as a weapon – a weapon from which even sleep offers no recourse. To no avail, I’m pleased to say, thanks largely to the Selkies. In any case, this isn’t the first time their behaviour has altered, but it has been a long time indeed since it was quite so dramatic. The Morticians, one would feel, have quite enough on their plates at the moment even without this svart-induced mania, let alone with whatever their activity may portend. And yet, Clark,” and here the Scorpion King leant forward over the desk and stared down Mark even harder, “they are prepared to waste significant resources on tracking down one lost little boy. Even now they demand entry, or else order our people to bring you to them. I find that most curious indeed, young man.”

“The boy speaks Old,” Martin pointed out, joining his master at his side, “he could be Gamboan.”

Mark groaned. “Is anyone ever going to tell me what that means, and why it’s a bad thing?”

“It’s no bad thing, per se,” Martin replied, “but anyone coming in unchecked from another sector could be carrying disease or… Well, who knows? The Morticians must have their reasons. And the people of Gamboa do typically speak Old, particular the noble families. They believe in upholding the old ways,” he added, a touch unbecomingly sniffily, Mark felt, for Director of Football Martin Hole-Simpkins the Fourteenthish. “Perhaps there is a family of considerable status missing your presence?”

“I don’t have a family,” Mark snapped. “Not that’s alive, anyway! That shower of sparks over there is the closest thing to it right now…”

“Don’t keep dragging us into this,” Tread spat, as it were, bitterly. “Look, let’s not leak about. The boy’s a cyborg, we all know that. Well, come on,” she continued, in the face of Wonder and Surrogate’s protestations, “they’ll have scanned him when he passed through the turnstiles. As long as he’s kicking around with us we’re harbouring proscribed goods.”

“Still rather a lot of energy to expend at a time like this on finding one immature cyborg,” commented the king, calmly. “But I wonder, gentlemen, ladies, if you are familiar with the concept of pinnies?”

“Oh, the lore,” Mark sighed. “It’s so rich. Go on, pinny me, why not?”

A slight smile emerged from the Scorpion King’s thin lips. “Do you know how a Selkie is made, Clark?”

“I assume when a mummy Selkie and a daddy Selkie love each other very much…?”

“There are no daddy Selkies. Selkies are women, that’s the way it’s always been. Their daughters, except on rare occasions, grow up to be Selkies themselves. Their sons… are seldom born at all. A genetic abnormality means they do not typically develop a brain stem, or otherwise lack sufficient brain for cognition to ever be possible. If they are carried to term, they emerge blind, deaf, ever unaware of their surroundings. They die within hours. Due to the typical shape of their heads, unkind people called them ‘seals’, after a kind of aquatic mammal that could once be found on the shores of the southern islands. More properly, seals were known as pinnipeds… Hence. Some say the Selkies themselves take their name from this label for their sons. That, or from the alternative name of selcouth, the strange ones. So much is forgotten…

“But once,” he continued, “it wasn’t the destiny of all pinnies to live at best the briefest of lives in this world. Before the vortex, some newborn pinnies underwent a procedure. It was discovered, you see, that pinny physiology made them perfect candidates for…” – And here the speaking bean skipped a beat before settling for – “…cyborgification. Their brains became as much biomechatronic as organic. But unlike other cyborgs, the pinnies did not become beasts of burden, nor weapons of war… the pinnies became leaders. Small, misshapen, but with an intellect beyond mere baselines whilst maintaining their humanity in way no supplicant could hope to achieve…”

“Like we’d want to,” Tread muttered.

“What happened to them?” Mark asked, mildly intrigued despite himself. “After the vortex?”

“Before even that, there was the Cyborg Uprising, and the Dictatorship of the Friend. And following that, it was decreed that a merging of mind and machine was too dangerous. The pinnies largely survived the butchery that followed, their status and that of the Selkies was too high, but before too long they passed away and no more were made. Until, I rather suspect… now. You say you just found him slumped in a street, Mr Wonder? Curious indeed. What can you tell me about your early life, young man? The period before you met your supplicant friends?”

“I can’t tell you anything,” Mark snapped, “unless you’re interested in hearing the truth, which you aren’t going to believe anyway. Unless you are, because, you know, God knows. Look, I don’t want to get anyone disassembled. I didn’t ask for this, I didn’t ask to be here! I want to be at home, in my slippers, watching Cafundelense telenovelas and classic episodes of Kura-Pellandi gameshows on TTO 5. I liked being addled, not being able to think too long, too hard. Not being able to remember. I liked the nurses. I just… I want to live out my bloody twilight years in peace, not be dragged into God-knows-what century. I’m not a bloody pinny or a cyborg, and I’m not from Gamboa or any part of Abiodun, alright? I’m bloody Mark Baker, I’m a retired football manager, and I want to go home and die!”

This little outburst did not appear to have had the effect Mark had been quietly hoping for. The supplicants had already discussed his real identity, of course, but, though it had stopped Goddess in shocked mid-strawberry, the Scorpion King and his Director of Football appeared only concerned rather than surprised. They glanced at each other.

“It wouldn’t be the first time the Bakerites have attempted to bring him back once more. Not that he ever actually died in the first place, of course, but the belief of multiple rebirths remains common among Turkish folk.”

Martin nodded. “Reincarnation was a not uncommon trope among the foreign star cults, before the vortex. According to what records we have, anyway. Di Bradini himself, Siki Re, Alan Belmore, Maria Sarah. The Emperor Boston, of course.”

“Yes. Although that one was widely considered canonical, if I recall correctly. For the… sixth time, I believe, following the Third Anatine War. In any case, the Bakerites have certainly attempted to condition an unfortunate individual to believe himself to be the manifestation of their hero. Implanted memories, and so forth. And there are always those who wake up one morning believing themselves to be a famous or legendary figure. Decades ago they used to be sent to the Marcel Souloy Centre, but of course nowadays…”

The Director of Football nodded again. “When I was a boy, my Uncle Marty was quite the one for the services of the kyrkoherds. On a bad day – or a good day, I suppose, from his perspective – he could believe himself to be just about anything. Including capable of taking on a T-46 with a Manflayer420 in mortal combat up in one Kaleta’s rings, I’m sorry to say. And with the Interface you could do just about anything. A pinny brain would be malleable to any amount of reprogramming…”

“I don’t have fake memories,” Mark muttered, his teeth gritted. “And I’m not a damned mental case, or drugged up. I don’t know whose body this is, or what they’ve done to me, but I am Mark Baker!”

The Scorpion King remained silent now, observing Mark intently. Martin however adopted what he presumably felt was a sympathetic face, which also began shifting into a more calming blue from its previous Albrecht FC red. “I’m sure you feel that way, Cla… Mark. What’s the last thing you remember? From your… old life?”

“I… I don’t know. I can’t… I had Alzheimer’s. Or dementia. One of the two, I forget. I remember…” Mark paused, and tried hard to think. Had he been at the Ministry, or the Department, or whatever they called it now? He thought maybe he had, but… why? He hadn’t been back there since Beatrice. The ravages of time, natural and unnatural, had left his memories a soup. Until the last few days, at least. He hadn’t felt as clear-headed for years, he knew. It was awful.

“I know what it’s like to be unable to completely trust your memory,” the Scorpion King told him, quietly. “But you must try…”

“I know what it is like too,” Wonder interjected. “Perhaps it would not do to wear the young man out. Our time may be better spent finding a safe place fo–”

“If what he says is true, he’s an old man, not a young one.”

“Young or old, the Morticians are after him! And that means they’re after all of us,” implored Surrogate. “Wonder’s right, we need to get him to safety!”

“Nowhere’s safe from the Morticians, dear lady. Not for very long, and not without reason. They may have just cause to fear what this pinny, if that is what he is, may be capable of. Mark, if you could only think…”

“Look, I’m, I’m Albrecht FC! That has to mean something to you. I was here as a boy. A loyal fan, even when Price and Prior and Sheppard were dominating the NFBL with Turkish. When Nascimento led us to the title again, I was there. I think… I think I was there, oh… It’s hard! Brain’s been mucked about by the damned Device so much, for so long. Don’t even know how old I am, but… I was there. Your, your, your man, Wayne Thorpe? Striker. Massive nose. There’s a plaque with nothing on out there, says ‘unknown’, well that’s him. I know things!”

The others looked at him piteously as Mark bent forward to shovel half a dubious-looking pie into his mouth. The worryingly liquescent meat content of wholly unclear provenance was, at least, authentic to the Albrecht FC dining experience he knew, and gave him something of a second wind.

“And look… I’m who I say I am. My sister was abducted by faeries who weren’t really, and tied to a Device for the rest of her life. And me, I, I, played football, and I coached footballers, and I went to the Baptism of Fire, and three-and-three-quarters World Cup qualifying campaigns, and then I was abducted by, well, I forget, but I was declared dead, and then I was arrested and put down the Hole, and then for some reason was dropped into a World Cup quarter-final, and then a woman with no toes made me try to knobble C&M’s World Cup campaign but I accidentally helped them win, and then I got pressganged into managing the national team of a breakaway microstate ruled by the aforementioned faeries, and somehow got them to the World Cup at the first attempt, although I concede that the floating head and the flying striker and such forth had a bit of an impact on that, and then… Well then, Beatrice, after a bit, and then… Well, you know. It’s me. I’m an old man, lads. And also, equally, I’m… tired, and I want my mummy and I want to go home.”

It was the Scorpion King who broke the silence. “I think, on some level, we all want our mummies and want to go home. And I’m not sure it could be said I ever had either, so that’s saying something significant about the universal human spirit… Mark, it’s possible, I suppose, that you have all the memories, however jumbled, of that figure of yore whilst still being, at heart, a confused, frightened, child. I just ask myself… what are the Selkies playing at?”

“I expect I’m some kind of saviour figure,” Mark offered, with a matter-of-fact sigh. “Would make no less sense than anything else in this hopeless country.”

“Steady on there, young… old man,” Martin said. “Things are tough at the moment, but we’ve plenty to be proud of.”

“You have?” Mark asked, incredulously. “Oh, sure, right… post-scarcity economy, right.”

“Well… Yes. In Albrecht, at any rate. No-one need go hungry here. We’ve conquered most diseases. Apart from… The Disease, obviously, but… No-one needs suffer in pain, no-one needs to suffer through blindness and other once common afflictions, we’ve even conquered death… after a fashion…”

“Didn’t help your Uncle Marty, did it? And that blindness thing’s a lie, because I saw a guy feeling his way down the street a couple of days ago. No-one was even helping him.”

“I suspect that will have been a Marshallian,” the king said. “You recall Jack Marshall, of the Scorpions and later the Marbles?”

“Vaguely… Midfielder? Won a couple of caps, I think. Deaf as a post, I remember that…”

“Indeed. The Marshallians believe in following his example by testing themselves under conditions of sensory deprivation. Some deny themselves sight, hearing… even touch. Just sit there like bell peppers, those ones. They believe it to be character forming. Alternatively it could have been one of the guamen, but you only really find them in Din and they ritually remove their eyes t–”

“If you really think this place is so fantastic, why do you cling to the past like this? Treating random footballers like they’re epic heroes, role-models, philosophers?”

“I’m sure it was very different in your day,” the king acknowledged with apparent innocence. “It’s a human thing too, Mark. We’re always going to hell in a handcart,” he continued, following a pause in which Mark’s bean rummaged around his brain to find an appropriate translation. “There’s always a glorious past. A time when we were still in touch with God or the gods, the spirits, the ancestors, nature. A time when children respected their elders, when men were men. When there were giants in the earth, and all words were magic. It’s far easier to aim to recapture a wondrous past than create a hitherto unmatched future. And for the people of the Concordium, when was our country greater than the height of Candelariasian involvement in international football? Oh, as the Empire we stretched deep into Rushmore. But that was war, that was money, that was science. It wasn’t glory. For all that we possess, sooner or later, Mark, life is about losing. Football provides glory.”

“Unless you’re a Cathedral City fan,” Mark said, more-or-less automatically.

“They did win a CMSC2 title once,” Martin pointed out. “And the CMSC2 play-offs in season ecs-ecs-ecs-vee-eye-eye.”

“Your little book tell you that, did it? The one in the case in the trophy room?”

“Well… Yes, actually. The Good Book, it’s… Well, we’re just very fortunate to have a first edition in our possession.”

“After the fall of Candelariasian football,” the Scorpion King said, “it soon became something of a taboo subject. Quite apart from the effects of the datapurge, the vortex and the Affront of the early twenty-first century, relatively little exists from that time. The Ultimate Guide has been lovingly copied out, translated, for years now. It’s important to our people. Aside from those stadiums that have survived, the few trophies, statues, it’s the most tangible link to a longed-for past.”

“That’s why all these star cult things seem to be based around CMSC players, is it? ‘Cos you know that’s not the be-all and end-all?”

“Indeed. People know of Di Bradini, Ug-Ug, Laborious Hawk, the Egg, and so forth, but they’re distant figures. Waves of migrants to the Candelarias brought half-remembered heroes of their own – Hadrian Belfast, Ortze Kiriza, Zane Kirchner, Alberich Goldschmidt, etcetera…”

“All Sandrian to me.”

“No reason why they wouldn’t be; long after your time. But even those memories faded. The people of the Concordium, of the Vortex, many of them have no ancestry at all among the Candelariasians of your era, but they’re as devout as anyone else. Because they have the Book.”

“It’s not real football, you know?” Mark said quietly. “I mean, it’s not just that you don’t even seem to play matches anymore. Even the people pretending to play matches aren’t doing it right.”

“I know. I’ve tried, over the years, over the decades… Some may argue that this is my greatest failure, though perhaps not in public. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, indeed.”

“You should try this head out for size, mate. Right pain in the neck, if I actually had one.”

“Hm. The point, though, when it comes to… real football, is that I learnt in time that it doesn’t matter. If I taught them how to play properly, what would that mean? Have you heard the Good News about Albrecht FC, madam? We beat Port of Clotaire two-one! No, the hope of football’s return is worth far more than the sport itself. And the star cults, oh they take things too far sometimes. Too far… But they provide belonging, and philosophies for life. They protect their followers. The Morticians are otherwise all that passes for law enforcement in Albrecht Sector at least, and they don’t concern themselves with all crimes. Theft, for example…”

“What need is there to steal anything in this glorious future of unalloyed prosperity?”

“Goods that can’t be printed. Lives can be stolen. Innocence… And if nothing else, a person can call upon their star cult for protection.”

“Sounds like a great way of organising a society, mate. Well done you. You recko…”

At this point, a few thousand words of tedious dialogue were broken into by a sharp rap on the big office doors. Martin Hole-Simpkins placed his hands on his hips and tutted.

Well. No-one knocks on the door of the Scorpion King’s office. This is quite unacceptable.”

“Never mind that,” Surrogate snapped, “we need to get Clark back down your secret staircase or whatever it is. If those are Morticians…”

“Ms Surrogate. Your concern for the man, or boy, whatever and whoever he is, does you great credit. But ‘hallowed’ though I be, I’m not in the business of pushing my luck. The Morticians may have good reason for wishing to find him.”

“Or they may not. If we could smuggle him up to the Dust, get him to Caires maybe? The Knights of Dimrar take in all kinds of waifs and strays, Allemali too, and th–”

“We have given them plenty of time to reconsider the prominence of this particular mission, but it would appear they see fit to enter the grounds of the Park without permission once more, risking severe official censure,” the king continued, amid further and more frantic thwacking. “You may be assured that Director Allen has given his blessing for such an action, and for better or worse there is no higher authority in this land than he. I’m afraid tha–”

The door burst open, two red-faced Morticians – rendered so by exertion rather than artificial pigments, just to clarify – all but tumbling inside. Between them, Vanderpent the Man-Ape strode forward, and behind him several more Morticians entered a tad more gingerly. Bringing up the rear was another figure entirely, striding because he had no other option but still affecting a sheepish stance.

“Linesman!” Surrogate gasped.

“Oh yeah,” Tread said thoughtfully. “I’d kind’ve forgotten about you…”

“Everyone. Forgets. About. Linesman,” Linesman said sadly.

“You told them we were here?”

“The. Morticians. Keep. Us. Safe. Surrogate.”

“The suppliant here was doing his duty,” Vanderpent told them gruffly, “it’s time some of the rest of you did the same. We have instrutions to deliver the boy, and a warrant to enter any room of this building onsidered necessary in which to do so. I’m sorry, your highness,” he added towards the Scorpion King, “but no-one an harbour ontraband of this nature indefinitely. Not even you. Sir.”

“The Morticians have changed you, Vanderpent of Albrecht.”

“I have a duty, sir.”

“As you say. Fine. You may take the boy, bu–”

“Sorry,” Mark interjected, “hello, hi. Can I just point out that I’m here, listening? Do I get a say in all this?”

“Would you like to resist going with the giant man-ape and his gun wielding compatriots? No, I thought not. The boy will go with you, Vanderpent, but I’ll be accompanying him. Is that acceptable?”

The creature sucked his teeth. “Irregular, but I see no reason why not…”

“And I’m going too,” insisted Goddess, waving away the protestations of the supplicants imperiously.

The Scorpion King rolled his sunken eyes. “And apparently the beacon girl will be coming along too, and in that case I’m sure the many and varied supplicants will be also, and yes, yes Martin, Martin Hole-Simpkins will be along to make sure that I am treated with appropriate reverence. I do hope you’ll be laying on sandwiches.”

Over the following minutes the office became even further packed as several stewards made their way in, received their orders from Martin and the king, and departed. A couple of Morticians did the same, taking the dejected Linesman with them, until seven remained. Each clasped an arm of one of the assorted beings variously associated with Albrecht FC and the enigmatic Clark Laker and, upon a grunt from Vanderpent, pressed the red button on their belts.

And all, for a moment, was yellow.

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Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Sat Jun 04, 2022 2:39 am

Eleven. The Waiting Room


On numerous levels, Mark had to concede, events were not proceeding quite as anticipated.

“And that one’s cathalea makoyana, also known as the peacock plant or cath–”

“Cathedral Windows, yes, Surrogate, I know. And that’s a ponytail palm, or elephant’s knob.”

“Foot, child. Elephant’s foot.”

“You always do this when you’re nervous. Doesn’t she, Wonder? It’s so annoying. I know what all the plants are, okay? There’s only about twenty plants that can grow in the Concordium anyway, that’s what you always say. You’ve taught me them all.”

“I see you’ve outlived your need for me,” Surrogate told Goddess mildly. “I’m sure Clark would like to know, though.”

“Offering’s name is Mark, and he’s probably older than the Scorpion King. I’m sure he knows all the plants already. That one’s a heart-leaf philodendron, before you ask.”

“Well, you do seem to have rolled off the wrong side of the foam this morning, child.”

“Yes. I did. And we all know what that means, don’t we?”

Mark sat back in his plastic seat, and allowed himself a minute’s shut-eye as the living deity and her nanny bickered amiably. Fifteen minutes ago he’d been in fear of his life, such as it was his life at all. He still was, technically, but it added to the incongruity of the situation that his low-level fretting was continuing in an environment that felt not unakin to a dentist’s waiting room. There was the foliage, the comforting pastel shades on the walls. All that was really missing was the better music mix on Pulse 109.3 and a pile of colourful magazines of the ‘Spooky! Raped By My Grandad’s Ghost!’ school.

Of course, he wasn’t waiting to have a tooth pulled, but rather the possibility of his apparently biomechanical brain stem being wrenched from his spine. Now that he’d come down from the high of realising that he was still in one piece despite evaporating into a yellow mist in the Scorpion King’s office and been reconstituted in a corner of what was presumably the Morticians’ HQ, the thought was beginning to focus the mind a touch.

“Has anyone ever been here before, at all?” Wonder had asked, nervously. “It’s, ah… It’s quite something, isn’t it?”

The king had muttered to the effect that he thought he had, once or twice, a long time ago. Tread had pointed out that they were deep, deep as she’d ever been, lower even than the TSS. Surrogate had said nothing, though it hadn’t escaped Mark’s attention that Wonder’s question had seen her smooth synthetic face momentarily flush.

It was quite something, by Concordium standards. It didn’t feel old, nor unloved. There was fresh paint, house plants, hot desking. It looked the kind of place where you didn’t have to be mad to work there, but it helped!!! There was little doubt that the likes of synergize and inclusivity had been deployed here shamelessly on a regular basis over the years. There was a robust commitment to levelling up. There was, not to put too fine a point on it, a beanbag chair.

As you looked further, here and there you could just gain a sense of age. Greenish consoles built along lines similar to those he’d seen abandoned or repurposed elsewhere in the Concordium were in use, coating their user’s faces in a sickly glow, but others were dormant and cracked, and served as places of rest for boxes of snacks and precarious piles of ring-binders. This was not the paperless office. A loudspeaker bing-bonged every thirty seconds or so, though in a blatant contravention of established rules the words emanating from beyond the veil were broadly comprehensible.

Bing-Bong! Svart-induced strike by Printers in Allemali Hawks becoming violent, Mortician response requested! Bing-Bong! Nellies reported in the vents in Cockyard Dust and Dead Levels! Bing-Bong! Stripslide reported stretchways of Winterborn! Several dead or missing! Bing-Bong! Ronion incursion in Moon Town residential level, Mortician response requested! Bing-Bong!

Morticians passed by, both unhurriedly and with speed, most in black but a few in universal don’t-shoot-me-I’m-harmless scientist and medical whites. Graceful selkies and the occasional sinister kyrkoherd moved amongst them, alongside scrubs on messenger duty. At one stage, several slathering boars were dragged into the transportation corner by their Mortician pig-handlers and yellowed away to some mission in a distant corner of what remained of the Concordium. More than one flag hung from a spare patch of wall – three stars in Candelariasian green, on an indefinite black shape that was presumably either a stylised letter C and possibly O or else supposed to represent the vortex itself, all objects seated against a backdrop not of C&M neon blue but Rushmori cerulean. Mark realised that he’d seen such a flag before over the previous days, but scrunched up amongst forgotten human debris rather than hanging in pride of place.

There was also an antediluvian turnip in a glass cabinet, and rather too many jolly-looking skulls about.

There was a brief moment of excitement as several individuals came stumbling in in hazmat suits, accompanied by a shuffling six-foot black dildo who was presumably a supplicant but one didn’t like to judge. A few of the room’s carbon-based lifeforms glanced up as the group took their place in the piffpaff corner and were transported off on whatever mission their particulars were designed for, but it was evident that this was no uncommon occurrence. Overall however, and though Mark had nothing to compare it with, he felt as though there was an air of unease permeating the place. Not fear, but certainly disquiet.

Bing-Bong! Reports of growing disturbances in Thoth, Morganstown, Lenglet! Mortician response requested! Bing-Bong! Fire under control in Limbo market! Three Undertakers hurt! Further Mortician response requested! Bing-Bong!

The room was thinning out, though, as more messages came in over the speaker. This wasn’t just people heading for lunch.

A few Morticians and their compatriots looked over at Mark and his little group as they passed but payed them little heed; not unreasonably assuming, he supposed, that if they hadn’t been reduced to half a dozen steaming piles of ooze by now they were evidently supposed to be there. The face of the apparently hallowed Scorpion King would no doubt have attracted rather more attention, but he had foregone his headdress in favour of a standard issue cloak and cowl, stuffed himself into the closest thing to a dark corner the place had to offer, and was largely hidden by a parlour palm (Chamaedorea elegans, Mark was wholly disinterested to discover).

Two bodies down from him, Tread was muttering dark incantations on a general theme of “Linesman…” and “when I get my hands on that bloody robot” and “do I not like that…” to herself; her red light flashing like a hesitant hooker. “We are supplicants, Tread,” Wonder said quietly at one point, “we bend at the knee, always. It is intrinsic to our manufacture.”

“Not to mine. Didn’t think it was to yours, either.”

“Perhaps not. Perhaps that makes him a better supplicant than either of us.”

For her part, Surrogate’s left knee was twitching with increasing rapidity. Their makers, Mark thought for far from the first time, had been nothing if not thorough when it came to enabling these machines to mimic human behaviour. Or perhaps that wasn’t how it worked at all.

“I think I need the bathroom,” Surrogate murmured, seemingly to herself.

“You don’t have a urethra,” Tread pointed out. “Damn that little scrote…”

Disinclined to discover whether it was he or the newly unloved Linesman who was the subject of this particular piece of Tread’s ire, Mark leant forward and looked around in search of a distraction and soon found one in the form of a hitherto unregarded room at the far end of the office. Perhaps a dozen figures were now visible, mostly seated but some trooping around in considerable animation. They appeared, in fact, to be in the middle of flaming row. His group’s one remaining guard had apparently had the same idea, and had taken his eyes off the supplicants and turned them instead towards the wide, clear windows opposite.

“That our boy Vanderpent getting a dressing down?” Mark asked. An Ifewa Mortician within appeared to be subject to quite the lecture, though the longer they watched the more it was clear that he was giving as good as he was getting.

“It would appear to be more a lively exchange of ideas,” the Scorpion King said, “featuring Director Allen, no less. If you’re lucky, Mr Baker, the powers-that-be might forget about you altogether…”

“You don’t think that conflab in there is about me?”

“I meant what I said earlier. They really ought to have rather more to worry about right now that one little cyborg…”

“So Director Allen’s the big boss, is he? Which one are we looking at?”

“The bald one,” Surrogate said, pointing out a standing figure who, even from side on, was clearly of rather greater age than most of his array of underlings around him, “and yes, he’s been senior Director of the Morticians for a decade or so now.”

“A man not to be trifled with,” the wizened ruler of the TSS added, “though nor are most of those with him. The Morticians possess sectoral branch commanders, but at least as far as Albrecht is concerned you’re looking at the top brass in there. Most Morticians are mere Undertakers. Those, are the Directorate.”

Taking advantage of the guard’s disinterest, Mark hopped off his chair and tried to position himself for a better view. The russet bulk of Vanderpent of Albrecht – a rather well-named being to Mark’s mind, as he thought back to the great Zwangzugian striker’s oft-noted fondest for the great Candelariasian kebab, and the effect thereupon his post-retirement frame – kept at least one or two figures from view, and another of his colleagues did the same – a man of human appearance and general proportions but of frankly gratuitous height.

“Okay, who’s that, then?” he asked, moving back to his seat and repositioning Surrogate’s pointing figure further to the right.

“José Miguel Escobar,” she answered promptly. “Widely said to be possibly the most accomplished Undertaker of our time.”

“Is that a euphemism for longest? Fella’s got to be seven feet!”

“There was a kid with seven feet at the dud show in Limbo once,” Goddess offered disinterestedly. “Gary the Octopus Boy, they called him.”

The group silently digested this observation for a moment, before Tread continued: “He’s a Maddenite. Secretive bunch. Don’t know whether they stretch them or if it’s genetic or what, although most of the ones in Din aren’t as bulky as that anymore, right skinny sods, something’s gone wrong there, I reckon. That’s often the way with the endogamous cults, it’s never really clear if they’re a strain in their own rights.”

“I’m going to regret this, I know, but…”

“Strains? Human subspecies, usually as a result of genetic tinkering or hybridisation.”

“Hybrid…?”

“There’s always been redways who want nothing more than to engage in acts of replication with members of other species. I don’t even pretend to understand any of that business. At any rate, either way there was a proliferation of both after the gene mania, but they’re mostly extinct now, or debased and hiding in the dust levels. Few still knocking about up here, besides the always dubious star cults. Selkies arguably, veras, frogkin, camelids, Ifewas after a fashion, cat-people, harpies, thousands of scrubs...”

“Alright, alright… Please stop listing things, you’re giving me another headache.” Mark yawned. “Okay, actually, one more. Golden-hands over there? That’s the fella we saw tackle that bloody great dud on the way to Limbo, isn’t it? Surely he’s a cyborg if anyone is?”

Surrogate shook her head. “He’s just a T-45 Carasian. By conventional definition, a cyborg has to have technological implants within, or directly attached to, the organic brain. The body is considered fair game, although these days the Carasians jealously guard what understanding of the processes of technological augmentation remains. The golden implants all belong to Carasians, they have their original organic components voluntarily removed. Anyone else who’s got them tends not to show them off so much. It can still attract suspicion…”

“Speaking of which,” Martin Hole-Simpkins said, “it would appear we’ve finally been noticed.”

Several of the members of the room visible between Vanderpent and Escobar had now turned to look through the windows out into the office and the motley collection of artificials and fleshforms. Leading the stares was an imperious, middle-aged selkie – “the Lady Keturah”, as Surrogate whispered. Unlike the confused frowns of the Morticians around her, a satisfied smirk played across her uncovered lips.

It was the never-not-captivating spectacle of Vanderpent that emerged from the room, and loped towards them. “Diretor Allen wishes to see the boy,” he rumbled. “And yes, before you all jump at once, you an all ome alon. Why not? The more’s the merrier, apparently.” With a derisive snort he turned on his shaggy heel and stomped back from whence he came. Mark and the others followed on with seemly reluctance, their fates now indisputably in the hands of the Morticians.

The door to, let’s say, Conference Room 2, or B, no, let’s go with B, was barely wide enough for the man-ape and the new arrivals as they noahed their way in two by two. It so happened that Wonder and Tread led the way, and their arrival in the room was greeted by an enthused cooing from one particular member of the Directorate.

“Ooh, you should have said! How terribly delightful. A Wonderbot5000, I haven’t seen one of those since I was a boy! A valiant attempt at a truly thinking AI. Defective of course, they could never winkle out the mutant algorithm that caused them to think they understood everything. Rather larks though, as walking encyclopaedias go…”

This last sentence was all but drowned out by a hasty array of “Sir”s and “You Highness”es, some perfunctory, others squeaked in awed shock, alongside a general doffing of top hats, as Martin and the Scorpion King made their way inside.

“Honoured by your presence as always, your highness,” another unseen, rather older, voice said.

“I’ve no doubt,” the king replied. “Lady Keturah. Director. And my lady, it has been too long…”

The first voice was still enthusing over Wonder – “…too remarkable really that this one appears to still be functioning…” – as Surrogate entered with Mark and Goddess trailing behind her, bringing the speaker once again to a halt. From a chink between Surrogate and the king’s trailing form, Mark saw him now – a Mortician in white, young, uncommonly pale for the Concordium, instantly unlikable, eyes set not on himself but on Surrogate.

“You…”

“Bobby,” Surrogate said tightly.

“They did say it was a fembot…”

“Oh, you two know each other!” Goddess said brightly. “Were you his nanny too, Surrogate?”

“Something like that,” the one called Bobby replied, in a sneering tone Mark really didn’t care for. “I take it you’re the one we have to blame for this little run-around? Too, too bogus, really.”

“Recriminations can wait, Robert, recriminations can wait,” the rasping voice of the Director said. Mark peered around for a better look at the bald man, and found himself staring directly into his eyes. Like a handful of other residents of the Inside he’d seen, these eyes were black. All black.

Soulless pits of eternal torment, Mark found himself thinking.

“Ahh… The man himself, the man himself. Welcome to the Candelarian Concordium, my friend.”

Before the old manager could think of an appropriate response, the Robert appeared to notice him for the first time and emitted another ‘ooh’. “Up and about, capital, capital! You appear so different, somehow. Uh, I… Uh!” He seemed quite beside himself, repeatedly lacing and unlacing his fingers and puffing out his thin cheeks. “Can you, uh… Can you understand me? Or-or-or, how about now?”

Mark frowned, then realised that his bean had momentarily silenced itself. Robert was speaking Old, after a fashion. “I can understand you either way,” he said, warily. “I have a bean.”

“Wonderful, wonderful stuff. Too divine. Quite puts the spring back in my step…”

“Robert, not that we’re not all delighted you’ve got your latest toy back, but we’ve got things to concentrate on,” a flabby-voiced Mortician interrupted. Mark made to turn and look at the Directorate arrayed around the table, but Robert leapt forward instead and clasped his hands around the manager’s face.

“Oh, don’t carp so, McKeage, it’s perfectly shy-making. So. You walk, you talk. Sound cogent enough. I had fears you’d be simply an infant, or a crumbling ahlrem, but… Are you, can you possibly be truly you…? And if yes, is the memory, is…? Right-right-right. Pull yourself together, Bobby. Let’s see, ah… CMSC Twenty-Three. Albrecht Turkish, away at Radyukevich. David Morrell, uh…”

“Ninetieth-minute winner. Bicycle kick. Legendary moment.”

“Alright. Alright. Baptism of Fire… No, maybe too easy. Well alright, C&M. At home to Qazox, first qualifying game, four minutes in…?”

Mark rolled his eyes. “Fritzo. Knocked in a free-kick from Wangers. Hand-ball just outside the box, I think? It was a long time ago…”

“One more, one more. Gordon Bay City. Away at the Islands of Qutar, yo–”

“Morrison, what in relegation’s name is this about? If I wanted a pop quiz on obscure scripture I’d be down at the seminary.”

“One-nil,” Mark said, before Robert could provide a retort. “Don’t ask me who scored, it was a dead rubber, we’d already qualified. Also, not wishing to kick myself in the shin here, but anyone can reel off old scores. Do you want my pin codes, or something? Something only I would know? Jorge the floating head’s darkest secret?”

His interrogator beamed. “Gordon Bay City scorelines aren’t just ‘old scores’, old boy, they’re lost to history. Remarkable, just remarkable, to have you here. What knowledge that brain holds… Damaged, I’m sure, by the mental degradation, but even so…”

“Morrison. Whatever pet project you’re bimbling on about…”

Gentlemen,” Robert replied, proudly, “ladies… I’m quite as aware as the rest of you as to the nature of the time in which we find ourselves. The very thought of impending catastrophe is quite ill-making. Allow me, to present something of a boost. A fillip, if you will. This,” he continued, pausing dramatically for effect, “is Mark Baker!”

There were gasps, snorts, grunts, one or two laughs. At least one figure dropped to his knees, overcome. The Mortician in white took the opportunity to turn back to Mark and bend down before again him with hands on thighs, in the manner of a singleton who believes himself to be very good with children, and continued: “My name, as you may have gathered, is Robert Morrison. I’m senior geneticist here, at the Mortuary. And Mark… I am your father.”

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Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Sun Jun 05, 2022 2:21 am

Twelve. The Directorate


“Wa’ in relegation’s name are ye blatherin’ about aboyt?”

“When I say ‘father’, I do mean figuratively speaking,” Robert Morrison corrected himself, conscientiously. “It being I who brought this little miracle into being.”

Mark took a step back from Morrison and looked over at the assembled Directorate properly for the first time. The previous speaker had been a young woman, pale and freckled, creatively plaited red hair tumbling down from under her hat. Mark used this second moment of general bemusement to take in her companions as best and quickly as he could, though even considered by the standards of a man who had taken the Gordbaysian national team through five World Cup qualifying campaigns they were a rum bunch. For one thing, rank among the Morticians was apparently indicated by the impracticality of their clothing. Frilly cuffs, thick collars and swishing coattails were much in evidence. Several were staring at him, though rather more were struggling to keep awe-filled eyes off the Scorpion King.

Besides Director Allen, Vanderpent of Albrecht, Escobar the Madden, the Lady Keturah and the golden hands of the T-45; highlights among them included a man of astonishing corpulence, rolls of fat resting on the large rectangular table around which all but Morrison and Mark’s own party sat. A hairy corrandonnet sat with its cloven feet upon the table, the brim of his hat rather wider than those of the others and all but concealing the dark little face beneath it. There were several women besides the redhead – one remarkable for her headwear, with the top hat replaced by a tall, conical number; another an attractive blonde in more-or-less her forties, with a face Mark considered vaguely familiar but couldn’t begin to place. She in turn sat next to a lanky young man, another of the similarly incongruously pale figures at the table, though in his case he had placed his hat in front of him upon the desk and the duly revealed two pointed ears provided some degree of explanation. An epically bearded man continued this side of the table, along with a clean-shaven figure of wholly indeterminate sex, and an extravagantly moustachioed middle-aged man possessing elongated white whiskers and laced fingers twice as long as they had any right to be.

Further tedious listing would have to wait however, for the assembly appeared to have by now achieved a collective grip.

“Clarify your meaning,” a voice in another font altogether demanded. It emanated from the side of the table Mark hadn’t got such a good look at. He peered round now, and looked into the face of a grinning silver skull, jaw flexing wildly with every syllable.

“My dear Slaughter, I mean exactly what I say! Mr Director, may I take five minutes to explain? As I know you understand, the repercussions…”

“Yes, get on with it, get on with it,” Director Allen muttered irritably, head in hand.

“Now look here, you chaps. Some years ago, my friends, Kortsarians digging away within the Depths, not five hundred yards from where I now stand, happened across a collection of hitherto unregarded archaeotech. They did their duty, I’m very pleased to say, and passed what they found into the hands of our dear friend, the late Professor Yost, who would in turn alert me of his findings. What did he find? Why, memory engrams! Enough to constitute the collected memories of a long life, stored within a functioning premodern data recorder. You will be aware that such things have been found before, regrettably incomplete, little more than stray thoughts accessible only. But here… here was a find like no other. Here was, for all intents and purposes, a man. Now any individual from the relevant era, which we were soon able to narrow down to the early twenty-first century, would represent a considerable opportunity – to historians, theologians, scientists, all of us. Of course, there are those among us even this moment who are counted among the Hallowed, who can recall experiences from that era or even before. But their memories have been buffeted by the centuries, I don’t believe it would be too impolite to suggest, or otherwise represent an… outsider’s perspective, yes?”

At this question, eyes flickered towards the blonde woman, who nodded barely perceptibly.

“Quite so,” Morrison continued. “As it is, when individual strands of recollection were isolated, visualised, and rendered accessible to the common man via the Interface, we soon realised that this was far from just any man. This was the Mark Baker. Elderly, certainly. Hardly in the prime of his life. But nevertheless… there. Waiting for us. Waiting for the right body. Too divine.”

“Alright, hang on. Nothing I’ve ever been told suggests the… Candelariasians… at that juncture possessed anything like that level of technology,” he of the cuspidate ears said, struggling for a moment over the unaccustomed demonym.

“Publicly no,” the T-45 answered on Morrison’s behalf, with a wave of golden hand, because why wouldn’t you wave your golden hands if you had them? “Privately, it’s well established that they had access to all manner of technology for use in their temporal manipulation.”

“To say nothing of their control over broadcast media, indeed,” Morrison agreed. “Perhaps it was experimental technology, or acquired from overseas.”

“Why even bother, though? Revered figure or not, there were plenty of others.”

“Why indeed, my dear Eusebia,” he nodded, addressing she of the cuspidate hat. “Perhaps it was common practise, and the memories of other such figures of the period lie still amongst the rubble of ages. But the legends are clear that Baker’s relationship with time, with the Devices and the Ministry, were… intimate, can I say? And complex?”

Mark cleared his – if his was even the right word – throat. “So, sorry, just to be clear… I’m dead? And I’m just some boy… thing, running around with m… with his memories?”

“Very dead, I’m afraid” Morrison said cheerfully. “As for whether you are truly he, that’s quite a matter for perspective. I believe under the People Versus Finlay Hamblett Act of ’34 it was determined that memories do not automatically maketh man, but… Well, regardless. That was a very long time ago in itself. We did make some effort to locate your grave and recover your DNA, but if it’s anywhere it’s Outside amongst the detritus of a fallen society, etcetera, and frankly clones are a ghastly sod to stop melting into ooze after six months, so we considered that a selcouth wou–”

“Stars preserve us, oi knew it wus a selkieson! Wa’ de feck do yer t’ink yer playin’ at!?”

“Honestly, Mary, calm yourself. Do you kiss the Northlandish flag with that mouth?”

“Aye, grand, a reference ter a country nuked ter oblivion centuries ago. Fair play, yer Gamboans are nathin’ if no’ original in yer bigotry.”

“Morrison, Farrell, not the time or place, youngsters, not the time or place,” Director Allen sighed. “And it was a very nice flag, in any case. No lynch mob would string up.”

“I think Mary’s just pointing out that sticking memories, or anything, in a pinny is very illegal,” the one Morrison had called McKeage wobbled.

“We are the law,” his superior pointed out, mildly.

“And the Selkies were fine with all this?” the androgynous being asked.

Across from him, the Lady Keturah nodded. “We’ve been working closely with Morrison and your Director on this matter for some time. Believe me, I am far from comfortable with the ethics and the dangers of allowing one of our sons to grow beyond infancy once more. But given the circumstances in which we now find ourselves, the end justifies the means.”

“So, yer definitely not dis thing’s actual fader, den? As if a Selkie would go near ye anyway…”

“As you say, dear Mary,” Morrison confirmed, with a particularly oily smile. “But no, in this instance.”

“If all this is above board, why have we spent the best part of the last week alivanting around the apital in search of this toe-rag… er… hallowed reinarnate?” Vanderpent inquired.

Morrison’s eyes shifted back to Surrogate. “The last I saw Mark Baker, days ago, he was steeping peacefully. Then I was alerted that I, so it appeared, had entered the maturation chamber, after which recordings of the night in question had been curiously mislaid and the body vanished. Well, I was quite desperate about it, as you might imagine. We could begin the process anew, of course, but even with the appropriate hormonal therapy it would have taken quite some months to bring another selcouth up to that level of physical development before we could begin the implantation procedure again. I confess it hadn’t occurred to me who might be to blame…”

Surrogate lowered her head, but her voice was defiant. “If any of you think that the supplicants in this place don’t talk to the rest of us, you’d be mistaken…”

“If that is true, we will have all those who have access to the maturation chamber disassembled,” the silver skull Slaughter intoned. “There will be no clemency.”

“They’ve certainly got you whipped, haven’t they?” Tread grunted.

“They know what you do, Bobby!” Surrogate snapped, “Just as well as I do. The dust levels are full of your creations, the ones you couldn’t quite bring yourself to put out of their misery! I wasn’t going to stand by and let you do that to another innocent child, not when I had the opportunity to do otherwise! I wasn’t to know that he was really… what he was.”

“So you left him for us to find and bring to her holiness?” Wonder asked. He shook his head. “So many lies…”

Goddess tugged at his arm. “Don’t be like that, Wonder, she did what she thought was right. Surrogate says we should alwa–”

“Maybe we should listen a bit less to what Surrogate says, kid,” Tread told her, as the Director rattled his fingers on the table for silence.

“We don’t have time for a domestic dispute. You supplicants will be dealt with later, and I’ll thank the young lady for silence on her part too. Yes, Kamuzati?”

The ambiguous Mortician lowered their hand. “Not that I don’t have as big a science-boner about this as the rest of you,” he said, apparently answering that particularly question, “never mind to think we’re in the company of an actual Mark Baker, which I don’t know about the rest of you is blowing my tiny mind right about now, but is it really relevant now? We have angry mobs growing in every sector, rebels without a cause to a man. The Wired can cope without sleep, but it’s going to start killing people the longer this goes on. And if the dust goblins are to be believed then it may not be going on much longer at all. She’s coming baaaack. We’ll have no more tiiii–”

“Yes, we get it, we get it. But we have no indication beyond their words that the Beatrice phenomenon is set to happen again. Look,” the Director sighed, “nobody believes in the necessity for preparing for that eventuality more than me. Believe me, believe me. But we don’t know that this isn’t a false alarm, and at the very worst it’s likely to be months befo–”

“It’s not, it’s hours. The weather’s funny.”

Director Allen turned to silence Goddess once more, but Vanderpent cleared his throat. “They say the irl is a beaon, sir. They an sense changes in the weather, sir.”

“I know what it’s said they could do, that hardly means tha–”

“She’s coming back,” Goddess told him, with a shrug. “The dust goblins have been telling me every night for weeks. And Outside, it’s cold, it’s dark, the vortex is even angrier than usual. The selkies know.”

Mark watched as the Director glanced towards Lady Keturah, who gave her own little nod. “I know,” Allen said quietly. “Alright, yes, I know! Well aware, well aware. Put away the shocked faces, everyone. Yes, things are progressing much faster than I had ever thought possible. But whether hours or months, or even years away, we have to prepare for the worst. The trauma of the Beatrice shook the Candelariasians for decades. They shrunk into themselves. They lost football, lost their self-belief. I’ve no intention of being the Director who allows it to happen once more, not without a fight.”

“But señor,” Escobar opined to general agreement, “where can this new Mark Baker possibly fit into all this?”

“Ah, wait,” Mary said, “surely oi know where dis is headin’. Morrison, yer feckin’ eejit…”

The blonde woman laughed lightly. “Robert, do you want to illuminate the rest of us? I’m assuming there’s some subtext here I’m missing, slash don’t care about?”

Near her, the man with the moustache and whiskers stuck out a long finger. “No, I’m getting the picture too,” he said, revealing green mandibles that neatly shut themselves away once he had stopped talking, “this is about the legends, isn’t it?”

“Well yes, as a matter of fact. Er… Franco, perhaps…?”

The assembled turned towards a previously silent figure all but hidden in Vanderpent’s shadow, a small man with two uneven eyepieces and a pointy little beard. He emitted some nervous, spluttery noises before looking upwards, apparently conducting a thorough observation of the white ceiling.

“Ah… Ah, yes, yes. Ah, the Account of Dexter, Grandson of Coates the Sawbones. Chapter Two, from Verse Eleven, and I editorialise a touch here: ‘And at that time they were joined by a man of mighty stature, a red man, and a black man, and they did present unto the multitude a third man. And they did see that he, though being decrepit of body and infirm of mind, was a man of such repute, being him named Mark, and being him a manager past, of his country and another, and a man of a time, a man reborn so it is said, and a brother of time and a brother in his own right, and a teacher of brothers. And he did stand and face the Beatrice with them, an–’”

“And you get the idea with that,” the Director said. “Thanking you, Mister Tidmarsh, thanking you. There are other accounts, of course, from before, during and after the Affront, many of them a twinkle more accessible if rather less fun, I think. Or as thorough, in fact. But most acknowledge the presence of Mark Baker at the time of the hatching.”

“We all know the legends, sir,” Eusebia of the conical hat told him. “Or at least we should do. But I don’t really see why we think having a Mark Baker of our own would make any odds if the Beatrice really is coming back. Um, I should say also, sir, for what it’s worth, my people also agr–”

“Agree that her return is imminent? I’m aware, Ms Yarrow, I’m aware, I’ve spoken to the Headmistress on the matter. As far as Baker goes, I’ll hand you back to our esteemed geneticist…”

“Thank you, Director. There are several opportunities this little miracle of science presents us, but first of all think of the very fact that we have someone standing in our midst who can verify what happened on that fateful day! Why, it’s quite divine! Mere legends, no more! He can tell us what went wrong, what went right. Mark, perhaps you could…? Your version of events, oh hallowed one?”

Mark nervously licked his lips. He’d been worried about this one for a while.

“I mean, yeah, no… I don’t… I don’t remember. Not really. There’s a lot that’s missing anyway, and really a lot from the last year or so I was in charge of the Gordon Bay team, and thereafter. I know, I mean, it’s true, I was there, at the Beatrice. I was. But, I… Some things have been coming back though,” he rallied, enthusiastically, “I couldn’t remember what happened before I woke up here, and now I do! A little, anyway. I went to the Department, whatever they were calling it this week, because I’d had these dreams, vivid, strange, and I thought I ought to tell them. It had been months earlier, but I’d stopped having them, y’see, and things had gone downhill for me since then, and… Seems silly now, but… They took a scan of my brain, and that’s… That’s all I remember…”

“Well that’s just peachy,” McKeage muttered.

“He said himself that memories are returning,” Morrison told him, defensively. “In any case, having someone who was present at the time is only one factor here. This gentleman is a genius, dear friends!”

“Steady on, ‘pops’,” Mark found himself murmuring.

“Well, it’s only true. Guided two countries to the World Cup, the second at the first time of asking! Too divine! We may know only small portions of Gordon Bay City’s story, but their achievement was without precedent!”

Apart from Oickoidia, Mark thought to himself, a touch guiltily. And I had a floating head and a camel. I’m no genius, not like the kids they have nowadays with their ‘formations’ and their ‘tactics’. I was just a decent coach. ‘Lump it up to the big man’ could have been written on the tombstone I apparently have somewhere out there. I could dabble in some ‘neat little triangles’ when I was feeling fruity, but… I was just in the right places… at the wrong times, usually. It’s not like I actually won the World Cup or anything.

“Like no-one else,” Morrison was continuing, “Baker can provide leadership, and discipline… Once his pinny mind has been fully exploited, he ca–”

“Leadership and discipline to who?”

Morrison took a deep breath. “Gentlemen, ladies… Of what else do the legends speak? I speak, of course, of the Brothers. Be they three in number, or ten or dozens, I admit there is some confusion on the matter, it is known that the Candelariasians created warriors with the express intention of defeating the Beatrice. Men of great physical strength, quickness of mind yet singularity of thought and mission. It has long been the goal of so many to follow the example of our ancestors…”

“Aye, an’ that’s feckin’ dense an’ all! The Brothers failed. That’s de whole point.”

“And no-one’s ever managed to create so-called Brothers of our own, in any case,” McKeage agreed. “Vatgrowns are as bad a clones, you can’t trust the carnificators or their produce an inch, and all the old strains turned on their creators eventually. And who’s to say you can even kick the Beatrice to death anyway? The ancestors were probably dead wrong, and we’d just be repeating their mistakes. I… Oh, you have, haven’t you? You’ve gone and made some bloody Brothers!”

“Not just him,” the Director said, mildly, “not just him. As I say, we’ve been working on this for some time.”

“Twenty-three vatgrowns, in fact, old boy,” Morrison told the rotund Mortician. “And just as their predecessors of centuries past, each has the qualities of twenty men. Even some of the positive ones, ah-ha. Well… They will, anyway. They’re just babies for now, we haven’t even activated them yet, but they already have their memory engrams installed. Not anything as complex as we can provide a pinny, but enough to ensure that they will be great…”

“Why twenty-three, boyo?” the bearded man asked. “Seems quite a lot to handle.”

“Sacred number, Mo,” McKeage told him. “It’s a football fan thing.”

Morrison nodded. “But it’s so much more than that. Everything we know about the ancestors tells us that this archipelago was at its greatest – not militarily, not economically, not by gross national happiness perhaps, but by renown, by influence, by sheer confidence – during that brief but significant period we know as the International Era. What better, then, than football, the key plank of that era, to provide discipline, belonging… a home? Each of our twenty-three brothers will, in time, be placed with one of the remaining clubs. More than that, each has that club woven into their very DNA! Within their unique genetic structures is an affinity for their club colours, even for what we understand of the club’s historical culture, their playstyle. An inherent personality reflecting the culture of the ancestral teams. And I’m sure you think that I’ve gone quite dotty, but I assure you it’s really quite easy to do once you get the hang of it.”

“Grand so,” Mary sighed. “Dis is what happens when ye allow football people the run o’ de place. Dere’s too many fans here, too many cultists. ‘Tis gone to your heads, so it has, acting the feckin’ maggot.”

“Always appreciate your input, Ms Farrell,” the Director replied, not without a note of accord, “take your point, take your point. But it’ll give them a more well-rounded upbringing than simply making them soldiers.”

Mary persisted. “’Tis not loike we even really know what football was anymore…”

“That’s what Offer… er, Clark, um, Mark, said!” Goddess told the room, cheerily. “And the Scorpion King said he’d tried to teach people, but that it wasn’t really the point, and… Well they did,” she added, amid glares from several of the more devout Morticians, apparently unkeen to see the Scorpion King’s name taken in vain, “I’m just saying… Pardon me for breathing.” She threw her back against the far wall and slid down to the floor with her arms folded.

“I suppose we have someone now who can teach them,” Tash-Fingers-Whiskers-Mandibles-Man said dubiously.

“We had that before though, isnet?” the one called Mo said in a lyrical accent that Mark got the distinct impression the speaking bean enjoyed doing immensely. “I mean, there’s whatever your man the Scorpion King over there is, for starters. Who even is he, at the end of the day?”

His Highness remained passive whilst several of the Morticians around him cringed. McKeage wobbled his jowls tensely. “It matters not who he is, only that he is,” he replied. It sounded well-rehearsed. “You’re new here, Mo, and northern, but… On behalf of all us Scorpions, you won’t discuss his highness in our presence. Or his!”

“Sorry I’m sure, boyo. We do have a Hallowed of our own up in Rosasharn, look-you?”

“Adamczyk? He’s a desiccated husk who hasn’t spoken for two centuries.”

“Well what about her,” the northerner persisted, with a wave towards the blonde woman. “She’s probably forgotten more football than we’ve ever known.”

“I have heard it said,” Escobar suggested hopefully, “that elves do it better…”

The blonde laughed lightly, tossing her locks in a manner than caused Mark’s hired body to undergo something of an awakening. She absentmindedly tucked a strand of hair behind an ear, revealing an undeniable point. “It’s been a long time since I could truly say I was one of those,” she sighed. “I was little more than a baby myself when I first came here. This country raised me, for better or worse. But do you really think they would listen to anything I had to teach them in any case? Most of your people think elves are purple and lack pupils, and the rest remain convinced we spend our time stealing blond children.”

I think you could teach me anything, Mark found himself thinking, but declined to enunciate it. I do know you though, don’t I? And the other pointy next to you. Well, well, well…

“But what about the Beatrice? You could teach us about that, at least. Anything you know might…”

“I wasn’t there,” the elf woman said with a shrug. “I was away in Cafundéu, before they fell apart even worse than the Candelarias. By the time I came back… ‘home’… it wasn’t a subject Candelariasians were keen on discussing much. Not with outsiders, especially. I’m sorry.”

“Just remaining on the subject of babies,” Eusebia said, “even superhuman babies… what do you think they’re going to do to the Beatrice if they face it? Throw their rattles at it? Vomit on it?”

“Yes, it’s a frightful bore, this aging process, isn’t it?,” Morrison acknowledged. “There’s a reason we called this Operation: Patience. If it was just about the body, you understand, we could have made them full-grown adults straight out of the vat. Or just used some of the Admiralty’s pet beefshacks as hosts. But the brain needs time to maturate, I’m afraid. Longer than we may have…”

“We don’t know that anything is immine–” someone began, as the door to Conference Room B, I think it was, opened and a Mortician waited impatiently for the supplicants still blocking it to move aside.

“Sir,” she said, bobbing around until she spotted the shiny dome of Director Allen, “we think you probably ought to hear this.”

A minute and a great deal of shuffling later, Mark had meekly followed the Director back outside into the now even more threadbare offices of the Morticians. There was momentary confusion until the tannoy bingbonged anew.

Bing-Bong! Mortician response requested! She’s coming back! You’ll have no more time!

“But… why?” McKeage implored, breathlessly. “Unless everything we’ve been told is a lie –”

“Perish the thought,” Mark muttered.

“– the Beatrice happened as a result of the misuse, or overuse or whatever it was, of a Device. And if the same phenomenon was to blame for the vortex, then we can certainly say the same about that too. But we don’t even have a device! The gegnomes stole the surviving ones, and as far as we know they were destroyed, or… they… We don’t have a time dilation device anymore? Do we? Guys?”

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Mon Jun 06, 2022 2:48 am

Thirteen. The Orb


“Director… May I speak freely?”

Mark didn’t notice who said it, though it hardly mattered. They were speaking on behalf of most of their colleagues anyway. Director Allen waved their protestations away all the same.

“Minor experiments. Moving a meat block back five minutes, that kind of thing. Nothing dangerous, nothing dangerous. Nothing to worry about.”

“¿That’s why you kept it secret, huh?” said Escobar. The merest whiff of insurrection had replaced the acrid yellow of the Morticians’ teleportation technology.

“We’re deep,” Tread had said, before any human eyes had adjusted following the jump, “deeper than I’ve ever been.” Mark hadn’t needed telling. By some instinct, he’d known exactly where they were before he’d seen the offending object. He’d never wished to see it again, never thought he would.

The Device Room. Not the one he’d known exactly, of course, at least not in terms of décor. But it was the same room, he could… feel it, somehow. Damn them. It should have been levelled in his time, instead… They’d repaired it, given the walls a lick of paint so now they wouldn’t look out-of-place in Goddess’ sparkle cave. It looked quite different to the dark functionality of the rest of Albrecht, or even that of the Mortuary. This was a place designed to remind anyone present that it was special. Centuries on, buried under so many tonnes of… well, whatever the Inside was made of.

The tech that lined the outskirts of the vast room had changed, though perhaps less than he might have expected. The faces had changed rather more; Morticians, Selkies and members of the Wired, but the salient facts of its damned existence remained. The plinth, the same old plinth, or perhaps they’d printed a replica, in the centre of the room. Two chairs either side, with old men seated upon them. And upon it the orb, the giant blue-green marble, spinning gently.

“Minor experiments…” he echoed, weakly.

“¿So it wasn’t true? ¿What we were told of the gegnomes?”

“Quite true.” This was Morrison, though it was almost drowned out by a low growl from Vanderpent. “Inasmuch as any facts can be considered to have survived the datapurge intact. But another one was found. Kortsarian archaeologists again… or maybe Menguccians searching for El Dorado or Shangri-La or some such, I forget. Before my time here, twenty years ago maybe?”

“So if she’s coming back,” McKeage said, “it’s because of twenty years of device abuse? Director, I, I… I don’t know what to say.”

“We haven’t abused it, damnit!” Allen snapped. “All of you, understand that! Read my lips, read my lips, or listen to your bean, whichever… Minor. Experiments. And that’s only been in the last couple of years. Nothing on the scale of the ancestors. Nothing!”

“And yet here we are,” the male elf said drily. “And I’m left wondering, sir, if our use of the device is nothing to be concerned about, and certainly nothing to do with the dust goblins invading the dreams of the collective Concordium to warn us of her imminent return nor, as the young lady says and I believe our meteorologists confirm, the encroaching cold and darkness, the vortex raging more than ever… Why are we here? Sir?”

Mark saw the Director shut his sable eyes tightly for a moment, and clasp his hands together. Then he opened them, and addressed the assembled Morticians, Mark, the Scorpion King and Martin Hole-Simpkins, Goddess and her worshippers, adopting his most statesmanlike tone.

“Ladies, gentlemen, Mx Kamuzati, artificial lifeforms… Before we made the jump here, I was made aware of certain facts. One stands out above all others. While we lack access to geostationary satellites as our forefathers did, both before the vortex and before the hatching, sensor sweeps of the sky have told their own story. An object is coming, friends, an object is coming. To this spot. Not fast. But our experts estimate it will make contact with the upper Inside in under an hour. Now… it’s possible that it may find any route to inhabited areas, never mind this room, blocked by the sheer number of levels ahead of it. But the legends… The legends, the Account of Dexter and numerous others, do not suggest that much can stop it for long. Vague as many of them are, there is general agreement that millions of men were lost. Sinha, Slaughter, Maodez and Williams are as we speak beginning an evacuation of those areas of the domiciled levels we believe lie in its path. The scrubs and ronions will have to make their own arrangements, I’m afraid, but we’ve given them as much warning as we can, as much as we can. It’s now up to us to make preparations of our own.”

“An’ de Association? Oi take it we ‘av checked in wi’ th–”

“The Association is of no concern, Farrell, they’re of no concern…”

“What about the… the powers-that-be,” McKeage asked, dropping his voice to a whisper. “Do they even know about this place? Do they know what’s coming? We can bring them here; they can help…”

“They’ll know,” the blonde elf told him. “And if they’re not here already, it’s because they have no wish to be. They may even have found a way to insulate themselves from… from the effects.”

“And what are we supposed to do, then?” the T-45 asked, flexing his synthetic hands in frustration. “Sick Robert’s babies on them?”

“Yes, actually,” Morrison replied calmly. “Just not right now.”

“What, are we having dinner first? Perhaps a trip to the music hall?”

The Mortician Mary, who appeared to be rather faster on the update than several of her colleagues, groaned. “Yer goin’ t’use de device, ain’t yer? T’send de wains back t’airty years or somethin’? Ah, begorrah!”

Mark was getting the distinct impression that the bean was rather winging it at this point.

“We could,” Morrison conceded, “if the Selkies are able to work their magic. But my dear, the damage to the timestream could be debilitating…”

“Have you even any idea if ‘damage to the timestream’ is even a thing?”

“Not a one, McKeage! But the Director, and the Lady Keturah and I all agree… The ancestors had an expression: ‘Might as well be hung for a capybara as a… smaller capybara’. Something like that, anyway. We suggest, never mind twenty or thirty years. What about several hundred?”

“Send the brothers back centuries?”

“And an entourage to help protect them while they’re still young, before they can be disseminated amongst the various clubs of the Pre-Beatrice Era. You were all correct, earlier, pains me so though it does to admit it. The ancestors failed in their bid to create a group of super-soldiers to defeat the Beatrice. But if we can augment that number, add twenty or more of our own, it’s possible we could stop the Beatrice event from ever happening in the first place!”

Morrison opened his arms and took a ‘praise me, bitches’ stance. The remainder of the Director stared at him, appalled.

“You’ve gone crazy, man,” Mx Kamuzati spat, their normally smooth tones suddenly harsh. “You’re not thinking of going along with this, Director?”

“It’s very much ‘Plan B’, but as it stands we’re all out of better ideas. We can’t beat it, not with a bunch of babies. The best case scenario may be that our people are subjected to the same trauma the ancestors faced in twenty-ten. Worst case? Its final vengeance…”

“We have no idea whether the legends are even remotely accurate,” Eusebia opined, “we could be making things so much worse. And if we succeed… that could destroy our future in the process! I mean, our past, our present… Everything after the Beatrice could change, we could all simply vanish! I… I’m sorry, I need to talk to the Headmistress, we can’t simply allow this…”

“If you all vanish you won’t know any different,” Morrison pointed out. “The notion’s quite ill-making for me too nonetheless, I don’t mind saying. But there is also… Sir?”

“Go ahead, Robert, go ahead.”

“Franco, as we discussed, if you would read from the Account of Dexter again?”

Franco Tidmarsh, the little man with the eyepieces, keep up, mumbled to his himself in acknowledgment and stared up to the ceiling once more. After a short while he began to read. “‘…joined by a man of mighty stature, a red man, and a black man… ah, being him a man of time, and a brother of time…’ And, and, before that, yes, mm, here we are, ‘And stood there plentiful men, being them brothers of mind and spirit, of great strength and purpose, and they did stand thence against HER, and did…’ And now obviously this part’s disputed but…”

“Never mind that. The brothers, friends. Brothers, Baker the man of time. The red man…”

“Oh, you annot be serious…”

“Oh, Vanderpent, have you ever known me to jive so? Franco, verse fourteen, I think?”

“Mm, yes, very good, ah, ‘And it came to pass, as SHE moved against them, that came there a Queen and a fairy prince and a man of twain, of Man and Sprite, being him of knowledge beyond mere men, a pale rider who came upon the back of a Great Goose surrounded by his Stepdaughters and his Men in their millions, and he did unite them for he was disparate himself, being him having tasted two worlds…’ …etcetera… I always rather felt Dexter laboured the point a little there. Ah, ah, as it were. Point. Ah-ha.”

Morrison surveyed them triumphantly. “Baker might simply be Baker. A giant red man might simply be a redhead like dear Mary. Of course there are myriad interpretations. But here we have, quite clearly, a half-elf. Now where do you suppose the ancestral Candelariasians would have found one of those, hm? From what we understand, they were hardly strewn about the very place.”

The eyes of the Directorate had been flicking back and forth between Morrison, Tidmarsh, the Director, Vanderpent… and now to the lank young man with the conspicuous ears. He swallowed.

“Alright, but look… If I remember correctly, and I probably don’t, a significant chunk of Dexter focuses largely on vengeful Aztec gods attacking a football stadium, something for which there exists no other extant account and is generally considered to be apocryphal. You could be sending us to our deaths, centuries before our births, on the basis of one old man’s lunatic ravings during an all-time low point for the nation. Or a misinterpretation of them…”

“It should go without saying that I will be with you, friend. Dexter’s is not the only account that references the father or creator of the Brothers on several occasions. Again, we could be reading into his words what we want – or don’t want – to see. Or…this could be our destiny…”

The half-elf bit his lip, his breathing heavy, as he attempted to wrestle between two trains of thought clamouring for attention. “Well. If… If it is written… If it is our destiny… The man who folded his elf, eh?”

No!” the blonde elf shouted suddenly, turning fluid eyes upon him. “The Candelariasians failed! Believe me, your ancestors didn’t stop brooding on it for the rest of their lives, despite everything else happening around them. Even if Morrison is right, maybe the very thing we shouldn’t do is repeat the mistakes of the past! Interfering with the timeline might have been the very thing that brought about the calamity in the first place!”

“And if we don’t return as Dexter appears to tell it, then our own existences may be in equal peril,” Morrison told her, portentously. “We have the benefit of a second chance. We can learn from our own mistakes, or fulfil our predestined role either way…”

“I will not allow it,” she hissed back, and turned to Director Allen imploringly. “Please… I’ve lost too much. Family, too many friends, too many loves… I cannot lose another son…”

“Lúthien…” the Director replied helplessly, reaching out his fingertips to hers. “An old friend once told me: ‘Fickle are the ways of destiny’…”

“Mother,” said the young man, “we both joined the Morticians to help this country. Did the Candelariasians of your early years not write: ‘There are no easy games at this level’?”

“I expect they did…”

“We all know the responsibilities, and the risks, that come with this hat. If this is to be my role, then so be it. Father would have wanted me to do my duty.”

The Director nodded. “I never knew him, of course. But I have it on the best of authorities that William Martino was one of the finest of servants the Concordium has ever known. He would be proud of his son. Of both of you, both of you.”

Lúthien Anwamanë placed her forehead upon her son’s and, with her voice barely more than a whisper, told him: “Then go, my Daniel. Fulfil your destiny. Elune shall walk with you…”

“Always, mother. Always. And, you know… If Morrison is right, then for a time at least we’ll be together in the Candelarias. I could… say hello? Pop round for a glass of wine?”

“But you didn’t, Daniel,” the elf whispered. “You didn’t…”

“To be fair,” Martino replied, “I was probably pretty busy learning how to ride the giant goose…”

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Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Tue Jun 07, 2022 1:55 am

Fourteen. The Shard


One of the things about being old and decrepit, mentally as much as physically, was that it made your reincarnation in the body of a child relatively easy to handle. The big thing was the powerlessness. Mark had expressed just one firm wish in the past week – to be taken to Albrecht FC’s stadium – and even that had been from a very limited array of apparent options. Otherwise other people made his decisions for him, and it didn’t seem to matter if they knew he was actually a card-carrying grown-up of quite some decades standing or not. He looked like a kid – a weird-looking kid, to be sure, but a kid nonetheless – and so he was treated as one. Once, he’d been a mighty ocean liner on this sea of life. After his first fateful encounter with Lyndon Hernández he’d been downgraded to a tugboat. Now, his existence was as a lost rubber duck. He bobbed, and the ocean took him where e’er it wish’d.

Or something.

No-one had asked him: “So, hey, um, kid? Or old man, whevs. You cool with being sent back in time several centuries to act as mentor to a squad of genetically engineered baby footballers who’d probably grow up to be homicidal maniacs without you, and possibly with you to boot, in the hope they can one day kick a Phenomenon to death and thereby change the whole course of the future, including the distinct possibility that by doing so the circumstances of your rebirth could fail to come to pass and, as a result, you’d be a temporal anomaly just begging to be corrected out of existence by a Device? You’ll probably have to live alongside your past, yet comparatively aged, self for a few decades, watch him get married to your wife and have your kids, bury your parents and more than one friend, while you… do whatever it is you’re supposed to do. We’re not a hundred per cent sure, tbh. But, y’know. Destiny, innit?”

He had to concede though that he, in turn, hadn’t told them: “Look, you know that this isn’t how any of this works, right? I do remember things. I picked stuff up, and then bits and pieces came out in the Truth & Reconciliation hearings. Time isn’t a washing line. A person’s life isn’t a pair of undies that you can just unpeg and move further down the line. Or, rather, you can… but then what happens to the washing machine that washed those undies? What do you do with all the days in history when someone wore those undies? Someone stitched those undies, or built the robot that stitched those undies. Someone designed those undies. Those undies have a life. They have a history, they…

Alright, let’s not get hung up about pants. Look, the point is, things can’t actually be moved in time. Not with one of these here Devices, anyway. It’s events that get changed. You’re a pooh stick rushing down the river, and nothing is going to stop you careering over the waterfall and into the void eventually. A Device changes the shape of the river. It messes with the eddies, fiddles with the memories of the journey downriver. And there has to be a price to pay for all that.

If your life is pushed back, then so are your mum’s and dad’s, and their mum’s and dad’s. And what about your friends’ lives, and the rest of your families’ lives, and the lives of everyone you’ve ever encountered? Well they would have to be pushed back too except, except, the Time Dilation Device is clever, see? And ill-named, because it doesn’t dilate time and ‘device’ does it a major disservice, but the point is… It can patch things up without making too much of a mess. That lass who served you coffee on that October Thursday, three years ago, she doesn’t need to be pushed back too. She can just serve a different guy instead, and a different woman, or maybe a man, can serve you. None of you’ll ever notice the join. And perhaps you and that lady shared a smile, and perhaps she gave you her number, and perhaps you had a thing, for a bit, but you wanted different things so you parted company. We-ell, that’s not so important, is it? Not so life-changing that it would need her life to be pushed back along with yours. So the Device makes room for you having been born a few minutes, a few weeks, a few decades earlier… and you two never meet, and you never get her number. And it doesn’t matter, because she’ll meet other people, and you’ll meet other people, and neither of you will be any the wiser because the Device changes memories too.

Better hope they stay changed, eh?

But just to get back on track, lads… If you reckon you’re going back in time by several centuries, if you really think that’s going to work… what’s the Device going to do with your parents, eh? With their parents and their parents and their parents and… you get the idea. You reckon the Device can cope with that without tearing a hole in time so big it’ll envelop Oygruppen?

Or… maybe it just won’t work. Either way, this is a hell of a, what do the Chesapeakines and that lot say? A hail Mary. And you know what I think? I know the bean’s dumbing things down for me, but I don’t reckon you’re qualified theoretical physicists. You don’t even talk a good game. In the parlance, you don’t know what you’re doing. Me? I reckon you’re going to fuck it, lads.”

It would’ve taken a long time to say, to be fair.

Instead, the ocean of the Device room flowed around him. Morticians came and went, many of them in yellow puffs of teleportation energy or… whatever the science bit was. Mark hadn’t bothered to ask. The answer would no doubt come in the form of a list, and possibly an accent, and he’d had quite enough of that.

He huddled silently with Goddess and the supplicants. None of them wanted to be there, nor did they need to be there, and Surrogate at least was presumably a wanted criminal at this point, but they had nowhere else to be and appeared to the rest of the room to be in some way in the company of Martin Hole-Simpkins and the Scorpion King, and no-one was telling them what to do, so they all just remained, hanging about. His highness still attracted attention; nervous Morticians and Selkies who were no doubt locals and Albrecht FC fans looked to him for reassurance but were rewarded only with a stony stare.

There were more and more selkies now; their long white dresses fluttering amongst the golden dispersion of the Morticians’ piffpaff juice. One by one, they were taking places seated cross-legged on the floor around the Device. No-one had explained quite what they were planning. Apparently, it hadn’t been necessary. Once Plan B had been agreed upon, there didn’t seem to be much that needed to be discussed.

One or two selkies remained standing, Mark noticed. Lady Keturah, communicating with her underlings largely by stares and nods, in such a way that had Mark wondering if her strain weren’t telepathic or some such. Another selkie – pale and rather younger, though he’d realised by now that the biosculpting and wotnot still on offer even in the post-vortex and post-datapurge Concordium made it rather hard to tell – was hanging around awkwardly near that group of Morticians who had been designated as the day’s brave chrononauts.

“Sir?”

Another creamy cloud dispersed to make way for the form of Mo Williams, the bearded Mortician; who adjusted his belt – Mark, who was clinging on to the details in the hope of keeping his sanity with it, noticed vaguely that the man’s big red button was in fact a big green one, presumably in deference to a Bettian heritage – and waved for the Director’s attention.

“Go on, go on.”

“It’s made contact, sir. Physically, I mean. Smashed through three floors and heading for the domiciled levels. We may have minutes before she reaches the Device room, sir.”

“Very well, very well. Let’s get this started…”

“This isn’t going to work,” Mark whispered aloud, but no-one was listening. Escobar walked past him, carrying a sack from which he pulled forth a handful of shiny green shards hung around pieces of string and handed them one by one to Goddess, her worshippers, and others standing around. They still had some shards, then, after all these years. Or perhaps they were new ones, the remnants of a Device destroyed in uncertain circumstances by these gnomes of theirs? Whichever, he knew their purpose. They protected the wearer from the effects of the Device. In his day, politicians and Ministry folk wore them, particularly when they were in the vicinity of the Device itself. But what did ‘protection’ mean in this context? They were attempting something the Candelariasians had never come close to trying. This wasn’t shoving the events of a football match or two back a couple of weeks. This wasn’t going to work…

Escobar handed the Director a shard, and spoke to him as he passed: “I should be going with them…”

“No way, José. I need you here. One way or another, I’m about to lose some of my best people. I need you, in case we somehow succeed and survive to tell the tale.”

“It also seems pretty likely old Coates, or Dexter at least, would have passingly mentioned the seven-foot-tall man, if you’d been there,” Morrison pointed out.

“He doesn’t mention me,” said McKeage, anxiously running sausage fingers between rolls of neck fat. “That doesn’t bode well for my chances of surviving our trip through to the great confrontation. Plus, I’m going to stick out like a sore thumb back there.”

“Yeah, I’m full of sympathy for your plight,” rumbled Vanderpent.

“At least you’re mentioned, ‘red man’. What about us four?”

“If it helps,” Daniel Martino told him, the half-elf avoiding his mother’s dejected glower all the while, “from what we know of the ancestors they had quite the obesity problem during that era. You probably weren’t worthy of comment.”

More selkies now, and kyrkoherds, materialized from distant doors. The latter, faces covered by beaked masks, were arranging themselves in the company of the seated selkies, but the women’s kin were mostly tasked with pushing forward a vast circular construction along its little wheels. Mark wasn’t the only one who was clearly bemused until it emerged through the piffpaff haze and he could see a dozen tiny frozen faces. The Brothers, the deliverers of the Candelarias from Her, waiting to be awoken centuries before they had been lifted from their steaming vats.

McKeage whistled, inasmuch as his flabby lips allowed him. “That’s going to create a hell of a childcare prob, Bob.”

Mary nodded, and glanced coldly towards the attractive young selkie at Morrison’s side that Mark had noticed earlier. “Is dat what she’s for? Because if ‘tis nannies ye need thar’s plenty’ve supples abou’. Yer shagbot over dare not withstandin’,” she added, with a nod of a head towards Surrogate.

“You are quite vile, Mary Farrell. Clotaire’s gain shall be our loss. No, Sister Cozbi travels as a selkie, not an ersatz caregiver… which I suspect shall end up rather more your job. If we’re to return to our own time, if that is to be our destiny at all, we will require the use of a Device, and therefore likely someone with an instinctive affinity for such impenetrable creations. We need a selkie.”

“Why not someone more experienced?” Kamuzati asked, “if not Lady Keturah herself then the Lady Iscah, or, what’s-her-face, Sister Ephrath over there. Or, you know, just someone who doesn’t look about twelve. No offense, love.”

Sister Cozbi lowered her head meekly. Mark wondered if he was the only one to notice her hands rested protectively over her stomach.

“She’ll do fine,” Morrison insisted. “I’m sure we’ll all be one big happy family in twentieth-century Candelaria before too long. It’ll be too divine.”

“I suppose… I suppose he might be there?” the T-45 said now, with a glance towards Mark. The Mortician who had so coolly disposed of the great dud before Mark’s eyes days before seemed suddenly childlike, wringing together his golden hands.

“Who?”

“Caras… O’Sullivan Caras. The first of my people, he who taught us that man and metal need not remain fore’er atwain.”

“Atwain,” Mark agreed, unenthusiastically.

“You… You coached him, yes? If you truly are Mark Baker, then you coached him at the Baptism of Fire, three World Cup qualifying campaigns… Tell me, what was he… what is he… what will he be like?”

“Um… Took a good set piece? Liked his bling, tats, big gold crucifixes… I don’t really know, Mister… Forty-Five. I don’t think I ever got the chance to speak to him after the amputation, I…”

He trailed off as the room moved, just slightly, and they heard a distant boom.

“Level by level,” the Director said, apparently to himself. “There’s no stopping her. Except for you…” He stepped forward towards the group now huddled around the wheel of babies. A little less than half the selkies in the room were now lying on the floor, every two or three with a kyrkoherd leaning over them administering some concoction into their veins, each one with a watching Wired to bear witness. Allen ignored them all, his attention upon his Morticians. No non-specifically patriotic brass played as he spoke, but it probably should have done. “Robert Morrison, Henry McKeage, Mary Farrell, Sasha Kamuzati, Vanderpent of Albrecht, Kingscott T-45, Daniel Martino, Sister Cozbi… Mark Baker. None of us can pretend that this is the way we expected today to go. The moment we have feared for centuries would appear to be upon us. Drastic measures are now required to ensure a future for the Canderlarian Concordium, this Republic of the Vortex, this Commonwealth of the Inside, this Fre–”

“Sir?”

“Yes, yes, good point, good point. You’re all very brave slash stupid, and I hope this works, somehow, and that you don’t doom us all in the process. May the stars light your way always, etcetera. Lady Keturah, can we get a shift on please? They’re going to need time to mature, so late 1980s through early 2000s, as close as you ca–”

“My sisters know what they’re doing, Director…”

Mark opened his mouth to point out that he actually wasn’t very brave, or stupid, and didn’t actually want to be doing this at all, and that, FYI, this wasn’t going to work anyway, but was stopped in his tracks by another thud and the flickering of the device room’s lights. For a moment they were out, then dimmed as emergency power kicked in, and in the gloom he saw movement. A dozen of them, skin like ripening blackcurrants, emerging from shadowy corners as though they’d been waiting there all day. The svartálfar had been called. In silence, transfixed by the unheard keening of the selkies, they inched their way towards the centre of the room and clambered on top of the sleeping women. This was one way to drastically change the world, Mark knew. In his day, apparently, they’d used computers. All except once, she’d told him. Because the Device reached into human brains, and the dreams concocted by the svartálfar, in the hands of a human with the right shaped mind, were as real to it as anything else. They could shape the world almost as they wished. But the dangers… the dangers…

Lights sputtered again and again, to the point that we really ought to have provided an epilepsy warning at the start of this chapter, and the thuds from above became ever louder. The device span, picking up such a speed that it ruffled dresses and cloaks, then caused the lighter occupants of the room, Mark included, to struggle to remain upright. This isn’t what the Device does!, Mark wanted to shout. We were shown videos at the T&R hearings! It doesn’t spin like this, like it’s tearing the world apart! But he knew they’d never listen, if they heard him at all.

The bean could hear voices though, and gave him snatches of prayer as the devout among the Morticians sent last words of hope and expectation to the long-dead combative midfielders, streaky strikers and elegant centre-halves they’d been taught to revere. He glanced at Goddess, her body shaking under the comforting hands Surrogate and Wonder had placed on her shoulders, her own clasped together, whispering to the unknowable skies that lay beyond the vortex: “Are you there, Margaret? It’s me, Goddess…”

Nearby, the woman Eusebia sat cross-legged as the winds swirled around her, her eyes blazing gold. “Gloria Villasenior! Katie Cincoski! Sela J’dankor! Mothers of the field, blessed are we who serve you! I am your wand! I am your ball! Protect us from the darkness, from her words, from her light, from the worlds that must never be! Alice Gaynor! Naoki Tonnelier! Jacin Raellis! I implore you! I call upon your grace!”

Is it something genetic? Mark wondered vaguely, that means they can’t stop bloody listing stuff?

“I entreat your benevolence! Pity this poor wytch! Accept me as your vessel! Protego Maxima! Fianto Duri! Geeno Dacampo! I supplicate myself upon yo–”

NO!

“Oh thank heavens for that,” someone near Mark muttered, as he looked around wildly for the origin of the scream. It emanated, it soon transpired, from the Scorpion King, tearing past a crowd of Morticians, through the selkies as they thrashed against the nightmares of the svarts, and towards the group surrounding the merry-go-babies.

“Your highness!?” more than one Scorpion among the crowd pleaded, one or two boldly attempting to stand in his way, but he threw them aside with deceptive strength. Mark had mere moments to glance back and forth between his fading fingers and the onrushing sovereign of the Songstress Stadium, who he realised was heading straight for him.

With a feint that should not have been possible for a man with the face of a corpse, the Scorpion King danced around a tackle and reached out a firm fist to pull the shard from the neck of a stunned Mortician. Mark found himself hauled into the king’s embrace, the shard’s string flung around his neck.

“Stop him!” Director Allen screamed over the storm that raged within the device room, but few of his subordinates appeared remotely willing to challenge his highness. Mark’s world became largely shirt as he was dragged into his captor’s chest and manhandled further away from the device, but he heard another thud and knew this one wasn’t coming from above. The Scorpion King’s knees buckled just a little as the unseen projectile slammed into his back, prompting a cacophony that served to emphasise the decrease in the noise of the device’s whirring as it slowed.

“CHANGE! Change…”

His grip loosened, Mark instinctively wriggled free and looked around to see another Mortician, presumably a Turkish fan, lining up a shot.

Sir!

“Offering!”

For a moment, just for a moment, it was 1968, and the device room was the market in Gordon Bay City, and the Scorpion King was the smiling young woman who would haunt his dreams and nightmares forever more, the faerie queen who wasn’t, and Goddess was Debbie, his terrified sister, screaming his name through a throat choked with mud.

More bullets, more thuds. The child threw herself at him on her knees and grasped his hands. He couldn’t protect her, he was too small, just like he had been all those years ago. He stared helplessly instead, at the collapsed king, at the bloody body of Martin Hole-Simpkins the Fourteenthish, lying where he had leapt to shield his master, and at the sparking remnants of the Wonderbot5000, delicate parts strew around his torso, lying where he had lunged to defend his deity. His head had rolled towards them, its blank eyes staring upwards.

Further away, where the device now span only gently, running Morticians were fast filling the gap where the eight chrononauts and their infant shipment had stood; while round his neck Mark’s protective shard grew hot.

“Something had to change,” the Scorpion King whispered, head raised in defiance. “Something had to be different…”

To be preceded...

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Posts: 207
Founded: Feb 22, 2007
Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Fri Jun 10, 2022 8:56 am

Clausura


Fifteen. The Thieves


Boss-man was putting an awful lot of faith in their dirty little habit, Kz-Mt felt. It had worked well enough so far, but the twisting warren of residential alleys they’d pelted through had always been likely to be pretty much dead this time of the evening. The recce of two nights previously had suggested that the one lengthy shopping street they’d have to traverse on route to the dock where the Spirit of Sørøya was moored would be barely more populated itself though, and so it was proving. That didn’t stop every face from carrying suggestions of danger. The Coastguard had their moles. They could be anyone. The evening joggers that ran by, multi-coloured movillas kicking up fireworks in the declining lamplight, were almost uniformly engrossed in whatever their iPieces were showing them, even barging into them once or twice. Kz-Mt wondered if it wasn’t deliberate, if they weren’t just grateful for a second of humanoid contact. But it was always hard to read their expressions, and that was a problem in itself. Eyepieces, even the shonky off-brand ones, hid eyes. How could he tell if what they were watching was actually him?

There were others watching the three of them, but that in itself was fine. They’d planned for it. Rz-Mr’s theory had run thusly. The good people of Albrecht, as well as the bad ones and the merely morally apathetic, were not unused to the sight of naked gnomes making their way down the streets of their city. Three of them would still catch the eye of most, for sure. Even in Gordon that was still the case, generations after the presence of Az-czzers among them had just been accepted as a fact of life. And that would be doubly the case if they were running. Still no bother, in itself.

But what if one of them had, say, a large and bulging brown sack? Sure, everyone knew that gnomes were thieves by nature, and it was just accepted as a strange little foible of a community who otherwise kept their heads down, not that they had a whole lot of choice, ho-ho, kept themselves to themselves, played by the rules, and so forth. Despite their heritage they’d proven to be good little consumers, when they weren’t half-inching owt, and in any case they seldom stole anything very large and usually brought it back eventually anyway. But something that big, that round, that matching-a-description-put-out-by-the-Coastguard, that reminiscent of that most prized of the jewels of the Queen of the Ifewa… thaaaaat might cause a problem.

Tn-Tn had ventured the concept of clothing and, after the initial howls of disgust and derision, and the general concerns about hygiene that this most dishabille of peoples possessed in relation to the notion of apparel, had been met with grudging approval from all but Rz-Mr. Their leader had pointed out that three running gnomes in clothes would if anything be more suspicious a sight to Albrechters, never mind if one of them was heavily up the duff with a very spherical baby.

He’d retired to a corner for deep contemplation for a while, before emerging with the plan they were now in the midst of carrying out. Two of the three thieves would be as naked as nature intended, the other would be bedecked in the garb of the Benign Sisters. They took in all sorts, Az-czzers included, and if one of them happened to be running down the street, clearly pregnant and accompanied by two naked compatriots of the gentleman persuasion… well, there was your explanation. A nun on the run wasn’t something you saw every day, but this was modern Albrecht, Albrecht of the gene mania, an Albrecht where even the occasional alien made its home these days. They would be a sight of passing curiosity, nothing more, until it was too late to matter.

There had been one or two teething problems, not least that you couldn’t get a Sisters outfit printed for love nor money, such was the iron grip that the Order held over the imprint, but three afternoons spent combing the second-hand stores uplevel had produced the grubby hand-me-downs into which Tg-Gn had been squeezed. A yelp from behind Kz-Mt revealed that an additional snag was now presenting itself, namely that Tg-Gn had slipped slightly on a chocolate wrapper that hadn’t quite dissolved itself yet, causing the clearly visible crowning of a large, round, green, otherwise featureless infant. She was hastily stuffing it back up her hessian nun-drawers as Kz-Mt glanced around furtively to see if anyone had noticed. There was a butterfly girl sparkling for punters at the far end of the alley, but she didn’t appear to have taken much note of the three of them and was hardly going to tell on them even if she had possessed the power of speech with which to do so.

More concerning was a young woman leaning against an animatronic cocoabo closer by – dark skin, bright scleras, probably one of the millions of Djocs in the Strip these days, though sporting the pronounced epicanthic folds that had been all the rage twenty years earlier among parents too poor to pay for much in the way of foetal sculpting but keen to show that they could afford something. She eyed them with suitable suspicion, but ultimately shrugged and wandered off down an adjoining alley. Behind him, Tg-Gn groaned.

“Damnit… Think I’ve rolled an ankle. Ow-wuh…”

“That’s nothing compared to what the bloody man-apes are going to do to you if they catch us, is it?,” Kz-Mt hissed at her. “Gnome up. Queen’ll have our guts for garters.”

Tg-Gn visibly shuddered. “I don’t want to think about the Queen’s garters,” she hissed back. “And that doesn’t stop this from hurting! You trying lugging this bloody thing around!”

“We all agreed you’d make the convincingly homeliest nun. And pop some nummers or something if it’s that bad!”

“Where am I going to get any of those from?” she retorted, with a knowing irony that Kz-Mt couldn’t help but grin at. She squatted, simultaneously repositioning their prize and nursing her ankle, between small branches of STORMChem and nooTropica that glared at each other from either side of the street. It said a lot about the one-time prosperity of this place that the ecosystem could find room for both, albeit that the former had pivoted to a more retro product line a decade or so ago, offering verbosita and meow mix for that authentic pre-Affront hit, while the latter carried the more edgy thrill of consorting with the on-again-off-again Sargossan enemy. Both their façades were firmly shuttered now though, probably for months if not years if you could judge by the thickness of the graffiti. The shops either side, one promising the latest in kitchen luxury, another proudly boasting “Nipples – For Men!”, were similarly on the fade.

Rz-Mr grasped the woman’s hands as he helped her upright. “Brave heart, Tg-Gn. We’re minutes away now, remember what’s at stake. Remember what you are. We are Gegnomes!” he exclaimed, your-father-the-king-ing for all his worth, and bless him for it, “we’re stronger than any of them, faster than any of them, unconstrained by the so-called nobility of our baseline kin, the feebleness of huma–”

“Yes, yes, I know… Still hurts…”

“We have perfect equilibrium, Tg-Gn, remember that too. It’s just your temporary new baby holding you back. In your wimple you may wobble but you won’t fall down. Now come on!”

“You could’ve shoved some painkillers up your habit before we left,” Kz-Mt muttered as the trio began to hurry on down the street as fast as Tg-Gn’s ankle and large green passenger would allow.

“This thing doesn’t have pockets! Why couldn’t we have been engineered with pouches, that’s what I want to know…”

Most of the shops were shuttered, Kz-Mt noticed, and it was hard to tell if that was just for the evening or permanently. The cocoabo still rocked from side to side, insisting to all who would listen that everything was better with Cocoa-bo, but the bird itself was just a plastic lattice that had seen better days, the free samples that had once grown and regrown where its feathers should have been having long since been used up and never replaced. There were still the big stores of its kin downlevel, Kz-Mt knew, although it was the cheap home-grown stuff on offer only these days. The drug stores did a good trade down there too, still, and there were cheaper and/or more esoteric kicks available uplevel as well, but here it was fast becoming something of a no-man’s-land for… well, everything, really. There was still plenty of life here, but it wasn’t rocking like it once had been, there was more than enough room to spare, and the beautiful people were just starting to look a little shabby. Century-old tech was all the rage, and that wasn’t just down to fashion. Downlevel it was more established, the jaebeols still ruled and there were organs on tap and all the insects you could eat; uplevel it was more bohemian, more exciting. Refugees still came in their hundreds of thousands from the continents, but few stayed for too long any more if they could help it. Assisted passage to the colonies was where it was at, not that they had a lot of option. For Rz-Mr’s little band of gegnomes though… they were going to make options. And the sphere was the final piece in the puzzle.

He glanced again, unnecessarily, at the map that shifted with every footfall across the display embedded into the back of his hand. Hiccoughs or no, not that they experienced hiccoughs, too well-bred for that, they were going to do this. A couple more turnings, meet up with Chk-Chp and the others, and they’d be away. The Coastguard, relishing their power as the jaebeols’ private armies faded, would remain a thorn until they were out of Concordium airspace but then… the stars!

One or two further pedestrians would observe the sight of a swearing, pregnant, gnomish nun hobble down the street alongside her very nude, very pink, presumed paramours with mild interest, before the trio ducked down one of the thin corridors that led stretchways to the shopfronts where the bees buzzed and smaller spacegoing vessels undocked and, on increasingly less common occasions, arrived.

“Boss-man!”

Kz-Mt heard the shout before the lamps up ahead switched on to illuminate the small group of gnomes waiting for them. Dk-Hnt, at least, looked red in the face – a highly unusual sight among his kin, so perfectly engineered were they that the notion of being ‘puffed out’, never mind showing it, was for lesser beings.

“Nice riding, cowboy!” Rz-Mr called out to another of the group, Tn-To, the wires of the SynInt still hanging around his ears. “We were in and out like a ventwaft. Queen probably won’t even have noticed yet!”

“She probably will, boss,” Tn-To admitted, “the great hairy buggers’ security was tougher than I thought. I’m sure I tripped an alarm, so if the coastguard aren’t after us already the Ifewa themselves probably are. You got the goods, though?”

“No,” Tg-Gn told him sourly, “I’ve just put on a lot of weight lately. Can we get on board and get this thing out of me!?”

Barely ninety seconds later, the sphere had joined its two compatriots on its dedicated plinth, and an excited chatter ricocheted around Kz-Mt’s ears as the gegnomes congratulated both successful teams of new arrivals. He let their words fade into the background as he stared out of the window, not quite believing that this was really it.

A few other starships were shrugging off their hydraulic moorings and curving off slowly into the brown haze above. Some shiny and new, probably making their first – and quite possibly last – proper voyage; taking their affluent owners and their retainers to a new life in the colonies. The occupants of others were instead looking to make a fortune rather than spend one; mostly junkers heading to the Gnaborretni nebula to pick over the prized remnants of the endless war between the Celestial Magocracy of Strc Prst Skrz Krk and the Yod Coalescence. The largest barge was doubtless a sleeper ship; those aboard too poor even collectively to stump up for an FTL drive, and instead accepting of their fate that they would soon have to brave the wakeshock that came with arriving in orbit of a colony of which they’d probably never heard, established millennia before, generations after everyone they had left behind on the poisoned relic of old Earth had died.

Almost all dwarfed the Spirit of Sørøya, an old Virabi tug that had spent several decades coughing and spluttering its way to and from the giants before Rz-Mr had acquired it. Any attempt at faster-than-light travel would rent the old girl asunder in moments, but it was a means to an end. Out there in the wild west of the solar system, they’d soon find someone willing to part with even the most decadent of third generation SargoStarliners in exchange for one of the spheres. And they’d still have two in reserve, and could always steal it back if the opportunity presented itself. Kz-Mt grinned. Not for the first time, he acknowledged what a fine job the gegnomes’ engineers had done with his people – not just with their bodies, but their minds. All of the Az-czzers’ inherent kleptomania, none of that pesky honour.

And soon now, they’d leave the trivial humans and the baseline gnomes who had rejected them far behind. Their destiny was amongst the stars.

The Spirit of Sørøya decoupled from its moorings, and glided out into the auburn night. They were running on the merest of power, concealed in the wake of a massive UWD garbage scow. Kz-Mt turned his eyes down as the ship rose, running them for the final time over the only country he’d ever known, over the dark Strip that had decades ago risen across and above mile after mile of coastline. Oceangoing ships ploughed sluggishly through the plastic sea of the estrecho that separated mighty Candelaria, the heart and mind of the Concordium, from its truculent Hispanophone sibling to the east. And from Green Island, he saw the graceful white citadels, their very existence mocking the Concordium, making it all too clear that, however vast their rule over the decaying continent to the south, the jaebeols could not claim complete power even over all the Candelarias archipelago itself. In time, this would surely be the Green Children’s country. And in Kz-Mt’s view, they were welcome to it.

Amongst the swirl of conversation around him, a single word emerged from Bz-Kl’s lips that filtered down through his brain to his own: “Bees.”

“Huh?”

“Bees,” she repeated. “There’s no bees.”

He pressed his face against the window and looked up and down. She wasn’t wrong. The little spheres that swarmed over the estrecho between the islands were suddenly all too conspicuous by their absence. “Gaffer,” he began, “they’ve grounded the be–”

“Yes, I can see that. Shit, shit, shit…” Rz-Mr hissed, his usual composure suddenly faltering. “They won’t have done that without good reason. Pn-Hb, soon as you can, bring us about. Get us past the stretch and over Candelaria.”

“Won’t that make them more willing to tackle us if there’s fewer ships in the way, boss?”

“Maybe, but it’ll give us a clearer path to the stratosphere. Get ready to step on the afterburners, girl!”

“Aye, aye, captain!”

The Spirit of Sørøya pivoted rapidly, and soon they were heading into clear air – figuratively-speaking – west of the Strip. Below them rolled the fallen suburbs of Candelaria; still with buses and trains snaking amongst their strange, flat streets, but heading nowhere. For decades, the rich had remained out here while the detritus of Rushmore crowded into the piling Strip. Now, those who stubbornly lingered were slowly suffocating behind their rebreathers. Beyond them were the villages of the plains and the valleys, the shattered domes of eco-houses left abandoned as testament to a last-ditch attempt t–

WHAM!

“Coastguard!” Dk-Hnt screamed from the rear of the ship, “two of them on our tail!”

“If that was a warning shot, we’re fucked,” Chms-Ke muttered. “Knew we shouldn’t’ve chanced our arms with that third sphere…”

“SIR!” Pn-Hb shouted from the pilot seat, “are we going to be boarded or what!?”

“Not a bit of it!” Rz-Mr barked back. “Bring us one-eighty again! Head straight for the bastards!”

“Gaffer!?”

WHAM!

An unseen gegnome screamed in pain as a console blew up, this being a thing that happens on spacegoing vessels.

“We’re venting plasma! EPS rupture on deck… well, we only have one deck, but, y’know…”

“Hold your nerve, everyone! Dk-Hnt, reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!”

The Spirit of Sørøya swivelled once more and dived back towards the Strip, bifurcating the two sleek, black Coastguard ships. Craning what passed for his neck, Kz-Mt stared behind them as the Concordium vessels turned themselves as they prepared to give chase, and promptly barrelled into each other and exploded. From the gegnomes’ perspective, these were the bad guys and thus no questions regarding how they could have been quite so stupid as to let this happen were asked.

Their celebrations were cut short however, as two more Coastguard ships emerged from the dissipating shards of their colleagues. Neither Kz-Mt nor any of his people could sweat, but some inner proto-gnome part of his brain insisted that he was drenched all the same. They couldn’t be more than a minute away, and the Strip was back and towering in front of them. As it stood, they were – ironically enough – set to plough straight into Gordon Bay, the city-come-sector largely reserved for Candelaria’s nonhumans, in which each of them had been forged.

“Right,” Rz-Mr spat, “plan B.”

“Gaffer, we have no idea wh–!”

“You got a better one!? Positions, people! All hands to the tiller!”

Risking one more glance at the rapidly approaching ships behind them, Kz-Mt reluctantly left his seat and took his place in front of his designated sphere – the smallest, most carefully worked and recently acquired of the three, the prized gem of the Ifewan queen. As Tn-Tn and Csh-Cw hooked themselves into the Spirit of Sørøya’s computer and the spheres began to spin, Kz-Mt shut his eyes and thought hard, just as they’d practised.

They’d make a home for their people. It just wouldn’t be in the stars, not yet at least. It would be in the past.

WHAM!

“Ignore it!” Rz-Mr shouted. “Concentrate!”

The spheres span on their plinths, faster and faster. The roar burst eardrums; the maelstrom sewed eyelids tightly shut.

The gegnomes didn’t know this, but no-one had ever tried three Devices at one. Not in the same little space, not focused on the same goal.

“Ready…? On a count of one!”

“ONE!”

Moments from impact with the black towers of the Strip, the Spirit of Sørøya lurched. There was a sound, an unholy avian scream.

Time broke.

For a second, if seconds were even real, if they could even exist, Kz-Mt was everywhere and nowhere and everything and nothing at once. And then the vortex tore on through him and past him, through the Spirit of Sørøya, through the Coastguard vessels.

And then, time began to heal.

The vortex grew larger and larger, but its path slowed until many of those outside Gordon Bay could outrun its advance. Those who remained in place shut their eyes tightly, and it washed over them with little obvious effect. In days, the vortex took in almost the entirety of the Candelarias, and there its momentum proved to be spent. It was a scar in the world and in time, one that couldn’t heal, one that wiped the Candelarian, or possibly Canderlarian, it’s an accent thing, Concordium and its denizens from the geopolitical map. And within the vortex, a traumatised hermit people would emerge.

But the gegnomes knew nothing of all this, and saw only the slowing of the spheres and, through the windows, blue skies.

“WHEN!?” Rz-Mr screamed. “Whoever’s monitoring the channels… When!?”

There was a moment’s pause as Csh-Cw absorbed waves of human communications into his mind. Kz-Mt saw him wince, and groan in effort. “It… I… Sixty-Nine!”

“Nice.”

“Nice.”

“Nice.”

“No, wait… Sixty-Eight. Nineteen-Sixty-Eight!”

“That’ll fucking do,” Rz-Mr began, as he slumped back into his seat. “The Candelarias’re here for our taking, my frie–”

WHAM!!

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Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Sat Jun 11, 2022 8:29 am

Sixteen. The Hands of Time


The Albrecht FC and C&M goalkeeper Harry Rosalia, it was said, had partaken of the pie, and had ingested all the pies. It was Hymn No. Twenty-Five in the Book of Common Chants. It was further noted that he was therefore obese, and of uncertain paternity, the connection between these two personal qualities having presumably been readily apparent to the ancestors though regrettably rendered by the passage of time a topic for robust theological debate among the Rosalian star cult.

Henry McKeage had been born into the faith and consequently had never known his father, but his young mother had had great hopes for her firstborn. As a tiny boy he had watched the captains of the Rosalians carry out the sacred rites, and had known that one day he would take his place amongst them. In time, he would be honoured to don the sacrosanct sink plunger upon his head. Eventually, he would be welded into one of the consecrated mobility scooters, passed down from generation unto generation. All the while he would consume, as was his right and his responsibility. He would himself partake of the pie, and of the meat block and the nutropack, and of the jellyfish and the grasshopper, and of the lettuce and the radish, and of the strawberry and the pineapple, and of the mintsoup and the flavourgel. He would follow Rosalia’s example, and by such means he would know Rosalia, and Rosalia would flow through him, albeit rather slowly and stickily, and he would be one with Rosalia.

It had always somewhat troubled Henry that that in itself appeared to be… it, really. Of course one should endeavour to be one with Rosalia, that went without saying, but… what then? It appeared that you’d die, mostly, if his star cult’s abnormally high turnover of captains was anything to go by. They grew bigger and bigger until their faces were big red sacks with indentations where eyes and nostrils could presumably be unearthed with some digging. Their legs would be removed eventually, to lower the risk of blood clots and better facilitate their oneness with their sanctified scooter, and they’d plough through crowds, mouths full and spitting morsels. Every awed little boy and girl knew that the captains were to be revered as men and women who had come to embody the ultimate expression of faith in their star. But Henry… he’d had too many whys and wherefores.

He’d asked his mother once, during Training, when he was still very young and was watching the older children receive snackcrament, how it was that Rosalia could have eaten all the pies, if others had eaten pies as well? All the clubs had had pies, or so his friends who were Turkish or Indies fans said, and even if you were talking only about Albrecht FC it seemed logistically implausible. He’d have to have been at it all day, every day. And they had images of Rosalia, actual photographs during his playing pomp, and while he had been a bigger man than most he hadn’t looked much like the ex-voto of the corpulent epitome that dominated the far wall of the children’s room at the seminary. Had the great man really been all that they were taught?

Not to mention that even other Scorpion children thought that the idea that, since Rosalia had eaten all the pies he must be all the pies, and thus if a person consumed the blessed pie today then Rosalia would abide in him for at least a week, was… dumb. Amara had said just that once, and he’d been so puffed up with youthful piety that he’d swung for her, but she was a Corradinian and his chubby little fist had merely bounced off her mask and he’d fallen over into the rivulet that ran down the alley and had cried, and all the children had shouted “Packy! Fatty Packybara!” and barked and cackled like a packybara at him.

And as he’d asked his mother these questions, his face hot with the memory of his contemporaries’ derision, Captain Daruka had rolled past and had scrunched up his spongey face and offered her a look of deepest contempt, and she’d looked away in shame and remained silent, and had told Henry that he should listen more and talk less and had given him extra helpings at dinner as punishment.

Years later a teenage Henry had found himself idly looking at the portraits of late Rosalian captains that lined the walls at the cult house, and had thought vaguely that the young Oliver Daruka and he shared something of a physical resemblance, quite apart from the flab, but he hadn’t dwelled on the notion. And he’d forgiven the children who had mocked him so and, more to the point, doubted Rosalia, for they each had their own stars and each such cult promised a different path unto promotion. There were many corridors to the stars, it was said. But McKeage wondered… He wondered too much.

He’d found his own path instead, not as a captain but as a Mortician, and no-one ridiculed him for his proportions now. Henry McKeage was a figure of respect, and no little fear. But he could see the way they looked at him even so. The people of Albrecht ate well but in moderation, their metabolisms boosted by medications if necessary, while the people of some of the other sectors ate not enough by half. And the people of the upper levels, at least, were beautiful. The knowledge of the science of genesculpting had largely been lost after the vortex and the datapurge, but there were still treatments available and, of course, the Selkies’ wisdom was trusted when it came to the fate of the more homely of infants. Baselines and ronions seldom mingled these days. His saw his bulk reflected in his countryfolk’s eyes, and saw a monster looking back at him.

He’d been told that in Rosalia’s day, during the International Era, things had been different. Many Candelariasians had looked like him, so they said, and been respected. It had been after all, the time of the scooters.

But this, he thought to himself once again as he and four of his colleagues moved uneasily amongst the ancestors haggling over emaciated vegetables and shabby cloth in the market, wasn’t Rosalia’s day. It wasn’t even the International Era. By Morrison’s reckoning, the selkies – or the svartálfar, or the device itself, who could really say? – had overshot by more than a decade at best, and more than three decades at worst. It depended rather how you looked at it to define whether C&M had taken its first steps towards global glory in 2007 or thirty-odd years earlier, and it was still rather up in the air what effect their presence in this time period would have on their nation’s history. Even Morrison was willing to acknowledge that he was some way from grasping the full implications.

What was beyond doubt was that this was the Run-In of the nineteenth hundred and sixty-eighth year of the undead prophet, and this was not – not quite – the Candelaria And Marquez McKeage recognised from his lessons. Even here in Gordon Bay City, arguably the most upwardly-mobile of the islands’ metropolises, the people seemed not so much pale as he’d expected but grey. The bread lines they’d seen in the north-east weren’t in evidence here but, though much of the foodstuffs on offer were exotic to his eyes, long lost to the Concordium, they were frequently as thin, discoloured and ragged as those who picked over them. This was a country not ten years out from a short but brutal civil war, after all, still feeling the economic consequences.

Every waking moment brought its own fascinations none the less. The vatgrown jewels included amongst the supplies squeezed into the Brothers’ stasis chamber had been exchanged for a considerable quantity of local currency and, flush with pounds, the chrononauts had been able to buy several large flats in one of Albrecht’s more fashionable districts – they’d toyed with houses instead, but the concept had proven just too unnatural to people who had spent their lives within the endless tower block of the Inside. Even the experience of waking up each day in the flat was novel, and each morning McKeage struggled out of his uncomfortable, ancient, bed and swept open the curtains to be confronted with that most discombobulating of sights – a view. In his Albrecht, even if you found yourself on the edge of the Inside, you could see only the sullen sea and crumbling strip of Kez from one vantage, or the brown vortex winds slowly grinding down the ruins of long abandoned suburban Candelaria far below from the other. In this Albrecht he was presented with ruins of a sort too, buildings still bearing the effects of bombings by the forces of the former government, opposition and Marquezian separatists alike, but most were at least surrounded by scaffolding as the country continued the slow rebuilding process.

That was the strangest thing, really. Being part of a country building towards an unknown but exciting future, not crumbling by inches away from a half-remembered past. That and the rain, and the wind, not notional features of a forbidden Outside but whipping your skin. The honks of geese overhead. And television.

McKeage could have spent hours slumped in front of the television, an item that perfectly encapsulated the culture shock presented by Candelariasian technology. Primitive internally, yet representing a form of entertainment unknown to the people of the vortex and so new to these ancestors that few could yet afford one. He supposed he’d never get over watching suited men gravely deliver news that was, to him, history. Sinister puppets wobbled across the screen – to the delight or horror of the nation’s children he knew not – and unseen audiences roared with inexplicable laughter at the behaviour of the clearly psychologically unsound. There were discordant musicians with hair like uplevel fungi. There were sheepdog trials.

There was football.

They’d found it quite unintentionally when the ‘soap’ Home Is Where The Harts Are had been followed by a collection of goals and other apparently key moments from a series of matches. They’d watched… spellbound, fascinated, appalled. Even half the names were unfamiliar – Clotaire Dragons, Trident FC, Swords of Bass. And the game itself was… was just a game. They’d all known that the performances produced by the travelling Players were mere representations of the ancestors’ favourite pastime, far from accurate, but to witness the real thing was to wonder… why?

McKeage hadn’t said anything, but he’d caught Kamuzati and Vanderpent’s eyes and had known they were thinking the same thing as him. He’d been a questioning youth, for sure, but no Picker. He’d loyally gorged as instructed, endured weight gain surgery (curse his excellent metabolism!). But now it seemed like they’d all centred their lives around something so… so inconsequential? Oh, but it felt wicked to even think it.

And as for the Candelariasians… The stadiums were half full at best, the crowds lethargic. Few people in the streets wore club colours. It was just another pastime, another distraction.

But, he’d told himself, this wasn’t the International Era. This wasn’t even the CMSC, but rather the practically prehistoric National Foot-Ball League. Perhaps, somehow, things would be different in the years to come. Harry Rosalia would be born, and Kamuzati’s beloved Jesse Nakatsuru, and O’Sullivan Caras and all the rest of them. Candelaria And Marquez and the Concordium alike would have their stars.

They’d been here weeks before making the trip that they’d known from the moment they’d established what period they’d landed in they would have to make. Vanderpent and the two women had remained back at ‘home’ with the slowly thawing infants while McKeage and the others took the train down the coast to Gordon Bay City.

“Maybe it’ll just be lying in the street after all,” Kamuzati commented dryly as the Morticians pushed deeper into the market, breaking McKeage’s contemplation of his own disillusionment. He followed their finger towards a shop, built into the walls rather than mid-street stalls like most of them here, its façade protected from anyone who might wish to park a genetically modified capybara outside by a row of spherical stone bollards, oddly beautiful in their way but certainly not green in hue.

“Don’t carp so, Sasha dear, it’s perfectly tiresome,” Morrison sighed, with a long-suffering air. As the anointed leader of this mission – a status confirmed rather less by seniority than by being not only the only one of them with any grasp of temporal mechanics but also the only native Old speaker – the young Gamboan geneticist appeared to McKeage’s mind to be secretly enjoying his newfound rank a little too much. “We have three promising museums left to explore, but it was always going to be a lot to ask to find a device anywhere on the surface. I’m not positively jubilant at the prospect of having to organise archaeological digs myself, but let us at least establish the lay of the land first.”

“I still don’t understand why you’re so sure there’s one to find here,” McKeage said. “If the legends are accurate then the Candelariasian government won’t be given theirs for years yet, and supposedly that’s by the... faeries,” he finished, his voiced dropped to a whisper for a moment, less out of a wish not to be overhead by the ancestors around them, who understood nothing of New in any case and didn’t having speaking beans, and more out of embarrassment that this particularly silly piece of Concordium mythology was apparently being taken deadly seriously by both Morrison and Martino.

“The faeries entered this plane of existence principally through this city,” Martino told him, superfluously. “You know this. They had at least two devices, including the one they gave the Candelariasians for their owns ends. We also know well enough that at least two of the three devices used by the gegnomes were found in Gordon, including the one later stolen from the queen of the Ifewa in Albrecht. If we’re going to find one, it’s as likely as not going to be here.”

“Yes, alright. I don’t need a history lesson. Again. But I do agree with what Kingscott said earlier…”

“Don’t drag me into this,” the T-45 grumbled, his golden hands shoved deeply into his pockets out of sight of prying local eyes.

“…even if we find one,” McKeage continued defiantly, “how are we going to operate it without the resources of the Mortuary?”

“The Candelariasians found a way. So did the faeries, come to that. So did the gegnomes. And I know what you’re going to say,” the half-elf continued before McKeage could butt in, “but we’ll have far more time to make sure we know what we’re doing this time.”

“I can’t believe an elf is so blasé about the concept of meddling with this stuff anyway,” the Rosalian told him. “We haven’t the foggiest what our presence in this time period could do to the future, it could… we might already have…”

“Changed everything?” Morrison smiled. “My friend, that’s rather the point, isn’t it? The die is cast, gentlemen. What’s done is done. Anything we can do now to prevent the Beatrice event – any of them – or to significantly alter their respective outcomes for the better counts as a successful mission.”

“Regardless of whether we have a Concordium to go back to at the end of it all? Or if we even can?”

“It does seem that way, yes,” Martino agreed, but his heavy heart was obvious. He didn’t share Morrison’s, or the unborn Director Allen’s, enthusiasm for this aspect of their quest.

“For now, our main objective must be to locate a device and propel us far enough into the future th–”

If that’s even possible…”

“If it’s indeed possible, yes. Far enough, whilst giving our young weapons time to develop into the mighty warriors they are destined to be, that they and we can join their counterparts from this time period, a–”

If they exist and we aren’t trapped in a predestination paradox.”

“If… Yes, thank you, Daniel. If they exist, and either way we defeat the Beatrice and… well. Who knows? The International Era won’t be brought to a sudden halt and may continue indefinitely. What a future to be a part of!”

“One in which everyone we know won’t ever be born, Robert,” Kamuzati said quietly. “Including us.”

“Oh, mere details,” Morrison replied, trying for levity. It didn’t land.

“It’s alright for you,” McKeage said, irritably waving a hand through the cigarette smoke emitted by a passing young man who had given him evils, “you speak the language, sort of, managed to get Allen to let you bring your woman along, you’re amongst people even paler than you are…”

“No need to feel out of place, Henry. Look, there’s a brown fella flogging carpets over there. Besides, you were there when the news was on the other day, I think, President Clarke is throwing C&M’s doors open to all and sundry!”

“And didn’t you sound less than chipper about it?” Kamuzati told him mirthlessly.

“Not sure I appreciate your insinuation, old chap slash chappess.”

McKeage blew out his cheeks, an act that caused several tomatoes to tumble off a nearby stall. “Oh, come on. You Gamboan noble types are even worse than Dixonians when it comes to fetishizing the low-melanin skin tones of the ancestors. You even managed to find yourself the only pale selkie in Albrecht to boff.”

“I’ll have you know –” Morrison began, but McKeage waved his protestations away with the last of the smoke.

“It doesn’t matter. Let’s just trawl these museums for big round green buggers and then get back to Mary and your frozen vatgrowns.”

The truth was, he was feeling out of place. He could tell that Morrison and Martino were receiving rather fewer stares than the rest of them – at least amongst those present, granted, since Vanderpent tended to attract attention for his sheer size alone, never mind the hair. They’d bought contemporary clothing – though collectively they’d come down hard on Kamuzati’s preferred choice of absurdly short skirts – and found ways of concealing any more conspicuous implants, but it would be a few years yet before brown faces wouldn’t stick out even in the Candelarias’ biggest cities, and McKeage himself stuck out… everywhere. This was a people who’d known hardship, who knew nothing of the Rosalian creed, and who hadn’t yet been educated about genetic abnormalities and hormone deficiencies. He saw it in the eyes of everyone who passed. Greedy. Lazy. Stupid. Disgusting. Fatty Packybara. He saw it in the eyes of the two children running towards them, a girl in school uniform releasing a smaller boy’s hand in order that, giggling at him all the way, they could find separate routes past his bulk. She dove to the left, the boy to the right, and Henry…

…screamed.

And for a few moments there was nothing but the screaming that continued to echo in his ears, before that gave way to the whimpering of others, and pain.

The unaccustomed clean air of the Candelarias of centuries past was replaced with a choking black cloud that blocked out the morning sun. In the sudden gloom, McKeage tried to haul himself to his feet, and winced as his hands pressed into the shards of glass that littered the ground. He banged his right wrist against his neck repeatedly, until a stream of the finest analgesics and calming agents the kyrkoherds had to offer pumped through his veins, then instinctively tried to brush blood and dirt from his left hand in order to see the display screen embedded beneath the skin. It showed nothing, of course, as it had from the moment they’d awoken in a deserted playground in harbourside Albrecht. The Mortuary couldn’t send them data. The Morticians didn’t exist yet.

His breathing ragged, he looked around at the bodies strewn amongst the ruins of a hundred market stalls. Several were clambering to their feet, only to be thrown to the ground once more as the market was shaken by a second, mercifully more distant, blast. McKeage still saw the flash in his eyes a minute or more after he’d shut them tight.

“Sasha?” he tried to say, “Robert?”

“In one piece, Henry…”

He looked up at Kamuzati, their face caked in blood. Behind them, Morrison and Martino were scrambling to their feet. Wincing again from the pain in his neck, he looked to the other side. A retreating figure, a young woman if he was any judge, was leading the little boy that had passed by him moments before towards an ornamental duck pond, the schoolgirl hurrying along behind. He paid them no further heed and tried to find his Carasian colleague instead.

“Kingscott?”

Martino stumbled past him, and leant down to lift up an object as coated in blood and blackness as any of the rest of them. The half-elf smeared away some of the film onto his shirt, and now McKeage could make out the single golden hand. It would be some time before they could collate most of the rest of him.

McKeage slumped back onto the ground, face first, eyes shut. Nineteen sixty-eight. The Gordon Bay disaster. Stupid, stupid, stupid…

* * * * *

The emergency services worked through the night, and then another, and another, until there was no-one left to be found and the only uniformed men (all men… it’s the sixties, whatchagonnado?) who remained were police, guarding the sites of the worst devastation in case of… I don’t know, zombies?

One or two, if they happened to be looking in the right direction at the time, might well have noted an attractive girl in her late teens who, from the clingy nature of her long white dress and the droplets speckled over her smooth brown skin, appeared to have recently been dunked in, let us a say, a duck pond, walk slowly and with utmost confidence, with a large sphere under one arm, a bit like one of them bollards outside the bank except green, across the rubble-strewn remnants of Blessing Market, towards the pond now empty of those ducks who hadn’t been recently joined the ranks of the roasted, and step calmly into the murky water and disappear beneath it.

But if any of the officers on duty did see such a thing, they put it down to the stress of several long days and hundreds of bodies, and thousands of bits, and said nothing.

In a similar vein, in the hours following the disaster, a handful of short, round but robust figures, all but one naked as babes, were seen hobbling away from the epicentre of the largest explosion, evidently the worse for wear but, inexplicably given the precedent established over the previous few hours, alive. Such an occurrence might have attracted more attention, but the situation was confused and it had been several years since the Candelariasian authorities had dealt with this sort of thing, and they’d never been very good at it in any case, and so the figures slipped away, were never identified, and soon forgotten about.

Someone probably did see one further figure, very much like the aforementioned, emerge from the opposite side of the disaster area, himself with a large green sphere under one arm, and wander off, past the nation’s assembled emergency personnel and out of sight. But no-one had heard of citizen journalism in those days, and no-one had twitter, and truthfully no-one cared very much, so…

So.

* * * * *

At this juncture, the reader is invited to picture a clock upon a wall, or possibly a grandfather clock, whatever he or she considers more evocative, with its hands lying at the base of the glass dish behind which it sits. This image fades in and out of shot alongside further images – of the golden hands of Kingscott, flecked in blood and very definitively separated from their regrettably late owner, and of the hands-in-hands of the sister and brother, Debbie and Mark Baker, as they fatefully allowed their grip to break as they spilled around the grossly fat little man who seemed to cover half the street, just for an instant…

Honestly, the cinematography is just… Mwah!

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Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Sun Jun 12, 2022 7:36 am

Seventeen. The Second Time


“Um… Mrs Morrison?”

His voice was quiet, gentle, nervous, and not nearly enough to capture Sister Cozbi’s attention from the clutches of the small, pink creature lying in the plastic container to the left of her bed. She reluctantly dragged her eyes away from it, and met those of a bespectacled boy in white.

“Hmm…?” she said, listlessly.

“It, um. Sorry, I need to, um. It is, um, Mrs Morrison, isn’t it? Only it says Baby Morrison on my notes, I mean your notes, but it doesn’t say, it just says, um. Not that I’m, you know, I’m not. The, the Sister, did say that, ah, there was no, um, that Father wasn’t present, during visiting hours, and… And, and, and, not that I’m, mine is not to judge, you know, gosh, I’m just, um…”

She sighed, though her weariness with the man and the world and her predicament was tinged with slight amusement. “Mr Morrison, is… There’s no-one coming. And it’s just Cozbi. Just Cozbi and Baby…”

“Ah. Do you not have, ah, surnames, where you, you’re from? Sister said you, ah, you had an accent, and, well, your English, she said…”

I’ll bet she did, Cozbi thought. The large red woman with the face like a scorpion’s backside, who’d looked at her like something a capybara had rejected once she’d opened her mouth. Muttered something about ‘bloody Clarke’ and ‘one more mouth to feed’. Even in her pain, and there was plenty of that because Margaret knew these amateurs didn’t have a clue about birthing, she’d heard those words well enough. She’d said nothing at the time, how could she, but right now in the face of this bumbling child she was sorely tempted to spit some misdirected invective. But Old was still very much a second language so it would probably all come out wrong anyway, because it generally did in New too. And this skinny little twit didn’t deserve it anyway. She frowned at him, trying to place his face.

“Er. Yesterday, after… I, er, I did…”

“You were my doctor,” Cozbi said, slowly and incredulously. “You stitched me up? After… the word…”

“Your, er, episiotomy. Yes. You were pretty, um, p-pretty out of it. Numbed, I mean. Well, also. Um.”

“Not numbed enough,” Cozbi told him, wincing slightly as she readjusted herself slightly. “You’re new to this?”

“Er. Fairly, yes,” the doctor confessed. “Haven’t been, you know, sailing alone long. I, I, did field work. During the, the Civil War. Signed up, you know. But then, afterwards, you know, um, a lot of lessons, study, took a long time to… Um. Don’t know why, um, don’t know why I’m telling you…”

For what really felt like the first – and may well genuinely have been the second – time since she’d opened her eyes in this century, Cozbi smiled properly. The young man reddened yet further, but his hunched shoulders appeared to relax slightly. “You were in your civil war? As a medical… the word…?”

“A medical auxiliary. Um. Well, I was very young, I…”

“You must have been. Which team?”

“I’m… Um?”

“The winning team?”

“I… Well, you know, technically in war, you know, we swear… We don’t, ah…”

“Possibly… the wrong question?” Cozbi suggested politely.

“Possibly, yes. It’s, ah… Well, we’d all like to move on, you know? Brave new country, new name, new, er, people… So… Where are you, ah, from, uh, originally? I… Mm.” He looked into her face and pulled one of his own. “Possibly, um, the wrong question?”

“Possibly. What does the past matter, anyway? Brave new country, hm…?”

“So you’re, um… Staying, then? In, um, C&M? Not just, uh, passing through?”

She turned away from him, back towards the cot. Beyond it, through a gap in the thin curtains that partitioned the maternity ward, one of the more minor ward sisters was becoming increasingly agitated with a fellow first-time mother who hadn’t quite taken to nursing yet. Despite her irritation with the women in charge here, Cozbi had been surprised to find herself possessing a degree of sympathy. They were no selkies, that was for sure. Their technology was rudimentary, their grasp of obstetric science limited, the smell of disinfectant overpowering. They could have been a whole lot more pleasant, but this era had its taboos just like her own, and, if she was being honest, Lady Keturah and the others could be pretty fearsome themselves. She’d sat in on enough births already to know that her people had had to make difficult, sometimes grotesque, choices, just as these women and their doctors did. They weren’t so different, really. They even shared the blinding white uniforms if not, she thought thankfully, the distinctly unflattering caps of this era.

Staying? Without a device, and Gordon Bay City was stubbornly keeping its secrets, she had no way of fulfilling her role in the Morticians’ mission, svartálfar or no svartálfar. They could probably do well enough without her even if one turned up, anyway. If she’d stuck around she’d be… well, she’d be a selkie, like all the rest of them, a proud lineage reduced to being the Morticians’ lackeys. As for Bobby… He’d had vision, and she’d liked that. But now, trapped in another time, in what might as well have been another country, his vision was blurring. And there wasn’t a place for her in it, she knew that.

She’d always known that, really. Maybe if the girl had been a boy, maybe… And maybe if by some miracle he’d survived, and his father had been able to cobble together the tech necessary to turn him from selcouth to pinny, use the datacells he’d brought just in case, make another new Mark Baker to replace the one that somehow hadn’t arrived with them as planned?

But as it was, the only babies Bobby Morrison cared about were the twenty-three little soldiers, waiting to be distributed amongst the football clubs of the Candelarias, so that they might learn the discipline to control the bestial urges that would one day be thrown against the Beatrice, just as the legends decreed.

“Um.”

What was there for her here either, then? For the both of them? She could teach these midwives a thing or two, and the doctors come to that, but, well… could she, really? Without the knowledge the older selkies had built up over a lifetime, without their technology? These people didn’t have to shoo away the tiny svarts that came at night to practise their nightmares on sleeping newborns. They didn’t appear to have svarts at all. They didn’t have to decide what to do with ronions, or secretly liaise with the Greens when the special ones were born. What skills did she even have that were relevant in this world?

“It’s, um. Also. For the, for the notes? I can, um, I can put Baby Morrison, or, or, Baby Cozbi I suppose, but if you have a name, I mean, if she has a…? I don’t know whether you’ve thought, um…?”

Through the gap in the curtain, Cozbi saw the sister glance at the three of them, she and Baby and the doctor, disapprovingly, and potter off, the neighbouring cherub still yet unfed.

“You usually take the notes, doctor? Important man like you?” she asked, not turning to look at him but enjoying his radiating hot embarrassment all the same.

“Er… Well. You’re a bit of, ah… You know, a special, special case. Bit of an anomaly.”

“Yes. Hazzelelponi.”

“I, um… Bless you?”

An anomaly. Bobby had said that, about the baby. A temporal anomaly, conceived centuries after she would be born. What would that do to her? What will become of you, my little daughter?

He’d seemed fascinated, for a while, but Morrison’s fascinations seldom lasted very long. A few months here, and she’d been a nuisance to him. It would be the same for the baby before too long, she knew that.

“Hazzelelponi,” she repeated, tearing her eyes away from the child and back towards the young doctor. “It’s biblical. Like Cozbi. It’s a tradition in my… my family. You don’t care for it? Not suitable for this time… this place, I mean?”

“Er, well, it… Bit of a mouthful,” he confessed. “Devil to spell, I, I, should think. Ah, for other people. Um. That’s never good, trust me on that…”

Cozbi frowned. “Well… Jezebel, perhaps? I had an aunt…”

“Bet-ter…” he considered, slowly. “But, um, possibly a burden of its own, you know. Um. I, um… What about Deborah? Debbie’s very popular at the moment.”

The selkie grimaced. “I had an aunt,” she repeated, in an altogether different tone.

“Not a good namesake? Well, there’s Jemima? And, and, ah, you can’t go wrong with Mary, you know?”

“I had a grandmother Shoshana?” she suggested, warily.

The doctor nodded. “I should think she could wear that. Um. Although, um, in this, er, in this country, it would normally be, I think, more popularly be Susannah?”

“A fine… what’s the word… compromise,” Cozbi told him, with a yawn. “Put down Susannah in your little notes, doctor, ah…?”

“Um?”

“I didn’t hear your name, doctor?”

“Oh. I, um… Paul. It’s Paul. It’s also a family, er… Not the most inventive in my, er… Oh! Oh, yes, er, Doctor, yes, you mean my… Yes. Uh. Rohaert. Doctor Rohaert. Paul. Um.”

Cozbi returned his smile. “How do you put it in this cen… in this country? Oh, yes. Pleased to meet you, Doctor Roheart.”

“It’s, actually, um… Yes. Yes, pleased to meet you too, miss, uh… Miss Cozbi. Um.”

* * * * *

Dimly-lit, windowless, black corridors. It could almost be home. These months of fresh air and natural food couldn’t possibly be doing him any good. These primitives, with all their germs and no filtration systems, their cancerous sunlight. It wasn’t healthy.

Someone would be even less healthy in a moment, if these large and suited gentlemen didn’t stop manhandling him. Most likely, though not definitively, that someone would be himself.

Daniel Martino allowed himself to be forced down by the shoulders onto a wooden chair clearly designed to be as uncomfortable as possible whilst still technically possible to sit in. There was a desk in front of him, a bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, and a man standing behind the desk with his arms folded behind his back, staring out of the window.

There wasn’t actually anything to look at through the aforesaid fenestra apart from bare brick, on account of the fact that they were quite some way underground, but the unseen man had evidently decided upon this pose and was valiantly sticking to it despite the obvious objections. Martino had to concede that the little scene boded like a fucker. This was a place where dark deeds were done, and the remnant slivers of old blood on the walls helped advertise that the right was reserved for those deeds to be done unto ye. He knew the kind of place, the kind of room. In another place, another time, he’d done those deeds himself. The safety of the Concordium demanded nothing less.

“Did you find her?”

It was as much a snort as a voice, like a boar worrying a rat, spat as though through a mouth that didn’t consider him worthy of bothering to open fully.

“Find who?” Martino asked lightly, with honest ignorance.

“Caroline.”

“Ah. Uh. No?” he hazarded.

“Shame. Well, at least as far as the nation’s archaeologists are concerned, been looking for that ship for decades. Can’t entirely see what all the fuss is about, myself. Ship’s just a ship. Not as though there was anything valuable on board, was there?”

“I couldn’t say.”

“Always thought it was an odd notion that it would’ve been scuttled there. I know they say there’s some evidence in the records, but it seems like damned fuzzy thinking to me. Just because her captain gave his name to Gordon Bay in, ah… What year was it, young man?”

Martino allowed himself a grimace. He hadn’t signed up for tavern quizzes. If this was going to go on much longer he’d be positively crying out for them to start removing his fingernails. “Eighteen… thirty…?” he hazarded

“Seventeen-Eighty-Four, old boy. No set of steak knives for you. So tell me,” his captor continued, turning to face him with what might in a taller man have been an impressive flourish, “exactly what kind of archaeologist are you?”

And there was why he recognised the voice. It was one he’d heard on the radio and on television for months now, shorn of the tinniness and crackles of late ‘60s Candelariasian broadcasting. Even with an attached face it took a moment to register, so unfamiliar was the most famous man in Candelaria And Marquez without his patented straw boater. But there was no mistaking that mighty moustache. Never had facial furniture inspired such devotion in half a country’s populace and dread amongst the other.

Well alright, not never. But it was up there. Second Division, maybe. But pushing for the Series B places at least.

“We’re just… normal men.”

“Just normal men?”

“Just innocent men… President Clarke,” Martino added, redundantly, attempting to keep his composure. “Or is it Prime minister this week? It’s so hard to keep up.”

For a newcomer to this century, this was quality late ‘60s Candelariasian satire. Clarke didn’t rise to it, though Martino thought his face, eternally rubicund though it was, had turned just a twinkle bit redder all the same.

“Appears you know something about this country’s present, then, even if you’re not so hot on its past. You also have me at a disadvantage. The gentlemen here said you called yourself ‘Daniel’, but I think we both know that’s not true, hmm? You work for Them?”

“I genuinely couldn’t say, sir.”

“You’re not one of Them, I’d be bound. Seen ‘em. You’re too pale by half, Sonny Jim. Too tall for that matter. Were you blond as a boy?”

“I… No? There’s a lot of Thems in the worlds, Mr President…”

“The faeries, man, the bloody faeries!”

The faeries. So… At least up to a point, that was true then. And if the legends, and the bits and pieces of actual tangible data that the Morticians had collated over the years, were accurate, then by all accounts the faeries were eventually going to be a pickle.

“Do you often do this, sir?” Martino asked, stonewalling as best he could while his whirring brain tried to work out what way to approach this now. The actual President David Clarke as his interrogator had added quite the spice to proceedings. “Pop down from Robinson House to personally grill simple archaeologists on their activities?”

“You’re no archaeologist, young man. And you might not be no faerie either, but I in turn am more worldly than you might think. I’m not just another oblivious citizen of these islands. So… You one of those security elves?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Don’t play silly sods with me, son. Atlantian Oceanianiania. Several islands south of our cousins in Northland. Don’t think we don’t know about you…”

“I’d applaud your worldliness, sir, if only my hands weren’t in manacles. But no, I’m not.” This was strictly true, even putting to one side his Candelarian birth and paternal heritage. Mother had been from Vyinta, and they wouldn’t be absorbed formally into Valanora for years yet by any calendar. “But since you ask… I am an elf. And even now my kin will be wondering where I’ve got to. My people’s wrath can be something to behold. So can mine.”

Man and half-elf locked eyes for several second before the President looked away, noisily pulled up a chair behind the desk, and seated himself. Any moment now, Martino thought, he’d going to steeple his fingers and rest the lowest of his chins upon the tips.

“We have your ships,” Clarke said, quietly. “All three of them, such as there’s anything much left. The ones you lot are clearly digging about for. Should’ve got a permit. I say your ships. One of them definitely isn’t; the big one. We salvaged corpses from that one, and they ain’t no elves. Short. Round. Tell me what are those, then, Mister Elf? Did they know your wrath too? Dwarves we know about. Certainly weren’t svartálfar. What else is out there?”

Once again, Martino didn’t bother to hide his grin. So their supposition had been true, then. Their excavations hadn’t turned anything up, but the Candelariasians had got there ahead of them. The Spirit of Sørøya and the Coastguard vessels. Gegnomes. It had long been supposed that, in the maelstrom of the seconds-old vortex, the ships in the immediate vicinity of the stolen devices had survived, and been shunted back in time. Now Martino knew when. And where there was the Spirit of Sørøya, surely there were the Devices?

“Gnomes.”

“Really? Huh. I owe Davis a beer, I went for hobbits. You at war with them? We think there were survivors…”

In-ter-est-ing. Martino opened his mouth to spit out whatever bullshit he could think of at short notice in relation to this latest query, but Clarke’s enthusiasm for his little inquisitor routine, and the sound of his own tash-strained voice, saw him continue to do most of the talking.

“And while we’re on the subject of non-human lifeforms jollying about my country,” Clarke went on, bending down and opening the holdall resting against the desk, and pulling out a small white sheet, “what in hell’s name is one of these? This one of yours?”

The President turned the photograph over. It was blurry, taken from a distance, and the colour saturation was horrible, but the big orange hairy thing that stared back was indisputably Vanderpent. One of ours? Once the man-ape knew that there were survivors amongst the gegnomes, it wouldn’t seem that way. His people had born a violent grudge against them for decades now, and no amount of temporal displacement was going to soften his oncoming bloodlust.

“No,” Martino decided, “not one of mine. He’s a… frppp… grppp…” He paused, lest his unformed words cover the head of state in spit, and thought: what harm would it do? They won’t be created for decades. “He’s one of the Ifewa, sir. Man-Apes. Big hairy fuckers.”

“Oh, you don’t say. What do they want? And what, by the way, does all this have to do with the svartálfar? We know they’re in the Gordon Bay City sewers. All this can’t be a coincidence.”

They know about the svarts, Martino thought quickly. Of course they do. The faeries told them, according to the legends. And we’re more than likely going to need those little sods if we’re going to complete this mission, one way or another.

“The Ifewa and the gnomes are mortal enemies, sir,” Martino adlibbed desperately. “Once, a long time… ago, yes, a gnome stole the… the gemstone of…”

“Of…?”

Martino shrugged. “Gub… Ws… Iv… Kabiv,” he plumped for, instantly hoping he’d be able to remember that if quizzed anew, “from the Ifewan queen Hub… Bud… Wee?, and they’ve been out for blood ever since. But the gnomes, you see, insisted that the svartálfar had assisted them in their thievery, and now they’ve tracked them down to your country.”

He sat back as best he could, rather pleased with himself.

“We can’t remove them? The svartálfar, I mean? We’ve no quarrel with any of these… things, but we’re not involved!”

“The svartálfar can’t be moved, sir. Not if they don’t want to be. But they must be protected. My people are insisted on that.”

“Right. So, ah… Definitely no aliens involved, right? All gnomes and what-have-you, but no aliens? Good, good. That’s something. Our experts did think what remained of the vessels suggested a terrestrial design. Shame I’ve already shelled out several million for a, quote-unquote, scientific satellite to monitor any flying saucers in our airspace, but… Supposed to be going up next year, the Beatrice satellite? You may have heard mention. Named after Guillaumin’s Birth of Beatrice, you know, and… well, I suppose you wouldn’t, being… foreign. There’s quite the excitement about little C&M entering the ‘space race’ in our own little way, anyway.”

“I’m sure it will still be of plenty use, sir,” Martino told him, stony-faced.

At this comment, President Clarke visibly sagged. “Really? God. I didn’t ask to have to deal with any of this. All this faerie nonsense, I was all for packing it in the moment these Kolan, the faeries, popped up by my bedside and started telling me, you know, we had to keep all this secret. This shouldn’t be a time for secrets. We’re building a new country from the ashes of the old, but… I can’t hope to escape the past, can I? Or the wider world. We’re a part of it, even if we’re not allowed to be.”

“If it’s any consolation, Mr President, I do know how you feel…”

“You know that they think it was a gas explosion? The people, the Gordon Bay disaster. Or rather, that that’s the official line. What they think is that it was Marquezian separatists. Thousands dead, and it’s only us insisting that that’s not true that’s keeping that island from tearing itself apart and killing thousands more in the process. Can’t tell them the truth, can I, about crashed spacecraft and gnomes and elves and goodness-knows-what?”

“Not without angering the faeries, no. Or…”

“Or your people, yes? Because that would endanger the little buggers in the sewers to boot. What a mess… You know I don’t, ah… ‘hang out’ here often, as a rule? Down in The Hole?”

“It’s not exactly a country retreat, sir, no.”

“No. Usually leave this business to the Hole People. Anyone who reckons they’re going to speak out about the wonders of the real world, they end up down here. Some of them leave with most of their parts. I don’t like it, not one bit. I’ve had to spend the last decade preaching the bad word about McManus, about the political prisoners, the disappearances, and here I am doing just the same. Dancing to the tune of the faeries, and it’s a wonder I still have my toes. You know they won’t even let me order the reconstruction of Gordon Bay? Says the city has to be left like that.”

“It really does, sir.”

“Humph. I expect you’re not going to tell me what you were poking about there for either, are you? All these digs? Didn’t think so. Our land is not our own, is it? We’re just pawns… Who are you people, anyway? Specifically, I mean. Who do you work for?”

“The Morti–” Martino began automatically, before he could stop himself, before hurriedly adding: “Well, I hope.”

“You hope…?”

Stars preserve us, now why did I say that? Martino thought. Come on, superior half-elven brain. Work your magik.

“Indeed. A proposition for you, sir. The… Mort. The… uh… Ministry! Yes. Of… Rushmori… Trade?” he hazarded. “The faeries want to keep you cowed, Mr President. My people, through me as their conduit, wish to work with you. A public, well-financed,” he added, meaningfully, “face for our clandestine operations in C&M. We’ve no wish to harm this country, sir. Our goals are not the same, but that doesn’t mean they cannot coexist.”

“Hm. Interesting. You want to take over an arm of my government so you can… do whatever it is you want to do here? And you expect me to just… sign over all this, all this stuff, to you? Some random elf in a trenchcoat?”

“Has a better solution presented itself?”

Clarke leant forward, steepling his fingers and resting his chin upon the points. “No… No, it hasn’t. I’d need considerably more details, but your proposal has merit. And the Ministry of Rushmori Trade? Good thinking, actually. Sounds grand, worthy of a big building in the heart of Albrecht, but actually aside from Lussolavizzovian turnips, beef from Sargossa and… clogs, or what-have-you, from Nethertopia, eighty per cent of our trade is still with the motherland. A perfect cover.”

“We’ve put a lot of thought into this, sir,” Martino told him solemnly.

“Right, right. ‘Course you have.” At this stage, the President radiated relief that at least a fraction of a wholly unwanted problem might about to be someone else’s. “The, uh, the Hole Gentlemen called you… Martino? Can’t be your real name.”

“You’d like something with more diacritics?”

“Indulge me.”

Martino frowned. “Er… Daenîël Anwamanë? If you like? Call me Dan, sir.”

“Might very well do that, Mr Elf. I might very well do that.”

* * * * *

Alone for a blessed moment in his own office at the CAMAFA’s Bower Street headquarters, Robert Morrison breathed in the air that wafted through the open window. Exhaust fumes, stale kebabs… but, mercifully, a break from the pervasive cigarette breath of his colleagues.

Of the qualities of this era he had struggled to grasp over the last few years, the insistence of ex-professional footballers to throw away the legacy of their active youths and variously drink, smoke and gorge themselves into oblivion was one of the more baffling. The non-footballers, the corporate types and the merely Very Keen, were little better. You could almost believe them to be secret cultists, some form of contemporary Rosalian, such was the devotion to which they set about their self-destructive mission. He’d more-or-less come to the conclusion that it was fundamentally a status thing; that, in a far from wealthy country still knitting itself back together after the civil war, having the spare change to treat your body and brain in this manner was a way of showing off.

That, he could understand. His own family had been much the same. The Gamboa of the Inside wasn’t Albrecht, where a shaky but persistent accord between the various guilds ensured that few really went without. In Gamboa, the ruling families such as his had access to resources the likes of which their downtrodden, semi-feudal, subjects could only dream. There were ways of displaying your affluence, your power, and not all of it was kind on the gut nor the liver.

As a Mortician in Albrecht, he wasn’t entirely a stranger to the ancestors’ smoked stimulant of choice. Members of the star cult dedicated to Kim Daeeui smoked like chimneys, on the basis of a stray line in Morgan Fattori’s Good Book claiming that the great Han and Albrecht FC striker had once been caught, and reprimanded for, furtively bumming a fag outside the Scorpions Academy.

(A small breakaway sect among the Kimmites had adopted a considerably different interpretation of this facet of their star’s off-field activities, and undertook what they saw as the necessary ritualised response to this conclusion with grim dedication and without the enthusiasm of the Primroses, Valinials or, indeed, the Morrisonites whose existence had been the adolescent bane of several generations of his own family.)

For their part, his people had been Castelãenses, though it had been a pretty perfunctory thing for the sake of keeping up appearances to the masses. Even so, despite his lack of personal spiritual conviction, he’d never really questioned the integral place of the star cults to the societies inside the vortex. Now, he wondered how a mind such as his had been so blind to the inherent absurdities of it all. Of course, it was years still until many of the great men and women his people idolised would be born – if, thanks to his and his contemporaries’ temporal meddling, most ever were – and there wasn’t even a CMSC yet let alone an ‘International Era’. None the less, the footballers of this era were real, living, and almost objectionably normal people. The stars of the NFBL, Millerman Sheppard and Donovan Alexander, Ollie Prior and Matthew Smith and all the rest of them, could hardly be reduced to some stray facet of their beings, real or imagined.

But that was exactly what they’d do, centuries from now, at least in some of the more prominent cults. The consumptionists of the Rosalians, the masked Corrdinites; even the debauched Mooners and Fritzans, or the D’Anconan boy racers who tore through the haze and across the dirt of west Kez in the cobbled-together land vehicles of the ancestors. To say nothing of the Nakatsurans – one of the worlds’ great players, reduced by his cultists to his being just a bit androgynous. Kamuzati… Ugh. He didn’t even want to think about Kamuzati. Not now.

Not now when things were going… well, actually. The first-thawed of the brothers were thriving. The NFBL… wasn’t, and he could sleep safe in the knowledge that that was partly his doing. He’d stayed at Daniel and Henry’s side for a short while, to help with the setting up of the M.O.R.T., before they’d all decided that the mission would be better served by his joining the ranks of the CAMAFA. He’d needed the money, apart from anything else. The resources they’d brought from the Concordium were not infinite, he was soon going to have twenty-odd mouths to feed, and despite their knowledge of times to come it wasn’t as though any of them could just go and put the mortgage on the 3:30 at Hinchcliffe.

But he’d worked his way up in no time at all. The organisation was far from the sprawling monolith it would become, and always on the look-out for competent young men. I don’t know what we’d do without you, Bob-lad, they said. I don’t know where you’ve sprung up from, but you’re a godsend. He’d had to work at suppressing his Gamboan speech patterns – it had soon become clear that the Old of his upbringing wasn’t quite the Old of the ancestors themselves – but the other gaps in his knowledge were cheerfully put down as endearing quirks. Within months they’d given him Youth Development, ironically enough, albeit on a caretaker basis. He was, they said, a bright lad and probably not a nonce and, in those days before the national team, any one of those attributes was pretty much all anyone required.

But it had been the NFBL that was his true destination. Just a few months of financial mismanagement in a challenging economy was all it had taken to bring it to its knees. His new colleagues and their predecessors had done all the hard work; turning the Clotaire Dragons into the ClotaireAutos, bringing aboard soulless, corporate new clubs – the El din Giants, Caires Towers, the Abiodun Muttonshells. They wouldn’t last, and neither would the league. It was 1973. There wouldn’t be a 1974. The National Foot-Ball League would crumble, the surviving clubs would return to the regional divisions, and, in time, the CMSC would emerge from the ashes as Morgan Fattori told it. The Candelariasians could probably be trusted to ensure all this themselves, but he was there, in the background, pulling the strings that hung along the washing line of time. He was a man with vision, Cozbi had told him approvingly once, before it all went sour. In Morrison’s view, vision meant seeing what was there. Seeing things that weren’t there – that was madness. And he definitely wasn’t mad. He was quite sure of that.

And as for those surviving clubs, they’d be only too happy to each accept their own little brown genius, when the time came. Mark Baker or no Mark Baker, they would receive the grounding, the discipline, the family, that only football could provide. And his little boys would bring down Beatrice, and the Candelarias would be saved.

You’re a godsend, Bob-lad.

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Posts: 207
Founded: Feb 22, 2007
Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Mon Jun 13, 2022 3:43 am

Eighteen. The Time of Their Lives


A thematically apposite light drizzle spattered the cliffs that formed what was usually one of south-east Candelaria’s more popular suicide spots. Today, not being nice weather for it, they were empty of lost souls save for one, not so much lost as temporally misplaced, shutting the door of his Chevrolet behind him, and another, copious red hair poking out from behind a flasher mac, who closed the door of the Ford Cortina with a lightness of touch that few would have expected from such a hulking figure.

“Robert,” Vanderpent said shortly, as they left their vehicles behind and ambled over to a scenic point overlooking the calm waters of the stretch.

Robert Morrison nodded at him curtly. “Long time no etcetera. I was surprised to get your message. Killed any good gnomes lately?”

“One or two. I hear onratulations are in order?”

“Hmm?”

“You and Mary? Your daughter?”

“Oh, yes,” Morrison agreed vaguely, “yes, them. Thank you. Hear a lot about me, do you?”

“I check in with Martino from time to time, he eeps me in the loop. AMAFA chairman, to boot. You’ve done well for yourself. Thawed out your superhuman football babies yet?”

“A few…”

“A few? You haven’t taken your eye off the ball, have you? The mission’s more important than football, Robert.”

Morrison snorted. “Not quite the devout Scorpion anymore, eh? If we activate the brothers all in one go there’s the possibility they could be sixty years old by the time of Beatrice. We still have no real understanding of how the devices work, nor when we’ll feel their impact. I’m working blind. It might be easier if we had a little more help, but there’s you gallivanting around the worlds…”

“I am not allivanting… The gegnomes took at least one device from the wreage of the Spirit of Sørøya, I’ve told you that one admitted that before I… dealt with her. Every sinle one I can tra down brins us loser…”

“And you’re sure this isn’t just a mad personal quest because they stole from your queen decades before any of us were born?”

“Don’t brin her into this,” Vanderpent snarled.

Morrison turned away from him, and kicked absently into the wind. As reunions went this one wasn’t going spiffingly, not that he’d expected any less. He hadn’t wanted to make an enemy of the ifewan, or any of his dwindling array of countryfolk, but the pair had been fundamentally at odds over the best way to search for solutions to their predicament and it was evident that the last few years hadn’t mended that. “It’s still possible we may not need to find another device,” he said, in a more conciliatory tone. “We have the shards from the one that shattered, Martino’s organisation ensures the safety of the dust goblins, we ca–”

“There’s no Baptism of Fire, Robert. It’s nineteen-eighty-one, should’ve started by now. That’s your job, isn’t it?”

“Vanders, even Peter Waddington’s still in short trousers. And by that I don’t mean he’s a footballer yet, I mean… Look, Mark Baker’s a teenager and we haven’t got one of our own, worse luck. I could have us send in an entry form tomorrow, but there isn’t a functioning league system and… well, that isn’t what happened, is it? We’ve still got decades yet…”

“But if the device wored, if it pushed our Baptism back thirty years, surely we’d be livin that reality by now?”

“I… I don’t know. Truly, I don’t. Just because I’m our ‘expert’ doesn’t mean I’m a… you know, expert. I suppose it doesn’t work like that. Or maybe our presence in this century has broken the established pattern of events entirely, I simply haven’t got a clue! My glorious plan might have doomed us all, yes. You don’t have to say it. I think it every day, it’s too sad-making. I did my bit and got the NFBL to go kaput. But am I supposed to set up the CMSC now, or years from now, how much changes when the Candelariasians get their device and start messing about with it? Do they ever, now? I wish I knew what would help…”

Vanderpent puffed out his cheeks. “Yeah, well… People aren’t super happy about the no-league-football thin, you know?”

“I don’t doubt it, but that’s what happened. Unless the legends are wrong, the accounts mixed up. We could be creating the wrong history entirely here. All I can do is bring up the brothers as best I can without Baker, distribute them amongst the clubs as soon as they’re able to… How do you know people aren’t ‘super happy’, anyway?”

“I’ve been… around,” the man-ape rumbled. “The trail was running a little old, ouldn’t find any more gegnomes, warrants out for my arrest here and there. Ouldn’t ome ba here, I thought, even with Martino’s boys about. I, uh… settled down, for a while. And then… well I’ve been here for a while. There’s a non-human underround here now, you know? The odd gnome, one of the reular ones, couple of ay dwarves, bwa or two…”

Morrison frowned for a moment before muttering, “Oh, bwca. Right, yes. Little fellas with big noses, Dan said. So… What’s your plan now?”

Vanderpent was staring at his considerable feet. “Ba out there. New leads. Don’t suppose I’ll be ba here for a while, it’s not exactly safe and… I need a favour, Robert. A bi one.”

With a deep breath he turned and loped back towards the cars, a bemused Morrison following on behind, and gently opened the back door of the Ford. He shuffled to one side, as Morrison peered in and took a double take. Inside, sleeping soundly, was a small, red, shape. An ape… no, an ape-man. An ape-child.

“Well. You have been busy, haven’t you?”

Vanderpent didn’t answer immediately, instead gently shutting the door and angling an imploring look down to his compatriot. “His name’s Le Lan. After my father.”

“And his mother…?”

“She… Her parents, they… We needed to leave. And I tried, tried to be a father, tried to protet him, but… I an’t hide out in sewers all my life, Rob. Or his. Even if the andelariasian public didn’t fear us, after that stuff Daniel had to ome up with on the fly about some Ifewa-Svart-Gnome war the M.O.R.T. are supposed to see me as a threat. I’ve been ‘brought in for uestioning’ twice already…”

“You don’t have to stay in C&M. You’ve seen enough of the worlds already, there are other countries…”

“Yeah, there are, and you’d be amazed how few are that weloming to a seven-foot ape-man. It’s not just that, anyway. I’m no dad. You are, somehow. They say, you know, if a job needs doing ive it to someone who’s already busy…”

“My friend, I… At some point I’m going to have twenty-three brothers to deal with, or teens of them at the very least. Plus my own, plus… What’s he going to do for schooling? I can’t very well have Mary shave him to the bone every morning!”

“Please, Robert…”

“You said yourself, this country’s no place for a Man-Ape. Boy-Ape likewise.”

“I pray that one day it will be different. This is his ountry, Robert. One day it will be, anyway.”

“Oh, for pity’s… Alright. Alright, what am I supposed to say? Fine, I’ll take the boy. And you go and find that damned device, and kill every last bloody gegnome in the process or die trying!”

Vanderpent bowed his head, and grinned toothily. It was an arresting sight. “You an ount on it, Robert. For the onordium!”

“For the Concordium. Sure. Yeah.”

* * * * *

Months later, miles to the south-west and amid torrential rain and sweeping, vertical winds, the paramedic bundled the sodden little being into the chopper and pulled a sheet and his arms around it. Some tentative investigation followed, as he established that the… the bo… the chil… the being was alive, and breathing, and as cold and damp as could be expected of something found bobbing in the freezing sea in a storm, metres from the shore. It was shivering, teeth chattering, but it was a wonder it wasn’t long dead.

You found it, Roy?” buzzed the voice of the operator, barely audible as the air ambulance took off. The paramedic blinked in continued confusion for a few seconds, before shaking himself to his senses and clapping a pair of headphones on his charge’s ears and then another over his.

“Roy?” the pilot asked, with a nod towards the intercom.

“Yeah, yeah… Uh yeah, we’ve got him. Kid. Two or three years, I guess. Breathing. Cold, but… Hardy little… little thing.” He brushed aside clump of matted hair to reveal soulful, scared, brown eyes. “You’re okay, little man…”

Any distinguishing characteristics? Can we get a name, parents?

“Uh… he’s a ginger? A lot of ginge… Jesus, er… I mean, honestly, it might actually be a literal monkey we’ve come out here for, shit me… Alright, uh… Kid, if you are, do you know where your parents are? Your mummy and daddy, are they here? On the beach? In the sea?”

“N-n-no… D-don’t know… Don’t know w-w-where…”

“Can you tell me your name, son?”

“L-l-le Lan… of-f-f-f-f…A-albret…”

Roy?”

“You get that? Lan Albret, or something? Doesn’t know where his folks are. Might be good reason for that, to be honest… Don’t worry, kid,” he continued, pulling the sheets close again and rubbing the boy’s arms for some additional warmth, “you’re safe now. You’re going to be okay…”

Below them, unseen in the rotten night, Robert Morrison slammed his car door behind him. I’ve given him a chance, he thought, you can’t say fairer than that. If it turns out Boy-Apes can swim, and survive those temperatures, well… good luck to him. I’m sorry, Vanderpent, old boy… but you’re not in the picture any more, and I have my boys to worry about. They have to be the focus. The mission is too, too important.

And Mary and Amy, he added, conscientiously. And them.

* * * * *

His face cleansed in the midwinter moonlight that oozed, viscous and unquenching, through the alley behind the Monarch and the Butterfly in downtown Raynor City, Daniel Martino ran uneasy hands through his mullet. He knew the figure he sought had noticed him already, watching him, cloaked in the angular shadows of a bright yellow skip or, if you really must, dumpster.

The other spoke first, a voice low and deadly, a snake in the thorns. “You are the slyvari? The one who dared to entice me to this place?”

“I sent you the fax, yeah. Glad to see you… Well, not actually see you, per se. You going to, um, step out of the shadows at all?”

“I am the shadows, man-thing. I have avowed to abhor the light, as it abhors me.”

“Right. Jolly good, um…”

“Speak, halfbreed!”

“I was speaking, to be fair…”

“Well… Speak more, then! I will deign to hear your words.”

“Yeah, I will, only I was expecting there to be… more of you? Your friends were supposed to…?”

“I have no friends. The shadows are my only friends, false-elf.”

“I thought you were the shadows.”

“I… Yes. I am my only friend. We are. We are the shadows. Friendly shadows. But also, also I am not my friend either! For I cling to solitude yet abhor my own leprous soul.”

“That can’t be a lot of fun.”

The other tutted. “I am a purveyor of pain. A bringer of anguish. Upon my sword shall crust the blood of a wretched multitude. I am a silent avenger. I do not know of your inconsequential man-fun.”

“Oh, you should try it sometime.”

“You try my patience, mutt. My time is bri... oh, yes, I see what you did there, no, I wasn’t intimating… Never mind. I would hear your entreaty, but do it quickly.”

“Are you sure you want to do this from behind the bins? Whiffs a bit.”

“I am the mephitis, for the putrefaction of my twisted pneuma ca… It does a bit, actually, doesn’t it?”

“It’ll get into your natty little cloak there if you’re not careful.”

“Yes… Very well,” the other sighed, and stepped forward into Martino’s field of vision. “I greet you then, Daniel Martino. I am Gwathrion Witherblade. My accursed kin dwell within this establishment. I will bring you to them, but see well that you do not summon their ire, for your life may yet be shorter still even than your human blood so destines it to so… be. Er. Yes.”

The figure removed its hood, revealing sharp, pale, features. Grey eyes stared out unblinking, still unblinking, possibly just starting to blink a bit, yep, definitely blinking now, and watering a bit. He turned away from Martino now and stalked down the alley, cloak swishing behind him, pausing momentarily to untangle his ebon mantle from amongst some rhododendrons, and entering the inn. The half-elf followed meekly behind.

Presently, he found himself seated amongst four elves, Gwathrion among them, each cowled in darkness. The seventeenth hour was fast meeting the next, and the venerable pub was slowly beginning to fill. A few drinkers glanced over at the newcomers and their corner table without much interest, before returning to their wine.

“This is the one who dares solicit our contraction, brethren,” Gwathrion told them, a sneer in his voice. The others nodded. One waved a hand and said ‘hey’. Gwathrion eyed the hand contemptuously, until it was lowered. “Martino… This is Talathion Shadowheart, Talvion the Seducer, and Grogriel Soulcleaver. Pray to your lesser gods that we find you worthy.”

“Must you waste our time with this fleeting maggot?” the woman Grogriel began, before Talathion interjected:

“Shadowblade.”

“Eh?”

“Um. Shadowblade. Not Shadowheart. Actually.”

“This is possibly not the time,” Grogriel hissed.

“No hang on,” Gwathrion said, “I’m a Witherblade.”

“So…?”

“So, I’ve already got ‘blade’ covered.”

“Yeah, but I was Poisonblade, sooo…”

“Yeah, and then you changed it. Thus ‘blade’ was vacant. There are only so many suffixes to go around, that’s all I’m saying, so we really ought to ration them.”

“Can I just point out that I don’t have a suffix, actually? I mean you could just be Shadow, that’s all I’m saying,” Talvion the Seducer said. “Like, ‘The Shadow’.”

“That’s not a surname, though, is it? You’re only ‘The Seducer’ because Grogriel put her foot down over ‘Talvion Rapesnake’, which I think in hindsight we can all agree is just too dark. Anyway, what you’ve got there is essentially a placeholder. I suggested ‘Shadowmaw’, you could’ve had that.”

“Sure, and then Bri… uh, Talathion went and took Shadowheart, and therefo–”

“Shadowblade.”

“We’ve just been over this, I’m Witherblade…”

Grogriel Soulcleaver flashed Martino an apologetic smile. “Um, do you want a coke, or…? You could order a wine yourself, but, you know, they won’t actually serve us, so…”

“Kind of on that subject,” Talathion added, “um… Is this going to take long? Only, um, mom wants me home by half seven? The – the bitch!” he added, defiantly, “the dark betrayer!”

“That sucks, dude,” Grogriel said, sympathetically.

“Yeah, I know, like… I’m two hundred and twelve next birthday, I think I can at least stay out ‘till eight, right? But nooo…”

Gwathrion attempted to get something of a grip on proceedings. “The halfbreed brings us a quest, from far… where did you say?”

“Candelaria And Marquez. Archipelago in Rushmore.”

“Never heard of either,” Talvion sneered. “Are they important?”

“The people who live there seem to think so. Some of the time,” he added, truthfully.

“These primitive realms of Man rise and fall in mere instances. We feel not a ripple of their ruin upon our shores. Why should we concern ourselves of their fate?”

“As elves, we are custodians of the lesser races,” Martino began, before sighing. “Look, Mister… the Seducer, it… Oh, for pity’s sake, really, do I have to call you that? Or Talvion, or whatever.” He glanced across at Gwathrion. “You know, it really would be a lot easier if I could just…”

“Richard,” Gwathrion groaned, defeated. He waved a hand in turn towards his compatriots. “Brian, Eugene, Heather.”

“Much better,” the half-elf smiled. “Can’t say I’ve quite grasped the logic behind the whole ‘adopting specifically Anglophone human names in order to assert our dominance over them’ thingy yet, but still. Look, it’s like this…”

It was like this. The funding for the Ministry Of, currently, Roads and Trains was still rolling in from the government with a satisfying amount of clickety-clank. Presidents Clarke, Allen, Osborn and, now, Kyle, were each sufficiently spooked by their encounters with the extradimensional faeries that Martino’s ministry had survived and prospered more-or-less unquestioned for more than a decade now. A succession of ministers had come and gone, each convinced that they were in charge, while he had quietly gone about building up a highly specialised civil service of men, women and a few others besides, from heavy enforcers to some of the Candelarias’ brightest minds, right where he could keep an eye on them. He’d inherited the Hole, which came in handy for some of the more challenging cases. Candelariasians were venturing further and further from their islands for longer and longer, but domestically the media remained loyally shtum on the matter of anything that might hint at the wonders of the worlds beyond Candelariasian ken, or indeed barbara.

All he had to do was maintain this state of affairs until a Device turned up as scheduled, or preferably before, then wait for the moment when Morrison’s army of genetically engineered footballers, all growed up and chomping at the bit to fulfil their destiny, could be thrown against the Beatrice. History would be changed, and the Candelarias would never know the suffering that in his timeline did so shadow its people forever more.

As the years had gone by he’d begun to feel there were really quite a lot of holes in this plot, but at the end of the day, yeah, he was an elf, more or less. It was written, and destiny was a powerful force.

There were additional potential flies in the soup, and this was where Richard Probably-Not-Actually-Witherblade and his saggy posse came in. There was, for starters, no guarantee that support from Robinson House would be maintained indefinitely. C&M was, inexplicably, an actual functioning democracy. He’d lived through two changes in governing party already, and Harry Kyle’s poll ratings right now suggested that another would follow before too long. Sooner or later, there was going to be a President who didn’t take his more dubious claims seriously. At the very least, at some point – and Elune only knew how he’d got away with it up to now as it was – someone was going to get all curious about why they’d only been introduced to one, single elf from the mysterious elven nation that had inserted its representative into the heart of the Candelariasian government. In a pinch, he might need to show off some other elves. Elves uniquely daft enough among their number to be readily manipulated.

If the worst came to the worst meanwhile, and his whole M.O.R.T. was taken away from him, Martino knew he was in need of a back-up option. Elves were the obvious choice anyway, given their pleasing habit of not dying all over the place due to the communicable poorly-sicks or such human maladies as ‘being ninety’.

Besides, they were as much ‘his people’ as the Candelariasians, technically, and he had been feeling a touch lonely. Mother hadn’t even been born yet. Sometimes you just had to embrace your ears.

He explained all this to the group, albeit in a form heavy in self-censorship and skipping over certain pertinent details where necessary. Early reviews appeared mixed.

“What exactly do we get out of such an arrangement?” Eugene the Seducer asked, frowning.

“Listen, kids. I get your shtick, I really do, but where is it going to get you? You’re not going to be Dark Bows – if they exist,” Martino added, in response to shutupshutupthesewallshavepointyears expressions from across the table. “Chances are, you’re going to be working in poppa’s smithy before too long or, you know… be a park ranger,” he continued, his grasp of the traditional occupations of the non-footballing slash priestly elf wearing a little thin, “but I can give you purpose. Adventure, drama. Snazzy black outfits. The power of teleportation…”

This had come up moments before and appeared to have added significant weight to the argument. He neglected to explain at this juncture that the Concordium’s teleportation technology leant heavily on a permanent water source provided via a catheter. To be fair, it hadn’t come up particularly early on into the application process to join the Morticians either.

“We will consider your proposal,” Gwathrion/Richard told him haughtily, “though I cannot say the thought of risking our lives in the service of Man is one that brings me great elation. Still… it may be a gay diversion for a few decades.”

Martino nodded encouragingly. “Don’t think of it as serving the Candelariasians, or even me. You will serve Time itself gentlemen, my lady, there can be no more noble cause. You must take the long view… Talking of which,” he added, as though it were a minor afterthought, “of late I have purchased a plot, a few miles west of Longview in the hills between that city and the Arjela. A home away from home, should it prove necessary.”

“And this concerns us how?”

“My dear new friends… how handy are any of you with a spade?”

* * * * *

“So… You’re sure it was him? I mean, his.”

“DNA doesn’t lie, Henry,” Robert Morrison said lightly. “Trust me on that. You say this was Azerredacqua, Dan?”

The half-elf nodded. “Their mainland territory, more specifically. The colonies, out in the swamps.”

“How on earth did we even get wind about this? I’ve heard of the place, dimly, but aren’t they a load of bloody Man-Fridays out there? And the Azerrans themselves are little better by all accounts.”

“Only the references change, eh Robert?” McKeage muttered. He jabbed at the controls of his mobility scooter, sending it trundling away to nowhere in particular. It was clear to him that, for whatever reasons of their own, Martino and Morrison didn’t particularly want to look at each other right now, and he in turn didn’t really want to face them. Not yet.

“He’s not exactly wrong,” Martino conceded. “Some tribe dredged up the remains months ago, twigged they weren’t exactly human, then sold them on to traders more recently. Then one of our guys over there got wind of them, put two and two together…”

“We’ve got chaps out over there? Y’know, M.O.R.T. men, or Candelariasians generally?”

“Both, actually. You’d like the expats, I should think. Your sort of people. Tind to tork laak thes, for some reason. But they’re voluntary exiles mostly, so obviously we’ve got M.O.R.T. people embedded within them, and in any case I’ve had lads flood every country on Vanderpent’s list since he’d gone without contact for six months. There were reports of… little people, out in their forests. I suppose he thought they might’ve been the last few gegnomes. Probably just pygmies. Anyway… We’ve got the bones here, had to have them repatriated before we could perform the DNA test given that that’s not technology that should be in common usage for a few years yet. It’s him. I’m sorry. They don’t die easy, Ifewans, but he wasn’t as young as he used to be…”

“Well,” Morrison intoned, puffing out his cheeks. “That’s quite sad-making, isn’t it, pardon my Old? And a bugger too because, you know… The Red Man…”

“What it means,” they heard the Rosalian say, with the accompaniment of his whirring scooter as he swivelled around towards them again, “is that your beloved legends and accounts are bunk. Our whole reason for being here all these years is up in smoke if our Red Man is dead and the Account of Dexter and all the rest of it can’t be relied on.”

Morrison shrugged. “Maybe I was wrong. Could’ve been a random redheaded fellow all along. One swallow does not a summer make, for good or ill. Not that I need to tell you about swallowing, old boy…”

“Not going to rise to that,” McKeage grunted, his lumpen face contorted in a scowl of contempt.

Morrison bit his tongue rather than point out that it had been years since McKeage had risen to anything. Despite the culture shock that had affected each of them, in certain regards the Rosalian had taken to this century like a swan to a radial fracture. He had partaken of the biscuits and the ice cream, and did ingest the double pounder with cheese. His cult captains might have venerated him almost as a star in his own right.

Instead Morrison turned back to Martino. “Do we know what happened to him, then?”

“Not really. Got into difficult in one of their interminable rivers, I suppose. Not the most honourable of endings for the poor guy, but Ifewans have never been confident swimmers.”

“I hadn’t heard that,” Morrison said. He slumped further into the uncomfortable Ministry chair, its hard plastic a far cry from the padded President’s throne that sat behind his desk at the CAMAFA. “He, uh… Ever spoke to you chaps about what he wanted? After death, I mean? Not that we can, you know, plug him in or anything…”

“He wouldn’t’ve wanted that anyway,” McKeage said. “I know plenty of Scorpions do, but he’d been pretty devout in his day. The Scorpion King doesn’t approve, you know? Well… didn’t. Won’t. What is it, fifteen years and I still haven’t got to grips with the tenses…”

“I wasn’t aware of that either. About ‘His Majesty’. Seems a bit rich, coming from a chap who’d lived several centuries himself. Never really saw why you lot followed the decrepit old creature, to be honest…”

“That was always a bit of a mystery to me too,” Martino admitted.

“Because elves don’t put stock in the wisdom of the aged?” McKeage told him, with a grunting laugh. “He was a living cable to the past, to Albrecht FC’s past, to C&M, the CAMAFA, all of it. He’ll have your job, Robert, a few decades from now, so they say. So they said. Will say… As for the Dead Levels, he just didn’t hold with them. Said we were all free to make our own choices on the matter, but spending eternity dreaming while your body was a withered husk? Hah… I suppose, with hindsight, that was rather what he was living through himself, wasn’t it? From his perspective. At any rate, he said it was no way to live, make-believe without consequence. Said he’d been somewhere like that before once, long before the vortex, and wouldn’t’ve inflicted it on anyone… I expect you, on the other hand, Robert…”

“Would rather live forever, plugged into one of those machines? Bloody right! Never could understand the defeatist attitude to the contrary, especially in a Mortician. The Dead Levels were what we were formed to administer to, for promotion’s sake! Literally… Makes no odds now, though. We have the tech to store our memories fine and dandy, but ironically enough not the memory to actually do so. C&M won’t have the computational power for that for decades yet. And then you’ve got to activate it, which is – as they say – a whole other ball game. We’d basically have to design the whole system from scratch, so…”

“Kind of starting to feel like that’s a shame,” McKeage said quietly. The others glanced up. “Oh, come on… You know I’m dying. Heart can’t take this much longer, and it’s not as though we’ve got vatgrown organs I can just stuff up in there. Been living on borrowed time since we got here, really.”

“For Margaret’s sake, Henry, we’re metaphorically tanking one friend today, let’s not consign you to the reclamation vats just yet too! It’s too tiresome. And I’m no… what is it they say, spring chicken, myself either, you know? I know I look it but, you know… Not exactly my first face.”

“I’ve made my peace with it. Rosalians die young, and it’s not as though I’ve served much purpose here. It’s you two the mission depends upon, you and Vanders… or so we thought, I suppose. Bah!” he exclaimed, suddenly. “The others should be here for this. The women, and Sasha…”

“Let’s not talk about Kamuzati,” Morrison spat. “As for Mary, she’d busy with the boys. And Cozbi hasn’t stepped into the same room as me for a decade, you know that.”

“I’d’ve thought things might be different now, now that that husband of hers has gone off, or vice versa, however it is. She could’ve come back into the fold. You might still need her, when you get the Device, if we don’t have the computational power and can’t find another suitable rider.”

We might still need her,” Martino corrected. He turned to Morrison. “How are the boys? Last we spoke you were having some difficulties?”

“I’m a foster father of two dozen, Daniel, ‘difficulties’ isn’t the half of it. They were built to see the Pinny-Baker as their role model, not me. They’re… a handful. Some more than others, some… One or two projects we may have to, ah… bring to an early close…”

“You’re not serious? Robert, if you and Mary can’t handle this, the M.O.R.T. stands ready to take on Operation: Patience ourselves…”

“They’re my responsibility,” Morrison said curtly. “You and the M.O.R.T. have yours, the CAMAFA and I have mine. Enough will survive to adulthood and play their role in our ultimate triumph. Of that I’m confident,” he added, sounding to Martino’s ears to be something altogether less than confident.

“Always thought it was asking for trouble, making them all boys,” McKeage mused. “As if girls couldn’t be footballers too, or warriors come to that.”

Morrison shrugged. “The legends didn’t speak of girls.”

“Legends seldom do,” Martino replied, and yawned. “Well, this is quite the wake, isn’t it? I’ve got a meeting with Scott Jonathan, one of my disinformation bods in a bit, and then the Minister himself…”

“Decent sort? I’ve yet to have the pleasure.”

“Better than the last one. Not the sharpest, but that’s how I like them.”

“Started up your goose-riding practise again?”

McKeage emitted his flabby laugh. “I keep badgering him, Robert, I really do! Dan still thinks it’s some post-Affront metaphor that’s lost on us.”

“It’s as good an explanation as any,” the President of the CAMAFA agreed. “Well look, I’ve got meetings to go to too. The new representative games, Candelaria versus Marquez, birth of the CMSC? All going to plan, as Fattori wrote it. Of course, the CAMAFA will lose control of it all in a couple of years, and that’ll be a weight off my mind, but… I will say, it’s good to see when our actions, my actions specifically, let’s be honest, are causing events to roll out just as they were written…”

“Apart from Vanderpent.”

“Apart from… yes. Possibly, yes.”

“Do you guys, hah, do you guys remember when we were sent after that breakaway sect of North Walkers, and Vanders went undercover but he couldn’t pronoun–”

“Oh stars alive, Henry, don’t. Not yet. Makes it all too real. Come on, gentlemen,” Morrison said, risking a slight smile, “it’s been an adventure though, hasn’t it? Me, in charge of all football, who would have thought it? Daniel basically running the Ministry, Vanders got to kill more gegnomes than any ifewan could hope for, even if he couldn’t find their damned device. You… You’ve been around. You got your scooter. We’ve seen the past! It’s been a game of two halves, our existences, but…Tell me you haven’t had the time of your lives?”

McKeage smiled weakly. “I just hope it doesn’t prove pointless, that’s all. For Vanderpent, for Kingscott, for everyone we left behind, everyone who might never live… For the very stars themselves. I hope you win. I hope we’ve done the right thing…”

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Founded: Feb 22, 2007
Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Tue Jun 14, 2022 3:24 am

Nineteen. The Sporting Times


He probably should have done some research already, but there had been many ministers before and would doubtless be plenty yet to come. It had only been twenty-four hours since the Rt. Hon. Adrian Moon MP, the most recent occupant of the role, had stepped down in order to spend more time with his family and, less publicly but probably more importantly, his sanity, and barely an hour since one of President Anderson’s Debbies had emailed to inform him that a successor had been appointed. And, in fairness, there was a many-penised ogre still on the loose out west, plus the whole matter of the Black Ooze to contend with.

As such, the identity and purpose-of-visit of the smartly suited and slickly coiffured young man who hopped down from the horse and trap as it drew up to the front of the M.O.R.T.’s offices would remain unclear until, at least in the first instance, he had brushed himself down and reached out a hand.

“Wotcher. Lyndon Hernández MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Rushmori Agricultural Subsidies.”

“‘Tis so, sir, thee beknown to I. Be a bangen duckish morn, sir, all werrity for cazelty weather, be I! Blatch as nirrup zhit up thar, pardon I’s yopping!”

“It… Yes. Promising rain, right. Madre de Dios… This is the Ministry of Rural Transport, right?”

“‘Tis that, ar. Be thee the new minister ver tratters and lerrets, yer lordship? Znabbled up that post out ov ban, an’t yeh? Well, let’s us be agwain then, vollow I, vollow I, let’s us out of the lippen! No need for the joppety, young man. You heed I, zoon be a girt dabster, zir!”

Hernández followed him meekly into the warmth of the building before awkwardly clearing his throat. “Um… I do know… About the true purpose of the M.O.R.T.… I’ve been fully briefed. Real eye-opener, even given what we’re told after we’re sworn in as MPs… You can put down the pitchfork, Mr Martino.”

“Oh, thank heavens. They’re heavier than you’d think, aren’t they?”

“You can take off the straw hat, too. Said briefing included your… ears. And the turnip, you can divest yourself of tha–”

“The turnip stays, minister,” Martino said stoutly. “It’s a survivor from the Ministry of Rushmori Trade days. It’ll see us all into the grave.”

“I fear you may be mocking me, Daniel.”

“Merely glening wi’ yeh, lordship, be not flummocked, I re–”

“Mr Martino…”

“Sorry, sir. It’s a hard habit to shake off. We value our inconspicuousness here at the M.O.R.T., as I’m sure the President impressed upon you.”

“Yes,” Hernández agreed, without enthusiasm, “and I can see how this place has avoided public scrutiny for so many years,” he added, lifting a leg to allow a chicken to scamper past. “Although on that note, the President has proposed something of a rebrand?”

“Another one? Paint’s barely dry since we were Religious Tutelage. That was a misstep, let me tell you. I do not rock a cassock.”

“We were toying with ‘Rational Thought’. Well, I say toying, I think that’s what we’re going with. Better order some swatches.”

The half-elf screwed up his face. “Bit on the nose, sir,” he said, doubtfully. “I take it my suggestion of ‘Research and Technology’ was once again…?”

“Filed away for future consideration? Yes. I know it’s almost accurate, but that’s kind of the problem, don’t you think? For an ethically dubious intelligence agency operating in plain sight, you know? People would wonder: what are we researching, exactly?”

“Whereas ‘The Ministry of Rational Thought’…?”

“Sounds like a propaganda department, true. Which is essentially what it is and publicly will be, so no-one would think to question its real activities. Hidden in plain sight, avoid the glare of the conspiracy theorists in the process, the media expects nothing less of our party. James – I mean, President Anderson – agreed with me it’s the way to go.”

“I can see you’re going to revolutionise this department, sir.”

“Don’t think I won’t be valuing your input and counsel, Dan. Can I call you…? You’ve been here decades, after all, and no doubt you’ll outlive us all. Barring our taproot friend there, of course. Quite apart from the whole elf thing, I’m well aware now of the life expectancy of the average Minister for the M.O.R.T., both politically and otherwise…”

“I’m sure you’ll buck the trend, sir!” Martino said brightly. “Is there, ah… any particular reason for this latest rebrand, at all?”

“Yes, actually. The President is of a view that we – that is to say, the M.O.R.T. – may need to up our game over the coming months and years. Mr Anderson has… been given a gift…”

“A gift?” Martino asked as calmly as he could manage, as he attempted to keep any sign of his rising excitement out of his voice. “This isn’t about those capybaras from Descartesland again, is it? I’ve told Mr Moon a dozen times, just because they’re breeding like that doesn’t mean it’s a matter for our department…”

“No, it’s definitely not rodent-based this time. Um, are we actually heading anywhere?”

“No sir, we’re just walking aimlessly down the endless corridors of the Ministry in order to make conversation less awkward than if we were sitting staring at each other.”

“You really have gone native, haven’t you?” Hernández told him, in a relieved tone. He coughed nervously all the same. “No, it’s… A woman. I mean, she’s not the gift herself…”

“Yes, that would be underwhelming.”

“A woman named Leohi. I say woman, I suppose that’s just the form she takes, she’s one of the extradimensional faeries… I suppose she’s been mentioned to you? She seems to have taken over from the elders among the Kolan as the main point of contact between their race and our leaders. Anyway, she appeared to James several weeks ago – he thought it best not to trouble poor Adrian with this, given all his… problems – with some kind of… device. A large, sort-of greeny-blue, kind of… sphere. Like a marble.”

“Orb?”

“Orb, yes! Good word. Orb. She claims that it can alter time? Or move events through time, or… something like that? And can effects human minds, as well. Alter memories. Remarkable thing. Are your people aware of anything like that?”

Martino used a sudden itchiness about his nose to glance away from Hernández and swallow hard. “We’ve heard tell of such eldritch appliances, sir. Dwarvish made, I’ll be bound. Dangerous in the wrong hands, so they say.”

“I’m sure. That’s why the President feels the M.O.R.T. should take command over its use. I know we have more than enough going on here already, never mind what’s to come, but I’m sure we’d all feel happier knowing that our elven sponsors were watching our backs whilst we paddle in the temporal shores.”

“What exactly are we supposed to be using this for, sir? I find it hard to imagine that the faeries would present your people with such a prized possession out of the goodness of their hearts. Considering, you know, everything we have to keep silent in order to protect the Candelarias from their wrath. The decades of blackmail, and the children, and so forth.”

“Yes, the… The children?”

“Possibly the President hadn’t got round to that factor yet? Suffice it to say, sir, C&M is possibly the only country in the western worlds where the disappearances of small blonde children are given less media coverage than those of their duskier counterparts.”

“No doubt I’ve got a lot still to learn, Dan. And no, we’re sure it’s all part of some nefarious plot, but we’re not exactly in a position to say no, are we? We were thinking we might test the waters, to continue torturing that particular metaphor with, ah… football, actually.”

“Football,” Martino said, as flatly as he could manage.

“I know it seems almost silly…”

“Almost, sir.”

“…but… Well, we have the potential to be good, you know? There are people at the CAMAFA, they’ve done their analytics, they reckon any putative national team could actually be pretty competitive, with a few years of international experience. But obviously, given the temporal flow in our corner of Rushmore, competing on an equal footing with countries where time moves rather faster than for us would be almost impossible. Our teams would be playing a game every day, and maintaining a domestic league would be effectively unviable, and apparently others in a similar boat can make it work, but… But with this device, if it functions as we’re told…”

“Feels like a lot of risk, sir. Just for football…”

“We-ell… It might not be just for football. There’s rugby, too. Field hockey, ice hockey. What else could we be good at? Gymnastics?”

“Bocce?”

“Alright, there’s no need to make fun. It just… feels right, I think. Don’t you think?”

“Señor Hernández,” Martino smiled, “I can think of few things that would feel righter…”

* * * * *

And time…

…changed.

Not all in one big bite, but in little nibbles. First the experimentation, a mouse born half an hour earlier than it initially had, and then another hour, a day, prior to its own conception. But before too long, the Candelaria And Marquez national football team would play their first competitive home match against Qazox on a Saturday and then, the very next day, whilst they were flying off to Zwangzug for their first away match of World Cup qualifying, that Saturday became the previous Wednesday. And then they returned home to play Kedalfax, and those first two matches became weeks ago.

And so forth. Weeks became months became years. All the while, the time dilation device – which doesn’t actually dilate time as such, but the name just stuck – worked harder and harder. For what makes the TDDs among the most powerful artefacts known to Man, Elf, Dwarf, Gnome, Sapient Pony, etcetera, is that they affect not only time, but minds, and memories.

Little Jimmy was taken to watch Marquez-Onwere versus Mayo Valley for his twelfth birthday, and perhaps he always would – except that he wasn’t twelve in 2008 anymore, but in 2006, 2004, 2002… More likely, though, the device would make a simpler tweak. Jimmy would stay twelve in 2008, but he would remember attending the naranja’s match the following season against Gamboa FC instead. And a little while later, it was the following season; same teams, different result, different scorers. Perhaps, if he thought about it too hard, there were incongruities. Memories that made no sense, posters that he could have sworn changed before his very eyes, friends who seemed older than they had been yesterday. Grown-ups who seemed for all the world like they should have been classmates. Ghosts of people he’d never known yet felt so real, haunting his dreams.

Footballers, coaches, journalists – their births, their lives, their retirements, all were pushed back, days and months and decades. The bonds between intimate relations, some an indisputable canonical presence in the present, others with lives pushed back and back, were severed, and their memories with them. Politicians and the like, tethered to precise time periods by specific elections and protected by device shards, were left with the most distorted memories of all. They recalled events they could not possibly have experienced, and yet knew that they had. Lyndon Hernández MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Rushmori Agricultural Subsidies and Minister of Rational Thought, could not possibly have been there at the very start of the Big Blues’ international odyssey, in 1980, and technically he wasn’t. And yet… and yet…

And there were other individuals still, temporal anomalies by their very fact of being, for whom the device could do nothing but treat as immovable objects around which the river of time and the debris that rushed backwards along it simply had to flow.

But the funny thing was… it worked, for a while. For three years, or thirty, however you want to look at it. The paradoxes mounted up, people found themselves wondering why it seemed as though the CMSC had begun before the old NFBL had collapsed, questioning just when the Solidarity Stadium was opened, why it felt like big sister had once been little sister, why the man next door hadn’t always seemed such an inappropriate crush… but feelings are weird, memories play tricks. People had lives to live.

All the while, though, a wave was rolling down the river of time, gaining size, gaining speed. It was only a matter of time before the onrushing torrent presented its full force to an unstable –

Damn!

* * * * *

But before all that, or at least most of it, though it would be difficult to say with any confidence how long before, two men with cause to see themselves as being rather greater than any two mere humans gasped for breath in the darkness.

“What… the hell… was that!?”

“Teleportation, in its simplest terms. I cannot claim to understand it well, but I believe it operates on the principle… *cough*… that the body is sixty per cent water, and that all water is the same water, and that…”

“You don’t… really know, do… *cough*… you?”

“No. Not… *splutter*… my people’s technology. No-one’s yet, I don’t think.”

“Right. Never doing that again.”

“You would favour being left to decay in that cell, Albret?”

The large red man in the orange boiler suit took one final deep breath and reached out for a wall upon which to steady himself. “Frying pan; fire. Not sure this is any better. Should I be able to see anything? Apart from that worrying red glow?”

This was apparently the cue for his would-be saviour to clap his hands and engender several dozen twinkling lights to light up a concrete structure lined with buttons to one side and shelves full of folders on the opposite. Lan Albret blinked the sudden brightness out of his eyes and squinted at the man in black as he removed the hood that had kept in face in shadow. He was wraithlike, with cheekbones like knives and scornful grey eyes.

“I am Gwathrion Duskslayer. You are in my country, Albret, though few among my kin know of this place. Welcome, never the less, to the Eternal Ream of Elves Security Forces. Your people,” the elf added, with a contemptuous sneer, “call it the Eesseff.”

Lan nodded. “Yeah, I… I looked it up. You’re like me, aren’t you? You’re not humans. I mean… clue’s in the… rather weird name, I guess.”

“It is grammatically abstruse,” Gwathrion conceded. “We’ve been thinking of changing it.”

“So… We’ve teleported all this way west? Like, I looked at the map. There’s a big sea between Kura-Pelland and… and here. Gosh. Well. Guess I owe you my life, then. Or, maybe not my life, but…”

“You were heading for what, to ephemeral beings such as yourself, would have been an extremely lengthy prison sentence, yes. It appears they take a dim view of child abduction and endangerment in Kura-Pelland.”

“I wasn’t going to hurt him!” Lan cried hotly, “I just… I just wanted them to listen to me! I wanted to make a point…”

“Did it really have to involve climbing a bell tower in the middle of Trilan, though? You’ve given my employer quite the headache.”

“It’s just all the things I’ve read online since we got here,” Lan continued, oblivious now in his anguish. “Well, there. It’s like everything we’ve been told, everything I’ve been told, it’s… There’s so many lies! And I don’t know what to believe, maybe Mr Baker’s right, maybe all that stuff about Clarke and the super-primates is bollocks, bu–”

“It is. Remarkable that humans feel the need to come up with such nonsense when reality is always so much stranger. And at the risk of coming across as peevish, might I just return to the part where I point out that an Albrecht FC and international right-back – a right-back with an extremely unusual and hard to explain congenital condition, might I add – absconding in the middle of the Cup of Harmony, prompting a transnational manhunt and wall-to-wall media cover–”

“I just need answers! What if my whole life, I’ve been lied to!? What i–”

“…nd especially after your father’s unfortunate fate, Mr Martino has had t–”

“What?”

“What?”

“What… about my father? No! No, you know what? I don’t care.”

The elf rolled his eyes ceilingward. “That would not appear to be a statement in keeping with prior testimonial.”

“I was abandoned. My mum and dad, whoever they were, I must have disgusted them. Their big, hairy, orange son. They tried to kill me, you know that? I don’t remember it, but they left me to drown. But I didn’t drown, Mr Duckslayer! I lived, and you know what? Despite everything, I thrived! No-one wanted me, I was bundled from orphanage to foster family and back again. Mocked in every school. But I worked hard. Might look like some ape, but I’m not stupid. Got my grades, good ones at that, conquered my speech impediment, excelled at football. And then you know what happened? People liked me. Funny that, isn’t it? Wasn’t this shambling kid who taled lie this anymore, I was a star! And I’ve won trophies, got rich, got the girls. So my father, yeah? Whoever he is, he can shove it.”

“And yet, in a few short days, you have thrown all that away. A wanted criminal, an absconded criminal at that. All because you desire answers, Albret. You need to know who you are. It’s Duskslayer, FYI.”

“You know my old man, then?”

“No. My employer did. Your father is… regrettably late.”

“Well he bloody better turn up soon, ‘cos he’s got thirty years of bowling every other weekend to make up for.”

“Deceased,” Gwathrion clarified. “Perished, mortified. Cadaverous. Figuratively speaking only, I suspect, he has gone to meet his maker.”

“Oh. How?”

“For me, at least, that remains shrouded in penumbra. What matters, is your role in his destiny. A sword must be drawn anew. For you are the Red Man, Le Lan of Albrecht, Slayer of Gnomes. You must take up your father’s mantle…”

“He was in menswear?”

“You will be there,” Gwathrion continued, his portentous tone tinged with irritability, “at Judgement Day. As has been foretold, you will stand with the Brothers and the Sylvari. A million men will fall, but this time… this time… you will alter the course of your nation’s history. She will be defeated. You wi–”

“Do I get a magic sword?”

“… take your pla… What?”

“You said something about a sword? When do I get the sword? Did my dad have the sword?”

Gwathrion shrugged. This was a land of elves. There were more magical swords lying about than the mundane variety. “I think I have a Rending Blade of Torment somewhere at home?” he ventured. “Six-plus ward save.”

“I’ll tae it!” proclaimed Lan, momentarily forgetting himself.

* * * * *

Some time later – though whether it was months or years would be hard to say exactly – Daniel Martino knelt in the lee of an identikit Ministry Man who, for the sake of argument, we shall call Jeff. Happily, that was also his name. It was a foul night; the wind whipping the salt water off the stretch and through the gloomy streets of Songstress, onto his coat.

Even here, in one of the capital’s less salubrious districts, murders were unusual. The officers of the Albrecht Constabulary on duty tonight had been rather looking forward to giving the corpse a bit of a poke after the prerequisite passing dog-walker had dropped them a bell, and were slightly put out to find themselves merely hanging around at either end of the street looking official. But they knew the score. There was more than one kind of boy in blue in this country, and it wasn’t just the footballers who knew when to shut up and let the M.O.R.T. do their thang. Whatever exactly that was.

“It dead?”

“He,” Martino corrected, dispassionately. “But yes. One of the originals too, looking at him. Been a while since any of them turned up in C&M, but that’s thieves for you. Always return to the scene of the crime…”

“So, dead gegnome equals… He’s here? This Red Man of yours?”

“I expect so. I wish he’d check in more, but he doesn’t entirely trust me yet. Too official. Gwathrion keeps a close watch on him, if he gets into any difficulty out there we’ll know about it pretty quickly.”

“Quickly enough, though? It’s another couple of years ‘till this Beatrice of yours, right? He has to be there, according to your… elfy prophecies, or whatever. Is it really a good idea for him to be wandering around slaughtering the last few of these gnomes and getting himself into trouble?”

Martino sighed. Probably not? Did it really matter if Lan Albret was there on the day of Beatrice as Dexter had written it? They were trying to change history, after all. Maybe it would be better if he wasn’t there. Maybe that was all it took. Or maybe it was he, Martino, whose presence had somehow prevented the Brothers from succeeding, or a thousand other details lost to legend. Would there be any Brothers at all? Morrison wasn’t even returning his calls at the moment. Elune only knew where he even was. Henry, Kingscott, Vanderpent, Cozbi, Mary, all dead. Kamuzati, fuck knows. He was all there was, clinging onto the ragged coattails of a mission that made less sense with every passing year.

He’d made a life for himself in these islands. The M.O.R.T. had purpose, even if the Morticians and their mission had all but fallen apart. And pretty soon, she was going to come along and take it all away. Could they really hope to stop her? Should they? It could save a lot of hurt, but who knew how much pain could be exacted if this country was diverted down a different temporal tributary. The same old problems presented themselves for inspection once more. Even if he could, was it really his right to change the past like this? Above it all, a simple fact remained. This Candelaria And Marquez wasn’t home, and never could be. He was a creature of the Vortex. He’d learnt over these years just how strange a country his Concordium had been. But it was his country, they were his people, and stopping Beatrice would mean destroying every last one of them. Probably.

“Um. Sir? I know the corpse is bagged, but we should probably…?”

Morrison could be dead. Probably was. Pretty old, by now. Or maybe one of his ‘sons’ had done the deed. Oh, the man had put on a brave face, insisted they’d be delivered when it mattered, but he hadn’t been able to disguise his horror at their violence. He’d had more than one destroyed, and who knew how many more he hadn’t admitted to. The creator, killed by his monstrous son’s hand. Not exactly original, but the universe had a terrible habit of rhyming.

There was the one Morrison had delivered to him, years ago, of course, but he was more living computer than warrior. Highly useful to the Ministry, no doubt, but possibly not in the confrontation that was to come, and certainly no conversationalist either.

Last one left, then, Danny. Probably. No more time-travellers. So alone, so…

Well. Not quite the last one. Not exactly.

“Sir? Does the minister need to give this the once over, or do we just incinerate it, or what?”

“No, he’s dealing with the fallout from the androids in Arrigo. And no, no incineration, not yet. Have it readied to be delivered to Albrecht Special Hospital.”

“I… Really? That’s not one of ours, is it? Do we have people on the inside?”

“Not exactly. But I think perhaps it’s time that one of their pathologists got her first good look at one of our little friends. A Doctor Susannah Rohaert.”

“On it, Mr Martino. Sir.”

* * * * *

Well,” his house guest breathed, sitting back in his chair and swilling his wine, “that’s quite the story you have there.”

“I haven’t even told you the half of it,” Robert Morrison said, “and you wouldn’t believe me if I did…”

“I probably would, in all fairness. Given the direction my own life has turned as of late. You may have noticed a change in me, since I returned to this country.”

“I could hardly not. You remind me of one of my oldest friends, as it happens. Yearning for a new role in life, now that your circumstances are so… changed, as you say.”

“Not out of any wish of my own, though that is very much my matter. I have my confidences, and you are in turn entitled to keep your secrets, by all means. What concerns me is why exactly you’re telling me all this.”

The old man didn’t turn to face his visitor, but walked over to his dusty desk on the far side of the room and absently let his fingers brush over the golden hand. He’d intended it to be the trophy for the league’s top goalkeeper, years before, but somehow he’d never quite been able to part with it.

“Because I need you to take up the torch. Or, more accurate, I need someone, and you tick as many boxes as anyone else available.”

“Sorry, just to clarify… You spin me a yarn about you spending your life creating genetically engineered Übermenschen for the purposes of giving some prophesized being a good kicking, under the guise of making superhuman footballers for… some reason, and follow that up with a footnote explaining how the whole project failed miserably and you had to kill most of your unfortunate little lads yourself, and the remainder of them are stuck in the looney bin or strewn around the multiverse and aging at such a rate that they’re mostly elderly men by now, or will be when this Beatrice of yours appears… And you want me to, what? Do it all again? Why can’t you?”

“Because I’m old!” Morrison snapped. “I’m an old man. Chances are I’ll be dead or gaga before I got any results. And I don’t have the resources, in any case.”

“Where did you get them from the first time around, the CAMAFA was hardly flowing in cash when you would have first got there? What about the technology, for that matter, where did that come from?”

“Another country,” he muttered. “We’d spent time… somewhere else. But I can’t go back there for help, if that’s what you’re wondering. Would if I could. And now, well… I’m nothing, let’s be honest. Retired from the CAMAFA will a nice pay-off, saw me through some foreign trips while my Mary was still with us, but… But you, well… You have the resources of the CAMAFA, the CMSC, you’re… young, thrusting… I couldn’t trust Jones, Vokolos, all of that lot, but you, Sam, you’re…”

“I’m just mad enough that I might be prepared to go along with this?”

“I know you don’t entirely believe me, but…”

“I don’t entirely not, which is a good start. You covered your tracks pretty well, but there were whisperings. At first I’d assumed you’d skipped the country over the financial irregularities…”

“Well, partly,” Morrison conceded. “That, and… my failures. There were people whose eyes I couldn’t look in again. People no longer with us, hence my return.”

“Hm. Of course, it was felt within the CAMAFA’s halls that it was part of some crazed plot for footballing world domination, not… whatever it actually was. You know that I don’t have those resources any more, Robert? We were both out of the Candelarias for a while so it may have skipped your attention, but I’m not CMSC chairman, and I’m not acting head of the CAMAFA either. I’m just a civilian, once more. Unemployed, frankly.”

“I know. But you could take those positions back, couldn’t you?” Morrison asked hopefully. “You have power now!”

Sam Mc O’Neil eyed the older man wearily. “I’m not sure how much you know about half-elves, Robert, natural-born or otherwise…”

“More than you’d think, I suspect.”

“Really? Well regardless, I can hardly just snap my delicate new fingers and have either organisation collectively fall to their knees. What would you have me do, in any case? By your own admission, your project failed. Half your little boys were insane killers by their time they were six, the rest ineffectual.”

“Mistakes were made, I’m the first to concede it. I’d hoped they would have their fabled mentor, but that didn’t come to pass. I aimed to do the job myself and hope the football clubs would ultimately provide the grounding they needed to become the noble warriors of prophesy, but… It wasn’t to be. Perhaps I should never have tried to develop them from scratch, perhaps I should have worked on infants already spawned…”

“What, did you grow them in a vat?” Mc O’Neil laughed.

“Er… something like that, mm. Maybe I bit off more than I could chew…”

“And where am I supposed to get – quote – ‘already spawned’ infants from? Children don’t just drop out of the sky, man!”

“Apart from those seventy-three oriental ones back around election time…”

“Apart from the seventy-three, yes, alright. That was a damned odd fortnight even by my standards. Look, Robert, I’m an administrator. I’m not a genius mad scientist…”

Morrison found himself bristling slightly at the insinuation, without being quite sure whether it was the ‘genius’ or the ‘mad’ he objected to more, or possibly just the ‘scientist’ these days. He was fairly confident that he’d always been sane, albeit a little… intense, at times, and maybe that had been a major plank on the rickety bridge to his undoing. As for genius… well, that too had come under a certain strain over the years spent secreted among the forefathers. He’d taken it as read, once. Today, this ‘genius’ found himself struggling to get his head around so-called modern technology. He’d assumed he’d be able to recreate much that the Concordium had to offer in these times, and rapidly come to wish that he’d packed a little more thoroughly before they’d activated the TDD. They’d even run out of soothers within months. How he wished they’d brought a kyrkoherd along with them.

The funny thing, he’d observed mirthlessly many times over the last few decades, was that his people, the Gamboans, had always been mischaracterised by their fellow dwellers of the Inside as being obsessed with breeding and pedigree, of heredity, but that reputation couldn’t have been more ill-founded. No, they genuinely believed that any man would be very much like another – if possibly not like any other woman, which was another matter entirely, not to mention of course the whole issue of the Lesser Races – with the correct tutelage. They distained the genetic tampering of the other sectors, and instead embraced the class system as a bulwark against anarchy. Every strata of society had its value, and was to be valued.

Pretty convenient for those who happened to find themselves more-or-less at the eternal top, of course, like the Morrisons. Perhaps that treacherous little thought had pushed him towards his life’s work, and to embrace his own self-evident innate brilliance. A little bit of rebellion.

Now, he watched the Olympics on Candelariasian television, and scoffed as Scott Moreaux was anointed the ‘fastest man in the world’. No, that was doubtless some goal-forsaken nomad out in the greylands somewhere. And the most intelligent, the truest of genii, was probably rooting around for grubs too, or else squashed into the seams of his settee, filling his face in front of the television and doing nothing with his life. There were a billion minds at least as brilliant as his, by nature… they just needed the right environment.

He’d tried to make brilliance, and it had fallen apart. He’d failed the boys, and in doing so failed the Concordium and C&M to boot. This was the final chance, then, to fashion a different kind of superhuman. But, if scientists and genii were ten-a-penny, the project would require a different kind of man at the helm.

A genius mad scientist? One out of three was required. And why not be up front about it?

“Neither was I. A genius mad scientist, I mean. I was a scientist however, and can find you others… and are you not quite, quite mad?”

“Oh, absolutely barking,” Mc O’Neil agreed, cheerily. “Totally cuckoo. Off my rocker. Wibbling with the best of ‘em. Moonshot to billy-o. But if you’re suggesting that I’m going to spend the next decade or two conducting hideous genetic experimentation on innocent children in the name of throwing them as lambs to the slaughter against a prophesised being of the end times…”

“You can’t live with this? Morally speaking?”

“Oh, gosh yes. I’m quite sprung just thinking about it. I’m just saying it sounds a logistical nightmare. I’d need the resources of a small country to pull this off.”

Morrison grunted. “I’m sure that could be arranged.”

“What, you want us to don our pith helmets and go and carve out a chunk of the greylands? I won’t say Mconeilia doesn’t sound unappealing, but…”

“That, or you raise a small army of yokels on some inbred outlying island of the Candelarias and stage a coup? Possibly with the help of some uncommonly confrontational waterfowl?” Morrison suggested, seemingly as a casual afterthought.

Mc O’Neil pondered Morrison’s earnest elderly face for some time, before relaxing back into his chair again. “Well that was an oddly specific suggestion. Am I covered in these prophesies of yours, Robert? Waterfowl and all?”

“I have had cause to consider that perhaps you are, my friend. Legends, prophesies… they’re not always clear. Open to interpretation, but…”

“Well then. I can’t say I’m not in need of… something to do, with all these delightful gifts my assailants punished me with. It appears we have much to discuss.”

Morrison beamed. He known for certain that the man opposite needed renewed purpose in his life, a new mission, after supping unwillingly from the Godwell. Now he had provided it. “Thank you. Truly, thank you. You may be about to save this land from a great deal of suffering, for… many, many years to come. Together, Sam. You and me. Too divine. It’s going to be wonderful…”

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Sun Jun 19, 2022 3:40 am

Twenty. The Gathering


“Black over Bill’s mother’s,” someone muttered, filling in a short pause in the general flow of conversation with a superfluous observation in a thoroughly patriotic manner.

President Robyn Morton found it rather comforting. With the obvious exceptions of Gordon Bay City and Green Island, and possibly downtown Albrecht depending on whether it was a designated Listening To Very Real Concerns About Immigration week or not, the Ministry of Remedial Teaching felt one of the least Candelariasian parts of the Candelarias. Over the decades, it had evolved into a microstate of its very own, staffed to a significant extent by men and women born not so much in the purple as in the Weird. They even seemed to speak a language of their own, though they self-consciously checked themselves in the company of outsiders, of which she was most certainly one. She’d always felt odd, there, in the corridors of the M.O.R.T., as though she were a visiting queen from the other side of the world, who was technically still head of state, and certainly to be bobbed and curtsied to as appropriate, but whose continued role was something of an embarrassment in the twenty-first century. She could never be sure if the traditional native fertility dance she was watching had been cooked up for her benefit over beers the previous Tuesday. Metaphorically speaking.

At least for now, the Persons of Ministry accepted without much grumbling the rule of whichever minister she and her predecessors had seen fit to appoint. Morton couldn’t help feeling though that, Grand Vizier elf or no Grand Vizier elf, it was only a matter of time before they started agitating for self-rule.

She stood amongst a motley collection of them, each like her bent over an array of laptops, PCs and flashier wall-mounted screens that displayed every possible view of the unfolding crisis, as it was presented to the Candelariasian public and otherwise. Deep in the heart of the Ministry they were insulated from the tempest that raged across the islands, uprooting trees, wrenching bricks from mortar. Power was out across half the country, though that particular concern remained largely limited to Marquez, the Outliers and the west of Candelaria for now. There’d be hell to pay about that, when the dust settled, if there was a country left for it to settle in, but for now it was a sizable saving grace that the people of Albrecht at least could hear what their government wanted them to. And what it wanted them to hear right now was: GET. OUT.

She should still have been in Robinson House, hunkered down with the rest of the cabinet, organising the evacuation of the capital. It would get out that she hadn’t been there, that Vice-President Obiols was basically running the country, and nobody wanted that. Dozens were dead already, the repair bill would stretch into the billions, and President Morton had abandoned her post to hang out with, er, we’d rather not say…

She should have been there. She had to be here.

She glanced mechanically behind herself, and through the deepening crowd caught a glimpse of the imposing green orb through the window to the Device Room. For now it sat dormant, at rest following its latest minor miracle – ensuring that the Candelaria And Marquez national football team, having assembled at the airport this morning in the foulest of weather, had taken off for their destination in far AO the best part of a fortnight ago in clear skies. Despite everything, because of everything, football still had to happen. There was the fifty-first World Cup to win.

For far from the first time since taking power two years earlier, Morton found herself marvelling at the way that surely the weirdest part of the new Candelariasian reality these past few decades had simply been accepted by the populace. The interference with the standard passage of time in order to ensure that the country could take part in international sport the same way as most everyone else? Meh. Fair enough. Sure, they were largely insulated from the deeper consequences, but it still showed that when push came to shove they could learn to accept anything. What about this place?, she wondered again. Built by absent elves, an outpost in a barely understood foreign war where humans were an afterthought. All part of a conspiracy built on the great founding lie of the Candelariasian state, one of beleaguered aborigines who had worn the cloak of faeries. That was all over now. Surely, if only they learnt the truth, her people could take the last steps towards normality without the country being torn asunder?

She turned back towards the screens, where the country was managing to sunder the arse out of itself without need for any assistance from the human population. The humans were giving it a good go all the same. Even a thorough drenching by the waters of the estrecho that the storm was depositing over the capital hadn’t entirely put out the smouldering remains of the CAMAFA’s Bower Street headquarters. In some regards, whatever the hell this weather phenomenon was it was something of a godsend; for the angry crowds that had descended upon the TSS, the Solidarity, and other sporting stadiums and command centres, for reasons that even they couldn’t say, had largely dispersed now; even the maddest among them driven to find shelter against the elements. They’d done more than enough damage already even so, though at least the mutilation caused subsequently by the storm would eventually provide a perfect alternative explanation. There were murderers among those crowds, but no-one would face prosecution – not formally, anyway. The Candelariasian people had to be protected against the unforeseeable effects of their own nightmares.

This was what the presence of the Ministry, of the whole Candelariasian Conspiracy, did to you. Turned you from an earnest politician into someone whose first instinct was always to find the most convenient lie.

Maybe every country has a M.O.R.T., Morton thought. Maybe that’s the biggest conspiracy of them all.

“Stirred up the swans,” a Ministry Man said flatly, as a vast honking plague was seen pouring over Albrecht. Ministry people were prone to understatement. Even the anatidae knew that something was seriously wrong. She had to do this. Who knew the risks, who knew if it would break everything… but something had to be done. Damnit! It had to be soon, it had to be now, but they needed the svarts and therefore they needed –

“Sukie!”

At the cheerful shout from a young member of the M.O.R.T.’s fake news department, Morton turned once more and elbowed her way through the throng towards the far door. Doctor Susannah Rohaert, a previously unassuming pathologist who had somehow found herself the country’s foremost expert in, and confidante to, the species referred to as the svartálfar, among other things, stood in a rapidly expanding puddle, accompanied by Morton’s own aide Snezhana Wlakantchovski. Both fixed the President with deeply displeased expressions.

“Bit wet out there, then?” Morton began, weakly attempting joviality.

Sukie all but growled at her. “It’s hell. I’ve never seen anything like it! You know the A2 is completely impassable? There’s mile of tailbacks where most of the cars have been abandoned, people are trying to make it out by foot, there’s bodies in the streets – which nobody would let me take a look at, by the way, which is not a good way to keep me on side – were it not for the fact the roads coming in are basically empty I wouldn’t’ve got here at all! Can I note, by the way, that basically all of the magically inclined species in Gordon have upped and left already? Like, even the yarthkins. So, you can’t fob me off with it’s-just-a-storm! What the hell’s going on!? And what has it got to do with the svarts, and the Device? Is this the whole thing Beatrice, she-who-is-coming-baaaaack? Why won’t we have any time? That’s what the svarts are saying, I’ve been telling you people for weeks! I’ve tried calling Jenny umpteen times, but apparently the rest of your bloody government are actually doing some work rather than standing around watching telly. Again, just to stress, What Is Going On!? Fuck I’m wet. Jesus.”

“Are you done? Someone fetch her a towel, for heaven’s sake. Damian, you can do it, if you like,” Morton added, towards the current Minister of Remedial Teaching, Damian Gellett, who was not, she’d begun to discover, the best that man nor woman could get. He was, however, available. And hadn’t resigned in terror after a week, which by historical standards made him a more than adequate minister. “You might as well make yourself useful… Ms Rohaert, we’re going to need the svartálfar.”

“Yay for you. You know I’m not the – the Goblin Queen, right? They don’t materialise at my beck and call, and particularly not at the moment. If I had any control over them they wouldn’t be keeping half the country awake with nightmares, never mind exposing themselves in the process. I haven’t got a clue what’s got into them!”

“Well you’re just going to have to find a way to make them materialise, or Albrecht could be a smouldering crater in a few hours! We don’t have the time to somehow train another rider. Okay?”

This caught the attention of a wider demographic. The people of the M.O.R.T. of course knew far more about what was Going On in general than the average Candelariasian, but their roles were compartmentalised. By and large, information was kept as need-to-know as possible.

Perhaps… perhaps they needed to know. She hadn’t intended an audience, but she wasn’t about to send them away either. Bunched together in this room were senior figures from almost every department in the M.O.R.T. She glanced around at their nervous faces.

Hardened field agents and security officers, the superintendent of the screws down at the Hole, one of the genial psychopaths from the Wet Affairs department. A wizened man who was the representative of the Device’s designated Watchers among Gellett’s staff, a fulsome lady she dimly recognised as the current overseer of the Recording Girls, the no-less imposing senior matron in charge of the tenant heteroclites, Geraldine the tea-lady. A few of the many young men and women who worked tirelessly to ensure that the Candelariasian public were given more plausible explanations for strange events or else never heard about said events in the first place, the fabricators both in the field and those who seldom left the office, professional blackmailers and catch-and-killers, buggers and trackers, those responsible for evidence disposal, damage control and clean-up operations, the rather flamboyant director of the crisis actors, the stage manager in charge of Potemkin Operations, the media, military, intelligence, police, judicial, scientific, business and sporting liaison officers. Some monitored exiles, others foreign visitors to C&M and Candelariasian tourists and travelling fans abroad. A large portion of the Deep-Downers just seemed to spend their days watching each other.

There were editors here, artists, professional disinformation specialists, mountweazellers and counterconspiracy experts, nudgers, internet censors and propagandists, telecommunications and CCTV monitors, web developers and hackers, interrogation specialists, kindly old archivists and those who manned the records offices. Unidentifiable amongst the gathering would be others still, from the M.O.R.T.’s smaller and still more specialised departments, some of them consisting of only a single individual and even then often double-jobbing. Teratologists, meteorologists, astronomers, ufologists, xenoanthropologists, oneirologists, cryptozoologists, folklorists, daemonologists, ghostbusters, experts on Dariusville and Prux. There were clairvoyants somewhere in there, though they presumably kept their heads down at times like these lest anyone else make the bet-you-didn’t-see-this-coming-hur-hur-hur joke and they finally snap, repeatedly slamming the offender’s head into a wall whilst screaming “THAT’S PRECOGS YOU CUNT, PRECOGS!”. Psychics, remote viewers, numerologists, hypnotists, the counterpsychotherapy department, the large contingent from the Non-Humans In The Community Oversight Department. Gordbaysian and Green Island affairs, international ops and the deep sea stations. Men, or more commonly women, from the Rogue Agents department, and phantom social workers. Those who kept an eye on the Waterways, on all-too resistant materials, anomalous tech and exotic narcotics, secret lairs and fiendish schemes. The props department, as currently represented by a beekeeper in a tutu. Some man or woman whose sole role was to take a keen interest in any eleven year-olds experiencing a close encounter of the strigine kind. Plus, of course, various other stripes of scientist and doctor; chemists and biochemists, physicists and geneticists, archaeologists and palaeontologists, anthropologists and geographers, geologists and oceanographers, zoologists and botanists, physiotherapists and dietitians, immunologists and pathologists.

Linguists and historians, engineers and technicians, armourers and combat instructors, drivers and pilots, data analysts and psychologists, human resources, non-human resources, logistics and procurement, financial, porters, outfitters, catering, secretarial staff, janitors, the IT department, relationship managers, health and safety, diversity in the workplace… Even one or two bemused special needs teachers who served to provide the Ministry its current public guise.

It really was quite a big room.

Collectively, they represented the thick black line that protected the people of her country from the multiverse beyond, and from themselves.

It was her people she should be addressing. But these people would have to do.

“Alright, listen… I’ll try to keep this brief,” she said, to a chorus of sniggers from a crowd who appreciated a good Candelariasian in-joke when they heard one. “I know that you’re all tired. I doubt many of us would be sleeping much lately even if it weren’t for the svarts appearing on your chests in the middle of the night to warn that she’s coming back, we’ll have no more time, engendering a hatred of football… all the rest of it. Well, I can’t profess to know quite what they’re referring to, and I wish I did, but for now we need the svartálfar. You’ve performed your jobs admirably, and I have no doubt will be called upon to do so again before too long, but for now our future lies in the hands of Ms Rohaert, our experts on the Device, and the svarts themselves.”

“No pressure, then,” Sukie muttered from behind her towel.

“Three days ago, the Beatrice satellite detected a small object, no more than four metres long, heading rapidly through the solar system towards Earth. Only last night did the National Space Facility in El din establish that, of all the hundreds of thousands of countries in the world, it was heading towards the Candelarias. Only in the last few hours was it established that it will land in Albrecht. The size and velocity of the object in such that its impact beyond this country will likely be limited – no doubt if that wasn’t the case it would long since have been blown out of the sky by a rather better armed nation than we. But the damage to the capital it could cause is significant. It was for that reason that I gave the order to begin the evacuation. Here in the Ministry we should be safe, but thousands could yet lose their lives. I don’t know whether the bizarre climatic conditions we’ve been experiencing are directly connected, nor the actions of the svarts, nor the races fleeing from Gordon Bay, though in all regards I would be unsurprised. Something is coming for us, and there are those who would suggest that some amongst our number, and fallen friends and foes alike, have had at least some forewarning of this. I wish I could offer you all a more thorough explanation, I wish our intel stretched further, but this is the truth of it. What I know, now you know.”

“Does ‘what you know’ include what any of this has to do with me?” Sukie sighed. “Not wishing to interrupt the President in full speech mode, or anything.”

“You just did,” Morton told her lightly, “but I think under the circumstances I won’t have you clapped in irons. Ms Rohaert, did Lyndon Hernández ever mention the phrase ‘temporal anomaly’ to you? Or did indeed his elven assistant?”

“In passing, possibly…”

“I’m not sure if Hernández himself knew quite what that meant, but I’m sure the elves did. Whatever else, it appears that status provides you with some special affinity for the Device, and perhaps also explains your connection with the svarts. Suffice it to say, you’re going to be needed. Because you see, I’m not going to simply stand back and allow whatever this object is to level my capital city. As it is, the weather, not to mention the national mood brought about by weeks of sleep deprivation and nightmares, is hampering our efforts to remove our people from harm’s way, and even if we can clear Albrecht completely that might not be enough. Coastal communities could be devastated. So… We’re going to stop this thing before it even breeches the atmosphere. Or rather, it’s going to breech the atmosphere centuries – and many millennia, if we can manage it – ago. We’re going to use the Device to force the event of its arrival back in time. We’re g–”

“Um… No? No, we’re really… what?”

Morton turned on Sukie sharply. “We can do this without you, Ms Rohaert, it would just be easier if you were on side. Many of this country’s brightest minds have been working on this for hours. It’s a far bigger undertaking than we’ve ever used the Device for before, but…”

“Oh well, if you’ve been at it for hours, say no more,” Sukie muttered, as she psyched herself up for a good, hard monologue. “Look, you know I’ve hung around this place rather more and for rather longer than you, right? No one here has a clue how the Device actually works, or even what it really is! The tech you have hooked up to it is elven, or something, your boys are like monkeys playing with laptops with it. Look at the amount of energy you need to make it push back a single football match, all the hundreds of recording girls you employ to make sure there’s a remnant of reality left to work back from if it all goes tits up! You’ve obviously read the report about what happened to me, right? As a result of Lyndon’s little experiment? A single dream, destroying C&M as we know it? Or overlaying it with a whole other C&M, at any rate. And you know what Leohi did that one time, how we barely survived that? You were there. I mean… even if we can do this… It’s a bit more than a butterfly over the Endemien, isn’t it, crashing a meteorite, or whatever it is, into our past selves? Who knows what the effects could be? What right have we got to flatten a bunch of aboriginals, anyway?”

The people of the Ministry watched the two women in silence. If there really were any of the country’s brightest minds there, they kept their counsel. The facts were too few, understanding too limited. This was going to come down to emotion.

“Genetic studies of the Kolan subsequent to the Monument Place incident have been rather inconclusive, but none of our reviews of decades of archaeological evidence suggest that the previous inhabitants of these islands arrived much before a thousand years ago, and the Albrecht cove region was mostly swampland until our forefathers settled it in any case. If we can push the object back that far…”

“What if we can’t?”

“Then at least we tried, Susannah. It’s this or thousands of deaths, maybe more. What do you say?”

* * * * *

“I know you’re here,” Sukie whispered. Several Ministry people glanced at her curiously, but most continued tapping away furiously or, in the case of the Watchers, watching the Device like their lives, and possibly everyone else’s, depended on it.

“Wuh are heor, mistress... An’ we’ll help yee. But yee cannit sta hor! She’s comin’ back, pet, whethor yee leek it or neet!”

Sukie looked into the watery eyes of the misshapen purple mess of a man that had sidled out of nowhere and appeared at her feet. Around them, other dark shapes were coalescing into all-too tangible, distinct, rubbery beings. “Are you trying to warn people?” she hissed, “is that it? All these nightmares you’re giving people, you’ve never been active like this before. Are people going to die?”

The svart hugged its knees. “Wuh nee’t neetmares, miss. It’s wot wuh live fo’. It’s ha wuh myek the othas… But wuh cannit sprin’ from neetmares wuh divvint myek. An’ yas aaal ganin tuh hev taa many neetmares iv yor ahn. Yeors an’ yeors an’ yeors iv ‘em! It’s tuh late… She’s ganin punish yee…”

Sukie saw that President Morton, standing alone imperiously in front of the Device, was looking at her, a plaintive expression on her face. The Goblin Queen swallowed. “Listen… the President-Lady has a plan. We’ve going to make the object… make her go away. But we need your help. This is too big for our computers. We need to dream a new world for the device to believe in, and that means… I need you, all of you. Like last time, remember?”

The svart nodded reluctantly. “Yas yeut iv time. One da’ ye’ll hev nar mare. But we’ll dee as mistress asks…”

“Good,” Morton said quietly, seemingly to herself, “good… We have our pact with the nightmare goblins. We might all still die but at least today isn’t going to get any weirder. Susannah… Let’s get this do–”

“Waitwaitwaitwaitwaitwaitwait,” came an irascible elderly voice that appeared to be echoing down the halls of the Ministry and turning towards the Device Room. A certain amount of general hubbub, verging on tumult, accompanied it.

“What on Earth?” Morton began, as two figures – and several more panicky Ministry staff bustling around them – entered the room. One a brown-skinned Adonis of early middle age, the other probably in his eighties; Sukie recognised neither. The elder of the pair looked less than steady on his feet, and was supported – physically though not, it appeared from the other’s doubtful expression, morally – by his companion as he shambled towards the President and wagged a jagged digit in her face.

“Like, like children!” the venerable one spat, in between hacking coughs. Both the newcomers’ clothes were sodden, which was unsurprising given the weather Sukie too had experienced that morning, and wrecked by scorch marks, which was less predictable. “Toying with things you don’t understand! It’s really… really too weary-making. Ghuh,” he added, seeming to flag, energy expended. “You, girl, so many girls, fetch me a chair. And a water, water!”

Sukie glanced around. No-one appeared very sure what they were supposed to be doing vis-à-vis the interlopers. Lyndon had taught her the skill of avoiding suspicion in unaccustomed surroundings by acting like you were supposed to be there, but that couldn’t be applied to the Ministry itself, one of the most secure locations in the country. Nobody seemed particularly inclined to attempt to apprehend them however, and there were any number of elderly scientists and the like, playing with things that bubbled and groaned in dark corners of the M.O.R.T. Her confusion was answered momentarily however by the President herself.

“Mr Patience, correct? We did meet briefly, I recall, after you were appointed. And, uh…?”

“Robert Morrison, girl. Predecessor thereof, a few generations ago. Now a mere assistant to my friend John, here. But never mind that! There is so much at stake!”

John Patience… Sukie had heard that name, at least. The rather mysterious new chairman of the CAMAFA. And since Bower Street had been burned to a crisp by an angry mob hours earlier, that also explained the blackened, crumbling, suits. As far as this Morrison went, the old man appeared to Sukie to be far from all there.

“We did try to stop them,” a timorous Ministry underling chuntered, “but they were really quite insistent, and we’re pretty short on manpower, and he is the Chairman of the CAMAFA…”

Morton waved a silencing hand. “It’s no bother. Today can hardly get much stranger. I’m very glad to see you’re both in one piece, gentlemen, it’s just a shame you’re not in the Capitalizt States with the national team.”

“Oh, believe me, my dear, there’s nowhere in the world we’d rather be,” Morrison replied, his glass shaking in his hand as he clutched the seat of the chair with the other, “though what I see here… It’s too soon! Where is everyone!?”

The many dozens stuffed into the room glanced at each other awkwardly.

“Mr Patience, I’m sure Mr Morrison has had a very difficult day, perhaps one of these gentlemen could direct you to the Ministry’s medical centre, an–”

“No! Hush. You think you know what you’re doing? You’re as bad as we were! Worse! At least I understood the SynInt, more or less,” Morrison went on, losing balance for a moment as he waved a hand vaguely towards the cables linked up to the Device, “you’re using decades, centuries, old technology you won’t even begin to grasp for decades more. Children! Didn’t Martino leave you instructions, or something? Blind leading the blind, I ask you… And, and… the warriors. Where are they? You’ve got the bloody dust goblins, but where are the millions of men, and where are your brothers, John?” Morrison’s hand grasped plaintively at the chairman’s ragged shirt.

“I don’t know, father. I don’t understand what…”

“This is about destiny, boy! It’s what it’s all been about! Don’t any of you understand? She’s coming! Beatrice is coming, she’s coming, we have to stop it, have to change things… or, or maybe, keep them the same, oh, I don’t…! I was distracted. Too many years. The boys, Mary, football… We should have been better prepared, Martino should have prepared you, that damned half-breed…”

Morton frowned. “Mr Morrison, Robert… Did you work here?”

Her question went unanswered, for Morrison swivelled in his seat at the sound of an all-new commotion from the room beyond and grinned to himself. “Ah. Speaking of the devil…”

The Device Room was rendered a distinct area thanks to a large window that separated it from the increasingly less packed control room beyond. In a moment, this was no longer the case. Sukie rolled off her chair and onto the floor just in time to avoid the shards of glass that preceded a series of arrivals that could legitimately come under the heading of ‘Unexpected’.

Waterfowl after waterfowl – swans and geese and ducks and even the odd southern screamer, like your mum is – poured into the new Device Extension, in a flurry of feathers and a cacophony of honks, quacks, whistles and hisses. Only once the advance party had settled amongst the room did the largest goose anyone present could even conceive of seeing make its entrance. It ambled rather than flew, walking right up to the President as she clambered back to her feet and honking at her horribly.

“Hyaah! Hyaaah, I say!” shouted the humanoid figure perched on the great goose’s back. He tugged at its reigns and brought it to a standstill before hopping off and tucking his cowboy hat under one arm. He proffered Morton a small bow. “Madam President… Robyn. It’s been far too long.”

Morton brushed the hair out of her eyes and found herself staring into a pale face she’d hoped to never see again.

“Sam, old boy!” Morrison shouted cheerily, still seated with his glass of water in his hand as the birds milled around him. “Knew you’d turn up. Knew we’d get our half-elf, by hook or by crook. Good old Dexter…”

Beside him, Patience’s face crumpled into a masque of hatred, as he snarled: “You…”

“Yes, that would be me,” the newcomer confirmed merrily, as Ministry officials and guards alike tried fruitlessly to burrow their way through the gaggle/wedge/badling/lamentation/etcetera that had amassed behind their mighty leader and its rider. He turned towards them and waved. “In case you weren’t aware: Sam Mc O’Neil. Crazy surname, crazy guy, I have to tell you. Later-life partial elfdom will do that to a man, I’m afraid to say. Former president of the CMSC, former acting president of the CAMAFA, recently deposed beloved despot of Green Island and, might I be so bold to add, potential saviour of Candelaria And Marquez. Boom. I’m quite the guy.”

“You’re nobody’s saviour,” Morton told him, barely keeping the rage tucked in.

Patience snorted in agreement. “I should have ended you when I had the chance,” he said, advancing upon Mc O’Neil as rapidly as the waterfowl blocking his way would allow.

“Now, now, John… We’re all on the same side here. It’s your day of destiny, isn’t it? Just as the ancients foretold, apparently. Tell him, Robert, do, if you haven’t already.”

Patience turned to Morrison, bewildered. The old man on his chair suddenly seemed very small, and couldn’t hold his gaze. “John, I… I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time. This is why I made you, why I made your brothers. We’ll face her together, just as the accounts said. This time, we’ll be victorious!”

“What are you babbling about, you old fool?” Patience snapped, speaking as much for Sukie and Morton as himself. “I was made for football! I should have been a world champion, me and my brothers!”

“You have to love this country, really,” Sam sighed. “Claim that your immoral deeds are about football and you can get away with anything. Worked for me for long enough. We-ell… Not quite long enough… Did get all those lovely useless big stadiums out of it. Can’t blame a chap for having a side hustle. Anyhoo.” He turned back to Morton. “Robbie, fishcake, I am at your disadvantage. You see, when Robert, not Robyn, confusing, too many Robs, here passed the torch onto me, handed me the technology, his Petrie dish to paddle in, it was expected that I would provide what he had not quite managed. I would provide an army of superhumans, worthy of destroying Beatrice. He failed, you see. Oh, he was brilliant, but his boys… you boys, John. Well, I wasn’t there myself, of course, but from what he told me you were… unstable, yes? Your minds and bodies were powerful indeed, but contained within both were the seeds of your own destruction, alas. Isn’t that so, Robert? Gets you right there.”

Morrison nodded, miserably. “You know that much, John. Your brothers, I had to have them killed…”

“Truly moreish, isn’t it?” Sam said, “once you get started. Just one little dead boy, and then they have this curious habit of mounting up… Football should have provided you with discipline, so these prophesies of Robert said, but it wasn’t enough. Even you, arguably the most sane of the lot, ended up spending your life in an asylum, until really very recently…”

“Because of you,” Patience grunted, “I had to get out of there. I heard the rumours. I couldn’t let you do to those children what my father had done to me.”

“Well, I didn’t, in fairness. Robert made you. I just… gave my brave boys and girls wings, so to speak. In some cases literally. And I succeeded! With a few, uh… issues along the way. Snafus. But I delivered you an army, Robyn. One that can save this country, apparently. Unlike Robert, I didn’t come to fear what I’d created. I saw it through. You took them off me, you naughty thing, but they’re still out there. You only have to give the word. Toot-toot! Superhumans, gooooo!”

“No. I don’t know what the hell is going on, I don’t know who you damned people think ‘she’ is, but under NO circumstances am I using the children! Do you understand me! They’re safe from you now, in our care. You won’t get your hands on them again, Sam. The children of Green Island aren’t going to be your weapons.”

“I’m sure you like to imagine you’re being all moral, poppet. Myself, I suspect you’re simply terrified of bringing down the wrath of the nation’s sweetheart Miss Young upon your head once more. That one girl could bring down your government with a word, and you’re prepared to risk the lives of thousands…”

“You’re a monster.”

“So short-sighted, Robyn, I’m surprised at you. Think of the speed limits.”

“What?” Morton spat, incredulous.

“Speed limits, Robbie, keep up. You could cut speed limits by, ooh, twenty percent, thirty? And save how many lives a year? Hundreds? And all those people, all those children, spending their lives in wheelchairs, rolllllling along, who might otherwise escape with the barest bump. You condemn hundreds to death by your inaction. And why?” Sam continued, in a sing-song voice, “why do you allow children to die every day on C&M’s roads? You might as well be pushing them in front of a car yourself, after all! But it’s because you know what damage a cut like that would do to the economy. And that would hurt taxes, and that would hurt the health service, the police… More would die, that’s what you weigh up. A few would die young, many more would have a few months shaved off their life spans. And people don’t like having to wake up earlier to go to work, either. Such a move could cost you an election, and you’re a caring woman, Robyn. You know what a terrible job the other lot do when they’re in power. Even more deaths, they’d cause. No-one else really understands, do they?” he continued, a sympathetic pout, head on one side. “The terrible decisions you have to make? Other presidents have to send men to war, send men to their deaths, but it’s no different for you, for any leader. You allow some of your citizens to die, so that others may live. The only difference is that you never need know their names. You never need know which ones you’ve killed precisely. So clean. But oh, use the children, Robyn. They’re in Gordon Bay, I know, all safey-snuggy. Bring them here, before she comes. Let them fulfil their destiny.”

“No. And weren’t you dying the last time I saw you?”

“I got better. Well,” Mc O’Neil continued, holding out his arms in submission, “you can’t say I didn’t try. History will remember me fondly.”

“You really think you’re a hero, don’t you?” Patience said, his voice barely audible over the gaggling around them.

“I like to think I’m multifaceted, certainly. Quite the mosaic. We’re all the hero of our own stories, John, look at you. How many people have you murdered in cold blood? Do you think of them at all?”

“I was made wrong. What’s your excuse?”

“I didn’t ask to be more than human. Neither of us did, but we make the best of it, don’t we? How will you be remembered, Robyn Morton?” Sam continued, turning back to her. “Will you be the heroine? Or will history judge that you should have stayed in the laminated nametag game?”

“With a bit of luck, history won’t be aware of today ever happening,” Morton said, turning her back on him and looking to Sukie. “We’re not going to use children as weapons, no matter what they’ve had done to them. We’re going to send that object back to a place where it can’t hurt anyone. Aren’t we?” The pathologist, out of her depth and still covered in svarts, attempted to shrug.

“I still have an army!” Mc O’Neil shouted at her.

Sukie snorted. “You’re referring to the geese?”

“Ah-ha. My boys… Make yourself known,” Sam said, smiling.

And suddenly, it was like they’d been there all along. From amongst the birds climbed down thousands, millions, of tiny little men. Sukie could just about make out the faces of those closest to her, their tiny teeth glinting.

“Oh… So that’s where all the pillywiggins have gone,” she said.

This was the point at which the universe decided it might as well be in for a penny and allow two other completely ridiculous things to happen.

The first was that Morrison screamed suddenly and hurled away his glass as the water within it flung itself out and into the air, to be replaced by two very damp men and the overpowering stench of burned kebab.

The second was that, on the opposite side of the room, several swans were spontaneously cut neatly into segments, and a couple of others disappeared entirely, to be replaced by three marginally less damp men and what would have been a slight smell of urine were it not for the inevitable bird shit and, of course, the general permeating kebabbiness.

The two groups of newcomers and the pre-existing company looked from one to the other with varying degrees of incomprehension.

“Great,” Morton said, as calmly as she could manage, “just… great. This is certainly the most impregnable corner of the Candelarias, good show all round. Well done, everyone.” She looked to her right. “So… So, just happening to join the party, we have… Mark Baker, it would appear. Off of managing football teams years ago. Why on Earth not?”

“Mrs President,” Mark said, nodding. He waved at Sukie. “Rohaert. You weren’t wrong, were you? Or your little purple sods down there. It’s all about to go off, by the looks of it.”

The President meanwhile allowed her eyes to travel left, and then up, to one of Baker’s companions. “Right. And… Now, you see, I’m no expert on the Big Blues’ Baptism of Fire campaign, because I actually have a life… but my assumption is that this large red ape-man…”

“Man-Ape,” Morrison murmured, unheard.

“…happens to be the former C&M and, I think, Albrecht FC right-back Lan Albret, last seen decades ago after abducting a small Kura-Pellandi boy and climbing a clock tower.”

“Hey,” Lan agreed, convivially.

“Mark Baker,” Morrison giggled, “Mark Baker and the red man. The boy could swim, I knew the boy could swim… Daniel did good, and Dexter was right. There would always be a red man…”

“And… You I don’t know,” Morton continued, looking to the third figure, before gasping slightly as he removed his hood. A noble bone structure and pointed ears stared back at her.

Or, would have done, if ears could stare.

“Greetings, Queen of the Candelariasians… I am Gwathrion Nightheart. Elf,” he added, in case the point hadn’t been made.

Despite the attraction of the various newcomers, Morton found her eye caught by Damian Gellett. The Minister of Remedial Teaching stood some way beyond the shattered window, separated from her by several metres of duck, but managed all the same to convey with a simple expression, and some frenziedly waving arms, that this would be a fine time to activate Operation: Uttermost Sycophancy. The President turned back to the elf and bowed her head.

“You honour us with your presence, my Lord Nightshirt. We had feared that your people had abandoned us after the tragic death of your kinsman, the one known to us as Daniel Martino.”

“Nightheart. You refer to his being locked in a stationery cupboard by your own Minister, Joseph of Melbourne?”

“Yes, yes, your lordship, I… May I swear that we have since instituted considerably more robust vetting for potential parliamentary candidates, and increased mental health funding by thirty perc–”

“I care not for your so-called parliament of brittle human filth,” Gwathrion sneered. Sukie was getting the impression that the elf was rather enjoying himself. “I am here only to complete my undertaking of these decades past. My bond is severed. I deliver unto you the ones you call Lan Albret and Mark Baker, as prophesy so has it. You will face your judgment alone, humans.”

“He’s going to press his big red button and piff-paff-poof out of here,” Mark explained. “I’d forgotten how much fun it was. Forgotten a lot of things, to be fair. But I’m here now,” he added, cheerily. “Not entirely sure why, or the big man here, but you know… Can’t argue with prophesy, can you?”

“And I for one am glad indeed that you are here, Mark Baker!” a figure on the opposite side of the room exclaimed. The others turned with some reluctance in the kebabbiest direction to look properly for the first time at those who had just materialised from within Morrison’s glass.

“Aino! Been far too many months since you popped in, lad.”

“An oversight that shames me, manager. I had much on my mind since our team was taken from us.”

It was Mc O’Neil who interjected next. “Well never mind all that, your lordship. Where’s your sister, hm? ‘Cos that fella-me-lad’s not Queen Leohi unless she’s been having a really hard time in prison.”

“My sister is dead,” the Kolani noble replied, calmly. “I killed her myself.”

“Well you’re a bloody twat then, aren’t you?” Mc O’Neil groaned. “She was supposed to be here! That’s what the prophesies said, right, Robert? I sent her an invitation myself.”

“Dexter only specified a queen,” Morrison said quietly, his old eyes flitting between President Morton and Sukie, as the latter cradled glistening svarts around her. “Anyone can be a monarch, if enough people believe it…”

“She received your invitation, Sam Mc O’Neil,” Aino said. “But you should not have trusted her. She cared not one moment for your people. She attempted to enlist me in her own plans, and took me back to join our people in the other place. I could not allow her to complete her task.”

“Hang on, she was able to get back to your realm?” Morton asked.

“The realm of the daemons, into which your ancestors drove mine centuries ago?” Aino replied, sorrowfully. “Yes… It appeared Leohi knew that not all the pathways were closed. But I suspect that is a conversation for another day.” He lent down slightly, stroking the head of a passing swan. “What matters this day is this land, and it is clear that we stand upon a precipice. Leohi despised your kind, Robyn Morton. She reviled you, Sam Mc O’Neil, and the feathered stepdaughters you employ as your enforcers. She feared the daemons you call svartálfar, she cared not for pillywiggins. I find my own views are little different, in truth, but I do not allow such emotions to consume me. If this land and its people fall, we all fall.”

“Well said,” Morton agreed, vaguely, “but loo–”

“For what little they are worth,” Aino continued, “you shall have my fists for your fight. But I also bring you a warrior.” He paused, and gestured towards the man alongside him. “His name is Mato. He is of the kali’ila caste, specifically a mankolan, taken from your people as a child. It is my belief that his purpose is to join you in your fight.”

Sukie joined the others in giving Mato a token appraisal. He cowered from them, and seemed altogether far from a warrior, but she wondered if she was the only one who was thinking that, beneath the smeared body paint, he bore a certain resemblance to John Patience.

“None of that explains the kebabs, lad,” Mark Baker said, speaking for the rest of them.

Aino screwed up his face, awkwardly. “We took a… wrong turn. Did you know that there is an interdimensional nexus in the basement of Mehmet & Sarrigiannidis Finest All-Candelarian Kebabs on Bower Street? I am surprised it has never come up before, if not. I beli–”

But the unlikely allies gathered together in the Device Room were saved from falling down this particular plot corridor by a sudden shout from beyond the shattered window.

“Snezhana?” the President called back.

Morton’s aide was bent double, hands on her knees, puffing hard. “Ma’am… We’ve finally got back in contact with El din! Bailey says the object… it’s accelerating. Trajectory’s still unpredictable but it’s almost certainly going to make landfall. We’ve got minutes!”

The President gave her a curt nod, and turned back towards Sukie. “Ms Rohaert… We stick with the plan.” To modest protestations from several of the men around her, and most of the pillywiggins, she raised a hand once more. “I don’t believe in prophesy, gentlemen, whether that’s from men, elves, svarts or anything else. You’ll have your chance to fight and die, if it comes to it. But right now… I want this thing gone, and gone a very long time ago. Anyone want to argue with that, because there’s still a bunch of my Ministry men hanging around, and a number of them have really rather large guns. No? Good…”
Last edited by Candelaria And Marquez on Sun Jun 19, 2022 6:56 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Mon Jun 20, 2022 2:59 am

Twenty-One. The Monarch and the Butterfly


Beneath a pile of svartálfar, Sukie Rohaert dreamed. All but alone amongst her countryfolk these past days, her dreams were not visions of horror, not accompanied by sweat and screams and flailing limbs. She dreamt of rolling plains, untouched by humanity. She dreamt of vast, hulking mammals who wouldn’t be missed, in the greater scheme of things. She dreamt of a coastline, familiar yet different, one that might one day feature an inlet created by a modestly apportioned impact crater millennia before, upon which travellers might build a mighty city. She dreamt of a world that could afford to make space for an object careering towards it that really, really, ought to have been there all along. The object heading towards the Republic of Candelaria And Marquez, thousands of years into the future? The one that threatened to destroy Albrecht if and when it hit? Well, that was just… just a bad dream.

In another world a blink of an eye away, Doctor Nicholas Oates awkwardly withdrew his body from the writhing pile of svarts and nodded towards President Morton. “Well… She’s asleep and in REM. You’d best… do what you’re trying to do…”

Oates took several steps back, and protectively folded his arms. He wasn’t senior enough in the ranks of the M.O.R.T.’s medical department for all this, but he’d been the first on hand lithe enough to make his way over the shards of glass and through the hordes of waterfowl and tiny angry men that blocked the way to the Device Room. He’d only been recruited a year ago, and had seen some damned strange stuff already, but this tableau was something else. As a regular at the New Sausages Arena in Allemali and even an occasional traveller to C&M games home and away, he was also as au fait as any other Candelariasian with the central importance of football to the nation, but even he had to concede that, at a time of apparent extreme national peril, it was curious indeed that President Morton was accompanied here not by her cabinet or the senior staff at Robinson House but instead by the current President of the CAMAFA, the burly John Patience; two former Presidents of the CAMAFA, the aged Robert Morrison and suspiciously youthful Sam Mc O’Neil; the former C&M and Albrecht Turkish manager Mark Baker; the long-lost C&M and Albrecht FC right-back Lan Albret; the aboriginal princeling and former Gordon Bay City star Aino… and several other men he didn’t recognise but who, on the balance of probability, were presumably minor football officials or, in the case of the pale young man in black, possibly a striker for, say, Raynor City United. Or AS Sharala, at the very least.

Around them, in amongst the gaggling geese and pensive pillywiggins, Ministry officials hammered away on keyboards and generally gave a solid impression of looking like they knew what they were doing. In turn, both of the two men seated either side of the Device’s plinth leant back and crossed their legs. Watchers soon came to recognise a certain change in the air when the Device was about to open a hole in time, shove half of reality through it, and mend the tattered remnants like it was nothing. Oates remained as awed by the power of the thing as he’d ever done. All that power, all that danger… just so a country could play football with its mates.

“It won’t work,” croaked Morrison, bony hands gripping his chair. Even allowing for the noise of the swans and geese, his strangely sing-song voice seemed to be coming from somewhere rather farther away than the other end of the room. “You have to try, but it won’t work. The dust goblins are right. She’s coming back. She wants a fight. We should give her one. And this time… this time we’ll win, or we’ll try again. And again… and again…”

The tattered remains of the old man’s suit were beginning to flutter, and Oates felt his own clothes do the same. The Device revolved on its plinth, picking up speed until it was just a blur. An accompanying roar blocked out almost all other noise, though as he glanced around the room the doctor saw other mouths opened in silent shouts; saw the furrowed brows of the Ministry men; watched as one of the Watchers slid his chair back over the shit-slick floor as geese fussed around him, arms waving in sudden distress. Something was wrong, something…

Damn!

There was the noise of a shattering to render the earlier breaking of the Device Room’s vast window a mere dropped item of cutlery upon the kitchen floor. Oates flung himself to the ground amid a burst of blue-green flares. When he opened his eyes the roaring had stopped, to be replaced by the echo of panicked honking and hissing - though not, of course, of quacking - and the groans of bloodied figures clutching body parts nailed by angular shards. He knew he should scramble to help them, to begin triaging, but he too seemed pinned to the floor. His eyes joined the rest of the room’s in alighting upon the broken remnants of the Time Dilation Device, now motionless on its plinth.

And from within the fragmentary base of the Device, there rose a black shape the size of a child. Sinuous yet seemingly uncertain in its movements, viscous fluids sliding down its serpentine body and over the edge of the plinth, its featureless head swaying back and forth. It opened a great yawning chasm of a mouth, revealing only the infinite darkness therein, and wailed.

It wasn’t a scream for the ages. The elf in its tight black suit had made a more inhuman noise just now, when he had looked down to see the shard embedded in his chest. None the less it was a piteous shriek, of a wretched creature in pain, awoken into a world beyond its worst nightmares.

But to Oates, it was a wail that heralded a change in his own view of the world. The smooth white walls of the Device Room glowed red, and were brutalised by thick gashes and gouges. His fellow men appeared demonic, their faces contorted. The swans and geese were honking hell-beasts, though that admittedly wasn’t particularly different to normal. But he felt anger, only anger, rising from the pit of his being and gushing rapidly into his mouth. His fists clenched hard enough to draw blood.

And then… it was over. It had only been for a few moments. The world was operating within acceptable parameters again. On the plinth, the creature sagged. It rose its head and opened its maw in an apparent attempt to cry out once more, but no sound emanated from it. And then it slumped, suddenly, definitively, crashing down onto the jagged spires of the broken Device with an all-too fleshy thump, and moving no more.

Oates was among a number of other onlookers to pick himself up and look around for those most obviously in need, only dimly aware of the shouts emanating from beyond the room. He bent over a Watcher, a shard of Device embedded deep in his arm, when –

THUD!

The room shook once more, flecks of paint fluttering down upon them like snow. From the offices above, they heard screams.

OUT! OUTOUTOUTOUTOUT!”

Oates was never quite sure who among them it was – it might well have been several. Regardless, the group didn’t have to be told twice. Stumbling over terrified geese and pillywiggins alike, the assembled politicians, civil servants and football people fled the scene, the strongest among them dragging the injured they could reach and leaving the rest. Oates hooked an arm around the Watcher and followed them, slipping and sliding over bird shit, passing through the yellow haze that dispersed from the point formerly occupied by the elf.

THUD!

The second great noise shook him to his knees and reduced visibility to a white cloud for a moment, but some inner resolve hauled him over the broken glass that demarcated the edge of the Device Room. Oates turned to look behind him, as masonry, furniture and suited bodies alike tumbled down from above, filling his new refuge with choking dust.

He turned back for a moment as new figures began to fill the room from the opposite side. The headwear was all he could spot – the impractical berets of armed men making up half of them, the other part comprising hard hats. The Ministry had plenty of in-house construction workers, such was the regular necessity of erecting sizable new edifices, and sometimes entire small cities, in no time at all for the cause of helping to keep the Candelariasian populace in the dark about the true nature of certain foreign would-be destinations. Amongst them he spotted Anthony, the Dork himself, the Ministry’s friendly neighbourhood autistic savant, dressed as ever in full Khatib FC kit, walking serenely through the panic as if guided by an inner light. He passed Mark Baker, the old manager supported on either side by his former charges Aino and Lan Albret.

There were more sounds from behind suddenly, and as Oates turned again and the dust began to clear there was one final movement, wooden beams and bricks kicked to one side by the bent and bloodied figure of John Patience, cradling the still sleeping Rohaert woman in his arms. The CAMAFA President placed her into Anthony’s grasp for want of any more obvious option, and glanced around until he spotted Robert Morrison, on his hands and knees and breathing hand, face caked in white powder and smeared with blood. In front of him stood Lord Aino’s companion, the mankolan Mato, who it appeared had taken responsibility for dragging Morrison to safety himself.

The old man looked up, his eyes the only clearly identifiable part of his face but still bearing the same far-off stare, and turned his head back and forth between the strapping bronzed men arrayed in front of him. He grunted, coughing up blood and dust in equal measure.

“John… Matthew, dear Matthew… I know it’s you… And Anthony, Martino did well with you… My boys, my little soldiers, brothers assembled as Dexter said it… this is… so better-making… Destiny awaits, my boys,” he said, glancing momentarily at the prone figure of Sukie, “destiny awaits you all, children…”

Patience, reactions still rapid, nevertheless just failed to grab Morrison’s shoulders as they sagged, and he slumped to the ground.

“Welp,” Sam Mc O’Neil said, stepping over him lightly, “it would appear that Albrecht hasn’t been rendered flat as a Zwangzugian what, just a couple of storeys of the very arm of government we happen to have arrayed ourselves in. What a jolly coinky-dinky.”

Through the corners of his eyes, Oates saw M.O.R.T. soldiers stepping forward. At least several of these men and women had no doubt fought in Green Island, and were only too animated by the prospect of taking a pot-shot at the tyrannical Uncle Sam. But it was President Morton who strode past him and amongst them, heels clicking, steadying hand raised.

“Let’s see how this plays out, gentlemen,” she said quietly, wiping her face with her spare hand.

“Yoo-hoo!” Mc O’Neil called out, oblivious to anything occurring behind him, addressing a Device Room packed well beyond what once had been the ceiling with fallen debris. “Miss Beatrice! Prophesy awaits, m’dear!”

The world began to shake once more. Rubble moved, some of it sliding out with billowing dust into the next room. And from amongst the debris there emerged a shape. Sable, snakelike, winding its way through the remains of the offices and their workers above until it reared up before Mc O’Neil and those behind him.

The creature bore more than a passing resemblance to that which had emerged from the Device, but was several times the height of a man and its movements were considerably more assured. Its tail flicked across the floor as it hovered in the air, great shimmering gossamer wings beating rather less rapidly than they had any right to in order to keep the being aloft. It bent its head low to face the mad half-elf, and drool slid from rows of sharp silver teeth as it lowered its great jaw.

No-one present in the Candelarias archipelago that day would ever forget the scream. It wasn’t about sound – if it had been, no-one in that corner of the capital at least would have been left with eardrums intact. It would have cleft skin from bone, and it felt like it had, but instead it was a wail of purest torment, of deepest anger, that bypassed the ears and thudded deep into the brain of every person for many miles around. Each and every one of those present were forced to their knees as their vision flashed bloody red once more and they felt the creature’s rage, its grief, its fear, as though it were their own.

BIPEDS

It wasn’t a word, or at least not a sound. For more than a moment, Oates was sure that it had been etched deep into the walls around him before he realised that the letters had been pulled from his own mind and superimposed upon his field of vision. From the direction the others were looking, it was clear that this was a shared experience.

“And that’s quite enough of that,” Mc O’Neil murmured. He was the first to speak, having turned away from the creature and begun to scramble on his hands and knees away from it, blood pouring from his nose.

Near them both, Oates saw that the being’s mental assault had raised Dr Rohaert from the slumber he himself had induced. She was wiping the dust from her eyes. “Where… where are the svarts?” she asked no-one in particular.

“I think I saw some of them disintegrate into maggots?” Oates found himself hissing at her.

The woman nodded. “Good. They did try to warn us. It’s not that they care as such but… they did try…”

For several further seconds, the creature and the assembled men and women stared at each other uncomprehendingly. Then President Morton stepped forward.

“I… I greet you,” she said, swallowing hard. “My name is Robyn Morton, I am the elected representative of the people of these islands. It is clear that a… a significant wrong has been committed. But we wish to talk, we ca–”

EVIL

To Oates, it felt like the word had been dragged from his brain stem, up and over his brain, and down into his unwilling eyes. It appeared scraped in great jagged letters on the floor in front of him, so deep that the very molten core of the Earth was bubbling up from within. He felt the rage again, and the terror. It was already proving too much for some of those behind him, if the apparent clattering of weaponry and hard hats onto the floor was anything to go by.

ABHORRENCE

The eyes of every man and woman in the room travelled downwards, to stare at the letters burnt into backs of their hands. The pain, even if only for moment, felt entirely real. Morton staggered backwards, falling back to her knees and vomiting.

DESPAIR

Oates had all but forgotten the storm raging outside, and had no way of knowing that it had in fact stopped since the creature had entered the Ministry. But the letters blew in upon a new wind, a squall that swirled around the being and tore at the humans’ clothes.

TERROR

“Sod this flying thesaurus!” Mc O’Neil cried. He clambered back to his feet and screamed as he flung his arms wide. “Oh-HO! HO! ATTACK IT! Attack it! HONK! HAAAANK!

The waterfowl took flight. The surviving birds poured around him, flinging themselves towards the swaying creature. With inhuman speed it ducked and dived, slamming its head sideways into swan after goose and sending them careering away. At the same time, wave after wave of pillywiggins began hurling themselves off their avian steeds at their target, and thousands were slammed aside and turned into instant purée with every hammering stroke of its tail. Too many others were blown away in the maelstrom before even getting close.

“Down, get DOWN!” someone shouted from behind, and the still kneeling Oates saw Anthony barely drag Sukie to her knees before the rounds of gunfire began to find their objective. They did, seemingly, nothing. The creature dodged so well that few hit, and those bullets that did merely ricocheted away. Even its brittle-looking wings were apparently impervious.

“Just a giant gnome,” Lan Albret intoned to himself, the ape-man suddenly hurling himself towards the invader. It brushed him aside as if he was a mere teddy bear, and even over the cacophony around him Oates could clearly make out the grim crunch of Albret’s spine as he was thrown into the wall. The Rending Blade of Torment, or one of them, anyway, clattered off into a soon forgotten corner, because just because one mentions a weapon in passing doesn’t mean it eventually has to be relevant in some way.

For a moment though, the old right-back’s sacrifice had distracted the creature and a sudden determination to take advantage appeared to have taken hold of three of the party. Oates couldn’t detect any sign that Patience, Mato and Anthony had agreed such a course of action amongst themselves, but something more primal seemed to be directing their actions. As one, the three charged toward the intruder. Oates had never conceived of the gentle Anthony as a fighter, but the Dork thrust his arms around the creature’s tail and actually succeeded into dragging it down towards the ground. John Patience had leapt upwards with inhuman strength, digging his fingers into the flesh of its head and hammering against its skull with his own. The one Morrison had addressed as Matthew, all but naked smeared in the old man’s blood, pummelled at the being’s torso.

It genuinely seemed as though they might succeed in at least subduing it, but suddenly the creature found a second wind and jerked back up to the ceiling. Patience and Mato crashed back to the ground, while a flick of the tail sent Anthony flying away. The Ministry Man’s fall was cushioned only by the big crumpled body of Lan Albret. The creature, hovering above them all, screamed once more.

SANCTION

Each stroke of every letter in turn was scratched one by one into every Candelariasian eyeball. Most cried out, weeping, and that only made it worse.

RECOLLECT

* * * * *

And every person in Candelaria And Marquez remembered. They remembered everything.

For some, in truth, it wasn’t so awful. Foreigners who lived in their own temporal bubble, those few blessed with protective shards, those whose entire families had little interest in or connection to the world of sport, those whose entire families had lived for little else.

But C&M had played in hundreds of international matches, in football and rugby, in hockey both ice and field, never mind those played by club sides. Players, officials, travelling fans, all tethered in time to lands far beyond Candelariasian temporal gravity. And after nearly every time, the Device had worked its magic. Time had been tweaked to better facilitate a Candelariasian place on the international scene and, to a greater or lesser extent, every Candelariasian’s memory with it. For some, the changes over the course of years were drastic. People were born in the early 2000s, joined the academies of CMSC clubs as cherubic youngsters and aged in tandem with their elder clubmates. Eventually, some were playing international football decades before they had been conceived, or travelling abroad to watch them. The lives of their parents were pushed back and back down time’s river, the lives of siblings and friends, foes and loves. Not everyone received the same treatment at the same pace, and the ties that bound any one person to another were loosened and retied by the Device without most ever being aware. Friendships were formed, and forgotten about. Marriages were made, then retconned out of reality. Children were born… and unborn, and wiped away, and never existed, and replaced by others, some born into the world fully-formed, with second-hand memories.

The Device wasn’t made for this. The river could only swallow so much rain. And the human mind… can only take so much.

In Gordon Bay City, the svartálfar knew it, the fir bolg and the erdluitle and the alven knew it. They knew that the Device couldn’t take much more. But the humans of Candelaria And Marquez did not, and for that they paid a collective price.

In other countries, in the decade that followed, much ink would be spilled over column inches asking: Why are our children sad?, with the inevitably ensuing handwringing over social media and video games. In Candelaria And Marquez, a generation of children would grow up asking each other a similar question instead: Why are our parents sad? Why do they sometimes pause, mid-sentence, a tear in their eye? Why do they sometimes speak of people who no-one else can remember? Why do two strangers sometimes pass each other in the street, and stop, and stare at each other, and then look away hurriedly and walk on, a choke in their voice when next they speak? Why do some wear multiple rings? Why did they throw out their football memorabilia? Why, when they are coaxed into mentioning matches they attended, do they find it so hard to recall what happened when and where, or else speak as though they attended thousands upon thousands, or the same match three hundred times? Mummy… why do you sometimes, when you’re not concentrating, call us by the wrong names?

Why don’t we play football anymore, dad? Why won’t you let us play?

And sooner or later, every young child in C&M would be sat down and told of the Beatrice Event, of the Storm, and the Hatching, of the Words and the Colours, and of what followed. They’d be told of the political timeline, and the sporting timeline, the Short International Era and the Long International Era, and about what had happened to those who couldn’t straddle the two. They’d learn of the months that came after, of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, of the time when the sheltered people of the Candelarias came to discover just how much wider the world really was than they had ever believed, even whilst their horizons were becoming smaller than ever. They’d be told of the time when a traumatised nation learnt of elves and gnomes and dwarves, of the actions of the M.O.R.T. and Sam Mc O’Neil and Queen Leohi, of sapient trees and bears and mice, of aliens and robot ducks, and monks from an alternate dimension. They’d realise that their parents and caregivers had had to create, on the fly, a whole new dialect with which to understand a world that their young would come to take for granted, one of melded families unwittingly forced together, of sundered families strung out across the generations, and isolate individuals who lived despite never having been truly born at all.

And the children of C&M would shrug. We know about elves and dwarves and all that, they’d think. There’s Tr-Se at school, for one thing, and Miss Shepherd with the wings. She gets them out, sometimes, if we’ve been good. It’s no big deal. And as for Beatrice… well, some people died, but people die all the time. Road traffic accidents and that. It’s not like the Great War, or the Civil War, or the destruction of Sorthern Northland. Lighten up. Jesus. Besides, we’ve all seen the films, dad. All kinda like the Blip, right? Sooo derivative, honestly. We know who our parents are. They’re you. Okay, so you remember some people who officially never existed, or are older than they should be or… whatever. So what if our family trees look like the Arrigo metro map? It’s all history now. What’s the big deal?

And the memories did fade, in the decade that followed Beatrice. Not fully, not enough, but people did learn to focus on what they had in this final, definitive, universe. The violent overthrow of the government never happened, and people just elected new politicians. Sportspeople were shunned for a while, immigrants condemned for their silence, but aside from the occasional little flare-up the country didn’t burn. C&M faced a mental health crisis, of course, and suicides rocketed in tandem with divorces, and no-one very much wanted to talk about football, but people found other things to focus their time on, other pastimes. It was, people later agreed, a good decade for punk. There were some widely acclaimed comedy-dramas on the telly. So, you know. There was that.

But always, hanging around at the back of every adult mind, there was them. The never-weres, the might-have-beens, the should-have-beens, the septuagenarian toddlers, the siblings and parents and children and lovers out there, alive but never met, never your own. Every one of them.

* * * * *

The crumpled bodies of birds and men around her, the vast smear that was all that remained of millions of pillywiggins beneath her, President Morton climbed to her feet. It wasn’t entirely a parade of death. She was dimly cognisant of the M.O.R.T. doctor Oates scrunched up in a ball to her left, trapped in the same private hell as so much of the country. It was different for her, of course, as a politician protected in part from the Device’s effects by the shard around her neck. Much the same could be said for Dr Rohaert, sitting cross-legged with an expression becoming steadily less vacant, and in his own way for Mark Baker too. In fact, the old manager was smiling wanly – presumably entertaining memories, of this reality or any other, he hadn’t had access to for years.

There were plenty of incongruities floating around Morton’s mind now too, but she tried to swallow them down. Heels broken, she clattered unsteadily across the floor, wiped a hand over her mouth, and stood before the creature. The little gale still swirled around it, but gentler now. She had to keep readjusting her feet to remain upright none the less.

“Please… If you can understand me, please… Stop. The people of this country are no threat to you. I am their ruler, I am responsible for their actions… for their mistakes… And their care is my responsibility, just as surely as you…”

HATRED

“Aaagh… I’m sorry… We should have known… We didn’t know, truly, but we…”

“We sort-of did,” Sukie said quietly, in a faraway tone. “We knew they could speak. We didn’t ask the Device if it wanted to be used…”

The creature bobbed its head and curled its interminable neck around Morton to peer – if it possessed anything to peer with – at the seated woman. It appeared for all the world to be curiously weighing her up, as if deciding if she would be tasty enough to be worth all the chewing.

ABERRATION

“So they tell me,” Sukie sighed, wincing once more as the letters wrenched themselves from her brain and into view. Every time the creature spoke, it elicited new whimpers from the men around her, even Patience and those others Morrison had called his ‘boys’. The pain didn’t go away with repetition, nor the fear or the revulsion.

“Please,” Morton asked plaintively again, “we don’t have any more of your… any more of… We won’t use Devices again. It’s over! We’re profoundly sorry.”

The creature twisted its head between Sukie and the President.

SOVEREIGN

“I rule these people,” Morton confirmed, the sharp golden letters forming a crown that swirled around the creature in tandem with the breeze. She grabbed at Sukie’s shoulder for balance. “If you need to take more… take it from me…”

She shut her eyes, not knowing or truly caring what to expect. The blackness within was disturbed one final time by a honeycomb of amber that formed into the word…

ADMONITION

…and then the President was forced in a most undignified fashion to her backside, as the invader turned on its tail and fired itself into the debris of the Device Room, dust clouds puffing up again behind it, and up, and up, and out into the clearing sky.

More remnants of the upper floors of the Ministry crumbled down after it. The President sat and watched them.

Across the Candelarias, the terror that had gripped a people began to wane. But the memories of a million lost worlds would die hard.

Life would steadily return to something akin to normal, because it had to, albeit with the national appetite for professional sport well and truly extinguished. Otherwise, Candelariasians didn’t talk about it much. They didn’t fully understand – well, who could? – even as the years of public hearings and declassifications went on. Time was left well alone, but the country as a collective entity couldn’t quite stop looking over its shoulder. The feeling couldn’t be wholly expunged that the night of June the ninth, twenty-ten, had just been a warning.

The Candelariasians would discover how founded their fears had been. Not when…

…but everywhen.

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Tue Jun 21, 2022 3:09 am

Twenty-Two. The Third Strike


In the Device Room, far into the depths of the Inside that snaked the coasts of what remained of the Candelarian Concordium, the selcouth that called itself Mark Baker reached out a hand to the staring, sparking, disembodied head of Wonder. Tiny parts, cogs and sprockets, still smouldering, surrounded it like a bed of rose petals. From behind the open mouth, from somewhere deep within, stemmed a voice etched with silver. The rhythm of its words was ungainly, the sounds unfamiliar.

“I’ve… seen things you flesh… forms wouldn’t… believe. Jr’k’trrr destroyers laying… waste to Isildar. Leptoquark cannons charming… off the Wheel of Skulls. This Jesseltonian woman perform a… remarkable trick with a ping-pong ball. All gone, now. Like… gears… in flame… Well. Time t–”

“Happy with yourself?” Director Allen, stumbling his way over Martin Hole-Simpkins the Fourteenthish’s remains towards the Scorpion King and spoiling a very nice moment in the process, demanded over the bloodied ruler of the TSS. “Your aide is dead…”

“There’ll be another,” the king groaned, in a dismissive tone that took Mark by surprise.

“…and, more to the point, you’ve robbed our chrononauts of a key part of their plan. For what!?”

“I had to do something. Something had to change. Can’t just be doing the same thing over and over again…”

“Never stopped the Dallases,” Mark said, absently.

THUD

“And has it? Your little stunt, has it changed anything? Does anyone feel anything different!?” the Director added, shouting at the room. “We’re still here? She’s still coming?”

“This is why you need recording girls,” Mark told him. “Your predecessors knew exactly what had changed whenever they messed around with time. Damn the bastards, but… they knew what they were doing, right up until the end. You’re just winging it. So to speak…”

“You killed Wonder,” Goddess said, blankly. They all turned towards her as she cradled the supplicant’s cooling head. There were no tears on her face, merely anger. “Or… Did they?” she added, turning a desperate look upon Surrogate and Tread, “did he… He can be repaired, right? We can find a mendicant, or, or the Morticians will have someone?”

“We can try,” Tread told her, in the most soothing tone Mark had heard from her. She wore no expression – she didn’t have much choice – but there was something in the Tread unit’s voice that he saw through, and he knew it was hopeless. Perhaps it was illegal to reconstruct a supplicant so badly damaged, or perhaps whatever it had in lieu of a brain could never function again after trauma like this. However they worked… Wonder wasn’t coming back.

THUD

They could run, of course. They probably should, come to that, given that she was about to crash through the ceiling. But there was nowhere to run to. The whole of the archipelago, millions of blameless souls, were about to face her wrath once more. For promotion’s sake, eh? We never learn. But how could you even hope to avoid it? Lifetimes ago, she had come from the stars to punish the Candelariasians for what they were about to do to try to prevent her arrival in the first place. And now… all over again. At the end of the day, it didn’t seem very fair. None of this did.

“Cassie Lee! Courtney Ferguson! Matilda Swords! Your humble child implores your munificence! Send me the strength t–”

“Yeah alright, luv,” the moustachioed Mortician, who Mark had decided by a process of elimination was probably Sinha, said impatiently as he stepped out of a cloud of yellow. “Couple more levels away, gents. Might want to get evacuatin’, sir?”

“Yes, very good, very good,” the Director agreed, pulling himself together. “Get everyone out. Or to the edges, or… or. I don’t know.”

The anger drained, Director Allen seemed to Mark as defeated as any other resident of the Concordium. The old manager watched Goddess, still clasping Wonder’s head, being enveloped in Surrogate’s arms and ushered further away from the Device, while he in turn received the hand of Lúthien Anwamanë. He looked up into the eyes, and breasts, but also eyes, honest, of the CMSC’s greatest goalscorer. Agony had been replaced by a new steel, but still she faltered.

“The Account of Dexter makes specific mention of the two-spirited one’s death,” she told him. “He laid down his life for his country.” There was a question mark of sorts inherent in her statement.

“Aye. I know,” he said. He didn’t add that their interpretation of Dexter was a little off, that Mc O’Neil had been the half-elf present, and that Daniel Martino had died instead some months earlier, locked in a cupboard to starve by Lyndon Hernández’s lunatic successor. What did it really matter, in the greater scheme of things? “Is… Was his father the reason why you came back, from Cafundéu?” he asked instead, cursing himself for an attempt at light conversation, possibly leading to dinner, as soon as he said it. But there didn’t seem to be much else to do. The combined intelligence of the M.O.R.T. hadn’t stopped her, had barely even tried. Why would this shower fare any better?

“Hm? Oh. No. I went ‘home’, eventually,” said the elf. “To Valanora. But I was always out of place, reduced to a mere slip of a girl in elven eyes, and, though years later I watched everyone I knew depart, I could not heed the Calling. I wasn’t worthy. I didn’t even feel it. So I returned to your republic… your empire… your Concordium. William was not the first human man I saw into the reclamation tanks. He wasn’t the last. Your lives are so fleeting, your frailties so crippling… But I… I am an elf!” she exclaimed suddenly, raising her head with renewed vigour, “and I refuse to bow before this being! She will take nothing more from me!”

“That’s the spirit, that’s the spirit,” Director Allen muttered doubtfully. “Now, has anyone else got any monologues planned, or are we done for now?”

THUD

“I was toying with one, but it can wait,” the Scorpion King said, clambering to his feet. He took the proffered hand of the Director, who winced.

“Can you even walk?”

“I will heal. And I can fight. It’s what I was grown to do. And I will do it as many times as it takes. I will fulfil my destiny…”

THUD!

* * * * *

Fanny seldom goes out of fashion for very long, and in few places was that currently truer than in the Republic of Candelaria And Marquez.

President Fanny Tan pressed her nose up to the sextuple-glazed Square Room window that looked out over Robinson House’s manicured gardens, and regarded her empire.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Readers curious as to the political changes occurring in the Candelarias as a result of the 2016 general election, and still broadly germane in the month of November 2020 when this portion of our account is set, may wish to peruse relevant RPA copy.]

This was of course merely one, currently rather empty and gloomy, corner of it, a vista that concluded for the most part with the House of Representatives across the road, itself obscured in part by the small but imposing copse from which Othulalorn, the Father of the House since 2016, uprooted himself and wandered across to the parliament buildings for important votes. The summit of Spirit Tower, one of the highest and newest in the city, was just visible over the rooftops – a memorial, unlike most, not to the dead but to those who had lived… and been forgotten, until they very suddenly weren’t. There were memorials like it in cities across the Candelarias, in addition to those dedicated to the Severed.

Beyond her immediate field of vision though, the rest of the country seemed to be no less ‘hers’ these days. She was the barely disputed mistress of all she surveyed, and a few bits that didn’t much care for surveyors to boot. Her Progress Party had come pretty close to achieving the near unthinkable and winning an outright majority six months before, in the process being able to divest themselves of their pesky woke coalition partners in favour of the centrist populist Peasants’ Party (long story; don’t ask). And she, personally, remained almost obscenely popular in a land that by rights shouldn’t be particularly well disposed to politicians generally, never mind one such as she in particular. Approval of her patented ‘Fannynomics’ was sky-high, even if she herself would cheerfully acknowledge that that was more down to Mr Towers in the Finance Ministry than any brilliance on her part.

It helped that she possessed an objectively silly name, of course, a feature that was always going to endear her to the Candelariasian public. Scholars referred to this as the Love Cummins Principle. But she’d been returned to office for a second term, so it had to be a little more than that. Who would have thought it, ten years ago, that the woman who would ultimately knit this country a twosie jumper and generally keep it from strangling itself would be one such as she? Born in les Cinq–Îles with more than a tablespoon of the exotic about her; a refugee from tyranny turned loyal Candelariasian tech entrepreneur turned agitator for human rights and democratic reform… turned, for a while, a refugee from tyranny all over again. Now she held the highest office in the land, and it wasn’t even that difficult, really.

To her more bitter detractors, it appeared that Tan glided serenely through her political life, cheered to the rafters by most of the business community and, not coincidentally, the media. Certain foreigners would describe it as swan-like, though such a claim would provoke a befuddled face in any Candelariasian and most other Rushmoris, for whom ‘serene’ was not an adjective typically associated with the psychopathic beaky bastards. The analogy was not entirely without merit though, for it implied that there was plenty going on beneath the surface, not all of it very pretty, and there was also a strong chance that she could, indeed, break your arm.

The little lady was tough, Candelariasians of most political stripes at least grudgingly conceded. Those who had come to despair of local leadership got something of a kick out of being ruled by a foreigner of sorts, albeit one who’d come to the Candelarias as a toddler. For immigration sceptics on the right she was quite the handy totem, meanwhile. How can we possibly be racist when we support an oriental? And she spoke in an open and seemingly honest way that still disarmed, in a Lesperance accent, and had a husband who seemed like a regular kinda guy, and two telegenic children. She was, despite everything, trusted.

Tan turned back to her visitor, wiped and replaced her glasses, and rolled her eyes at her. “Oh, don’t give me that face…”

“I wasn’t making a face!”

“You so were, hen. You’ve got storm face, it’s writ all over you.”

“Oh, don’t,” Russie Walker MP shivered. “I don’t want to see anything written all over anyone ever again, long as I live. And, well… Alright, maybe I do have storm face. But, you know… It’s dreadfully dark out there.”

“It’s a bit murky, come on. And a bit chilly and yes, I’ll concede, a bit blowy. It’s a storm. They happen. Nethertopia’s already had it. It’s not even going to be a very big one, is it?”

“No…”

“Not like Storm Jaon, right? This one’s going to knock over a few garden chairs and provoke some ‘We Will Rebuild’ memes.”

“You know how people get, though. They always worry it’s going to… happen again…”

“Subtly inserted there, well done. Have we all been having bad dreams? No. No worse than usual. Are half the citizens of Gordon Bay on the move again? Non, ils ne sont pas. Is the storm an emergency?”

“No, miss.”

“If it does prove to be an emergency, are we prepared?”

“Yes, miss.”

“Well there you is then, hen. Do give my compliments to the Minister for Emergency Preparedness, she’s a trooper.”

Walker, the Minister for Emergency Preparedness, smiled gratefully. “Uh… Can I slip into something less comfortable now? The Minister for Unexpected Happenings needs to cover a few things.”

“Ooh, goody,” Tan said, leaning back in her chair. “This always breaks the monotony. Go for your life.”

“Well… There’s not actually an awful lot out there. There’s a giant sinkhole opened up north-east of Melin. We think that might be, y’know, our department. There’s a certain amount of wailing emanated from within.”

“Are your boys, uh… investigating the situation, at all? Probing, you might say, or uh...?”

Walker sighed. “They’re looking into it, yes, ma’am. We’re thinking of filling it full of stones, given that all the cows didn’t work last time. And the Demotian community leaders are on at us about sacrificing a goat again…”

“Can we not just let them sacrifice a goat? For once? This sort of thing is kind of their cup final, pardon my sporting reference.”

“It’s just a bit sensitive after halalgate, plus most Demotians are, y’know… normal. Not really at all goaty. We can’t really be seen to be favouring the most… enthusiastic ones, y’know?”

“Aye, aye… Can we not fob them off with something else?”

“What do you get the modern druid who has everything, ma’am? Their own henge?”

“The new iSickle?”

“Anyway… We’ll deal with it. Also, there was a bit of an explosion on Langley Street this morning, you might have seen the smoke? At the, um, massage parlour?”

“The one in between the pole dancers and that bilingual gay sex club?”

Jimmy Do Juan, yes.”

“Someone didn’t get their happy ending?”

“We think they were the victim of a terrible Eastern curse, actually.”

“Fair enough. What have we put out to the public?”

“Uh… That we think they were victims of a terrible Eastern curse.”

“Good, good,” Tan nodded, with satisfaction. In many ways, Candelariasian governments today had things a lot easier than their predecessors.

“Although we dropped the ‘terrible Eastern’ bit in case it was, y’know… offensive.”

“Who on Earth to, the curse?”

“Curses can be pretty touchy, Mrs T. It’s rather their M.O. Nobody was particularly badly hurt, anyway.”

“You sound almost disappointed?”

Walker waved her hands limply. “Oh, well, you know my views on our policy there…”

“It’s a time-honoured Candelariasian tradition, Russie, come on. Every twenty years the government liberalises sex work, and ten years later the next lot put it back the way it was. You could set your clock by it, we’re just playing our part in the great cycle.”

“That wouldn’t be a great clock, to be fair. Not exactly atomic.”

“It’s presumably the one we use for the trains,” Tan sighed, warily glancing at a menacing folder from the Minister of Infrastructure and Transport on her desk.

“It’s a damn queer thing,” Walker agreed, earnestly. “We let the free market take control from the inefficient state, and somehow within four years the service is worse and more expensive than it ever was. I can’t fathom it.”

“It’s definitely a puzzler. You got Wee Timmy gack in guh gox yet by the way?”

“Uh… No, I’m afraid not.”

“Russie…”

“You know that ‘Murderous’ thing is really rather unfair, though? I had a word with the editor of the Mercury about it yesterday. He can’t actually murder anyone, per se. Hasn’t got the opposable thumbs. Or opposable arms, come to that. That kid that went missing wasn’t his responsibility after all, despite all the fuss, by the way. Police found him hiding in a barn.”

“Yeah, I heard, but even so… He’s been breaking into children’s bedrooms and staring at them while they sleep, it’s not great press regardless.”

“Is that illegal?”

“It’s a bit illegal.”

“It wouldn’t be if he was an… an owl, right, would it? Or a capybara. We don’t know if it’s sapient, as such, it’s basically just an animal if not, and that’s not creepy, despite the wooden human boy’s face and all… But… my lads will find him, promise. He was sighted up at the Huish cliffs last night, so chances are he’ll get blown off in the storm anyway.”

“Getting blown off was what brought him to life in the first place, by all accounts,” Tan recollected, readjusting her spectacles and looking at her minister with her head to one side. “Russ, are you sure you’re okay with this double brief? I could easily spin off Emergency Preparedness to some other sap.”

“Fanny, it’s fine. I’ve been in this job four and a half years, I can cope. The DUH pretty much looks after itself these days anyway, and their workload is a fraction of what it used to be now we don’t have to worry about covering much up. The Gordbaysian government mostly handles the rest of the stuff too weird for the vermin and the cummies.”

(It may possibly be worth noting at this juncture that the Candelarias National Investigations Division, known to their detractors as the Vermicious CNID or, in da hood, as the Vermin, have long since reclaimed that sobriquet as their own and are rather happier with their popular moniker than the boys and girls in the Candelarias Military Intelligence community.)

“Oh, one other thing though?” Walker continued. “There’s a potential buyer for the Liverpool Hills Girls Grammar School site?”

“Oh,” Tan groaned, “I really don’t see why they can’t just turn that place into a comp, I know what they say about the toilets but… Hang on, are you handling local planning applications too, now, what’s it got to do with you?”

“No, but it’s just that there’s this Krytenian lady called Cynthia O’Hanrahan, and she’s very kee–”

“Do I need to know this?” Tan asked, yawning, “do I really, today, right now?”

“I… No, ma’am. It can wait.”

“Good.”

Tan stretched, and once more found herself staring over her minister’s head at the rows of thirty-odd Prime ministers of the Candelarias and Presidents of Candelaria And Marquez that looked down upon her with expressions ranging from the benevolent and haughty to the mildly disapproving and severely constipated. Her own portrait, currently hanging in the corridor outside, would join these men and, latterly, women in due course. They were not all great, and certainly not all good, several had been positively psychotic and at least one had been an almost impressively prolific sex offender, but what mattered is that they had existed, and were remembered, and that there was space aplenty up there for at least a couple of dozen more. Her eyes rested, again far from for the first time, upon the penultimate head. President Robyn Morton peered quizzically down her glasses at her.

The President had always had a certain private regard for her immediate-predecessor-but-one, politically inadvisable as it was to make too much of it. Ideologically of course there wasn’t a huge amount to separate them – there was a reason why Progress had so successfully cannibalised Morton’s Modern Liberals, after all – and even her fiercest critics had to give her props as the first woman in Robinson House, but for Tan it was more than that. Morton had come to power in the days following the worst terrorist atrocity the country would ever know; more than three hundred of her people slain by, well, God-still-knew-what-exactly, even a dozen years on. She’d faced threats to the integrity of the nation like no other leader before her. Not all her decisions had been good either, but they’d been made. Living out her days in semi-voluntary semi-exile in Ad’ihan, scorned by the country she’d sworn to protect, seemed an unbecoming fate.

Catching Walker’s enquiring eye, Tan was suddenly aware of how many times this particular meeting must have taken place over the decades. Even if the records were mostly, and conveniently, lost to history, pretty much every man up there on the wall must have hosted private two-person rendezvous at least once a week, with the boss of the M.O.R.T. or the various entities that had gone before it. Doubtless even those Victorian gentlemen – Robinson himself, Niktin and Plummer and Hague – had found that there were things that the population in general were better off not knowing. How different it was now, when half the stuff the Minister of Unexpected Happenings updated her on she could already have read about in the morning papers.

She’d been one of the outspoken, once, a tick on the flank of the state doing her small part to enlighten the public. Though she could never say it, she wondered now whether she hadn’t been in the wrong after all. Either way, there was no clandestine jailing of dissidents anymore, none of that taking-their-grandchildren-for-a-little drive nonsense. These days, it was the denialists who caused the most bother – the men and women who insisted that the government and media had spent the last decade lying about the elves and gnomes and the general weirdness of the wider world, and that it was all part of some strange plot to get the populace hooked on the most absurd mistruths ahead of a programme of vast depopulation or what-have-you.

Curiously, rather a lot of the most public denialists were people who, a dozen and more years before, had been forthright in their belief that the powers-that-be were lying about the non-existence of such things. It was funny how that happened.

The transition had been a painful process and would no doubt ache for decades more, but a very different Candelaria And Marquez was emerging into the twenty-first century. No-one would forget, of course. And they would never be forgotten, either. She still thought of her brother sometimes, the one neither she nor her mother had ever known though their ever dimmer memories insisted they had, the second-tier rugby player who’d played against C&M internationals, years before they’d even arrived in the Candelarias, and because they’d been tethered to another land there had had to be a Severance, and until Beatrice she’d never even known. She wa–

“Shall I just let myself out?”

Tan discharged her snorting, treacly laugh. “Sorry, Russie. Miles away. To be honest, it’s nice to take a moment out of my week to think about possessed ventriloquist’s dummies and gateways to hell rather than, you know… the clean energy financing amendment and the refugee protection bill, and…”

“We’ve got the lavvies bill due before the house next week,” Walker said brightly.

“Oh, Jesus. Come back the singing beans, all is forgiven! Well look, if that’s it then I’ll see yo–”

She paused as a sharp rap upon the door interrupted and, more-or-less simultaneously, her desk buzzed. Tan pressed the intercom, and the quivering voice of her secretary informed her that a young man was here to see her.

“You due a young gentleman caller, Fanny?” Walker asked quietly. It was apparent that she too had picked up a tone from the speaker beyond the door that she didn’t quite like.

Her boss shook her head, a sudden chill wriggling down her spine. Her next appointment was with the Foreign Secretary, and she had left young behind decades ago and hadn’t officially been a gentleman for a good dozen years either.

But she had impromptu meetings with panting runners all the time. There were always emergencies, even little ones.

The door shut behind him, the women waited with dwindling patience for him to get his breath back. Tan didn’t recognise him, but if he didn’t have the credentials and this was an assassination attempt she – or her successor, at any rate – would be having words with that secretary, never mind her numerous security guards.

“Come on, hen…”

The kid blew out his cheeks one more time. “Sir… Ma’am… She’s back, ma’am.”

“Who?” Tan asked tightly, knowing full well the answer. Somehow, she’d known it the moment she’d heard the knock at the door. She’d tried to kid herself… but it hadn’t just been a storm coming. Keeping her eyes away from Walker’s, she asked him again. “Who?

“Beatrice, Madam President. She’s back.”

* * * * *

In recent months, his most cogent moments would arrive without warning. More often than not he’d be slumped in a chair in front of the telly, and suddenly a flurry of memories would flutter down like snowflakes, or flecks of ceiling paint, whatever your preference. He was grateful for them, usually, though it was ordinarily beyond him to identify which had really happened to him and which were illusory nonsense cobbled together from TV shows and long-forgotten dreams.

In these days spent in the Concordium, it had been different. His memories were firmer, surer, but still distant. He’d first woken up in a body that wasn’t his own. Now he knew that he was his body, this misshapen boy, and his memories were… someone else’s. A man named Mark Baker, who had lived and died centuries ago. He thought he had Baker’s personality, but how would he really know? There was no-one left to test the theory against. Was he just a butterfly, dreaming of being a man? Bakerlite, or the real thing?

If he survived this, his sole purpose in existence having been extinguished by the perverse actions of the Scorpion King, he would have to forge a new life, and make memories all of his own, if this feeble body would even let him. But for now, barely cognisant of the shouts and screams around him, he wallowed in the fluttering memories of the long dead football person.

Through misty eyes he dimly watched Beatrice, her wings beating into a frenzy, writhe above the shattered remnants of her final egg. In his mind, she was his mother, she was Debbie, she was Queen Leohi, she was Elizabeth, she was, for some reason, Joan Carlton of the Joan Carlton Extravaganza. And she was Beatrice herself, of a vintage a couple of years and several centuries earlier, whose appearance in the Ministry of Remedial Teaching had brought to an end the Candelariasian Conspiracy and all that it entailed, sport included.

A shadow shape to his left, he saw the black-clad elf Gwathrion, who had once spirited him away from the sewers beneath Gordon Bay, and for the first time since those days he remembered, however faintly, being presented to a motely group of boys and young men and told to teach them football, and discipline, and give them purpose, just as football had given him.

He remembered failing, and his mind failing with him. Without the Pinny-Baker, Martino and Morrison had still tried to give the Brothers their teacher, just as the legends had said. But it hadn’t worked. They hadn’t been up to it. He hadn’t been up to it.

To his right stood one of the Ifewa, and he searched for the hairy great creature’s name for a little while before it finally presented itself to him. Lan Albret. The old right-back at the Baptism of Fire. Hah. He knew he hadn’t selected Rondags. The chrononauts had changed more than he’d first realised.

He smiled slightly at the thought, but the notion brought him back to reality and, as he blinked away the ghosts of another man’s past, he was faced with an unenviable present. Morticians and their allies lay battered and bloodied across the vast room, many bearing wounds that could only have been inflicted by friendly fire amid the confusion upon the creature’s arrival. They struggled for grip as the wind that emanated from the Beatrice’s wings was only augmented by the vortex gusts from far above that now made their way down through level after level, shattered floor after shattered floor, that she had left behind her. Already, a light brown haze transported from the wreckage of the country beyond the Inside was descending around them. Shards skittered across the floor; some from the remnants of the Device, most from the glass ceiling that Beatrice – in a significant blow for vaguely female-presenting unknowable alien intelligences everywhere – had broken through.

His attention was grabbed for a second by a strangled cry some way away, and he turned to see Director Allen throw his head back and contort his limbs. Mark watched with dull horror as the Concordium’s de facto ruler’s suit burst apart and his skin sloughed away, to reveal a yet darker body covered in coarse black fur. Mark couldn’t see his face, but he didn’t need to. He knew that those empty midnight eyes would be accompanied now by a two-pronged nose that twisted itself as it sniffed; that the Director’s hands would now be stumps, from the wrist of which came long clawed fingers. If he was a man more given to biology, or indeed anthropology, this would have been an at least mildly interesting revelation. As it was, it didn’t make the day’s top ten.

The Alan screeched, unfurled leather wings, and flung itself towards the Beatrice. She motioned as though noticing the little lifeforms around her for the first time, twisted her body, and batted the Director aside with a contemptuous flick of her tail.

TERTIARY

By the standards set the last time he had encountered her, Beatrice’s letters arrived as a whisper – though the unfamiliarity of their method of delivery was enough to elicit the kind of collective groan he had come to know all too well, enough even to cause obvious suffering to the surviving supplicants. He had become separated from Goddess and her worshippers during Beatrice’s destructive entrance, and he looked across at them now and wondered if they had understood.

There were common phrases in the English tongue that the denizens of Candelaria And Marquez seldom if ever used, though that didn’t mean that such terms hadn’t made their way across the waters of Rushmore to the archipelago. Candelariasians had heard of, for example, concepts such as ‘brevity is the soul of wit’, ‘quality over quantity’ and ‘show don’t tell’. They just didn’t hold with them.

In a somewhat similar vein, the fact that the sport of baseball had failed utterly to take hold in a country where the gentle thwack of leather on willow fulfilled that particular niche, albeit largely on an amateur level, didn’t mean that Candelariasians were unaware of its terminology, and even made use of it from time to time. Generations of teenagers debated exactly which base was which. Those who could airily throw around big numbers spoke of ballpark figures, and a real maverick might well step up to the plate to provide a number out of left field.

And as for the concept of ‘three strikes, you’re out’? That, it appeared, was universal. Even to aliens.

The M.O.R.T. and then the gegnomes had pushed her to breaking point. The Morticians had pushed her beyond it.

Mark scrambled to his feet as the crumpled body of Maodez the corrandonnet skidded across the floor and slammed against the wall nearby. Why had he even allowed himself to be dragged here? He’d known she was coming, known that history was going to repeat itself – or worse. There was no stopping her – not in C&M, not in this shell of a country. He should have warned them. He was bloody Mark Baker, after all. He had his own cult. They might have listened. He could say something now. Be a leader of men. Gee up the lads. That’s what he was for, it was the one thing he’d been good at. Once.

Oh well. He’d failed, they’d failed. Might as well throw himself at her himself now, one more body pointlessly chucked into the fray in the slimmest of hopes of preventing whatever she had planned for the people of the Concordium.

He realised, as a feminine hand was proffered at him, that he’d been muttering as much to himself. He grasped it, weakly but gratefully, though a regrettably small part of him was mildly disappointed to look up not into the lovely face of Lúthien Anwamanë, but the flat features of Lady Keturah, matriarch of the Selkies. Her dress was torn, a cheek scratched, but alone among the room’s humanoid occupants she exuded calm, almost a quiet confidence.

“Stay your hand, manager,” she told him, gently enough that even he barely heard it. “Let the men of war have their fill. The time for calmer minds will come yet.”

Barely had she closed her mouth as the Beatrice opened hers, and from it came a screech to shatter souls and a word emblazoned across the field of vision of each who dwelled inside the vortex.

PENALTY

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Thu Jun 23, 2022 2:55 am

Twenty-Three. The Wave


From deep within the bowels of ancient Albrecht, the word of the Beatrice rippled, and became a wave. It engulfed level after level, rolling north and south through the black streets of the strip, pouring out amongst the crumbling lost cities of the Candelarias.

Kano clambered over the debris, coughing up perfunctory prayers of hope to Ryan Taylor, or frankly any other star who might happen to be listening. One ear rang, the other seemed to growl – he would have likened it to being submerged in water if he had ever known the sensation – and the scene his eyes and brain had cobbled together for his perusal was no less confused. It was a stripslide, it had to be, but… On his hands and knees he paused, breathing hard, and pointlessly glanced back towards the maw behind him. The screams of those who had fallen, from his level and above, and tumbled into the abyss had seemed to go on for a very long way indeed. Had something come from… beyond? Had She… Was this what the dust goblins had warned them of in their nightmares these recent weeks?

She’s coming back…

Whatever it had been it had wrenched pipes and wires from the walls and even from the cavities between levels, plunging corners of the factory into darkness whilst others were illuminated unbearably by flickering lights and small fires. Alarms that no-one had heard for lifetimes sounded, bursts of air ruffled his clothes as the city’s systems attempted to keep a breathable atmosphere circulating as the choking heavens began to seep down into the city from the new aperture far above. Kano wiped blood from his eyes and ploughed onwards, though to what destination he couldn’t say. He just had to get away, away from the orifice that surely led down to the depths, to the duds, and worse, and up to the evil sky and the vortex itself, from which the city kept them ever safe.

A hand landed upon slick flesh, and he squinted as he followed the path of his fingers over the purple skin of his fellow printer Harrison. Fellow Turkish in a factory full of Scorpions though he was, Kano had never much cared for the haughty Soldarianite, but then he’d never really got to know him. He wouldn’t have the chance now.

He found himself gripping his fallen comrade’s flaccid hand in his as he pulled himself something close to upright and peered into the gloom, brushing smoke out of the way with his free hand. From where it emanated he didn’t know, one of his Kimmite colleagues’ little sticks as likely as not, but as it cleared his thoughts were suddenly consumed by a white apparition stumbling towards him.

A Selkie! Instinctively, Kano pulled himself from Harrison’s unprotesting hand and hauled himself to his feet, wincing through the pain. They had taken his own more than once, and he loved and hated them for it in measures that swayed across the years. Regardless, it was his duty to help her in whatever way he could, but… He hung back for a moment. What if she had come for him? This couldn’t be his time, he hadn’t registered for the dead levels, he hadn’t been able to face the thought of eternity, but… Not yet, please not yet…

The Selkie fell to her knees, and wailed.

* * * * *

It would almost instantly be a scene echoed across the Concordium. Throughout Albrecht, people heard the entrance of the creature as she slammed down through level after level, but the sector didn’t come down easy and most shrugged it off as a stripslide they were lucky enough to have avoided, and at most uttered a few words of thanks to their star and hoped that the poor devils caught up in whatever was happening out there would be protected by their own.

But the word… the word was the true cataclysm, and across the land it would flow. Not all felt it at once. The Selkies, attuned as they were to the Beatrice, were the first, and one by one they succumbed to the pain as their fellow citizens of the vortex looked on in horror. The women in white were viewed with an awe tinged more with fear and resentment than warmth, self-appointed figures of authority as they were, no less so than the Morticians themselves. But they were intrinsic to the life of the Concordium, to the lives of nearly every one of its inhabitants. They were there at your birth, determining if you were to be Signed or Released. They would be with you as you breathed your last, whatever your fate thereafter. And they protected your dreams, the sweet release from the drudgery of life, from the hauntings of the dust goblins.

They had, at least. But these recent weeks the svartálfar’s nightmares had threatened to overwhelm this land, and the Selkies suddenly hadn’t seemed nearly so powerful. And now… now something else, a power greater still, was bringing them to their knees. The Concordium had been fearful before. Now terror set in.

All would feel the word within moments, but there were others who felt it next. Quirks of genetics had left some more susceptible that others. One after another, the torrent of the Beatrice’s wrath dragged them under.

* * * * *

As a Corradinian hurried on past, cloak swishing behind her, Walter thought for something like the thousandth time in his life how he envied them. Of course, the sacrifices these most devout of Scorpions made were great, but… well, they only had to wear their mask. He had to hide his face, at three every Saturday, every meal time. Every time Martha offered up a little prayer to Darren Robinson, and rubbed one of the crude replica bobbleheads that squatted on every shelf at home. She truly believed that her star would keep them safe, the children healthy. No Selkie nor Mortician would blow the whistle on their lives before time, oh no. No ronion would come for them in the night. It would not be any of their destinies to wander the dust levels alongside the insane, the destitute, the sick and the wicked. Here’s to you, Darren Robinson. You strode the world as a colossus, just as now you gather your devotees betwixt your mighty thighs, swaddling your supporters from blahdi-blahdi-blah…

He could convert. It wasn’t as though apostasy was a crime, you didn’t even have to be in a cult at all. The Robinsonites weren’t the most easy going bunch when it came to backsliders – the dullest cults generally weren’t, what else did they have but threats? – but he wouldn’t be the first to take up a new star, or none at all, not by a long shot. Haber had suddenly announced he fancied being a Wangist for a bit only the other week, and Tabot had been well on the road to Captaincy before he found Hirokazu Reizei, of all stars.

But Martha… oh, it would kill Martha if she knew. And his friends and co-workers would spurn him, even the Scorpions among them, if they knew he was a Picker. Nibbling at the seams of the ball of their belief, causing it to grow leaden. They were so scared that one too many people like him might cause the whole thing to deflate, and Walter knew full well he’d never understand why. If they were really so secure in their faith it shouldn’t matter one bit what anyone else thought anyway. Let them cling to their magic, their prayers, their totems, as if they needed any of it. Why couldn’t they just leave him out of it? But instead, no… His life was a pretence, his face a façade that hid his real emotions day after day. If only he could wear a mask…

Swinging his tools idly by his side, he allowed himself a fulsome scowl at a streetside Commentator. Arms outstretched, his body strategically positioned to allow the vent behind him to blow his sheepskin vestments dramatically, his voxmic boomed the Good News to anyone passing. Was it good news, that Niv Cohen had bobbled one in against Green Island to give Turkish the XXXII title, really? If he hadn’t, if it had stayed goalless, it would have been Good News for Caires City instead, they’d’ve won another title, and presumably the Commentators up north would be serenading the unwilling with that story instead.

The point, of course, wasn’t that Turkish had won this, lost that, it was that the games had been played at all. Walter just wished he could understand why it mattered, he… No. No, he didn’t wish that. He didn’t want to understand, that way led to the same madness that infected the rest of the Concordium. He was different. There was only one star worth concerning oneself with, one colossus among the ancients, and that was Sarah Pickering. The woman who questioned everything, who hadn’t been satisfied with the lies the authorities of her day had told her, just as her devoted Pickers today saw through the deceit of the Captains and Commentators, the Morticians and the Selkies and the Scorpion King… Through her words, Walter knew the secrets of astral visitation, of benevolent sylphs and the loving ants and the sinister ruling reptiles, and the of the giant walruses, the Wandy, that controlled the universe. One day, the remaining scraps of her teachings would become the basis of a new faith of a new Concordium, a faith of reason, a faith that questioned an–

The feedback scream was almost enough to bring him to his knees itself, and he turned sharply to see the Commentator prostate on the street, clutching at his face. Some malfunction with the voxmic? Bloody temperamental things, stuffed in their throats, turning them into little more than supplicants. Should’ve been driven out with the cyborgs, Walter thought, one hand clutched to an ear, while he awkwardly tried to cover the other with an elbow and keep a grip on his bag. Right, well… Much as he’d happily let the damned thing lie there and suffer, he probably ought to see what he could do t–

And then the wave washed over him too, and Walter saw the Word, and despite the searing pain he smiled. He’d been wrong. There was a Star, just one, and she had come back. And nothing would ever be the same again…

* * * * *

The wave rolled on, catching others with the strange affinity first before all were caught in its path.

In the south-west of the sector, overlooking the lifeless remains of the suburbs far below, in the academy of the monks of the blessed Doug Szeczechowicz, Albrecht Turkish and Big Blues left-back, the Memorisers among them chanted his holy name, lest anyone e’er forget how the damned thing was spelt, while Brother Frank bent low over his manuscript. A third-year scholar, he had made it the work of his early adult life to produce this illuminated facsimile of… he knew not of what for certain, though most agreed these barely legible scrawlings had been made in the hand of their star, so many lifetimes before. Perhaps the wildest claims were true, that they possessed here at the academy one of the rarest of memorabilia, a tactics sheet, and at that one recovered from a land beyond the vortex, from the Blessed Szeczechowicz’s time as manager of Blue-White Udenbergen. For was it not written: One Up, One Off, One In The Hole?

Brother Frank did not dare hope. He did not understand the sheet. It was not his place to. It was merely his role, and his great honour, to ensure that at least a copy of the sheet might survive any future catastrophe if the original did not. He had laboured over this desk for many months now, faithfully recreating the stroke of every unfamiliar Nethertopian name as though it were in the Blessed Szeczechowicz’s own hand, and his task would last many, many more months yet. Just as it was said that the Recording Girls of the beforetimes, of the International Era, had ensured that the most precious documents of the ancients would survive whatever befell the Candelarias, so he would do the same for just one of the most precious of his own people’s. He dipped his quill in his ink pot anew and, as he did so, Brother Frank screamed.

Several of his fellow scholars, busying themselves with cleaning their superiors’ sandals before the very important and hygienic Team Showers, and even one or two graduate monks, motioned to come to their stricken colleague’s aid before they too felt the Word emblazon itself upon their mind. His hands shaking, Brother Frank saw it in white parchment, seven letters revealing themselves as all that remained untouched from a manuscript now sodden in black. Ink dripped over the edge of the desk and onto his robe, and Brother Frank knew penance.

* * * * *

In Gamboa, Lord Roderick Cowper irritably stuffed a pinkie finger into his ear in the vain hope of muffling the clamour from below. Well it really was becoming too absurd. He blamed the Morticians, of course. They’d been simply too lax of late. Now, they had an opportunity. Thin out the teeming numbers of the downlevellers a touch. Shoot a big dollop of reality back into them. All this goblin nonsense had been going on for days, now! It was too bad, it really was.

Aliens and elves and goblins, for pity’s sake! It was indulged, that was the problem. Oh, they had to be allowed their myths and fantasies, of course, if it got them through the daily drudgery of their squalid little lives. Lord Roderick had to concede he said prayers at the feet of Rusty Katic and Boris Atroshchenko every night himself, without ever really knowing quite what for. But there had to be limits, always. Standards. The ancestors had had it right, as they invariably did. By all accounts they hadn’t put up with any of this balderdash, and anyone who started pretending in public that any of it was real could expect to feel the long arm of the law and the sharp end of a short stick besides. Damned good thing, too. We’d fallen so far inside this bastard vortex, we really had. As for having to pass through damned Gordon on the way to Albrecht, full as it was of dimwits, duds and mutants who actually believed themselves to be non-humans! Good grief, but it was an insult. What was it the young ones said? Oh yes, it was too bogus, that was what it was.

And now they were actually attacking Morticians, kicking out against authority. It sounded like the Bun Pelting Festival made flesh down there! Because of dreams. Well, we could all dream. Lord Roderick dreamt of a lesson being taught. Honestly, put them down!

With a growl of frustration, Lord Roderick unplugged his finger and waved it angrily in the direction of Constance, he thought it was, something like that, the family’s youngest parlourmaid. Not that she noticed, bent low as she was over the candlestick she was currently buffing.

“You, girl, put the gramophone on! Let’s see if we can’t drown out that frightful commotion a touch, hm?”

“Yessir, as you say, sir,” Charity, possibly, acknowledged hurriedly, and in her haste to accede to her master’s request contrived to send the candlestick clattering to the ground. “Yes sir, sorry sir, yes sir,” she added, voice shaking, as she replaced the offending item and hurried across to the trestle table on which the gramophone sat.

Lord Roderick tutted loudly, but passed no additional comment. Well, it could hardly be helped, these gutter girls. It was a charity to take them on, really, but demeaning none the less. Not hard to look at, this one, for a mulatto, but still. Inigo Fisting-Wallop and Lord Buttress had vatgrowns, to which Lord Roderick was always caught between envy and disquiet. It really didn’t seem in-keeping with the Gamboan creed of following the example of the ancestors, never mind the whiff of the cyborg they had about them. After all, the pogrom that had quite rightly followed their little rebellion, generations ago, had more or less begun with the Manservant Crusade. No, old Wally and Butty climbed far too close to the summit, in Lord Roderick’s view. He had a gentleman’s gentleman of his own, of course, but he couldn’t quite imagine Jeremy in a pinafore, polishing a candlestick.

Well he could imagine it, and quite often did, but it was hardly going to happen in practise. No, you had to lower yourself to employing common little chits like this girl for that.

Mercy, perhaps, finished winding the handle and, with a scratch, the turntable starting revolving.

…issed a girl and I liked it, the taste of her cherry chap…

Ahh… the classics. Let the downlevel hordes bedeck themselves in their finest rags for the crudity of the music hall, and bash their pots and pans and rats together of an evening. No, the ancestors knew what was what when it came to high-class music. Barely served to dull the shouting and banging from below, though.

“I trust you don’t indulge this nightmare goblin humbug?” he demanded of Temperance. “I know you girls will have your fancies. Leaving milk for the brownies and such forth.”

“No sir, no!” she replied, with feeling, eyes firmly turned back towards the candlestick. “Me mam don’t hold with all that at all, sir! She says it’s dabblin’ in the occult sir, won’t have talk of it in the flat.”

“It’s not ‘dabbling in the occult’, for Margaret’s sake, it isn’t real! The things you people believe, I mean really!”

“Yes sir, as sir says, sir.”

Lord Roderick’s hopes of continuing this lecture were cut short suddenly as, out of nowhere, Modesty let out a horrified shriek and fell to her knees, the candlestick clattering anew.

“Well, really! What is it, mouse, rat, what? Pull yourself together!”

“Ghuh…! I can see… in the flame… There’s shapes… Like in your books, sir…”

“You’re becoming hysterical!” Lord Roderick shouted, jumping to his feet and loosening his belt. “Calm down this instant, for else you’ll leave me no option but to strike you!”

“I think… I think she…”

But now Lord Roderick too had seen the word, and the word wasn’t good, and had dropped to his knees with a scream.

And there really will be a frightful lot of that over the next couple of chapters despite it not actually doing anything very much to advance the plot, so you might as well strap yourself in for the long haul.

* * * * *

The city of Allemali always prided itself as a place of second chances. They put it on mugs and everything. As the first significant European settlement on Candelaria, it was an early home for thousands of pioneers looking to leave behind destitution or their own ill-repute in the mother country and embrace slightly different flavours of destitution and ill-repute, but hopefully with a snazzier flag and a new accent, in this virgin, or at least charmingly gauche, land.

Later, as the base of operations for the National Maritime Warfare School, it attracted shaven-haired young men, and even occasionally lady-girl types, looking to put careers of petty twoking and criminal damage behind them in favour of a more regimented existence as a Sea Cadet. You know the sort of thing. Me name’s Harley. I were born in Bumfuck Nowhere, Nr Clotaire. But I were made in’t Candelarias Naval Defence. Picking up important life skills like sailing, hammock management, swabbing the poop deck, splicing the mainbrace, covering up an endemic culture of sexual assault, etcetera.

It was a similar story for Candelaria-Allemali, the city’s football team of the CMSC era, which offered a home to many a troubled young talent – Gime Thadope, Tate Parrish, Austin Lewis. Unforgettable names, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Even the city’s one true icon, nineteenth century nasal starlet Samuel Pafford, benefitted from this fondness for personal reinvention. Once renowned as the owner of the worlds’ longest nose, measured in 1835 at just shy of ten inches, the early twenty-first century saw his reputation come under considerable strain with the emergence of new claims suggesting that he had in fact lost his nose in a paddle steamer accident as a youth, and instead worn a series of parsnips attached to his face to cover his shame throughout his twenties until his untimely death at the age of twenty-nine. Such a blow might have felled a less resilient city, but Pafford was soon rehabilitated as the owner of the worlds record for longest time spent with root vegetables attached to face (human), (disputed), and his statue outside the Samuel Pafford Centre altered accordingly.

Embracing the flotsam and jetsam of the Candelarias, Rushmore, even the worlds, led to the city and later the sector of Allemali having issues with street-level criminality – ones which local authorities, from the elected council to the dominant jaebols and the shadowy Admiralty of the vortex, attempted to solve, for the most part, via a succession of law enforcement agencies of ever increasing autonomy and ruthlessness. At other times however, effort was made to try to ensure crimes never happened in the first place, by diverting funding towards education, youth and social services, and mental health serv– lol jk, jk.

Below even the levels of the ronions and the scrubs, the skeleton staff – who were not actually skeletons, we should probably stress under the circumstances – of the Predictor League dedicated their lives to keeping the facility functioning, until such time as some future administration of the sector decided once again to experiment with the unique amenities offered therein.

Therein today, the boy glumly rested his chin carrots in his hands and jiggled a leg. He didn’t bother to look up as the older man reappeared from behind and placed two mugs on the table.

“Right then, kiddo. The exciting world of the Predictor League. You’ve hit the jackpot here, and no mistake. Bet some of your friends are apprenticin’ with the printers, yeah, or the desalinators? Well let me tell you, this is where the action is.”

“Not a lot of evidence of that thus far,” the boy replied with what he no doubt believed to be withering sarcasm.

His new superior appeared not to notice his tone. “Ah, well, appearances can be deceivin’. You learn that in the Predictor League straight off the bat.”

The boy groaned and looked up at the League’s long-suffering employee, and then up quite a bit more. The older man sported a neck almost as long as his torso, that was currently undulating, snake-like, for presumably no other reason than showing off. The guy had to be old, like, forty or something. You had to be an inducted Paffordian of quite some years standing to be able to get access to that level of biosculpting – unless his parents had paid for it in vitro, and if that was the case he certainly wouldn’t be working down here. The boy hadn’t decided what he was going to get done once he graduated from the carrots, but he was now very sure it wasn’t going to be neck-based. It just looked uncomfortable.

“When is it actually going to happen, though?” he whined. “They haven’t done anything yet!”

“They will, they will,” he was reassured. “This is the night shift, kid, that’s why it’s just the two of us.”

“Yeah the supple on front desk said that, but it’s not even night. It’s like four in the afternoon.”

“Surprised to discover those things down there don’t keep to the same sleep schedule as the rest of us, kiddo? Ahh, you’ve got a lot to learn about the Predictor League, that’s for sure. Now let’s go through what you do know, hmm? When they do get a revelation coming through…?”

The boy sighed again. “…one of those snooker balls get spat out of yonder hole, go whizzing down the pipe and fall into the butterfly net. Red for violence against the person, black for murder, blue for theft, brown for vandalism, pink for hate crimes, like, orange for buggering a capybara or something…”

“Kid, if you’re not going to take this serious… Ooh, you’re in luck, here we go!”

The boy winced as several sirens blared and red lights began flashing all around them. He joined the older man at the viewing window and stared down at the three beings who had previously been bobbing gently, fast asleep, in the Jacuzzi below. Now, each of the pale creatures were thrashing wildly, the nutrient rich waters they bathed in sloshing over the sides of their liquid prison.

“Cool…”

“The Pool Panel prepares to speak, m’boy!” the man shouted over the blare of the sirens. Suddenly, they ceased – and in a further moment the trio of Cassandras had fallen dormant once more. “Quick, quick, come on! To the balls!”

“What about the cameras?” the boy demanded as he pottered after him, pointing to the screens that hung from the ceiling all around them. “Aren’t they supposed to show…?”

“Oh Margaret no, they haven’t worked since I’ve been here. Now hush, and watch. The ball must be witnessed!”

The object was already on its way, but a blur at this point as it rolled down through the pipe.

“Do we have to reset that little green diving man every time it does this?” the boy whispered.

The man nodded. “Very much so. Central to the whole design, so it is said. Come on,” he added, as the sphere came to rest, “let’s go and see what we’ve got.”

He picked up the ball reverentially, then tossed it from palm to palm rather less so whilst it cooled, then dropped it into the boy’s outstretched hands.

“There you are, then. You never forget your first. Go on, have a read of that.”

The boy slid the ball around until he could make out the lettering now printed on the front, or indeed possibly the back, top, underneath or side, and peered. “Danny Adams… and Danny Adams,” he read. “And it’s a red ball, so that’s like actual bodily harm. So… I mean, that’s going to be a real bitch to track down, isn’t it? Without any cameras?”

“We don’t ‘track ‘em down’, kid,” the man laughed. “Ain’t none of our business. We record it, pop the ball back in the evener, stick a new red one back in the oracle while t’other’s being planed, ‘cos we’ve only got so many left and the printers don’t have the templates for ‘em anymore… And then we wait for the next one.”

“That’s it? What if one of the Adamses gets really hurt? What if it’s murder, we just sit here? Do the Morticians read the notes, or…?”

“We record, kid,” the man explained, as he reset the green man and replaced the red ball. “That’s what we do here. You’ve seen these folders, yes? We make a note, and we file them away. And no, no-one comes to look. There’s no Morticians. Alright? No nobody. Ever.”

“But why? What’s the point, if we don’t do anything to help?!”

“We do it because the Admiralty wants us to,” the man snapped. “Alright? That do you? I come in, I give the Panel their swill, clean ‘em out – just be thankful I didn’t start you with that, by the way – make notes of any balls, pick up my bag of rupees at the end of the day, and bless the Admiralty for this neck, alright? If that’s not good enough for you, my little prince, you can try your luck with… Hell-o! We’ve got ourselves another one!”

“Great. I’ve overjoyed, truly…”

Once again the sirens sounded, and for want of anything better to do the boy wandered back across to the balcony of their chamber and stared down at the Panel. To his mild surprise, but rather greater disinterest, only one of the three appeared to be active. It flailed and splashed helplessly as the others slept on.

“Only the girl’s doing anything,” he said. “Does that often happen?”

“Not… often, no-o…” the man replied, guarded. “I’ll just, um, mosey on over to the drop tray, and, er…”

But the boy was already there, hands outstretched as it dropped into his grasp. It was boiling hot, and he blew on it hurriedly.

“Careful, careful! It’s nice to see a bit of enthusiasm all of a sudden, but…”

“What does it mean if it’s sort of… greeny-blue, with swirls in?” the boy demanded.

“Green’s ecological vandalism,” the man told him, doubtfully. “We don’t actually get too many of those… We don’t have any with swirls, or anything…”

“This one does…” The boy rolled the ball about his palms again until the lettering came to face him and he peered down. “So… What do we write down if it doesn’t give a name? ‘Cos it just says… penalty…?”

* * * * *

Out, out west beyond the walls that were, for the great majority of the denizens of the vortex, the very edge of their thin little world. The creature’s silent scream carried even beyond the Inside, sailing over the remnants of Candelaria’s suburbs, its inland towns and villages. None had flown at this height for generations, the endless winds too powerful for any craft, and so no human eyes had taken in for so very long what had become of these communities, submerged beneath years and years of mud deposited with the whipped-up seawater that had corroded most surviving buildings beyond recognition.

The toxicity of the outside world might have relented over the decades, but the vortex served only to stir the choking air around the islands rather than disperse it. Little could survive out here unaided, at least upon the surface. And at the end of the day, who really gives a shit about moles?

And yet… any eyes that could have taken the tour from above would have noted tracks, ancient highways cleared anew, a crocodile skin of fractured tarmac. Even now, men travelled.

They came, most of them, from the valleys of the west. None could say for certain how, high in the hills carved out once by passing glaciers millennia ago, and now once again by the timeless tempest that circled Gordon, men and women had learned to breathe without the antediluvian lifesuits that sustained the barbarians of the northern plains and any visitors from the Inside alike. Perhaps it was simply an issue of sheer elevation, or something in their diet; perhaps some chance strand of DNA from a forgotten strain of mankind kept them alive. The barbarians said their southern neighbours consorted with the daemons of the air, and had sold their souls. Inside, there were those who said that there was an ancient alien reactor buried within the mountains of Mei Yo, that filtered breathable air for the grateful populace of the valleys. Some people’ll say any old shite, though.

The novice Patt knew the answer, at least in the broadest terms. His faith required no specifics. All that mattered was that the people of the valleys, the people of the caves dug long ago into the hills in the opposite direction to the eternal clockwise passage of the storm, his people, were the chosen people of Mani. The greatest man who had ever lived, who had achieved promotion, and had bestowed upon those mortals who held him in their hearts this gift. Alone among the people of this fallen Concordium, the Manicheans lived free.

Admittedly, on a day like today, Patt didn’t feel particularly free, nor overly gifted. He was deep within the village inside the mountain, far from the tunnels that provided access to the outside world, yet today even here he could hear the roar that was the constant companion of those who dared to tread under the sun. The vortex had seemed particularly violent of late, the valley basin hidden beneath a new river forged by the torrential rain as well as a new darkness that had fallen upon even a land never shining under the hazy little sun. He couldn’t hear the comforting blows of the vast vuvuzelas that connected one cliff village to another. At a time like this, every settlement was left to its own devices. There could be no travellers, bringing cheese and grain, nor items traded from the more amenable of the barbarians. The village’s own stepped fields lay unpicked, and grew sodden.

Most galling of all, the missions to the walls had had to cease. These were dangerous at the best of times, with many a man each year losing his life thanks to a detached rope that cast him down to the distant valley floor as the party inched their way to the surface. And the mudflooded plains and ancient streets of Candelaria brought their own perils – human, posthuman, animal, climatic. The missions were vital, however, no matter how many were lost. They provided the rope that tethered them to Mani, and fulfilled his deepest wish, his greatest calling. At the walls of the crumbling strip, the White Ladies of the Inside gathered, Mani’s children cradled in their arms.

Mani loved all children, and thus his people did the same. Let the men of the walls cast out those infants they considered imperfect. Too many teeth, too few fingers, those who would never walk, would never count, would never speak. As Mani had taken them unto his home and into his heart, so his people did the same. Not all survived the journey back to the valleys, it was true. Many survived not another season thereafter. They were beloved none the less, for all children are perfect.

Some, however… some were that little bit more perfect than others.

Patt lingered at the door to Her temple. He was honoured to merely be allowed this close to Her on a day of rest. The little goddess was not to be disturbed, and she would not be disturbed, that was taken as read. No-one would break such a commandment. There were no guard-monks here, the beefy kind that stood at Her side to protect the child from the often all too zealous crowds that threw seeds and scarves at Her feet and begged for Her favour. Her need for solitude was respected by all. And Patt, he was just a cleaner. And She was Mani, Manifest, in his chosen vessel.

Every village of the valleys had their own little goddess. As a mere lowly servant of Mani, not even yet an ordained monk, Patt wasn’t privy to the process of Her selection, and it wasn’t something much discussed among the villagers. Whether They were born into the role, selected by Mani himself from the promised land beyond, or chosen by the pundits and offered unto him as his conduit to his people, Patt couldn’t say. The girls were little more than giggling infants when they were taken by the pundits into their care, and emerged months, sometimes years, later as goddesses… noble, unsmiling, exalted beings of such unquestionable bearing. It was said that the people who dwelt behind the dark walls of the east had known the true faith too, once, before they had turned from Mani. They had had little goddesses of their own, and called them beacons, for they brought light into their towers of shadows. And, curse them, pity them, for they had abandoned them too.

Sometimes, some fool wondered aloud if the poor girls weren’t lonely, taken from their families in another village, with only the old pundits for company, and they were rightly slapped down for it. How could the little goddesses be alone, when They enjoyed the deepest of all connections to Mani himself? Whatever the ignorant musings of the people, every good monk knew that, behind Her calm façade, the little goddess knew only the deepest joy, the greatest communion with the greatest of all men.

Patt wasn’t always sure he was going to make a good monk.

He pushed his broom idly back and forth, over the cave’s spotless ground. Occasionally an old monk ambled past, a villager or two making an evening sojourn to the cavern of a friend, for gossip and games. He was occupied and thus they paid him no heed, and nor did they risk a glance towards the temple that on another day they might shake at the very thought of being this close to, and the precious occupant within. On this day of rest, they paid their respects by respecting Her seclusion.

As a novice, Patt was supposed to nobly restrain himself from seeking Her favour. But did he not deserve it, did he not need it? His sister sick, so weak now. His brother missing in the valley below for so long. Why couldn’t he find comfort in the vessel of Mani? Why not now? But only the most senior of the monks and pundits were allowed to be alone with Her.

He sighed, and fastened his hold on his broom as if to move on… but stopped. Could he hear… weeping? The tears of a child, from within the temple. Surely, he… But no, it wasn’t right. It wasn’t his right. He and the little goddess shared this much: theirs were lives of discipline. They kept their emotions in check, they…

Fuck it.

He placed the broom quietly upon the mud walls of the building and pushed gently at the temple door. He’d barely stepped within since he was an awestruck child himself, perhaps it was even before the temple’s current incumbent had yet been born.

There, at the far end of the chamber, upon Her dais, sat the little goddess. Even today, against the backdrop of the Black Madonna painted upon the wall, She wore full regalia, the flowing blue and white robes, the bangles and jewels. Her fingers were laced, Her head bowed. Shaded by Her mighty headdress, Her round little face was still visible, still solemn. But the movement of Her shoulders was clear. Her little snub of a nose wrinkled as she snuffled, and from Her eyes trickled rivulets of black, as Her tears mingled with Her make-up.

Patt’s heart broke for Her. Here, in this moment, She – she – was just a child, as surely as his own stricken sister. He stood motionless but longed to reach out to her, to comfort her, but he knew only the pundits could touch a little goddess. Life was precious in the valleys, it was Mani’s most binding commandment, and even the most heinous of criminals were spared death, but there were still punishments for evil-doers. Floggings, whippings, a life in fetters. He couldn’t remember if he’d ever even known what the punishment was for what he was about to do. It was never discussed. Some things were simply never done.

He crossed the floor smartly, and before he knew quite what he was doing Patt was kneeling at her feet and had raised a hand to her cheek. “Please, your… your holiness. Laura,” he added, remembering what a cousin had told him of the child’s life in the caverns of her birth, “please… don’t cry…”

The girl recoiled from his touch, and fixed him with a penetrating stare. And then Patt was blessed. Not many men had seen the smile of a goddess. Barely more had even heard Her voice. It was high, tremulous, yet… arrogant. Unmistakably prepossessed. Blackness smeared across Her face as She wiped away Her tears.

“You misunderstand, monk. I am happy. So… so happy. I’ve felt it, for weeks now. The weather, the cold and the darkness, my dreams… I knew. And now she has come. And they will pay, oh… they will pay for what they have done…”

Her tears dried, and the set of the girl’s red lips took on a certain sneer. Patt wasn’t sure he’d ever seen something quite so horrifying.

“Who is… who is she, your holi… Lau… child?,” he whispered. “Does Mani, he…”

“Manny Warren was just a man, monk. She is so much more than you can possibly imagine.”

Patt could have slapped her for this blasphemy, goddess or no, but now he had other concerns pressing upon his mind. The wave had reached him, the words etching themselves painfully in his mind’s eye.

“Yes…” the girl breathed. “She returns to us. And she will scour the transgressors from this Earth. Taste her fury, monk. Drink in the rage… of the Beatrice…”
Last edited by Candelaria And Marquez on Thu Jun 23, 2022 3:07 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Candelaria And Marquez
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Inoffensive Centrist Democracy

Postby Candelaria And Marquez » Fri Jun 24, 2022 3:35 am

Twenty-Four. The Flood


The nervous hush that fell across the tribe was made only more evident by the gasps, stifled screams and giggles of the children of the great marquee, as Valhar, son of Tedgar, hereditary refree of his people, began to lift the headpiece of his lifesuit from his neck. A desiccated, colourless face greeted them, grey eyes staring out into the brown air.

The children had seen such nakedness before, of course, not least their own. Only the most hardy among their number could survive the hardships of the world outside – it had to be so, for there was not nearly enough resources in this numbed land for them all – and so they were tested frequently, lifesuits discarded and young flesh exposed to the forever storm, and to the daemons of the air that swirled in their millions around them, unseen to human eyes but for the sepia mist that was the constant companion of their lives.

There were adults too who were bare more often than not, but they barely deserved the title of human at all – brutish creatures, lacking even the becalmed temperament of livestock, fit only as beasts of burden and pleasure. The tribe’s menials and concubines, some taken in raids upon the daemon worshippers of the southern valleys, others when tribes united to assault the crumbling walls that marked the eastern edge of the world and dragged forth the dark, warped creatures that lay within… such beings seldom served their new masters for very long. Those troglodytes had no defence against the daemons of the air. Often, their lungs exploded. It could be very amusing.

But to the adults of the tribe these subhumans were regarded with less respect even than the savage dogs, swans and shrews that stalked the outskirts of tribal encampments, picking off the weakest of the children if the people of the valleys didn’t get them first. At least those creatures were free. And so their nudity didn’t have quite the same effect as those rare occasions when the flesh of a true tribal adult was sighted.

Each of the tribal adults had witnessed a refree divest himself of his headpiece more than once, though that certainly didn’t dull either the distaste nor trepidation they felt, and nor the envy and the sympathy. It was the gift and the affliction of the refree to commune with the spirits, to allow them into him, and any pronouncements that subsequently sprung forth could determine the fate of the whole tribe. Should they launch an assault, move to new grazing, should a great leader be punished for his transgressions? The unseen creatures of the air, spirits and daemons alike, would advise. Refrees seldom enjoyed long lives.

Valhar placed his headpiece to one side and stared into his gloves, now smeared with charcoal and congealed milk. It was the custom of the tribes to cover their lifesuits with colourful substances – crushed mosses, fungi and beetles, blood, paint stripped from the all too permeable walls of ancient dwellings – but only the refree daubed himself in black and white, the colours of the god, or wore the cleat necklace handed down the generations. They awaited his pronouncement, and even the children fell silent.

In time, Valhar lifted his bare head and raised his arm. Slowly, he traced the eldritch symbol they had learned to dread in the air and there, for a few moments, it hung, until the spirits reclaimed the space. Valhar wheezed and the children – and a fair few of the younger adults – recoiled instinctively, wholly unused as they were to hearing an adult voice emerging straight from a throat without the comforting muffle of a headpiece.

“I must consult with Va’ar…”

This, then, was serious. Sometimes, communing with the spirits told a refree only so much. Sometimes, they had to commune directly with the god.

His altar was kept respectfully covered beneath tarpaulin most of the time, seldom uncovered from one season to the next. Those in despair would leave small offerings from time to time, shiny trinkets found amongst ancient buildings, pretty flowers that somehow eked out an existence in this world or, more commonly, liberated from the troglodyte easterners during raids, but most recognised that His concerns were too grand to include their own woes. Va’ar was a distant god.

Valhar removed the sheet and knelt before the oblong darkness. Alone among his tribe, it was his right and duty to risk mind and body by staring into the void. The adults of the tribes respectfully averted their eyes. Children risked a peek.

In due course, the refree replaced the sheet and his own headpiece and returned to his seated position. Only those nearest could see that he was shaking.

It was Dantar, son of Paujur, who broke the silence. Approaching his fiftieth season, he was quite the eldest of the tribe. If anyone had the right to speak directly to Valhar at a time like this, it was he.

“What is His verdict? Do not spare us, Valhar. What must we do?”

“The sprits say only one word, Dantar, and He confirms it. You will all hear it, you will all see it, soon enough. Every tribe will see it, as the people of the valleys will see it, as those who dwell within the edgewalls are seeing it.”

Unseen inside his headpiece, Dantar frowned. The concept of seeing words was well known to him – ancient papers, with black scrawl, swirled in the storm as surely as the spirits, and lay discarded within the ruins that littered the world – but struck him as redolent of a time better left to rot. “And what is this word, refree? What must we see?”

Valhar couldn’t see the man’s stare, but hung his head to avoid it all the same. “Penalty,” he said, his voice a tremolo, a whisper. “It shall be a penalty…”

* * * * *

To begin at the bedrock:

It is dusk dawning, the dimming light of each greasy lamp spooned to its daily death and harrying the sector with it, staggering to swaddled dreaming and pillowsmothered screams, hobbling with an oh-my-days and oh-my-knees toward the milky sunrise spied only by the last few, lost few, birds. The Inside rises, though not from its torpor, for it is old and crumbly and sits in its rocking-chair and smiles to itself, at its children, who imagine they have somewhere to go, poor lambs. Listen. The vortex sweeps clean its wasting walls night and day, and howls for its mam but, cossetted within, Rosasharn whispers, and drinks down the last few dregs of the day.

Listen. The adzan for Isha is singing through the vents, so that the faithful might breathe. The farmers, the desalinators, the crab people and the porters, the bogie riders and the bummers, the jam boilers and the gelmen, the meat growers and drapers, printers, pumpers, airmen, the imam and muṭawwa, mortician and kyrkoherd. Each firefly eye startles to the miḥrāb etched in the wall and to their knees go their people, pressing, pushing, the sleepy sector crushing by microns into sediment the old-goat terraces, Tucker’s and churches, library and gymnasium. The bedrock of their world.

Only you see the White Palace, forgotten by few, lost to most, once so proud, now cowering like violets, defensive to the last. It strains to hear the underbreath echoes of its fate far above, baroque babies huddled worried on the top stair, chins cupped in hand. The cockroach covens care less, the blind alabaster cats a little more. Repelled by the light, fortified by solitude, the lamentable ticket holders slither over steps, curl through turnstiles. They are never alone. Fungi forests choke the Palace’s stone kings, and one or two moss-covered queens. And Lee Adamczyk, paper skin unread, piano teeth unplayed, slumbers eternally until football’s return. In the stuttering stream of his mind, buffering for decades at a stretch, he awaits the second half, in the sure and certain knowledge of deliverance.

Father?

he cries, in his dream

It is coming back, father, just like you. Any day now. We go again!

Its angels long flown from the roost, KT Hotspur, base-born, much kissed but never loved, calcifies. But you can away, like smoke, swirling and turning through the vents, level upon level. Only death and decay here though, and here, homes and bones, mortar and pestled into powder. Stinking ditches delivered for the jabes, and nothing but the butterfly heartbeats of the fallen and the damned, and… wait… Listen.

Watch. Captain Swan, drained and deaf, desiccated old dredger of plastic and polystyrene, a throwaway spooner in his petty corner amongst the dust and mildew, and mournful rats that gnaw his best boots and only socks. Gaunt as Monday’s turkey, Boxing Day face aglow, hunched heron shoulders, he goggles the wonky-shonky SynInt screen, his secret dishonour, his proudest sin. Basking shark brain half-awake, half-asleep, synapses aflame as he drips over the readout, his twiglet fingers quake.

Where are they then, where are they to? Silksteel bint Sandan’s little madrasah yes, yes… There’s Evan El Hajj and Gwenno Parry, Asif with the lisp, Khalil-ur-Rehman Adekunde, oh and Haniya Yassin, first time back for many a day, she! And dwt Hamza Hughes, not so little anymore! Blooming late him, proper dariegan, see? Ayaan Mancini… and again, and again! He’s got the runs, poor little soul, too much flavourgel by half, I’ll be bound! Let’s see… Oh yes, I’m right again. And what else… pork scratchings! Don’t tell his mam. Straight to Jahannam with you, boyo. I’ll save you a corner. No Lucas Appleton today, hmm… But Amani Trevor, twice. No offering for the cistern though. Crying for father, I’ll be bound, Allāh Yarḥamuhu. What’s this, what’s this? Unfamiliar Anal Print, no… No, surely not. Who’s arse is that bottom? That’s Iestyn Santoso, I’d know it anywhere, little door knob. Black and blue, though. That’ll be Baba Santoso’s doing. Must have peeked at the girls again. A nice new red stripe for Sammy Barker too! He’s been gobbling shrew though, there’s fancy. Father’s doing well for himself…

The precious wormy wires, his glorious veins, exude from his skull and flex and glister, and you meander with them, up, serpentine smoke though the vents, to the ill-starred range of the ronions.

Oddments, ronions! The dregs and the residuum, my lovely creaduriaid! Make yourselves big and strong, my sweet freaks!

That’s Betsi Sharif, grocer’s’ wife, coal lips and cherry eyes, haybale trunk, wishbone legs snapping on the unwashed tiles, tosses her charity below to the hungering horde. His name is Bryn, he thinks.

She a good, nice woman, her is

thinks Bryn, five vengeful hosepipe arms scrabbling for morsels in the ordained twilight, though all you hear is

Aaaarouaagh Aaallababgraah Buuargh

Offcuts of meatblocks and the paper-ends of synthcheese clasped in oyster hands, he shambles backwards to his apartment, thick and black and buzzing, and lays his prizes in the lee of his precious.

She a good woman, with a good man, and he doesn’t care if she live or die. One day I kill her. Eat her all up. She’ll like that.

Bryn cossets a harvest curl on the six-eyed child’s head, and proffers him to eat from his claw.

Us not runny ‘uns but. Us duds. She should call us duds. She will, when I eat her. And we’ll be family.

All knees and no elbows, Bryn smacks the child with a kiss of paintpot dregs. There.

A dud loves his boy.

Away with you and rise like prices, up and over the levels of the scrubs and their boneworked fingers and dreams of sweat and sewage, past belching factories and sneezy little shops, cafés and tea houses and salt stores, the dwellings of the workers, the academies where the ulama of the angels debate how many can turn on a sixpence. Here is where the Sbaïz Men, the Custodians of the Angel Joel, protect his sacred trusts from covetous Man-Apes. Here is where the devoted of the Angel Thomas come to prostrate themselves, seeking Barakah, Praying2Allah forever.

Go on then, whistling ever up the clanking, quacking duct, silver but a memory, coughing up vines and moths and your own fluttering bedsheet self, out and over the rolling moss of the pastoral level. Watch. Ffion Hafidi, shepherd’s daughter, snottytissue crumpled, fleecy curls for a headscarf, big black Bryn Du Black for a pillow, lulled by sheepy lungs and dimming lamplight, dances with her fiendish fancies, of William Tullidge the porter.

Oh, my heathen honeytrap! We’ll dance away, one day, my darling, you see if we don’t! You’ll carry me off in your sack, all the way to Din if we has to, just you see. Whisper away, Shaitan, mutter all you want, mam, I care not a whack for either of you. He’ll come back for us, he will, he will, and I’ll wear red knickers, see if I don’t, and we’ll be away. Oh, my kafir Casanova! What mask will I wear for you then, I wonder? Prettier than this one!

A cacophonous dusk chorus greets you in the vent, all elbows and crampons. Bonging like the first supplicant, Salam Abubakar squeezes his way up his forbidden path and then

Weeeeeeeee!

down goes he, perhaps to his happy doom, perhaps not. Not all angels wore boots. A regular filipovic, this one. And now a new noise enters the picture, of constant disapproval, upbraiding time for her tardiness, tick… tock… BONG…

What? Oh, I’m late, I’m late… Yn enw’r Duw Trugarhaol, Rhoddwr pob daioni

begins Gruffydd Zujaj the horologist, searching for the qiblah amongst the clattering of his clocks. A slow, terrible handclap towards the heat death of all that is, punctuated by the overheated referee’s whistle of the clepsydra’s bird, the sad snake hiss of twenty hourglasses and cocksure swish of mighty pendula, and

Cuckoo!

…Brenin Dydd y Farn Olaf…

amongst the judging glass-eyed grandmothers, charming carriage clocks, ship’s bell and skeleton mantel, digital, analogue, astrolabium… and alarm, swallowing the salat whole

…y rhai nad ydynt ar gyfeiliorn

concludes Gruffydd, and he blesses himself and gambolling lamb skips his pinched fingers over the fat heads of the Angel Ras and the Angel Gwynfardd and lays a little egg for the gwarchell, because you can never be too careful.

Onward, spectral rat up an airpipe. Mervyn Spiros, Imran Delić, Little Bledig and Saqib Morris, the vertical farmers, do not join the prayers, for theirs is a world of salad not salat and they are dead even to that. Porky snorts and truffle snuffles in the dark, they have been coaxed to join their sleepy cabbages in nod by the lavender lights and the clocks below that try to make some sense of temporality within the vortex. But the sleepers in their shoebox corners know nothing of time, and dream instead of their angels.

Karl Matthews for one, oilypuddle wings outstretched, and Mervyn shivers with delight as his angel waves at him, just him. But the rasūl’s moon face, falling like arches, turns the hated shade and shakes.

They’ve stolen our ducks!

screams Karl Matthews and Mervyn Spiros together in his sleep. In his container above him, Imran Delić, built like the outhouse and smelling to boot, snuggy-buggy no more, tosses and turns. In his dream he clings, hands around waist, to the vast form of Samual Fortal, and snores along with him as they soar together over hills and fields Imran has never seen and can little imagine. Upon his own back clings the Angel Samual’s own little guardian angel. Imran is at peace… until the Wall screams, nine inches and six feet of terrified man meat, and bobs and weaves and shakes off Imran and shouts aloud

They’ve got robot ducks! Retreat! Retreat!

howls Samual Fortal and Imran Delić, and Little Bledig the lettucehound whimpers in his sleep at the sound of his master’s cry and dreams of worrying th–

Sorry…

(Uh… Yeah?)

No, look, I don’t mean to… The dog, really? You’re going to spend a whole paragraph getting all purple about a dog?

(It’s a purple dog, to be fair. It’s got feathers an–)

Yeah, I don’t doubt it. Such dystopian future, much vision, wow. But I mean, this is really running on now, you know? Especially considering this isn’t actually going anywhere?

(You’re thinking I should just cut to the chase a bit?)

I think we’d all be very here for that, yeah.

(Mm. To tell you the truth, the last couple of thou words have been an absolute ball-ache. Turns out I don’t have a smidgen of poetry in my soul. Wish I’d never started.)

Yes, we’ve all picked up on that. So, you want to, um…?

(I’ve got the fourth occupant of the room to do, but… Well, I mean, it’s much of a muchness, so…)

Asleep, dreams, screams, yeah? Who’s his culty-angel bloke?

(Wally Milton.)

Who?

(Hopeless SC midfielder. KT Hotspur paid 900,000 soccer balls for him up front, I was going to riff on something about that? Also, like, Wally, and Samual Fortal was known as ‘The Wall’, so I thought…?)

We don’t care.

(Alright stan twitter, jesus…)

Just get to the bit where everyone falls to their knees and their noses start bleeding, please. Straightforwardly as possible? Awkward allusions kept to a minimum? Do you know how long this bloody thing is already?

(You’re all plebs, you know that?)

e vegetables. Saqib Morris, devotee of Wally Milton, balls, etc., dreams, shouts, and so forth.

She’ll come back!

portends Karl Matthews,

unless you renounce false idols! There is no God but God, and His name is Allah, and Muhammed is His messenger, peas be upon him.

(These are farming people, you know, I just thought…)

A rather laboured pun, but we’ll allow it. We don’t, however, need hot and cold running commentary, so…?

Even you?

tremors Saqib, and in the mind beneath Samual Fortal nods gravely.

Especially us. You have been drawn to taghut, mumin. Cast out the false idols of football! Reject the Morticians! Or else She will return and you will have no more…

Four pairs of eyes are wrenched open as the echoes of screams rattle Rosasharn. And for the merest moment, the light of the vertical farms glints off the showers of maggots as the dust shayatin beat a hasty retreat.

PENALTY!

It is not heard, but seen.

Grufydd Zujaj the horologist stares dumbfounded as clockface after clockface rearranges itself, and he realises in horror that he has bet on the wrong horse.

Oh, my infidel inamorato!

sobs Ffion Hafidi, as the wool of the sheep opposite burns itself into a message of reprimand.

Oh, my pagan paramour! We are such sinners, you and I! How we shall burn!

And Bryn the Dud recoils in horror from his beloved boy as the letters hack through his limbs like calamari.

And old Captain Swan, his bedraggled mind still one with his illicit SynInt link, gazes into the letters and numbers that represent little Lili Orchard’s distant buttocks of hours ago and far above, and sees only the promise of punishment he has long known would be the ultimate fate of his contemptable rumpology.

And ancient Lee Adamcyzk, who has known only the darkness that cloaks the remnants of his mind for so many lifetimes, watches red smears swirl and settle into the word, and he cries out for his

Father! She returns to us… Time is a sphere after all, and we have been given a penalty. I pray that we do not waste it…

* * * * *

When I was not yet three years old a grave occurrence befell the Cloti, for it is the lot of our noble and wretched people to weather great travails and misfortune, and these events I shall now relate for posterity and appraisal by those who come next and then beyond, should a beyond there indeed be.

On the night in question I was awoken from my napping by the Old Boy, who marched from one side of the room to the other and back again, tutting and cursing all the while and sending the smaller of our animals skittering for the cover of quieter corners. It had been many days indeed since I had seen my venerable father so perturbed as upon this day.

- Most admirable papa! said I, it seems I find you wracked by an inner turmoil I am powerless both to alleviate and comprehend. Will you not grant me the honour of sharing in your burden?

The Old Boy did not reply at first, continuing instead his pacing between the corner where our capybara lay and that occupied by our cow. Our robin alighted with reflected nervousness, and came to rest by my shoulder as the Old Boy ran his hands over his bald head and through his dishevelled grey beard, and wiped his hands down his sodden jerkin. When in time his did deign to respond in words, they were thin and careworn.

- Most cherished son, said he, though I should wish to spare you from the pain of foreknowledge, I find that I cannot keep the truth from a canny mind such as your own for long, and it shall all count for the same in the long run. I believe that tonight should be our last, for all the Inside, Margaret bless us and save us from this evil thing!

- If that is to be so then it may be for the best, said I, for we have but potatoes and crackers to last us a week or not even that, and I fear we may yet have to eat the robin. But what possible intelligence can have led you to such dour a conclusion, O reverend one?

At this query, the Old Boy waved his hands to the ceiling, and thence to the floor, struck momentarily dumb was he by the affliction of his insight. With the deepest of sighs he reached across the room, picked up our pig, and placed her anew upon the floor. He sat down upon her back, head clasped in hands, and stared mournfully into my cage.

- From the heavens, said he, comes there such a torrent as I have ever known. You have heard tell of the Great Flood, my dependable lad? Would that Cloti of generations hence declaim upon a Greater Flood still, but I fear this world will not see our likes again nor hear our stories nor song. Such terrible a fate befalls us!

- But great father! opined I, the waters upon which we subsist and without which we would surely be each hastened to an early tank are brought daily by the vortex, and isn’t it a great and wonderful vortex indeed? I find it hard to conceive that it may yet be the source of the undoing of the eminent and woeful Cloti race!

Yet despite my protestations I too could not help but observe the rivulets once confined to the alleys and reservoirs of our level now cascading down the walls of our room with sufficient force to disturb our animals. Nor too could the sounds of undiscernible origin from above fail to chill my soul. Still though I remained obstinate, for I was young in those days and acquainted with the full extent of the abjection and disquietude that was the eternal state of being of the Cloti race only in the abstract. The Old Boy however brought further disclosure of our ignoble destiny after stamping three times upon the floor of our little abode.

- Though I wish t’were another way, said he, I am alerted that I am not alone in my sombre assessment. Listen to the lamentations of those below, beloved scion, and tell me to my very face that we are not even now being hastened to our bitter ends!

- I concede there is much terrible blubbering, said I, but the ways and terrors of the Low Chiefs and their thralls are surely beyond the understanding of us both. Perhaps they are celebrating the return to this mortal plain of a hallowed star, or else Margaret herself? Should we not forget of it all, and think upon happier notions? A sing-song, perhaps? What about The Rose of Clotaire, that never fails to cheer your soul, outstanding pater?

We continued conversing in this manner, he of the mind that our doom was imminent and I as yet unwilling to accept such mischance, when our capybara appeared to emit three loud wraps from within his person.

- Well surely then you are correct, distinguished progenitor, conceded I, and the final hours of the vortex and all who dwell within her approaches fast, for no beast of burden throughout the breadth of my years upon this wondrous Earth has been known to make such a foreboding sound! Hand me a cracker, for I cannot countenance facing judgment upon an empty stomach.

To my consternation however, the Old Boy shook his head at my pronouncement of faith in his cheerless epiphany. Instead he rose groaning and tutting anew to his feet and staggered across to the mighty rodent, whereupon he ushered the creature to an upright stance of its own and revealed beneath a hatchway, and in the centre of it a tarnished ring. Around this he wrapped his bony fingers and heaved, and in the fullness of time light emerged and then the top of a bald head. I was appalled, and more than a little excited, for never had I envisioned the Old Boy capable of maintaining such a secret snook against the strict instructions of the powers-that-were!

The newcomer proved no less willing to heed the threat of sanction upon those making unapproved passage in this manner, and our thin silver squirrel and fat black blackbird made haste in their exit as the Old Boy dragged his fellow up the hatch and into our little room.

- Sure if it isn’t yourself, Connor Mitxelena, said the Old Boy, placing firm hands upon the Clot’s shoulders.

- That it is, replied he, but without a doubt not for much longer in this world of suffering! Oh, such direful tidings are my blessing and curse to be glutted into this poor little brain.

Though the new gentleman’s features spoken nothing to me, I recognised his name quite well enough as one of the Old Boy’s comrades at ale, for many was the morning upon which my father had regaled me with tales of their exploits and mirth at the beerhouse uplevel, no doubt soon to be washed away, the night previous. I had never been taken myself, for there were dogs and other rough beasts present on such evenings who may not have taken kindly to my presence or else been too boisterous around my delicate frame, but I had heard tell enough of these fellows to be able to picture them now, loose tongued and roaring with laughter, the Old Boy nursing his watermelon vodka, Raghnall Ó Conbhuide cursing every last swan as he sloshed his pint of Pale Hoogendijk across the table, Billy Yim grudgingly sipping the best available reproduction of some ancient Bostopian beer as was the burden of all Fuentesians, and Connor Mitxelena downing glass after glass of Dark Jasconius to drown out the voices in his head.

- The heralds of death in far Alba, said he now, are consumed by such dread that their fear itself may yet draw the very blood from my pores and strike me down before my time!

- The waters of the vortex will wipe our levels clean and us with them before the night is out, agreed the Old Boy, and the world shall not see our like again. Such a tragic end to the story of the august and pitiable Cloti people indeed.

- You are perceptive of our inclement fate dear sir, said Connor Mitxelena, yet also know not the half of it! Even now I hear the Alba heralds shout in fear to their fellows, for they see their Roaninish associates scream in pain and terror!

I recalled that my father’s friend was an Andrewsite, and like many of his cult bravely faced his fear of the ancient device known as the Radio by daring to covertly embrace a status that many others might consider dangerously proximate to that of cyborg by becoming one with such technology. A man such as he heard the messages of the Morticians daily and, if he understood little of their chatter, so he none the less lived with all due fear of being caught and apprehended by one of their number. For the Cloti of both stripes it was common to face the flawed legacies of their chosen stars in this manner, from the Cooperites whose quest to destroy every last swan brought so many to madness to the Cullenians’ obligatory tours of duty with the Admiral’s men in Allemali.

- But honoured sir, said I, what can be the cause of this malady leaving the white ladies so stricken? And also, I added, is there any chance of one of you fine men passing I a cracker, for I cannot reach on account of my cage and grow faint at the thought of our imminent expiration, and I in my very flush of youth as well.

- I will answer your minion’s query my friend, said he to the Old Boy, though I fear he must keel over from the shock of my reply right here and now. For the heralds of death speak of the return… of the Sky-bat! The Sky-bat!!

I buried my face in my wings at the mention of that evil name while the Old Boy snorted. This was not an emission of derision, I could tell even from my darkened hiding place, but one combining both horror and a quiet satisfaction at unspoken suspicions proven correct.

- Then may Margaret bless us and save us from this evil thing, said he slowly, for else we shall be dead by midnight at the latest. There are dreamers who have proclaimed her return, and too that we possess no time with which to prevent it. Come! We should drink ourselves into oblivion and thereby retain our dignity and choice in the manner of our ultimate going.

- What a world it is today, said I, with its floods and sky-bats and screaming witches and hitherto unobserved hatchways and knocking rodents. The very wall itself is wailing, I’m sure. ‘Tis rank bad luck, and me without a cracker still.

- And I with barely a spud to my name and pocket, said the Old Boy. Truly a final banquet unworthy of men of the celebrated and lamentable Cloti. But pray silence dearest Anto, for the stars will burn the skin from my toes if there isn’t yet more knocking from below!

I had heard nothing of the sort, but since my ear holes were less sensitive than my dear father’s that was of little surprise. Any question I might have had over the truth of his words was as usual soon dispelled, in this case as the Old Boy raised the hatch once more to reveal three more figures who were soon in turn lifted and dragged into our crowded little abode as though they were nobles in the Hilltop of yore.

Never had my little eyes alighted upon such a singular assemblage of men! The tallest of the trio, knock of knee and whey of face, wore the red and white tabard that marked him out as one of the taoiseach’s Muscateers, and from his rips and bruises I surmised that the fellow had witnessed better days than this. The first of his colleagues was no less tragically dishevelled, for all that his lacy lilac doublet and breeches, lavish collar and beautiful buckled boots proudly touted his status as one of the Young Dukes. From his deep purple features and solemn silver eyes I surmised that he was a devotee of Narquelie. Whilst between the men of the port and we of the hilltop there existed much amity on these levels, I had been told that those poor creatures that toiled under the rule of the Low Chiefs were pawns in an endless struggle for supremacy between the two ancient enemies. To see a man of arms such at these in the company of the other roared mightily of our shared predicament.

- Such a sorry world it is today, said the Young Duke after thanking the Old Boy for his assistance in pulling him up to our level and wiping a torn glove over his blooded face, with such violence and anger in it!

- We have received tidings that the world has surely run its course and that only dread darkness awaits the Cloti, said I. Must this also be your intelligence, fine sirs?

- Upon my soul, the bird speaks truly of the hard times imminent for the Cloti, grunted the Muscateer to the Old Boy, for an ill chill blasts through the vents from the middens to the open sky. Alas, my good fan, there is much pandemonium below. Gentlefolk of all genre have turned mad, so it seems, and no figure of authority is safe! We two escaped with barely our lives and our breeches intact.

- Surely you three, said the Old Boy, for the scrub in your compa–

Oh, Jesus motherloving Christ.

(Fuck me, what now?)

You’re not going to do scrub dialogue, are you? You’ve been losing the thread a bit since the other two appeared as it is.

(None of you appreciate my vision, do you?)

Not remotely, no. But we’re well aware you’ve rather locked yourself in to doing one of these for every sector, so there’s, like, a full chapter to go until we can leave the knees and nosebleeds and get back to the actual plot. Big mistake, imo.

(Nobody’s arguing things haven’t gone a touch awry. I’m just… not sure what to do about it. Between you and me, I’m feeling qui–)

Just move on to the next one and stop it with the fancy… stuff. We want it bog-standard. Dull. We can get through this.

(Thank you. Thank you, you’re good peop–)

GET ON WITH IT!

(Right. Fine. Also, tbh, I’m not sure if parrots even have knees.)

They’re tucked right up under their feathers but let it go. Onward!

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