I’m very pleased to be taking part in one of the Virtual Futures events again this year. This time it’s about life in a future where autonomous agents are here, there, and everywhere. I’ll be joining eight other writers reading our new stories speculating about what future might be like.
The evening will be great, please join us if you can. I am sure you will be entertained, stimulated, possibly even provoked. You will also be in friendly and relaxed company.
As for a future populated by autonomous software and hardware, who can say if it will be better, worse, or just different? Of course one excellent way to be prepared is to listen to some excellent stories.
A happy new year to you all! Readers and writers, whoever we are we all need to look after ourselves, and each other too. Right now I’m looking forwards to cracking on with the preparation for the print version of ‘Girl’, and also looking forwards to several short stories appearing in F&SF, Stupefying Stories, and Eibonvale Press later in the year. What is equally exciting is that my SF novel, ‘Shopocalypse’, is being re-issued in a new edition at the Eastercon convention in April at London Heathrow. If you like talking cars, shopping, mad presidents, and/or nuclear war, this book is for you. Plenty for me to look forwards to, and I hope the same is true for you. Meanwhile…
Chapter 65 – Bottom
Slowly and by inches Sea Cucumber’s bows rose from the water. Down in the hold, tied back to back, Foxy and Tim felt the deck jump beneath their feet. Their ears ached at the sudden change of pressure. Somehow they managed to stay standing.
‘They’re using explosives,’ Tim said.
‘Look at the cargo,’ Foxy said.
Along with the list to stern the detonations had shifted the seed drums. One stack tipped against another, in turn pressing against a third.
Tim considered the weight of the drums and the prospect of trying to avoid them once they started rolling. ‘This doesn’t look good.’
‘We’ll be all right if the ship settles as she is.’
‘I wish I could see you, Foxy.’
Their fingers pressed together again.
Tim shook his head again, his ears still didn’t feel right and there was something wrong with his eyes too. Down towards the stern a slow wave of blackness crept towards them across the floor. The explosion hadn’t been that close, the shock wave must have affected him. He’d heard of people killed like that, with not a mark on them. He must have concussion. Inside his skull his brain was bleeding, slowly deafening him, blinding him.
The blackness moved steadily towards their feet. It carried a briny smell and Tim realised there was nothing wrong with his head. One form of fear replaced the other.
The lights went out and they both gave a wordless cry. The lights flared briefly then died. The darkness was total, the air damp cold and salty.
Tim’s feet were wet.
Deep in the ship a new vibration began, a near sub-sonic rumble that steadily rose in pitch and volume to a strong, steady throb.
‘Standby generators,’ Foxy said. ‘Emergency pumps. Someone’s turned them on or they’ve tripped in automatically.’
Dim red lights began to glow along the sides of the hold. Five inches of icy water sloshed round their ankles.
‘Koponen knew what he was doing when he refitted this old girl.’ Foxy’s voice filled with respect. ‘You can feel her fighting back.’
‘Do you think the pumps will be enough?’
‘Honestly? I don’t know.’
Tim thought about that for a bit. To his own surprise he felt very calm. ‘If I knew was going to die on a sinking ship I’d have liked to be a bit better prepared. I’d wear a tuxedo and have a glass of brandy, maybe have a last dance while the band played on– OK, that sounds a bit unfair to the band so it had better be a jukebox. Either way I’d want to look good when the end came. Have a shave and comb my hair–’
Foxy gasped. ‘Yes! Oh, Tim Wassiter, you clever, clever man.’
‘I know how we can get out of here.’
‘Yes. We’ll only have one chance, so listen very carefully and do exactly what I say.’
How busy have I been today? Well, two cups of tea have gone cold. Two, I tell you! Putting everything I’ve learned about typesetting has been fascinating — and very absorbing. Here is this weeks chapter of ‘the Girl from a Thousand Fathoms’. It’s time for everyone to wake up and smell the… Just what is that burning smell?
I hope you enjoy this chapter, and my best wishes to you all for a peaceful and happy Christmas holiday.
Chapter 64 – Sober Up
Koponen burst back into the mess. ‘What the hell was that?’
‘Here we go again,’ Jarglebaum muttered under his breath.
‘Didn’t you feel it?’
‘I’m calling the bridge.’
‘You know best.’
Koponen pressed button after button. ‘It’s not working. I can’t get through.’
‘Let me try.’ Mellow from three large scotches Jarglebaum swayed over and studied the control panel. It looked simple enough, a series of domed white buttons set under a grill, each one labelled ‘Bridge’, ‘Galley’, and so on. Below the buttons was a dial labelled ‘Volume’, beside the dial a small electric bulb and a toggle switch labelled ‘On’ and ‘Off’. Managing to turn his laugh into a grunting cough, Troy flicked the switch up and the bulb glowed green.
‘Now try,’ Jarglebaum said.
Koponen pressed the button marked ‘Bridge’. ‘This is Markus Koponen. Is everything all right? Over.’ Koponen waited a moment. ‘Come in, bridge. Respond, please. This is Koponen.’ Turning to Jarglebaum he gestured helplessly. ‘Nothing.’
Jarglebaum reached over and pressed the Bridge button again. He cranked the volume over to Max. ‘Hello? Anyone at home? Pirates on the starboard bow. Wake up, guys.’
The speaker wasn’t silent. Not quite. Over the faint electric hiss was a sound like a flag snapping in a strong breeze. Below that, faintly, a distressing low sound like wind moaning, or –
Jarglebaum’s whisky-driven ebullience died in his chest. All at once he felt very, very sober. ‘We need to get up there. Now.’
Then they both felt it. The ship had slowed. She was still under way but speed was falling off.
‘Come on.’ Jarglebaum opened the door then lurched back. ‘Jesus Christ.’
The ship trailed a vast plume of roiling black smoke. Above them the bridge was furiously ablaze.
Koponen pushed past and stared up at the flames. He sagged against the bulkhead. ‘Jumalauta! This can’t be happening. Not to me, not now.’
The ship staggered like something had struck it and slowed even more.
Koponen rallied himself. ‘Come on. We have to help.’
‘It’s an inferno, we can’t do anything. Where’s the radio room?’
Overhead a window shattered. Jarglebaum pushed Koponen against a bulkhead and shielded their faces with his jacket.
‘My girls.’ Koponen stared, wild-eyed. ‘Where are my girls?’
Jarglebaum shook Koponen by his collar. ‘Where’s the God-damned radio?’
Koponen’s eyes came back into focus. ‘Up a level, beyond the canteen.’ He started away. ‘We must save the seeds.’
Jarglebaum hauled on his arm. ‘We’re sticking together. That means you’re coming with me.’
I’ve been working hard this week, learning about book design: margins, fonts, layout, gutters, and more.
Meanwhile on-board the Sea Cucumber…
Chapter 63 – Sanity
Foxy clutched Tim’s hand as Electra led them along the open-sided companionway away from the ship’s mess.
Below them a rolling night-dark sea ran to the horizon, above them a cloud-strewn starry sky. The ship drove steadily across the ocean through salt-tanged air.
Foxy slid her fingers along the rail. ‘I like this ship, this Sea Cucumber. She’s sailed the oceans for many years, through storms and high seas, across glassy calms, over shallows and reefs. She’s seen such sights.’ She squeezed Tim’s hand. ‘And she’s always brought her crew home.’
Tim simply did not know what to make of her.
Electra descended a steep companionway to the main deck. Tim stood uneasily at the top. ‘Our cabins are up here.’
‘We thought you two young lovers would like to spend the night together, so we changed your room,’ Electra said.
Dolores hugged herself. ‘That’s so sweet.’
‘Does Koponen know about this?’ Tim said.
‘He’s going to have a few surprises tonight,’ Imelda hissed in his ear. Tim recoiled from the fishy reek of her breath.
‘Get them down here,’ Electra ordered. ‘Push them or throw them, but get them down.’
‘What’s it going to be, guys? It’s much easier to walk without broken legs.’ Imelda turned to Dolores. ‘Are you going to help this time, or do you just want to watch?’
‘Please go down the stairs,’ Dolores said to Foxy.
Foxy started down.
Tim clenched his fist impotently. Electra was below, Imelda behind, both nightmarishly strong and violent. To get away he would have to hurt one of them more than he’d ever hurt anyone before.
And then what? A mad flight around the ship in the desperate hope he’d reach Koponen before the others caught him. And how would that look? He’d be better off with Jarglebaum, at least he had some inkling of the trouble they were in.
Electra hauled open a heavy metal hatch set in the deck. ‘Welcome to the bridal suite.’ Metal steps led down into a dark and cavernous space.
She led them through the gloomy hold towards the bows. A single row of bare, low-wattage bulbs cast pools of dim light. One each side stacks of enormous blue plastic drums ran the length of the hold. The group stopped beside a container set on its own. A coil of marine rope lay neatly on the lid.
Electra studied the label on the drum and smiled at Dolores. ‘Koponen really likes you. The old fool.’
‘A fool and a loser,’ Imelda agreed.
‘He’s been kind to me,’ Dolores said.
Tim studied the label:
Brassica napus (Canola) var. doloresvogler
Recyclable container (100% Cellulose)
Imelda’s hand lightly circled Dolores’ throat. ‘You are still with us on this, aren’t you, darling?’
Dolores’ eyes glittered. ‘We’re sisters, brides, daughters, wives. I know sacrifices must be made.’
Imelda began to squeeze. ‘You are completely sure?’
‘Yes,’ Dolores gasped.
‘Prove it. Make a sacrifice.’
Dismay consumed Tim. He’d had a chance on the stairs and hesitated. Always he’d hesitated, concerned for Foxy or for some other reason. The time for killing was here. These women would not hesitate. It was always later than you think.
He took a small step back into the gloom.
Foxy shook her head a fraction and mouthed, ‘No.’
Tendons stood out on Imelda’s arm as she throttled Dolores.
Dolores lifted her arms above her head.
Her little finger jutted back at an unpleasantly high angle.
Imelda released her grip on Dolores. She licked her lips. ‘Do it again.’
Pale and wide-eyed, Dolores took hold of her next finger.
This was actually insane. Tim slid another step deeper into the shadows.
Imelda studied Dolores’ hand. ‘Nice one. I never thought you had it in you.’
‘My pleasure,’ Dolores gasped. ‘It really was.’
‘Isn’t that nice, we’re all friends again,’ Electra said. ‘Let’s move on. We have a schedule.’
Tim took a long sideways step behind a stack of drums. Out of sight of the women, he cast around for some sort of weapon, a piece of wood, a crowbar, anything to fight with.
Dolores breathed against his ear. ‘I do necks too.’
He turned as fast as he could. Dolores swayed back out of reach. This would have to be fast, brutal. Tim rushed her in the narrow space. Not one punch, a dozen, a hundred. Feet stamping, kicking.
He caught her one solid blow on her cheek. She rocked back and there was just enough time for him to feel the satisfaction of the contact, register the surprise in her eyes, and feel a moment of hope. Then Dolores flowed, moving impossibly fast. Before he could react she took hold of his arm. In one motion she lifted, twisted, and dislocated his shoulder.
The pain was astonishing, a blinding white flare. For a moment he could neither see nor think. Then – a world of agony and worse, the feel of his own shoulder bent into an unnatural shape.
‘Quite a rush, isn’t it?’ Dolores pushed him lurching back into the light. ‘Got him.’
‘Little Timmy got lost in the dark.’ Electra pouted. ‘Did you bump into something nasty?’
Tim forced himself to stand straight, his arm frozen and useless at his side. His voice slurred with pain and shock. ‘Yes, Dolores.’
‘Great repartee, but don’t give up the day job.’ Electra gasped in mock surprise, ‘No, wait, this is your day job. How’s that going for you?’
Imelda held a coil of rope in her hand. ‘Stand by the drum. Put your hands behind your back.’
He couldn’t do it. His arm would barely move, when he tried the pain was atrocious.
Imelda hissed with irritation, grabbed his wrist, jammed her other hand under his armpit and pulled. His arm slid back into its socket with an unpleasant wet snap and more pain. Lots of pain.
Tim zoned out again, dimly aware of someone holding him upright. When he came to, he and Foxy were tied back to back at waist and ankle with their wrists behind them.
Imelda ran a second rope behind the knots at their waists, threaded it through one of the eyes on the drum and tied it off on the far side and well beyond their reach.
Hands on hips, she considered her work.
Dolores sighed as she ran a nail along Tim’s jaw. ‘You really are quite cute. Never mind, there are plenty more like you.’
‘Goodbye forever, little Timmy. It really has been quite ordinary,’ Electra said.
Tim’s blood ran cold. ‘What are you going to do?’
‘Sink the ship, stupid.’
His head was muzzy from pain, he did his best to think. ‘You work for Koponen.’
Electra’s face became a blank mask of hostility. ‘Not for some time. Not since that voyage he made us take down into the depths. Not since his obsessions almost got us killed. We would have died, our lovely lives smashed and ripped.’ Her eyes grew wild, spittle flecked her mouth. ‘Down there we met someone much stronger than Markus Koponen. Older too, wiser and stronger. He showed us things. Tuoni showed us how to remake ourselves. Tuoni told us our true names–’
‘You’re dry-shod yet you spoke his name,’ Dolores cried.
‘We’re over water.’ Electra flung her arms high, her body strained against the crimson silk of her dress, the tendons in her neck rigid. ‘We are the sisters and she is the wife-sacrifice. Tuoni will accept our ship-gift and he will take his bride. We are his handmaidens and shall sit beside him in glory!’
Wide-eyed, Tim and Foxy shifted uncomfortably in their bonds. If there was anything worse than being tied up in the gloomy hold of a soon to be sinking ship with little hope of escape, it was being tied up in the gloomy hold of a soon to be sinking ship while listening to the ravings of a violent lunatic.
There had been times when Tim had doubted his own sanity. Confronted by Electra, all he could think of was to try and keep her talking. ‘For God’s sake, why are you doing this? Why does the ship have to sink?’
‘You really are a little fool. Koponen wants to cool the world. We want the opposite. Tuoni was bathed by cold currents for ten thousand years. Now the water is warming and he awakes. This ship will never reach harbour. These seeds will never put down roots, their horrid white flowers will never bloom.’
‘Let Foxy go. Give her a chance, give her baby a chance.’
The hold fell silent. Behind him, Tim felt Foxy stiffen.
‘What baby?’ Foxy said coolly.
The three women began to laugh.
Dolores held out her hand and studied her distorted fingers as if she were inspecting her nails. ‘She doesn’t have anything to worry about. How long do you think you can hold your breath?’
Despite having their ankles tied together, Foxy managed to kick Tim.
‘I’m not pregnant.’
‘Foxy, I saw–’
‘I’m not. Just leave it, OK?’
Thrusting her hips, wrists twisting, Imelda danced in front of Foxy, her voice a nasty sing-song. ‘When Tuoni wakes he will reach for his consort. A bride to stay by his side in his drowned kingdom. You will become Kipu-Tytto birth mother of Tuonetar, destined to be Tuoni’s daughter-wife.’
‘You’re all mad,’ Tim croaked.
‘What if we are?’ Electra said. ‘Soon you’ll be dead.’
Imelda stopped her weird dance. ‘We’ll come back for you, darling. We’ll find you down in the deep and the dark when the silt has settled and Wassiter’s lungs are full of salt water.’
She leaned in to kiss Foxy, who twisted her face away. Imelda gripped Foxy’s jaw and pressed her lips against Foxy’s. She jerked back with a cry half way between laughter and pain. Foxy spat onto the deck and glared, triumphant. Imelda wiped her mouth, looked at the blood on the back of her hand, then back at Foxy. ‘I’ll see you later.’
‘You’ll drown too,’ Tim said.’
Electra shook her head. ‘Only if we stop moving.’ She turned to Dolores. ‘Sort your fingers out. It’s time to say hello to the crew.’
The three women moved back the way they had come, appeared briefly under one of the overhead lights then vanished into the dark.
‘They’re heading for the engine room,’ Tim said dully.
Foxy gave no reply.
Away towards the stern came a short, sharp crack, and a gasp, followed by a louder crack and a shrill cry.
Electra’s voice echoed through the hold. ‘Did that hurt? Tell me, Dolores. Tell me.’
Silence fell. Tim shifted uncomfortably, his shoulder ached abominably. ‘Are you OK?’
He tried again. ‘We could try and sit down.’
‘It might be more comfortable.’
‘I said I am fine.’
Tim gave a despondent sigh. His shoulder really hurt. ‘I’d like to sit down.’
That close to the waterline there was less roll and pitch than on deck. The steady, rumbling throb of the marine diesels overlain by occasional creaks, distant metallic bangs and vague thuds formed a strange rhythm. Slowly the gloomy hold seemed to expand in size, reaching out in all directions to become an infinite place. Somewhere in the middle two people had been tied together, roped to a huge blue drum of seeds under a shallow pool of light.
Tim chewed on his lip. ‘I thought you were.’
‘Well, I’m not.’
‘I saw your tummy and thought–’
‘You thought. Well, I thought it wasn’t polite to mention a lady’s waistline. And while we’re on the subject, where did you think I had the opportunity to get… you know. Thing.’
Tim felt pretty stupid. ‘I thought you had a boyfriend.’
‘What? One of those fat creeps with their short little arms? I came to Brighton to get away from them.’
‘It’s just that you were getting bigger and–’
Foxy jerked at their bonds. ‘Stop it. I’m not, all right? I’m not pregnant. It’s just that time of year.’
Even though they were tied back to back, Tim could still feel her angry eyes and Foxy hear his unspoken question.
‘Look, I’m gravid,’ Foxy said.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘What do you mean “What’s that supposed to mean?”’
‘What I mean by “What’s that supposed to mean” is I know what gravid means, I just wondered what you meant when you said that’s what you were.’
‘It means I’m, you know.’ Foxy’s voice dropped to a self-conscious whisper. ‘Heavy with egg.’
‘But I’m not pregnant.’
‘I just could be if I wanted.’
Tim took a breath. ‘Foxy?’
She went still again. Tim felt her fingertips find his and press against them. ‘How’s your arm?’
‘I’m sorry too.’
‘Foxy. All that stuff about Tuoni, they’re mad aren’t they?’
‘I hope so.’
When it came they nearly missed it. A dull thud, a faltering in the ship’s motion, a hesitation in the sound of the diesels. Then the big engines continued, their vibration a little more insistent, a little more urgent.
Slowly Sea Cucumber lost way. They felt it in the way the ship began to wallow. No long after they also felt a tilt in the deck, slight but growing. Sea Cucumber began to settle towards the stern.
‘They’ve killed the ship,’ Tim said.
‘She’s tough. I know her, she’ll make a fight of it,’ Foxy said.
Tim felt for her fingers and squeezed them. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be all right.’
Mrs Woosencraft is forced to play the waiting game.
Chapter 62 – As Easy As…
Sunk in her wing-backed armchair in the deepening gloom Mrs Woosencraft ran the numbers through her head again and again. She’d rarely felt her age, seldom even considered the passage of years. Now she was having palpitations. Her hands were clammy, her feet cold and her heart thumped in her chest.
Sheets of paper filled with diagrams and calculations covered her ancient kitchen table, the peculiar geometries of her chosen aspect of the finite infinities of Deg Naw Wyth.
Seated at that table decades ago Ethel Godwinsson had taught an eager Dorothy Woosencraft all she was able to learn. The table had been old even then. It was Ethel’s table, the place she had practised and refined her own craft, and it was steeped in her long-gone tutor’s lore and magic.
Somewhere in Ethel Godwinsson’s own house had been an even older table, one that had belonged to her tutor before her. It was lost now, sold off by Ethel’s family. She imagined it now quietly mouldering in some potting shed or an attic playroom where young children crayoned pictures of castles, fish and faeries, spilled paint and gouged railway lines into it with biros.
According to tradition the first tables had been circular and inscribed around the edge with compass points and other geometric markers.
The kitchen table had been the only thing Ethel left Mrs Woosencraft in her will. It was the only thing she had wanted and she used it as she knew Ethel intended, as a piece of ordinary furniture. It was the right way to let the power fade, seeping down the legs into the floor, up through the chopping board or carried away by the tea tray. Out and away, back into the world.
Ethel’s methods, her numbers, her steady, practical and at times crusty style still saturated the ancient pine. Mrs Woosencraft had her own table, the black oak table in the front room. It went wherever she went and it was where she explored the indivisible nineteenth way ever since that long-ago June picnic in the buttercup meadow when she and Ethel agreed the twenty-third way was beyond her.
There were still times when she liked to work at Ethel’s table. Times when the subtle shove of her old-fashioned ways, the memories of abacus, slate and chalk and the cracked saucers of tally stones were a help rather than hindrance. Times like now, when she felt she needed all the support she could get.
It was not as if Mrs Woosencraft had embraced modernity. She used compass and candles, a setsquare and ruler, a row of small brass bells, a diminutive set of knife-edge scales and, almost as old as she was, her slide-rule. Heaving herself out of her chair, she went back into the kitchen for another look. Perhaps she’d missed something, perhaps she was wrong.
Heptagons overlapped circles, parallelograms butted against the sides of triangles. Lines and arcs connected this to that. One place to another. The future to the past.
Every margins brimmed with calculations. Columns and streams of them, crossed out, revised, reworked, begun again from new seed-points, new assumptions. Everything led to the same conclusion. The angles might all be right but everything else looked badly wrong.
Koponen had been wrong too. Knowing she was right did nothing to help her sense of impotent frustration. Somewhere out there, wherever Tim now was, bad things were happening. For her there was nothing to do except sit and wait and see who came out of the other end.
Numbers didn’t lie. They might not tell you the truth, but they never lied. They simply were what they were. She should know. They had been her way, her life, from the moment an old lady had shown a very bored young girl how they could open a path from the questions brimming inside her head to what she would eventually come to regard as the observable universe.
It was the best wet weekend she’d ever had.
Some very specific numbers had brought her through the years to today, this room, this particular variant of that constant and ever changing subjective moment called ‘Now’.
Reality was a frenzy, a seethe, a simmering pot constantly rising and falling, combining and fading. Only some of it was random, the rest was probability and chance. Everything was connected, everything influenced everything else. Often it was in amounts so small they were subsumed by bigger events. Once in a while they combined to shake the earth.
One person in the right place at the right time looking through the right eyes could part the veils and see the shadows. It took enormous skill to glimpse the things that cast them.
Ethel Godwinsson had taught her how to access that layer. And how, with geometry, calculation and equation she could not only pose it questions, she could get answers too.
It was almost impossible, but only almost. The knack was to ask the exact right question. Absolutely exact. Compared to that, the rest of the nineteenth way of Deg Naw Wyth was as easy as pissing on your fingers.
‘Up you come, pet,’ Mrs Woosencraft lifted Morse onto her lap. ‘I’ll get you some supper soon, just give me a few minutes.’
He’d been all over her as soon as she had let him out of the cat box, under her feet, butting his head on her calves, winding his tail around her legs. Wherever he had been during the time he’d spent as her cat, he hadn’t been getting regular meals. Out of guilt, though she knew she shouldn’t, she’d let him eat all he could. Two bowls of tinned rabbit hadn’t lasted long. Now he was hungry again.
All her other cats were in the room as well. They sensed something important was going on and were there to bear witness. The two Siamese sat on the curtain rail, a cluster of tortoiseshells, grey Persians and mixed tabbies colonised the settee. Others sprawled on the piano. Pedwar the Manx sat like a moth-eaten sphinx in the doorway.
All the cats in the room looked at Morse, sitting on her lap.
‘All right, I’m not proud of what I did,’ Mrs Woosencraft announced. ‘I came here for a reason. We all did. I did what I thought was best.’ Her lips tightened, deepening the creases round her mouth. ‘We were down to eighteen, I had to do something, didn’t I?’
And yes, she finally admitted, she had been blinded by hope, too wrapped up in what she wanted, lost in dreams of what might be. And at her age too. She should have known better.
Now there was nothing to do except sit and wait. At times like these she hated waiting. For want of something better to do, anything, she got up, went back into the kitchen, tidied her papers away and baked some scones.
The Truth is out, and luck? Well, luck is always a matter of perspective.
Chapter 61 – The Lucky Ones
Much to his own surprise Tim had fallen asleep in his cabin. He jerked awake when Electra put her hand over his mouth.
That would not have been so bad if her other hand hadn’t pinched his nose shut.
‘You sleep like a little baby. I could have slit your throat and you’d have woken up dead.’
‘You’ve got some great chat up lines,’ Tim said. ‘I expect you have to beat them back with a shitty stick.’
Electra’s mouth twisted with contempt. ‘I serve my master. I await him as he awaits me.’
‘Isn’t Koponen the lucky one.’
Electra laughed coldly.
She brought him to Koponen in a spartan dining room with a linoleum floor. Tim took in the room. In the centre a long steel-framed table covered in white tablecloths stood with places set for a meal. Koponen and Troy Jarglebaum waited at the back of the room beside an array of bottles of wine, beer, and spirits. Set in the wall behind them was a speaker grill and controls, and a dumb-waiter hatch. The sack from the car lay at their feet.
‘Where is Foxy?’ Tim said. ‘What have you done with her?’
‘Absolutely nothing, I assure you,’ Koponen said smoothly. ‘I have been making sure all is in order with the cargo and conferring with my captain. We’re in for a bit of weather in an hour or two, low pressure in the Bay of Biscay. I hope you don’t get sea sick.’
Tim bunched his fists. ‘Where is she?’
Electra took a languid step forwards.
Koponen held up his hand. ‘As a lady surely Ms Bolivia is allowed a little more time to prepare. Would you like a drink, Mr Wassiter?’
Tim gave a hollow laugh. ‘All right, let’s pretend we are being civilised. Whisky, no ice.’
‘It’s no pretence. You and Ms Bolivia are my guests.’
As Koponen made Tim’s drink the door opened and Foxy entered accompanied by Imelda and Dolores.
‘Wow, this ship is cool,’ Foxy said. ‘There are so many rooms and levels, it’s like a building that floats.’ She saw Tim. ‘Hi Tim, how are you getting on with our new friends?’
‘Foxy, are you all right?’
She looked at him steadily. ‘Of course I am, Tim. These girls are so friendly and they’ve got some great clothes. Have you seen Dolores’ heels?’
‘I think you can see from Ms Bolivia’s reaction that she’s been well cared for,’ Koponen said.
‘Absolutely,’ Foxy said. ‘They’re such pussycats.’
Deep under the deck the throb of the engines took on a deeper resonance. The ship gathered speed and rolled a degree to starboard.
Koponen motioned for everyone to take their places at the table. Tim sat opposite Foxy, Electra close beside him.
Koponen raised his glass. ‘My plans near completion. We sail with a genetically engineered cargo towards a rendezvous with my deep-sea research vessel.’ He laughed lightly, ‘It’s around this time an evil super-genius would explain his plans to the captive hero before consigning him to the sharks via a fiendishly intricate device–’
Troy Jarglebaum shook his leg, tugged and prodded at his groin. Koponen watched with open-mouthed bemusement. Jarglebaum looked around a now silent room. ‘Don’t mind me.’
‘Where was I?’ Koponen sighed.
‘Shark food,’ Imelda said.
‘Ah, yes. So, rather than that, I thought we’d have a nice meal and a friendly chat. I’m rich but I’m not evil. Tonight the fish is on our menu, not we on theirs.’
Tim kept playing the game. He acknowledged Koponen’s wit with a polite smile and a nod.
Koponen served more drinks, all the while keeping up a line of small-talk about tonnage, displacement and knots. Finally, he spoke into the wall-grill: ‘Ten minutes, please.’
Foxy seemed at ease if a little brittle. She gave Tim a quick smile then returned her attention to Koponen.
Tim wet his lips with his own drink then put it down. After his breakfast session with Mrs Woosencraft he had lost the urge to play the hard-drinking detective. And in addition to the coercion, the pretend gun, and being locked in his cabin there was something else here, something that was not right. Koponen was used to getting what he wanted when he wanted it and no doubt was a ruthless businessman but Tim didn’t feel any ill-will from him. And while Jarglebaum was rough and ready, he’d never involve himself in anything outright illegal. Jarglebaum bent the rules but he played a straight game.
There was still that vibe. Something was going down.
Foxy had said “As far as I’m concerned they’re real pussycats.” She didn’t like cats. More to the point she didn’t trust them. Nervous fear thrilled through Tim. His instincts were right, Foxy had tried to warn him.
‘Something is wrong,’ Tim said.
Jarglebaum went still for a moment then vigorously scratched his ear.
‘No, it isn’t,’ Koponen said breezily. ‘I’ve been working towards this for years. My plans are detailed and comprehensive. You haven’t heard the half of them.’
‘It doesn’t matter what you believe–’
Koponen wasn’t in a listening mood. ‘I’m not proud about the way you’ve been treated today. Events took on a momentum of their own. Hear what I have to say–’
‘What if we don’t like it?’
‘Then you will have been my guests on a short voyage and will be compensated for your inconvenience.’
‘We’ve no passports.’
‘You won’t need them. That, in part, is what Mr Jarglebaum is for. A man who knows the system and how to play it to best advantage. Bend but not break, isn’t that how you put it?’
‘Man of many talents, me,’ Jarglebaum said. ‘Nice to be appreciated.’
Koponen stooped and pulled a potato sized lump from of the sack Jarglebaum had taken from the Imperial’s boot. ‘I’ve been carrying these around to show to the investors. White-flowered Canola will earn in the long run, but I need cash now. Deep-sea mining is the plan but I’m having trouble.’
‘Manganese nodules.’ Tim looked down the table to Jarglebaum who winked. ‘You’re dredging them up from the fumaroles along the mid-Atlantic ridge.’
Foxy snapped her fingers. ‘That’s where I’ve–’
‘Seen them before, Ms Bolivia?’ Koponen said. ‘Relatively low value on today’s market, but there are other more valuable deposits. Something down there is interfering with my operations. I’ve lost expensive equipment.’ He looked along the table to Dolores. ‘I’ve nearly lost people too. People I greatly care about.’
‘He means all of us,’ Dolores said. ‘He does.’
‘What do you mean, interfering?’ Foxy said.
‘Just that. Damaging machinery, jamming electronics, frying circuitry. I sent down robotic maintenance vehicles, they never came back. I tried remote-pilot drones, they developed faults. My girls volunteered to take the submarine. They’re trained marine scientists–’ Koponen’s voice grew tight. ‘They almost died.’
‘Let me clarify. I did not volunteer,’ Electra said.
‘I did, Markus. I’d do it again.’ Dolores exclaimed.
‘I won’t risk it. There’s some sort of field effect down there, probably geomagnetic.’
Despite the circumstances the thought of huge dredging machines labouring in the endless dark and fantastic pressure caught Tim’s imagination. ‘Industrial espionage?’
‘My first thought. Nobody else has the technology. Not the Russians or Americans, not even the South Africans or Japanese. It’s something else, something natural.’
Foxy listened intently. ‘What kind of field?’
‘One that left my girls weak, terribly weak. They took days to recover.’ Koponen turned to Foxy. ‘We’ve discovered one thing. The field has no effect on marine life.’
‘I see where this is going,’ Foxy said.
Tim looked at Koponen in disbelief. ‘We’re here because you think she’s a mermaid too.’
Jarglebaum let out a great guffaw. ‘Tim, that’s dafter than a box of frogs.’
‘Actually, I do,’ Koponen said. ‘Am I right, Ms Bolivia, or am I right?’
Foxy looked at him with dry respect. ‘It was you all along. The cats, that old lady, everything.’
‘Come on, she wears shoes,’ Tim cried. ‘On her feet. You know, those things at the end of her legs. Foxy, tell them.’
‘What is it you want me to do?’ Foxy said to Koponen.
Tim and Jarglebaum exchanged a look of pure bewilderment.
‘Take a look. Simply that, nothing else. I’m deadly serious on this. Don’t get involved, don’t try and do anything. Just take a look and come back and tell me what you saw.’
Foxy leaned back in her chair. ‘There is that. How do you know I will come back?’
‘Because you came ashore, Ms Bolivia. You’re running away from something and I don’t think you want to return to the sea. Also, I shall pay you very well.’
Koponen named a sum large enough for anyone to start over.
‘Christ on a bike,’ Jarglebaum exclaimed. ‘Not bad for one day’s work.’
‘Value for money, Ms Bolivia has unique gifts.’
‘It’s just about money for you, isn’t it, Koponen?’ Tim said bitterly.
‘It’s more about what you can do with it.’
‘And everyone has their price.’
Tim couldn’t deny it. ‘I did what you paid me to do.’
‘Value for money.’
As they bickered Foxy contemplated Koponen’s offer. Out on the ocean groups of mermen roved out of their ruined cities, tasted the water and searched for mates. Children were the future. Almost everyone had accepted the necessity. If mer society was going to survive in any form– She didn’t want to think about it. Strip away civilised behaviour and what was left?
She had always felt like an outsider. Brighton had been an escape from inevitability but life on dry land had been harder than she expected. People there were so different. No merman had manipulated events with such foresight and authority as Markus Koponen, none had made her feel the way she did about Tim. What mattered was to preserve the reasons she had come ashore – to be free, to live her own life as she wanted, not according to someone else’s desperate doomed rules.
And so she’d sought refuge among the people who had destroyed her own. Unknown and unregarded, the ancient mer were nothing more than a by-blow casualty of the land’s exploitation of the seas.
She reached her decision. ‘Afterwards, you’ll leave me alone.’
‘How do I know that?’
‘That’s the thing.’ Koponen spread his hands. ‘You either trust me or you don’t.’
‘That’s a current that flows both ways.’
‘What do you suggest?’
‘Pay me first.’
Koponen appeared to be enjoying himself. ‘A third now, the rest when you return.’
‘Half and half.’
‘Agreed.’ Koponen held out his hand.
‘No,’ Tim said. ‘I don’t care what you think Foxy is, you can’t send her down there. Not in her condition.’
Foxy looked indignant, hurt. It wasn’t the reaction he had been expecting. Across the room Dolores trilled with laughter.
Koponen regarded Tim with some sympathy. ‘There are many things you don’t understand.’
‘Neither do you!’
Electra seized Tim’s wrist without seeming to cross the space between. ‘Calm down, little Tim-Tim Timmy or I’ll hurt you so much.’ Bone and cartilage moved inside his wrist with the unpleasant promise of imminent agony.
A dessert spoon flew down the table and walloped off Electra’s forehead. Jarglebaum pointed at Electra with a steak knife. ‘You let him go. Right now.’
‘For God’s sake, Jarglebaum!’ Koponen exclaimed.
Jarglebaum didn’t take his eyes off Electra. He flipped the steak knife and caught it by the tip. ‘She’s hurting him.’
Electra removed her hand with exaggerated care. ‘A steadying hand.’
Jarglebaum snorted disbelief. ‘You all right, pal?’
‘I’m fine, Troy.’ Tim massaged his aching wrist. ‘Thank you.’
Jarglebaum gave a curt nod, flipped the knife a final time and dropped it on the table.
Koponen massaged his temples. ‘I suggest we all–’
The door opened and a man in a white jacket entered to take their food orders. He took in the mood of the room. ‘Mr Koponen?’
Koponen’s composure cracked, he flung his glass splintering into the corner. ‘Enough. I’ve lost my appetite.’
The waiter withdrew in the frosty silence.
‘Let’s go.’ Electra gestured to the door.
‘Foxy, I–’ Tim said.
She wouldn’t meet his gaze. He didn’t know what to say, what to think. He’d hoped he’d at least be able to protect her even if he couldn’t help her escape. Now she’d cut a deal with the man who’d tracked her down. His shoulders drooped. Electra led them out of the room.
Koponen rounded on Jarglebaum as soon as they were alone. ‘It’s been a demanding day but that is no excuse for such grotesque behaviour.’
‘She was going to mangle his wrist. Now she’s got a little bruise on her head and you don’t have a lawsuit. It’s a good deal. Thanks. You’re welcome.’
‘Act like that again and you will cease to be of any use to me. Is that clear?’
Jarglebaum took the point. ‘Yes, boss. Look, I’m sorry but I had to do something. Legally you’re right on the edge with all this. The wrong side of the edge.’
Koponen breathed in, then out. ‘My warning still stands. For now we will put this behind us and move on.’ He strode from the room and Jarglebaum was alone.
Well, that was a class-A fuckup, Jarglebaum thought despairingly. No matter what those women did Koponen just would not see them as a liability. That was what happened when you shared a mattress. He gave a snort of cynical laughter. All that bullshit about mermaids, was that the genuine angle here? What the actual fuck had he got himself involved in this time?
He poured himself another whisky and tried to guess which malt it was without looking at the label. Anything to keep his mind from worrying about whether he would still have a job at the end of the voyage.
It was just the right side of smoky, with a wonderful aroma Jarglebaum could only describe as being like old varnish and wardrobes. The superb scotch was older and therefore more expensive than any he could afford.
Even if Koponen was away with the fairies he didn’t stint on the little luxuries for his staff. Jarglebaum poured another shot, determined to enjoy this one while he still could.
Even though Koponen had shut him back inside the boot Smith convulsed with laughter. He had said ‘Boo!’ and the man with two chins had actually jumped out of his shoes. Nothing could be funnier.
He calmed down and listened to the continuing conversation outside the car. To his amazement one of the voices was Tim Wassiter’s. Tim was in trouble, big trouble. These people were the RBGs – the Really Bad Guys. They kidnapped people, locked them in car boots and dressed smartly. As such, they would also have speedboats, helicopters, miniature submarines and henchmen dressed all in black and armed with sub-machine guns.
His heart beat faster as he imagined a bullet-riddled Imperial rolling down a slipway into the sea. Would that really be his own fate? This was now far more exciting than he had ever wanted an adventure to be. For a moment he wished he was back at home watching television with his parents. Smith hugged himself and hoped the voices would go away soon.
After a few minutes they did. Smith listened intently. A lone seagull cried, a ship’s horn sounded far in the distance. All was quiet.
Although he had just blurted out the first thing he’d thought of when the boot was opened, Smith really did need to go to the toilet. As he lay in the dark with nothing else to think off the uncomfortable urge grew and grew. He clutched his bottle in one hand and torch on the other and considered Koponen’s suggestion. Apart from the practical difficulties of peeing into a bottle while lying locked in the boot of a car in the dark, what if the bottle filled up and he couldn’t stop? And what if he got stuck? His mind recoiled from the imagery but he could feel the humiliation, the utter embarrassment of walking into a hospital with a plastic bottle sticking out of his trousers.
Mild discomfort slowly turned into actual pain. Smith rolled and shuffled then flicked the torch on. There on the inside of the boot lid was the lock and lever, down on the body was the strike-plate and catch. He had to get out and soon, or there would be some seriously Bad Peeing.
A few minutes later the boot lock clunked and the lid swung up. Smith swung his legs over the sill and hobbled urgently into a shadowed recess and guiltily relieved himself.
He’d learned something even Clive Barnett would have found more interesting than a ride in the luggage compartment of his favourite car. Getting free of the boot had been easy. The lock was designed to keep people out, not in.
He looked around the alcove. A few old overalls hung on nails, there was nothing else of interest. He peered out and saw the coast was clear. Overhead a few early stars were out, the span of the sky shading from pale blue to dusty violet-grey. An offshore breeze freshened, Smith zipped up his fleece. Apart from the fact he was by the sea at some docks he had absolutely no idea where he was.
The drive had taken a few hours, but at what speed, and which direction? There were no navy ships in sight, so it probably wasn’t Portsmouth. Commercial ports were scattered all along the English south coast and this could be any of them: Dover, Southampton, even Falmouth. Smith knew the names from his train timetables, each one was an important terminus. He had never been to any of them. He had never before been out of Brighton.
He looked out across the choppy, restless harbour water, and back to the silent cranes and warehouses of the docks. The air tasted different here, the play of light, the movement of the air, all were more vivid, more filled with hidden promise than the evening skies of Brighton. It was the furthest from home he had ever been.
Wherever he was Smith knew he was not meant to be here. He should head inland, get to the town and find a police station.
A wavering light appeared at the far end of the quay. Smith stepped back into the shadows. The light resolved into two separate beams. Night watchmen on patrol.
The lights disappeared. Smith let out a sigh of relief, stepped out onto the quay only to leap back into cover as they reappeared closer.
Unbidden, the Hand reared up. ‘Quick, back into the boot.’
‘They’ll see me.’
‘Wait until they check another door.’
He could see them now, and hear their quiet conversation. As soon as they turned aside he ran to the car, clambered inside the boot and pulled down the lid. Safe, he glared at the Hand. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘I thought you could do with some help.’
‘I told you to go away.’
The Hand, as much as a hand held into the shape of a mouth could, shrugged.
‘Well, thanks, anyway,’ Smith said.
They lay quietly. Two pairs of footsteps walked by.
Author’s Note: The world is a crazy place. One of the things I love about writing is that I can go and hide for a while. It’s true for reading too.
Chapter 59 – A Real Success
Electra kept Tim away from Foxy and led him up a different companionway to a room with a heavy steel door.
‘The ship’s brig?’ Tim said.
‘Don’t be stupid. This is an ocean vessel, all the doors are like this.’
Electra pulled opened the door and waited for Tim to go inside.
He put one foot inside the cabin. ‘What’s this all about, Electra? I know about the Canola seed, this ship’s full of it, Koponen told me. What’s it got to do with Foxy and me?’
Tim met Electra’s cold gaze. You’re flawless, he thought. There’s not a line, a mole or a wrinkle on you, every platinum-blonde eyelash is in place. It’s part of why you’re so intimidating.
‘With you? Nothing. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time. If we’d left you behind you’d have caused problems. As for her, I can guarantee you’ll never guess.’
Tim couldn’t help but laugh. ‘You think she’s a mermaid too.’
Before he could move Electra had a grip on his wrist irresistible as a hydraulic vice. ‘Don’t think, Mr Wassiter, Tim, little Timmy. Do as you’re told and go into the room or I’ll crush your hand to a bloody pulp.’
That’s the other part, Tim though, dry-mouthed. Electra propelled him into the cabin. The heavy door swung shut with a deep, metallic boom.
Electra’s voice came through the door. ‘We’ll come and get you later. You won’t be disturbed because I’ve locked you in.’
As soon as she had gone Tim tried the door. Unsurprisingly it did not budge. Electra wasn’t the sort of person to make simple mistakes. He sat on the narrow bed. Well done, he told himself. You’ve made a real success of this investigation.
As well as the bed the cabin contained a wicker chair painted eggshell blue and two corner shelves. A porthole window by the door offered a view down onto the dark docks where a sparse scatter of security lights gleamed. A steady vibration thrummed the air, the deck canted gently and clear water appeared between the ship and the quayside. Water churned to foam at the stern, the bows swung out – the vessel was under way. Despite everything Tim felt a rising excitement, he was heading out to sea towards whatever fate had in store for him.
He checked the room again. The entire place was made of metal, the bed was steel-framed and bolted to the floor, the shelves welded to the bulkheads. There was nothing to use as a tool or weapon beyond the blanket and a wicker chair. He imagined various daring escapes: flinging a blanket over peoples’ heads; stabbing them with a broken chair leg. Each plan ran up against the same obstacle. To rescue Foxy he would need to overpower the entire crew single-handed.
The lights along the coast fell far behind. Belatedly, guiltily, he remembered Persistent Smith locked in the boot of a car with an empty soft drink bottle for a toilet. With that thought came a chilling realisation: Mrs Woosencraft had been right after all, there had been four people in the Chrysler.
I don’t like to do political rant, but I’m going to anyway.
Here’s my opinion. I’ve been struggling to understand what is going on in Westminster these days. Obviously plain old little old me doesn’t have an inside view, but I like to think I can read between the lines as well as the next person. It’s just that lately I can’t, I can’t follow the thinking and I’m struggling to see where the benefit is in the end game for some of the main players.
May I think I understand. I’ve always thought she had the instincts of a tyrant, her time in the Home Office was a strong indicator, her time as PM reinforced my belief. She works to constrain parliament’s power, she spends public money to prevent a court case that will increase the legal understanding of the nation’s position with regards to Article 50. Become the PM and declare there will be no election then hold an election? Fine. Lose your majority and pull a billion pounds out of the money tree you said did not exist? Fine. Just carry on and ignore everything behind you. As long as May’s in charge all is well in May’s world. And I think that’s it, and it’s all she wants – to be in charge. Of what is irrelevant. You win some, you lose some, it’s all the same to her.
Corbyn is harder to fathom. Man of the people, man of the underdog, the man I so very much wish I could support. Most of the time an invisible silent man too. The man who won’t speak out against electoral wrongdoing. And Brexit for him is irreversible. In the perfect self-fulfilling prophecy the man with the greatest ability to stop it says it’s inevitable and cannot be stopped. He also says he wants “a social Europe with inclusive societies that work for everyone and not just for a few” but he also wants to throw away the most powerful tool at his disposal to help bring that about – membership of the EU.
What is going on? I don’t understand.
There’s a vocal group of people who say Brexit is Brexit, we had the vote, we’re going to leave. Fair enough, it’s a point of view and a firm opinion. But to my mind opinion needs to be moderated by fact and as far as I can make out leaving the EU will, however it happens, leave the UK economically and politically weaker, and possibly regulatorily in thrall to the EU – Jo Johnson’s choice of “vassalage and chaos”
It also seems to me this group don’t care how we leave as long as we do. Consequences are irrelevant, we voted, we go. And politically we’re not far off from that position. May’s in charge and by hook or by crook she’ll make this thing happen for ill or for worse. I say that because by now it is clear that our two leave options are bad or very bad. Why would any Prime Minister take us down those paths? Again, I do not understand, and meanwhile Corbyn treads water, keeps his head down, and says and does nothing.
Am I simply wrong or are politicians, Prime Ministers, Leaders of the Opposition, meant to be different to this? Is not the PM not meant to be working for the good of the nation? Right now I don’t see that. In fact except for a few praiseworthy individual voices across the political spectrum I don’t see that at all, and nowhere in leadership of our two biggest political parties. Props however to the Lib-Dems however for playing the voice of Cassandra: “This is wrong, we should stop, can’t you see?” The voice in the political wilderness.
Apparently they are not. But why not? Why can’t or won’t actually lead? May in particular is not leading, she is following, with apparently any concern for the harm she knows she is bringing to the nation she is supposed to guide and lead subsumed by her inner desire for the retention of power and position. Or perhaps she actually genuinely wants this outcome. Dear Gods let’s hope that is not true. But again, if not, why do this? Why abandon leadership of party and nation and become little more than an errand-girl implementing a self-destructive policy she herself once campaigned against. And Corbyn, he seems to want it too.
Here comes Jo Johnson to give us a few clues. Now, I must say that when this particular Johnson resigned I applauded him, a man of principle finally no longer able to keep silent and all the better for coming around to my own point of view. But read his letter of resignation and he says “I have never rebelled on any issue before now.”
Hang on, isn’t he supposed to represent his constituents? Of course in our system he is free to represent them as he sees fit, but as a minister, as part of the government of the day and being on the government payroll he is also obliged to vote as the government decides. Note, gentle reader, this is true for any minister, senior or junior, and in fact paid or unpaid. Once you’re part of the government you vote as you’re told or you resign. Talk about a conflict of interest. How can that be the best way for Johnson or any MP to represent their constituents when in effect you have become an errand-boy?
And meanwhile both May and Corbyn pursue their Miltonian ‘better to reign in Hell’ policies. It seems perhaps they are not so different after all. If they get what they want it will a hell of their own making.
Jo Johnson ’s right about one thing though: “ My constituents…deserve better than this from their Government.” No shit, Mr Johnson, no shit.
They deserved better than you, for all your admittedly laudable late-coming conscience, better than our government, better than our quasi-democratic political system of power and privilege and self-interest and hierarchies and secrets and toothless oversight and opaque finance and knowing lies and broken promises. What we deserve is a political revolution. Come the day, come the day.
Author’s Note: I’ve been working flat-out on my current novel-in-progress for the past couple of weeks. It kind of got away from me and I had to pick up a chair and whip and get it back into the cage. Novels can do that. One more week to go and I shall be able to begin work on the print and e-book editions on this book.
Until then, back in ancient Babylon…
Chapter 58 – Fat Table
‘He’s a genius, an avatar of Ea filled with His wisdom,’ Banipal exclaimed.
Asklepios followed the conversation between Banipal and Ishkun with difficulty. The two men had been kind to him and they were clearly friends. Since Banipal had rescued him he had learned a substantial number of words and discovered he was in Babylon before the fall, that it was a city of magnificence, of stunning wealth, governed by kings who seemed determined to be wise, courageous and just. Everything they did, their daily lives, their politics and war, were governed by their worship of gilded statues that, as far as Asklepios could determine, were not mere representations of divinity but the actual Gods themselves.
Ishkun was less impressed. ‘He is a skinny old man who knows barely sixty words of our tongue. Wise? Perhaps he is, but he is no divine messenger. He did not descend from heaven on the back of a Kurub, you pulled him from the Euphrates like the half-drowned she-goat he smelled of at the time.’
Nevertheless, Ishkun had been considerate, content to sit with Asklepios and teach him new words, carefully repeating them when Asklepios forgot or made mistakes. He had to admit the foreigner was a fast learner who was also civilised, polite and grateful.
Banipal smiled patiently. ‘You do not understand, beloved friend. We converse with numbers, a universal language for learned men. I may be fluent but Asklepios is a poet. He has shown me great things that lie in plain sight, yet none of us see them.’
Always defensive when it came to numbers, Ishkun acted unimpressed. ‘That must be nice for the both of you.’
‘Please, don’t be like that. Asklepios makes me feel like you do when you take me hunting. I cannot see the animal signs until you point them out, it makes me feel clumsy and ignorant. What is obvious to you is hidden from me so I struggle to learn and to remember. But with Asklepios what he teaches, remains. He has opened my eyes.’
‘Tell me some of these simple things.’
Banipal grinned happily. ‘There are numbers that cannot be divided by other numbers. For example, seven and eleven.’
‘Yes,’ Ishkun spoke slowly. ‘So?’
‘Those numbers appear to never end. Thirteen, seventeen, nineteen, twenty-three.’
Ishkun frowned, working on his fingers. ‘All right.’
‘And numbers go on forever. Whatever number you think of, you can always add one to it. They form an infinity.’
‘I suppose so.’ This was reaching a level of abstraction Ishkun found difficult. Even accepting this was true, what was the point of numbers larger than herds, or armies? There was little point in counting grains of millet or sand, you put the grains in sacks and counted the sacks instead.
‘But these numbers that cannot be divided, although we cannot prove it, they could be an infinity too.’
‘But they are not all the numbers there are.’
Ishkun grimaced as he tried to imagine this, then clutched his temples. ‘What use is that except for making my head spin?’
‘It is amazing!’
‘I’m amazed you are impressed by it,’ Ishkun said, though he smiled as he said it.
It was in the quiet moments like these, after a meal and listening to the two men talk, that Asklepios marvelled at his own resilience. In a handful of days he had been magically whirled first to the unimaginable future then the magnificent past. He had been robbed, nearly drowned, and become a thief himself. After taking a second look at the river he had been hauled from, he felt claiming he had nearly being eaten by crocodiles was only a slight exaggeration.
He was sure that if someone told him all this was going to happen he would have feared for his own sanity. Yet here he was, fed and clothed and in the company of strangers he believed could be his friends. All things considered, he felt fortune was still on his side.
It was strange, the thing he most regretted was losing the measuring instruments he had stolen. They had been so perfectly made, so precise. Now they were somewhere at the bottom of the river. If only he had managed to keep them. If only he had made it home… It was more than simple bad luck. Something had moved against Tim in the dream-lands, a wilful malign interference that cast Asklepios far from home for a second time. He knew one thing fir certain – if he encountered that entity again he would recognise it.
The hidden blessing was that each time he travelled he learned more about his craft and its arts. He tried to explain some of this to Banipal. In the end he simply did not have the words and the conversation collapsed into shaking heads, laughter and gestures.
What he had meant to say was this:
‘I am starting to realise that much of what I did was nonsense and wasted effort. I did not know which parts of a ritual were essential and which were not. Now I see the danger, for over time rituals grow more elaborate and those complications make them prone to error. My quest is not for simplicity for its own sake, but to identify the essentials.’
One thing Asklepios was absolutely certain on was that geometry and accurate measurement were critical. The stolen instruments had clarified his thoughts, especially the half circle so neatly divided. Now, sitting here, he had another idea: why was it necessary to mark out the circle anew every time when a skilled craftsman with good tools could carve a design into wood?
Excited by the thought Asklepios interrupted Banipal’s conversation with Ishkun. ‘Excuse me. Excuse me kind friends.’
‘Yes, Asklepios, what is it? Are you unwell?’
‘No, I am very well. Please, may I ask for making something.’
Banipal listened attentively. ‘What is it?’
‘A bench. No, it is this,’ Asklepios cursed his limited vocabulary and banged his hand on the table.
‘Yes, a table. A fat one.’
From Ishkun and Banipal’s puzzled expressions Asklepios knew he had used the wrong words. He tried again. ‘Not long like this, a fat one.’ Asklepios circled his finger in the air. ‘Fat, big.’
‘He means round,’ Ishkun said. Dipping his finger in his beaker of water he drew a circle. ‘Like this?’