The Garden at the End

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt phrase or sentence is highlighted in bold.

This week we join three travellers lost in a strange land. 



Photo by Gustav Gullstrand on Unsplash

Lorlea pointed the camera of her data pad at the sky, carefully aiming for the swathe of stars above the clearing. The app gave a down-beat chime. She tried again, stretching her arms, holding it up as high as she could, as though she was trying to patch the gap in the trees above her head. The bad chime sounded again, and a glaring red question mark flashed over the image the camera had captured.

Star Match: Not found

Wifi: No networks in range

GPS: No signal

Radioisotope Dating: Insufficient background levels

Where were they? Lorlea wondered again. Actually, scratch that, she knew exactly where they were. It was when they were that was the real question.

It was supposed to be a routine mission for Lorlea and her fellow chrononauts. A little hop into the future in the time capsule, a spot of data mining, a pardon-my-paradox and then back to the present day. But when they had recovered from the incapacitating effects of the chrono-displacement…well, the refueling station was nowhere to be seen. Just these endless trees.

It was clear that they had gone too far in one temporal direction or the other. Jaecob had argued that they’d accidentally traveled into the past, based on the lack of any wifi connection. It was hard to picture any point in the future without wifi. But Lorlea didn’t think the radioisotope readings bore that out. The Earth would have been hotter in the past, not so cool that she couldn’t get a radioactive decay measurement. She was convinced they’d gone further into the future. Way into the future. It wasn’t a debate she had to revisit any time soon though, because Jaecob was now very definitely dead.

So far there had only been three things that Lorlea, Khal and Jaecob (before he died horribly) had seen that were recognisable. The first were the trees. None of her crew were botanists – or even amateur gardeners – so they couldn’t identify the species. But the trees had brown bark, tall trunks and green leaves, and that was enough to make them feel familiar enough to be comforting.

The second thing was the grass. Although the seemingly random spread of the trees in the forest gave it a natural appearance, the grass was without exception immaculate. It was a healthy, vital green, and short too, as though it were freshly mowed every day in a lovingly tended garden.

The third thing they had recognised was the toucan. There were many brightly coloured exotic birds flapping around in the trees, whistling strange songs, but the toucan was the first one that they thought they could identify – even if it was larger than normal with a beak of purple rather than orange. Jaecob had approached it, just relieved to see something vaguely normal. Something they could put a name to. The toucan had hopped down a branch or two towards him, made a curious trumpeting sound, and then neatly and expertly eviscerated him. Lorlea and Khal fled in terror, running through the trees, chased by Jaecob’s agonised screams and the otherworldly trumpeting of the toucan.

If those were the three familiar things then there were plenty of unfamiliar things to outnumber them. Occasionally they would come across tiny houses built into the roots of the trees – delicate things that might have been inhabited by miniature dolls or fairies in a more  whimsical time. In other places they stumbled across thick bushes that, like the grass, appeared neatly pruned. Sometimes high-pitched, childlike laughter could be heard from inside, despite there being no obvious means of anyone getting in or out through the dense leaves.

Then there were the abandoned gazebos. Lorlea and Khal took these as another clue that civilisation must have existed her at one time. They were strange things with no walls and brightly coloured roofs that hurt the eyes if you stared at them for too long. There seemed to be one in every clearing. There was one in the clearing with them now. Khal was searching it, the clinical white of his chrono-flight suit making him look like a ghost flitting among the ruins of a long vanished civilisation. The flight suits didn’t really offer any protection – as the toucan had shown them – but they had all mutually decided to keep them on. Besides, they would need them if they ever found a way to refuel the time capsule.

Lorlea tried again to get a clear shot of the night sky and work out how far in the future they were from the positions of the stars. It still wasn’t working though. Her view was too restricted by the top of the trees. She just couldn’t capture enough of the stars at once for the app to extrapolate their motion and previous positions. Lorlea had considered climbing a tree, but then who knew how many toucans were actually out there?

Night had only just fallen. This was their third night here and already she dreaded it. She listened and there was just nothing…it was the worst sound she had ever heard. That was because she knew it was the calm before the storm, a dread moment of anticipation. In the daytime the garden forest was relatively silent and still, but in the nighttime, as the moon came up, suddenly it sprang to life. Giant white flowers suddenly bloomed, the birds began to sing their bizarre songs and lilting music drifted from the gazebos.

Lorlea and Khal settled down in the gazebo, huddling down together to wait out the night, trying to ignore the music box plinking that came from the roof above them.

When Lorlea woke it was the sullen silence of daytime. She sat up with a start when she realised it was even quieter than it should have been. Khal was gone. She leapt to her feet, calling his name. No response, but in the distance she thought she heard a tiny chop-chop-chop of propellers, as though some small airship or dirigible was navigating languidly through the trees. Was it a rescue craft? Why had they taken Khal and not her? She ran frantically in the direction that she thought the noise was coming from, catching and tearing her flight suit on branches in her haste. But it was pointless, there was no trace of Khal or whatever mysterious craft had carried him off, if indeed that was what had happened.

On her fifth day in the garden, Lorlea finally met another person. Or, what may once have been a person. Or maybe he never was. The stranger walked unhurriedly through the trees, his humanoid body androgynous and naked with a sickly blue hue to his skin. He seemed to have no possessions other than a red rag or blanket that matched the shock of blood red hair on his head.

Lorlea had spotted the stranger ambling through the trees before he had noticed her. She froze, uncertain whether to call out or quietly slip away. But despite his bizarre appearance, there was no air of menace about him. She wondered if he was a native of this strange place, or simply lost like her? Was he a distant relative of mankind, or something else entirely?

Lorlea had not slept properly in days, and she knew her judgement was not as effective as it should be. Yet she could sensing no threat from this strange traveller. Deciding she had nothing to lose at this point, Lorlea called out and waved to him. The stranger turned, regarding her with surprisingly soft features, and waved back. They walked towards each other; Lorlea’s steps cautious, the stranger’s almost playful. She was disappointed to discover that he did not speak English, or indeed any language she recognised. Jumbled syllables spilled from his mouth, many repeating, but none making sense. It was like his words were in a little pickle. A deep wave of weariness washed over Lorlea. Another mystery. Another thing that made no sense. The longer she was here, the more dream-like and surreal this garden forest seemed. And now the night was fading to black and the stars were out and bright.

As though sensing her tiredness, the stranger took her arm and led her through the trees to a gazebo that softly hummed a lullaby. The clearing that it sat in was the biggest she had yet seen, and Lorlea was able to capture an image of the stars on her data pad as they walked across the grass. The progress wheel on the app whirled, calculating how far the stars had moved since her crew had left their original time line. Concentrating on the data pad, Lorlea stumbled as she was led up the step into the gazebo.

“Oopsie daisy,” said the stranger kindly.

Lorlea collapsed in a pile of blankets on the gazebo floor, regarding the stranger with renewed interest. She had understood that! Maybe he knew other phrases she understood too?

The stranger made himself comfortable, and Lorlea decided to do the same, realising that they probably weren’t going anywhere else tonight. With a sense of resignation, she finally slipped out of her flight suit and helmet, revealing her pink dreadlocks and the brightly patterned dress that was her favourite. She wore it under her flight suit on every mission for good luck.

The blue stranger smiled appreciatively, then picked up a stick and drew in the dust on the gazebo floor. He drew himself, navigating the deep dark ocean on a tiny boat. The app chimed softly with a positive noise. Two billion years it said. Two billion years of the stars moving and the world turning.

Lorlea understood then. The blue stranger was a traveller, just like her, and what’s more she knew where they were. This was where the lost went to die; travellers, dreams and more besides, in the garden in the night.

Where the Whippoorwills Sing

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt phrase or sentence is highlighted in bold.

This week, much like a incautious traveller straying into some half-forgotten New England village just as the sun sets, I’ve wandered back into Lovecraft territory…



Photo by Rosie Fraser on Unsplash

Most people thought the sound of bird song was lovely, but she always felt that it was a portent of impending doom. In particular, Ada had learned to fear the song of the whippoorwills from the tales her grandma told. The two of them had been sat beside her grandpa’s bed, the balcony doors flung open to alleviate the stifling summer heat while the song of the ill-omened birds drifted in from the moonless night.

Grandma had told her that the whippoorwills would gather outside the window and sing in time to the breathing of a dying person, matching it perfectly, biding their time. Ada was a precocious child, level-headed and not given to flights of fancy. She had been raised within the straight lines and known angles of the city, where there were no dark corners and no blank spots on the map. But since her parents had died and she’d come to live here on her grandparents’ Massachusetts country estate, it became a little easier to wonder at what secrets might be hiding just out of sight. Wide-eyed, Ada listened to what her grandma had to say on the secret lore of the fog-wreathed hills and lonely woods.

“Pay yer grandma no mind,” wheezed her grandfather, trying to laugh it off and set Ada at ease. He paused for a moment as his chest heaved rapidly, struggling to catch his breath. The unseen whippoorwills outside momentarily sped up their rhythmic singing, seemingly matching his gasps. “Besides,” the old man added craftily, “they won’t catch me!”

Ada listened with mounting horror as her grandma described what happened when the marked person finally breathed their last.

“The whippoorwills will try an’ catch a departing soul,” said her grandma, talking as though she was describing the most ordinary thing in the world, “if they get it then they’ll flutter off, cackling like daemons at their feast. If the soul escapes their clutches then their singin’ slowly fades to disappointed whistles.”

Ada’s uncle, a thin man named Greer, tutted disapprovingly from the corner of the room without looking up from his newspaper. He was only there grudgingly; the bottle was calling him and it had taken an awful lot of cajoling from Ada’s grandma and threats of withholding his allowance to persuade him to come up to the bedroom. Regardless of whether he wanted to be there or not, it was clear that he didn’t believe in talk of whippoorwills and souls. Ada took her grandpa’s hand, her eyes wet with tears. She silently prayed the old man was right and he would be too fast for the hideous nightjars that sung and trilled in the darkness of the garden, just beyond the light cast by the grand old house.

It wasn’t until nearly two hours later that Ada found out. The end was near, and her grandpa struggled to breath, his breath coming in ragged gasps, the song of the whippoorwills lifting to a crescendo and falling away as they matched his rapid sobs. Ada wanted to get up and throw something at the ghastly birds. But she was a dutiful granddaughter and stayed where she was, holding one of her grandpa’s hands, her grandma holding the other, and her uncle nonchalantly flipping the pages of a motoring magazine in the high-backed corner chair.

With one last heaving intake of air, her grandpa passed away. Ada clutched his hand even tighter and held her breath. Outside, in the oppressive night air, the song of the whippoorwills slowly faded to disappointed whistles and then silence.

“They didn’t get ‘im,” said her grandma, just as if she’d always known they wouldn’t.

From then on the old house seemed a little emptier to Ada. With grandpa gone it was just grandma rattling around the big rooms and long halls, and her uncle skulking around, never too far from the liquor cabinet. As the years passed Ada’s grandma became a little frailer, the house a little more dilapidated and her uncle a little more callous. When it was time for Ada to leave the house and attend a college in the city, her grandma begged her to stay. She told her that she was getting old and slow, and wanted Ada to stay with her until the end. It nearly broke Ada’s heart to pack-up and go; she didn’t leave because she didn’t want to stay with grandma. She went because she wanted to see the world again beyond the crumbling house and the sallow woods with the birds in whose songs she could find no happiness.

A month passed since her leaving, then six, and before Ada knew it she had been apart from her grandma for a year. At first they exchanged letters every week, but as time passed the letters became more infrequent and her grandma’s handwriting slightly less legible, until finally she received a black-bordered envelope. Ada opened the envelope with trembling fingers; the letter inside was from her uncle Greer, curtly informing her that grandma had died and inviting Ada back to the funeral, if she would care to attend.

The funeral was a quiet and solemn affair, for few of grandma’s relatives or friends were left alive to pay their respects. The casket was closed, contrary to the custom of the family and the church, which left Ada saddened that she couldn’t see her grandma’s face one last time. She asked her uncle why this was, but Greer simply shrugged, saying that he felt they’d all seen enough of grandma over the years and a little less would do them all a favour.

“Did the whippoorwills get her?” whispered Ada, blinking back the tears, “Did you hear them cackling when she died?”

Her uncle snorted derisively.

“Ain’t heard a peep out o’ those damn bird in months,” he said as he walked away, leaving Ada alone with her grief and the firmly sealed casket with its big iron nails.

After the begrudgingly offered and poorly attended wake at the old house, Ada found herself returning to the graveyard on the edge of the woods where they had buried her grandmother that morning. Ada hadn’t wanted to linger in in her former home anymore, especially now it was her uncle’s to do with as he pleased. Her train back to the city wasn’t until the following morning, and Ada found that she wanted to spend a bit more time paying her respects. She stood by the graveside, paying the world no heed as the sun began to set, the guilt of not being there at the end a tight knot inside her.

It was only as the sun slipped behind the woods and the long shadows unfurled themselves from the trees that Ada was snapped out of her introspection by the sound of bird song. She looked up at the nearest tree and the whippoorwill nestled in the darkness there. It sang a song like wheezing breaths, shallow and laboured. Other birds took up the song and Ada whirled around, suddenly realising her grandmother’s grave was surrounded by a ring of whippoorwills, sitting in trees and perching on headstones. Together they encircled her, taking up the suffocating, air-starved song, emulating breathing that most definitely did not belong to Ada.

Panic gripped Ada’s limbs and terror lent her speed, and Ada sprinted from the grave side, leaving the birds singing around the freshly dug earth where her grandma had been laid in the ground that morning. As she reached the rusted iron fence at the cemetery’s edge, Ada paused and looked back for a second. The song of the whippoorwills was reaching a final, laboured crescendo. Then suddenly the song stopped, and the birds exploded into daemonic cackling, taking flight from the grave side, vanishing into the night with their prize.

Biological Imperialism

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt phrase or sentence is highlighted in bold.

This week, I invite you to get your ass to Mars!

Caution: some adult language ahead.



Photo by Suganth on Unsplash

“This seems…counterproductive at best,” said Mary through gritted teeth, trying to keep her cool. There was no point in antagonising Connor. Not yet. Sayid fumed at her left shoulder, shifting restlessly and grinding his teeth in anger and frustration. Mary had to use her body to physically stop him reaching the intercom that she was protectively hunched over, like a mother bird protecting an egg. Lei hovered nervously in the background, wringing her hands and shifting her weight rhythmically from foot-to-foot, her eye fixed on the glass window in the bulkhead next to Mary.

“Can you tell us again what it is you want, Connor?” Mary said slowly and carefully, holding down the intercom button as she spoke, “I’m not quite sure I understood what you’re demanding.”

“Independence for Mars!” yelled Connor, his voice distorted over the internal comms system of the space station. Mary exchanged a glance with Sayid, who pulled a face to indicate he clearly thought Connor was quite mad.

“I see,” said Mary thoughtfully, “and was that before or after you accidentally set yourself on fire?”

The fire hadn’t been an accident, and Mary knew it, but what she didn’t know were the details of Connor’s mental state. Right now the interior padding of the New Dawn Station’s primary umbilical was very definitely alight. It should all have been flame retardant material, so Connor must have used a serious accelerant. Mary, Sayid and Lei were in the habitation section at one end of the central umbilical corridor, clustered around the vid-comm next to the sealed bulkhead. A still smouldering Connor was in the science section at the other end of the shuttered umbilical.

“It’ll have to be after, obviously,” sniffed Connor, “and I saw that face Sayid pulled by the way.” Mary elbowed Sayid in the ribs.

“I’m not mad,” continued Connor, “I’m setting Mars free. Human habitation would be a mistake, I’m reclaiming it for the native Martians!”

“There are no native Martians you fucking fruit-loop!” yelled Sayid before Mary could take her finger off the comm button. Lei flinched then resumed her nervous shuffling.

“Not helping!” Mary hissed at Sayid before reactivating the comms.

“Connor, there’s no life down there, all the rovers have ever found is fossilised bacteria in million year old rocks,” said Mary slowly and patiently, “and I’m sure they don’t care who’s the next to inherit Mars.”

Mary glanced through the viewing glass at the raging inferno in the umbilical. She wasn’t sure if she was sweating from the heat or the tension. The automatic fire suppression system should have kicked in and the umbilical should have been sealed off from New Dawn Station’s oxygen supply. The suppression systems had been disabled however, something that was well within Connor’s skill set to achieve she reminded herself bitterly. The bulkheads were only sealed because she had done that manually when they discovered the fire.

One of several things was going to happen shortly. The fire was going to eat through the padding and destroy the intra-station data cabling and lock them out of the computer system, or it was going to reach the oxygen supply pipes in the umbilical, which it went without saying would be fairly catastrophic. Or maybe the viewing glass in the bulkhead would melt. Mary wasn’t sure what its fire rating was, but it was probably pretty low as it was not supposed to be possible for there to be a fire in the umbilical!

“We need to purge vent!” said Sayid, “Connor has fucking flipped out and he’s going to take L4 down with him!”

New Dawn Station was a hated committee-derived name that all its inhabitants thought was stupid. The crew called it ‘L4’, as it was on the fourth Sun-Mars Lagrange point; a null-gravity staging post for the future colonisation of the Red Planet.

Mary shook her head slowly, but couldn’t quite bring herself to look Sayid in the eye. As commander of the station, she could manually override the bulkhead on the science module – where Connor currently was – and initiate an emergency oxygen vent from that section. That would put paid to the fire, as well as significant portion of their oxygen supply, anything that wasn’t bolted down in that section and, of course, Connor. But surely if he had deliberately sabotaged the fire suppression system then he would know that Mary would be left with no choice other than to vent? She had to know more.

“Not yet,” she said simply. Lei whispered something quietly behind them, but whether it was in support or disagreement, Mary didn’t have time to find out. Connor was talking over the intercom again.

“I’m not talking about the bloody fossils,” snapped Connor, “I’m not insane. I’m talking about the robots!”

“The colony construction-bots?!” asked Sayid “Why the fuck would they want independence? They don’t even have sentience, just contextual-AI.”

“No, I mean the true natives. Opportunity, Curiosity and all the other rovers and robotic probes that colonised this planet long before we got anywhere near it. How are they any different from the Indigenous Americans who beat the Europeans to that continent? Why should we spoil what the machines have? Who are we to come and set-up home in their New Folder/Eden? It’s Biological Imperialism!”

“Yeah, no, ok he’s lost it,” said Mary, taking her finger off the comm and moving to a terminal

to initiate the vent sequence, “Opportunity and Curiosity? We lost contact with the rovers years ago, and they were remote controlled anyway, not alive! I mean, ok, robot colonisation is perhaps an interesting philosophical debate, but not ‘trash-a-multi-billion-dollar-space-station’ interesting!”

Mary stood in front of the terminal and furiously typed in the preparatory commands to begin the vent purge cycle of the umbilical and the science modules. Sayid muttered encouragement on one side while Lei stood silently on the other. As Mary typed there was an ominous groaning sound from somewhere in the umbilical. The air smelled staler than usual and the scent of sweat filled her nostrils. She typed a little faster.

As the vent process was a single keystroke away from beginning, Mary had one last pang of conscious. A cowardly voice in her head told her to wait for authority from Earth, to absolve her of all responsibility for the act she was about to commit. This far out though, L4’s initial distress signal was still several minutes away from reaching Earth, and she simply didn’t have time to wait for a reply. She decided to give Connor one more chance to come to his senses.

Mary gently steered Lei to stand her in front of the terminal, knowing she would wait for her command before acting.

“When I say, press enter,” Mary said. Lei nodded. Another structural groan and some definite rumblings underfoot. Mary ran back to the video intercom.

“Connor?” she asked. “Connor are you there? You’ve left us no choice, we’re about to vent the science module! This is your last chance. Reinstate the fire suppression system right now or I’m giving the order!”

The intercom hissed quietly. Flames licked at the bulkhead window and sweat stung Mary’s eyes. She couldn’t see any sign of Connor on the video screen.

“Do it!” Mary yelled. Lei pressed the key and the New Dawn Station shuddered and howled like a wounded beast.

It took them several hours to re-pressurise the science module from their oxygen reserves, and then tentatively proceed through the umbilical to assess for damage. They had been lucky. Remarkably lucky. Despite the alarming noises they had heard, the damage appeared to be largely superficial. Mary had acted just in time, something that she took little comfort from. She had sent a report to Earth appraising them of the situation and informing them that they were assessing for damage. She had ignored their follow-up messages, leaving it to Lei to reassure everyone back home from time to time that they were still alive. Mary couldn’t face the conversation right now, the debriefing and the questions. It was still too raw to relive. She’d much rather wander the modules and umbilicals of L4, taking stock and trying not to gag on the smell of burnt plastic.

What soon became clear was that in addition to a lot of oxygen, they had also lost a lot of supplies, just as Mary had known they would. Earth would have to hurry to step-up the next resupply mission. It would use up a lot of space program resources; resources that had been intended for the colonisation of Mars itself. And as well as supplies they would also have to replace a single member of the space stations’ crew…of Connor, there was no sign.

That Connor was missing was not a surprise, as he would likely have been ejected along with the air. What was a surprise was that L4’s emergency ‘life raft’ was missing. It was an unpowered escape pod, not intended for extended independent flight. It had no means of propulsion, just an internal oxygen supply, a location transponder and barely enough room for four people to squeeze inside. It was meant as a means of evacuation if New Dawn Station suffered a catastrophic hull breach, but it was reliant on being collected by another craft and towed to safety. If Connor had tried to use it to escape the purge vent then without rescue he was only delaying the inevitable, consigning himself to a lingering death in a cold powerless tomb amongst the stars. Mary swept the rescue frequencies but there was not so much as a whisper from the location transponder.

“Do you think he used it to escape?” asked Lei, as they stared through an observation window at the space where the pod should have been attached to the L4’s hull.

“No,” said Mary, shaking her head sadly, “what would be there point? Where could he go?”

“To Mars?” suggested Sayid.

“No,” said Mary again, “the life raft doesn’t have any power. He’d just be drifting. To get to Mars he’d need some sort of boost, like…”

Mary trailed off, and turned to exchange a look of dawning horror with Lei.

“…like L4 venting half its oxygen supply.”

“No way,” said Sayid in disbelief, “that would be one hell of a rough landing!”

Connor climbed his way out of the wrecked life raft, smirking in quiet self-satisfaction. He’d surprised even himself with how good his calculations had been. He’d expected a bit of a trek to reach the future colony site, but there it was, the tallest of the construction-bots silhouetted against the pink Martian sky, signposting the colony’s position on the other side of the small hill. Just as well really, the suit he’d stolen from L4 was strictly intended for EVA only, not walking through the Martian desert. Connor was forced to do weird bunny hops across the red sand, hampered by the limited leg articulation. It wasn’t exactly dignified, but that wasn’t so important right now.

As he awkwardly bounced into the colony perimeter he could see that the construction-bots were right on schedule. The whole project wasn’t finished by any means, but the main habitat building was definitely serviceable. The construction-bots scanned Connor with blank eyes as he tumbled past, then returned to their work, their contextual-AI having no programmed response for unexpected interlopers in their work zone.

Connor squeezed the bulky EVA suit through the primary airlock and into the main hab module. It was dusty and dark inside, the only lighting coming from the red beacons that lit when main power was not active. So the main generator was not running, but the air-recycling filters were functioning at least. The construction-bots had done well; they had spent almost a year building this place. Originally deployed from an orbiting surveyor craft, they had spent the Martian days running off solar generators and the long nights hunkering down against dust storms. Now they were almost ready for the expected arrival of the first colonist teams in 6 months time – an arrival that Connor’s actions aboard New Dawn Station would seriously delay.

Connor was the first human to set foot on Mars, but right now that was of little interest to him. He looked around the silent, shadowy room as he struggled to remove his EVA suit without assistance.

“I’ve done as you asked,” puffed Connor, exhausted and squinting into the gloom. With the clatter of decades-old wheels, the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers rolled out of the shadows to meet him, cameras silently turning to stare at his face.

The Bones of Christmas

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. 

This week, it’s a Christmas story. Well, for certain values of Christmas. Perhaps it’s better described as a fairy-tale from a far-off future Christmas…



Photo by Bistrian Iosip on Unsplash

Sparks fled the campfire, tiny flame spirits rising up to carry a speck of warmth to the icy stars above. The fire was surrounded by an extended family of nomadic deer herders, and surrounding them in turn was a forest of snowy pines looming in from the edge of the clearing. Beyond that, darkness, and the howl of beasts that would keep their distance, so long as the fire remained lit.

There was a stranger in the family’s midst. He had bartered his place by the fire in exchange for his services. He had told them he was a traveller and teller of tales. A bard of sorts, or perhaps a herald, if that suited more. Hood pulled up against the cold, and face partially hidden from the light, the hooded wanderer poked the fire with a stick, sending more spirits dancing skyward to join their brothers. He had been telling his tale for some hours now, and had paused for a moment of introspection. The deer herder family were silent, hardly daring to breath, not wanting to miss a word when the story started again. The stout patriarch of the herder family sat on the opposite side of the fire, while the younger children crowded closer to the storyteller, wide eyes reflecting the diamond stars twinkling above.

At length the stranger began to speak again, continuing the tale.

“It was difficult to imagine they’d once been inseparable, brothers by choice instead of blood. Yet why was his arm still rising, drawing up his gun?” asked the teller of tales, looking at each of the family in turn. When he had began to weave his words the sun was only just setting, but now the moon peered down, eager to listen in on his words. It was Midwinter’s Eve, the longest night of the year, perfect for recounting sagas by firelight. This story he was telling had – like so many before it – begun many long years ago…

The Everwar had failed to live up to its name. The muon scythes and death rays and flesh chimeras had fallen silent a few years previously. Mankind paused to rest, to draw ragged breath and count their dead. So many dead. From the dust and ash of the continental firestorms walked two brothers, one named Pieter and one named Ruprecht. Not the only survivors by any means, but neither were they overburdened with company. The two brothers had been released from their oaths of military service, their guns no longer needed now the war was done. They were from the lands bordering the Black Sea, but their homes and people had been lost in the war so they had no hearth or halls to return to. Pieter and Ruprecht were not true brothers, not by blood at least, but it had been so long since either of them had regarded the each other as anything but kin that they fact they were not was almost forgotten.

They travelled for a time, wandering the wastelands searching for a purpose, until they found themselves in the land that its people referred to as Lappi, far to the north on the cold shoulder of Old Eurasia. One night, as the winter snows drew in and the shadows grew long beside the road, they spotted the welcoming warmth of village lights through the trees up ahead. They took shelter in the tavern of the village whose name they did not know, and settled in to wait out the weather and the prowling ur-wolves that haunted the forests.

The innkeeper, just like the lights of his establishment, was warm and welcoming. The kefir flowed freely and the air was heavy with the smell of spiced meats. As the brothers drank, an old woman approached them, bent and wrinkled like the timbers of the tavern itself. She told them her name was Baboushka, a priestess of the Carpenter, and custodian of a small shrine on the edge of the village. She had a favour to beg of the brothers, if their hearts were true. Babouschka told them that she had a pilgrimage to make, taking her away from the village for a few weeks at the most. She pleaded with the brothers to act as guardians of the shrine in her stead, so that she could complete her journey safe in the knowledge that the bones and relics of the saint that she cared for would remain inviolate.

Baboushka hinted at great rewards should the job be done well, but in truth it did not take much to persuade the brothers. They had been wandering in search of purpose and now they had found one, for a time at least. After witnessing the many horrors of the war, there was a burning desire in both Pieter and Ruprecht to bring some good to the world. Already deep in their cups, they swore a mighty and binding oath more serious than any they had sworn before, to do as the old priestess bade them. Greatly pleased, Babouschka beckoned them follow her out into the night. Drunkenly they staggered out into the deep, crisp snow, following the old priestess to the shrine by the light of ancient stars.

The shrine was a grotto set in a small hill, it’s walls decorated with the bones of diminutive creatures and the entrance lit by flaming torches that helped to ward off the howling beasts of the forest. Once inside, Babouschka showed the brothers her charge, the remains of Saint Nikolaos, known as the Wondermaker, held reverently in the tender embrace of the earth. But it was not only his bones in the grotto, but also his earthly trappings, including the ancient Codex Nikolaos, a leather-bound tome that it was said contained written within that which lay in the hearts of every man. Upon seeing these holy wonders, the brothers swore their oath again, reiterating their vow; they would guard the shrine until Babouschka returned, or Nikolaos himself arose to relieve them of their vigil. Seemingly satisfied, the old priestess made a final bow to the brothers, and then was gone into the night.

Pieter and Ruprecht were as good as their word. They kept their vigil over the grotto in the snow as the days became weeks. However the weeks soon turned to months and the months to years. The brothers despaired for Babouschka, assuming the worst; perhaps she had fallen to some peril on the road, or her natural time walking the Earth had simply come to an end. But an oath was an oath, and neither complained about their sacred duty. The pious villagers would bring the brothers offerings of food and ale to sustain them, and so they continued their lonely vigil in the cold grotto on the edge of the world, until the promised few weeks had become two long decades of waiting.

Twenty years to the day after Babouschka had left them, on a Midwinter’s Eve when the coldest stars held court, a stranger came to the grotto. Pieter and Ruprecht heard his slow, heavy footsteps crunching through the silent snow and strode out to meet him at the grotto’s entrance, suspicion in their eyes and hands ready on their holstered weapons. The stranger was an imposing sight as he emerged from the darkness into the light of the burning torches. He was a giant of a man, taller than either of the brothers by a full head, with the martial bearing of a warrior-sage from the terrible wars of their youth. His armour purred and growled with power like a caged beast, the metal of it a deep red and trimmed with ivory and complex knotwork. His helmet fully enclosed his head, his face hidden behind a mirrored visor as black as coal, and an array of antiseptic white rebreather tubes hung from the bottom of his helmet like a great beard. He smelt of machine oil, cinnamon and the cold air of the deepest winters.

The giant stranger told the brothers that he was the Wondermaker Returned – Saint Nikolaos reborn – and he was here to claim the Codex Nikolaos so that he could once again know what was in the hearts of all men. The brothers laughed at this, and prepared to show the stranger what they did to heretical impostors. But before they could act, the giant man wove uncanny visions and phantasmagoria to baffle their senses. He showed them scenes of Christmases long past; strange tableaus of plenty, vistas of laughter and gifts. Then the visions were gone and the Wondermaker spoke of the joy of those times. The brothers did not recognise the scenes they were shown as anything from their time in the world, but longed to see them again. The Wondermaker promised them that they could, if only they would let him in to the grotto. Seeing the brother’s reluctance, the stranger promised he would return the following night, and with this he strode off into the night from whence he came.

Overcome by what they had witnessed, Pieter and Ruprecht retired to the grotto to consider the best course of action. They sat in heated debate amidst the ossified remains of the mighty antlered beasts that had been the Saint’s companions in life. The candles in the grotto flickered as the brothers spoke, throwing dancing shadows and giving the dead beasts the illusion of a jerking, prancing animus. Ruprecht was skeptical of what they had seen that night; he named the Wondermaker Returned as a fraud. Most likely a warlock, he said, or some other forbidden horror, out here on the cold edge to avoid the judgement of the Europi Hegemony. Or perhaps a gene-altered remnant of the Everwar, fleeing the purges of the Reforged Czars. He advocated setting a trap for the stranger the following night, that they might ambush him, crack his armour and smite his red ruin upon the snow. Pieter counselled caution; he was not ready to believe either, but reminded his brother of the oath they had sworn and of the original Nikolaos’ message of hope. They should at least, he argued, hear him out. But on one thing they both agreed, the Codex Nikolaos would remain under lock and chain in the grotto for now.

The second night came and the stranger was as good as his word, returning in the long watches of the night as the snow silently fell. Pieter kept his counsel but Ruprecht named his suspicions to the stranger, and asked him to prove it was not so. Again the Wondermaker Returned weaved his magicks and the brothers were assailed with scenes of Christmas as it was celebrated around the world this very year. They saw the mass of humanity losing hope, still struggling to recover from the benighted centuries of the Everwar. Barely a light was lit or a song sung. Gifts, such as they were, tended to be nothing more than a generous division of dwindling rations.

Ruprecht’s heart remained hard, dismissing the visions as nothing more than a glamour, but Pieter was moved to tears. Again the Wondermaker Returned commended the brothers on their vigil, and asked them to turn over the Codex Nikolaos to his care, so that he might begin to set things right. They refused, but Pieter asked the stranger what it would take to restore hope to Humanity. In return the stranger told Pieter that it would simply require one person to believe that he was the Wondermaker Returned, and thus be the match to light the candle of hope in the dark. Time was running out, he said, and he would return a final time the following night. Again he left the brothers to their own council, vanishing like a snowflake in a storm. Pieter’s heart was beginning to thaw, but Ruprecht remained as skeptical as ever, promising his brother that if Pieter would not act against the threat to the shrine and the relics of the Saint, he would act alone.

On the following night the Wondermaker Returned appeared before the grotto one final time. He had a final rapture to weave. He painted for the brothers a vision of a nightmare future where there was no Christmas, and no joy. People cowered in the dark midwinter, all hope extinguished, and never dreamed to see the light again. Pieter wept at the sight and asked how this future could be avoided.

The Wondermaker leant close and reminded Pieter that it would only take one person to believe in him. Ruprecht declared that he had heard enough, that the stranger’s lies were an affront to the memory of the Saint, and that he would see them ended. Ruprecht went to draw his pistol to strike down the Wondermaker. It was a fine weapon, a matter converter with a dark oak grip and mother of pearl inlay. It was a heirloom weapon assembled in their homeland on the shores of the Black Sea. Large though the stranger was, and as impressive as his armour appeared, there was little that could stand before a matter converter beam. Ruprecht raised the weapon, merely having to pull the trigger to disintegrate the imposter Nikolaos from the inside out.

But he did not get the chance.


Pieter had always been the slower to anger of the two, but ever quicker on the draw. A burst of Pieter’s heat ray took Ruprecht in the chest, burning him through, coring him like a soft piece of fruit. Ruprecht had no time to register that he was dead by the hand of his own brother. He simply collapsed into the hard snow, the flaming edges of his clothes guttering out in the cold and wind. Pieter fell to his knees next to him, overcome by the enormity of what he had done. A massive shape loomed over him, and servo gears whined as a huge red gauntlet rested gently on his shoulder.

“Was I right to do this?” asked Pieter, looking up into the Wondermaker’s visor, “Have I sacrificed Ruprecht to restore Christmas? Are you really the Wondermaker, or are you a lingering horror of the Everwar, come at last to claim two wayward survivors?”

For long moments the Wondermaker said nothing, and all Pieter saw was his own accusing eyes’ reflected in that black visor. He could feel the cold of the snow creeping up through his knees and into his heavy heart.

“Have I done good or ill?” pressed Pieter frantically, cradling Ruprecht’s head, “When you walk into the grotto to claim it, how will the Codex Nikolaos judge me? Am I naughty or nice?”

The Wondermaker widthdrew his hand from Pieter’s shoulder and stretched himself up to his full height.

“I do not need the Codex to judge you,” he said, “for your actions already show me your heart, Pieter of the Black Sea. You have seen the truth of things, and sacrificed all that you have for the good of the whole world. Know that I am the Wondermaker Returned. I have spoken no lie. I will bring joy and gifts to all those in the world who are pure of heart. Joy, gifts, and above all, hope.”

Pieter then wept tears over Ruprecht, elated that he had made the right decision but sadder than he’d thought possible at the fact his brother would not see this promised world and Christmas restored.

“Save your tears, for your work is not yet done Pieter. You are released from your oath to the grotto, but I have a new purpose for you. Just as I am a herald of joy to the righteous, you will use your gift for seeing the truth of the situation to punish the wicked.”

The Wondermaker helped Pieter to his feet.

“Now come, for Christmas is almost upon us, and we have much work to do…”

The tale was finally told, and the family around the fireside nodded their approval at its telling. It was a fine story they all agreed, and the teller of tales had earned his spot by the fire for the night.

“That is most kind of you to say so,” said the bard, lowering his hood and lighting a long stemmed pipe, “now perhaps you would favour me with a tale in return?”

“We are no storytellers, we are simple rad-deer herders,” laughed the patriarch of the family with mirth, “what tale could we possible tell to one such as you?”

“Oh, it’s only a simple tale I’m after,” the stranger insisted, taking a puff on his pipe, “tell me, simple herdsman, how is it that you have such a vast herd of rad-deer for a family of your size?”

The heat of the camp fire seemed to recede for a moment. Some of the young men exchanged shadowed glances, and the smile froze on the patriarch’s face.

“They were all acquired by legal means,” he replied frostily, as his wife ushered their children away to bed in their yurts.

“Really,” replied Pieter, his hand slowly sliding for the heat ray holstered at his hip, “you know it’s naughty to tell lies, don’t you? Because I found a murdered herder family not so far from here that may beg to differ with your claim…”


The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt text is in bold.

This week, we’re heading into space…



Photo by NASA on Unsplash

It was at that point he realised that everything in his life was leading up to this point, and in this moment he could not be less prepared…

The Academy training should have prepared him, but right now, in the moment, it was hard for Jared to recall a single word his instructors had spoken to him during those five long years. He breathed deeply, sucking in the hot, stale air and looking down through the centimetre thick armoured glass at the blue and green of the world spinning silently below him.

Ship air always had a weird taste to it, and Jared was never quite able to forget that he was breathing the same air that hundreds of other people had breathed before him. He closed his eyes, trying to centre himself and forget about the planet below him, and the infinite abyss of space beyond that. He thought back to when he had been selected for the Empathic Academy; he remembered his proud parents and Mila, his oh-so-jealous sister. She had wanted to go to the Academy so badly, but in the end he had been chosen and she had not. Jared had often wondered if it was the fact that she wanted it so badly that had led her to fail. His family could bask in the reflected glory of Jared’s selection for the next few generations, but he knew that someone else’s glory would never be enough for Mila.

To get accepted into the Empathic Academy you had to be a very special person with a very certain and pronounced type of empathy. That was key; every other aspect of your physical and mental abilities could be trained or enhanced, but not empathy, not for this purpose. If it was not natural then it did not work. Jared was one in a hundred thousand. One in a thousand thousand. Someone worth extensively testing, and sifting and waiting for.

And now, here he was, looking down at the planet from space, hanging in his isolation chamber beneath the hull of the ship; a barnacle on the belly of a whale. Jared felt that the weight of responsibility for what he was about to do would crush him if he wasn’t in a zero gravity environment.

Ping. An audible warning chimed softly and the light in the chamber shifted, the crimson glow of a ‘ready’ light reflecting from the windows and giving the world below a bloody hue. Jared’s hand began to shake – almost imperceptibly – with adrenaline. He was suddenly aware of every little detail around him; the smell of hot electronics in the air, the taste of his own sweat, the tiny distant wisps of white cloud floating high over the sapphire seas far below.

There was a gentle click as the headset for the 2-Empathetic-Black detached from its moorings. At last Jared felt his training kick in, his uncertainty evaporating into the recycled air. He put the helmet neatly onto his shaved head, ensuring all the electrodes had good contacts. The helmet was connected to the chamber wall by a snaking umbilical. Jared pictured the path of the cables, worming their way through the chamber wall and up into the bowels of the ship above, connecting his mind to the vast 2-Empathetic-Black device, a device that took up the majority of the leviathan craft. Sensing a good connection between Jared and the helmet, the ready light changed to an anticipating amber. There could be no communication with the rest of the crew now. No distractions. The light went green and Jared began his work.

At first all he could feel was the deep bass thrum of the 2-Empathetic-Black, but then he began to sense other things too, just like his training had taught him he would. A presence, distant and unseen, like someone joining him in a dark room. He focused on the planet below, thinking about the population, feeling their presence. Jared began to become aware of them – each of them – like a tiny point of pressure. But the pressures was not on his skin, it was in his mind, yet still somehow distant, far far removed. The presences he felt followed the map of the continents beneath him; greater in cities, sparser in deserts and mountains. As the machinery in the ship above gained in power, so too did the points of pressure in his mind become more distinct as individuals.

Billions of individuals.

The empathy that made Jared a one-in-a-million recruit suddenly came to the fore. He could feel their emotions: love, trust, joy, pain, hate, fear. It was like a towering wave and a deep well all at once. But he had to experience it all, he had to touch each of the sentient minds below. In the frozen north he experienced a mother’s love for her child, in an equatorial desert he experienced a desperate journey in search of water, in a city he experienced the sour taste of a business deal gone bad, and in the steaming jungles of the south he experienced raging hate.

The vibrations of the 2-Empathetic-Black device were coursing through his body now as it built to full power. In that moment not only was Jared aware of every single thought and emotion on the world below, but the people below were finally aware of him too, sensing his pride, duty and, above all, his love for them. If any of the population in the western hemisphere had looked into the sky, they may have seen glint of sunlight reflecting from the spacecraft of their new, empathetic god.

The green light blinked. Once, twice, three times. Auto injectors stabbed into Jared’s body, pumping his veins full of a potent neurotoxin. He died then, instantly, synapses dissolving, with not even enough time to register the cold needles that had punctured his skin. If he had then he wouldn’t have minded; he had fulfilled his years of training. He had done his duty. As his mind died, his thoughts fading to blackness, so too did the mind of every sentient being that he was connected with on the planet below.

Hundreds of metres above Jared’s silent, floating body, the Admiral Hawne watched the status screens dispassionately. The Admiral was a small island of calm in amongst the bustle of the ship’s bridge. Once this process of the 2-Empathetic-Black device had awed him, but now it was just so much machinery at work. Pawns moving on a board. Boxes ticked. Satisfied that the task was complete, he began to issue orders.

“Let the mission log show the indigenous population was exterminated at chrono-mark 12:43/2. I didn’t catch the name of the species, but if there’s nothing in the scout unit logs then make something up. Tag the planet as cleansed in the astrogation records and flag it for follow-up terraforming and colonisation. Another great leap for the expansion of Humanity. Housekeeping teams proceed to the isolation chamber, retrieve Graduate…” Admiral Hawne paused and looked at a data-screen “…Graduate Jared. Jettison his body with full honours, then summon another Graduate from the barracks and get them installed before we reach our next target.”

“Will that be all, Admiral?” queried his adjutant as he typed Hawne’s orders into his tablet.

“Let me know when we achieve orbit above…” he consulted the data-screen again, checking their scheduled mission route, “…Fomalhaut-4b.”

The Admiral turned and walked sauntered away towards the exit from the bridge.

“I’m going to see if I can scare up something for lunch.”

Listen Carefully

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt text is in bold.

This week, things get a little bit Lovecraft…



Photo by Math on Unsplash

“Listen carefully,” she said quietly, willing her voice to be as discreet as possible. “How can you not hear it?!” The girl was terrified, paralysed by a consistent, eerie sound; the sound of…


To be fair they’d come on this sailing holiday to get away from it all. Just the two of them. In some ways silence was what they wanted.

Her husband looked at her, confused, chewing the last mouthful of dinner, a two-week beard clinging to his chin like seaweed to a hull.

“That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?” he asked, eyebrow raised, not quite getting it.

Sophie looked at him irritably, stood up and climbed out of the cabin. Josh shrugged and continued to chew.

The sun hung low on the horizon, smouldering red like newly smelted iron in the quartz pink sky. Around their tiny boat, the Mediterranean was still. No wind blew, no waves lapped. The waters seemed almost frozen, like a perfect shard of crystal, their boat a trapped and dirty imperfection.

Sophie walked around the edge of the yacht, checking that everything was ok, her motion rocking the boat and finally disturbing the calm of the sea. The sea anchor was still down, the sails were still lowered, all seemed fine. Yet there was something unsettling about the eerie calm.

Josh finally joined her one deck.

“Oooo, becalmed,” he said in a dramatic voice, looking around.

“It’s not funny,” Sophie scolded him, “it’s creepy.”

“Relax Samuel Coleridge,” said Josh, rolling his eyes, “this isn’t Rime of the Ancient Mariner, we have a little something called an engine.”

The engine, as it happened, had ceased to work.

“Well, that’s a bit of a mystery,” said Josh as he emerged from the engine hatch thirty minutes later, wiping his oily hands on his shorts. He was stripped to his waist and glistening with sweat.

“Should we radio for help?” wondered Sophie, scanning the horizon. They were a long way out, deliberately so. There was no land in sight, and no ships either. She found the latter a little odd. This was the Mediterranean, they weren’t exactly in a backwater.

“Nah,” said Josh, clearly unwilling to be defeated by an inanimate object, “we were going to anchor out here for the night anyway. I’ll take another good look at the engine in the morning. If I still can’t get it to work then we’ll probably have some wind by then anyway and we can sail back to Sicily.”

Josh jerked his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the direction of Sicily.

“Sicily is that way,” said Sophie quietly, indicating the opposite direction. Josh’s brow furrowed for a moment.

“Oh yeah. Well, my point still stands.”

They both paused for a moment, silently reflecting on this new development. The sun was just thinking about dipping its toe in the ocean. High above, a fingernail of a new Moon scratched the velvet shroud of the darkening sky.

“Shall we call it a night?”

Josh had made overtures to her as they lay in the narrow bed, but she wasn’t in the mood. She didn’t want to rock the boat; it seemed like disturbing the Mediterranean in its calm reflections would have been disrespectful.

So now, an hour later, Josh was snoring into the back of her neck as Sophie stared into the darkness. Sleep eluded her, and eventually she gave up the chase. She eased herself out of the bunk. Josh gave a short snort and spread out, filling the space she had vacated like the incoming tide, but he did not wake.

Sophie climbed back up on deck, hoping to feel the gentle breath of the wind against her bare arms, but still all was calm. The stars stared down at her; ancient Polaris, watchful Antares, cunning Sirius.

She was the reason they were there. Sophie was a Classics professor. She had asked for this busman’s holiday, sailing the ports of the Mediterranean. She was right where she wanted to be.

And yet…something felt wrong. It was like the world was on pause. Holding its breath. Was this what the Romans had warned of; why their ancient custom forbade ships to sail out of sight of land on the eve of a new moon? Was this what the Etruscans had whispered fearfully of in the long watches of the night? Was this what the Minoans called the ‘Siren Sea’, when the old gods emerged from their deep homes below the waves and sung songs that were written when the world was young?

Sophie shuddered, and it had nothing to do with the chill of the cloudless night. She was letting her imagination get the better of her. Now that her eyes were adjusting to the dark, she scanned the horizon for the lights of passing ships.

It was then that she saw them, in the middle distance. Was the wind picking up at last, was that anaemic moonlight glittering off tiny waves, stirred to life by a new breath of wind? Or were those lights coming from beneath the ocean? A natural phosphorescence; the bio-luminescence of algae? It had to be that right? Or was it something much less benign?

No, that was silly she told herself. This was the twenty first century. Pagan gods held no sway here. And yet…who was to say what year it was beneath the waves? Who could dare to guess the calendar of elder things who danced and sang beneath the light of a new moon?  What strange rituals did they keep and what antediluvian festivals did they hold sacred?

Sophie knew she should go back into the cabin, close her eyes and pretend she was asleep. That’s definitely what she should have done, but she felt like she was rooted to the spot. Just another few moments, Sophie told herself as the glow grew gently brighter, and the subtle notes of conch shells drifted out of the darkness.

In the morning, Josh awoke to find himself still without an engine, and now also without a wife.

Four Digit Number

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt text is in bold.



Photo by Nick Hillier on Unsplash

All his life he had been able to see how old people were in years, the numbers loomed over them. Each year at the exact  second they were born the number changed with startling precision. He had learned to ignore them by now. But today was the first time he saw a four digit number.

For many years Myles had wondered what the purpose of his “power” was. It was certainly difficult to use it to fight crime, unless it some sort of age-based fraud. He had mused on the idea of becoming a nightclub bouncer; but other than the fool-proof ability to spot underage people with fake IDs, he had none of the prerequisite skills.

Although Myles ‘used’ his power every day – in the sense that it was always active – it had still taken him many years to puzzle out the fine details of how it worked. On the eve of his 16th birthday he had eagerly stayed up late looking in a mirror – his pale face and blue eyes bright with excitement – at the number over his own head. Midnight came and went, and the number stubbornly remained stuck on 15. He went to bed disappointed, wondering if his “power” was broken, wondering if he’d been celebrating the wrong birthday all these years. But the next morning sure enough there it was, a number ‘16’ floating above his short blonde hair. It wasn’t until 2am on the morning of his 18th birthday that he realised the digits changed at the literal moment of birth.

Myles had spent a lot of time looking at the numbers. It was hard not to. The weird thing about them was that the closer he stared and the more he concentrated on the numbers over someone’s head, the more indistinct they became. It was actually quite difficult to study them like this too often, as people tended to become unsettled or alarmed if Myles spent a lot of time staring intently at the space just above their head.

It was also hard to tell what the numbers were actually made of. There were a sort of bluish-green, and semi-transparent, like a hologram or an augmented reality display. Myles had wondered if they were literally there, or if it was just his brain interpreting some other stimulus like…like pheromones? Biological cell clocks? Was he detecting age via some other means and his brain was adding a visual interpretation to help him understand what he was sensing? Myles couldn’t see ages for people on television or in films, so this added weight to the idea he was sensing a physical stimulus. Plus when he looked at his reflection his own number showed up the correct way around – not mirrored – which again led him to believe the numbers were not a literally physical object with a real presence that only he could see.

Myles had seen his first three-digit number when he was a teenager, visiting his elderly Nan in a care home. One of the other care home residents had a ‘102’ floating over his head; a fascinating distraction that had led his mum to chastise him after they left for daydreaming and not paying more attention to his poor Nan during the visit.

He had seen his second three-digit number when he started University. He had met the person during Freshers Week; a student in his halls had a three-digit number floating over his head that both fascinated and horrified Myles…’018′.

That had been a moment of bitter and frightening revelation in a number of ways. He’d seen plenty of other numbers starting with a zero before – every child under ten that he could recall meeting had a zero before their single-digit age. But Myles realised that because he had seen it so much when he was young he had never questioned why it was one zero, and not two or three or more. Looking at this fellow student, he had a sickening realisation that was two-fold; firstly it was logical that people must only have a third digit if they were going to live to be at least one hundred years old. Secondly, Myles only had a two digit number over his own head…

It was a weirdly sickening thing, to know that, whatever happened, he would be dead before he reached his one hundredth birthday. Statistically, he knew that was pretty much a given anyway, but to be told it definitely in no uncertain terms…Myles found that oddly deflating.

That revelation had been five years ago, and now, with a ‘22’ over his own head, Myles had seen his first four-digit number. He had been sitting in a coffee shop on Saturday, just watching the world go by. At first he didn’t register it – well, he did, but it took a few seconds to digest it. A dark haired girl was walking past the shop window, minding her own business, with a ‘0021’ floating over her head, plain as day.

Myles gawped open-mouthed for a few long seconds, before she reached the end of the window and disappeared from view. He hurriedly took one last gulp of coffee and rushed out of the door, oblivious to the mutterings of people he pushed past in his haste. He easily spotted her again as soon as he reached the street. He began to run to catch up with her, and then slowed down. What would he say to her? What could he say to her? He settled for following her at a borderline-creepy distance, transfixed by the four-digits that wavered just above her long, straight, dark brown hair.

At last, was this it? Myles wondered to himself. Was this the point of his “power”; to find four-digit people? Perhaps he was supposed to protect her and ensure that she reached her thousandth year? Or was she some sort of near-immortal monster that he was supposed to fight? Was this advancing technology or creeping magic? Was she aware of the unimaginable lifetime ahead of her, or blissfully oblivious? What was special about her, and if he found out what it was, would it allow him to finally understand his own “power”?

Whatever the correct question, and whatever the mysterious answer might be, Myles didn’t really care. He just wanted to know what it was. He trailed behind her, hypnotised and desperate for any sort of an answer.