Deep in the Hell Well of cosmic implausibilities there was a flurry of movement.
Cloval ignored it. The transmission portal was always throwing up monsters. Even with the obligatory protective field shutting out sights that could turn the mind, the travel technician could tell when they were there, waiting to pounce.
Life was too short to wonder about what was lurking in the depths of the Universe’s dungeon. As long as Cloval followed her travel technician’s instincts it was unlikely she would encounter one. Doing so would have meant that she had disintegrated and in no state to worry much about it. It’s difficult to be devoured by phantoms with your atoms dispersed over light years.
A bio-engineered scout should have been sent through the transmission portal first to check out new destinations. If anything went wrong and the scout was stranded they could easily blend into the target civilisation and avoid any suspicions their sudden appearance might have raised. Tall aliens in gleaming silver protective suits were unlikely to stand a chance.
But this scout was taking too long.
Cloval checked her suit. All trips had to be witnessed by a competent associate. The travel technician, being senior to everyone else and impatient, frequently ignored the procedure. Most people of her age were barred from such risky occupations, and she proved the wisdom of this rule with her unbounded unpredictability.
Cloval always started with the intention of behaving herself and checked over the recall unit that had to go through the transmission portal with the scout. Without it, return from the Hell Well would have been impossible.
The longer Cloval waited, the greater the temptation became. She had broken safety protocols before and survived and this new, alien wonderland was just one step into infinity away. Her colleagues were aware of their superior’s reputation and that she should never have been left alone in the transmission control, but they were all too busy somewhere else.
Cloval’s impatience went into overdrive and resentment kicked in. Why should only scouts have first sight of the worlds her team had worked so hard to establish a link with? They were genetically manipulated non-entities without a point of view. How could they appreciate momentous occasions like this?
The bolts securing her commonsense thrown back, Cloval programmed the co-ordinates to that tempting, small blue planet, and opened the shutter to the Hell Well. After another brief check of her suit, she braced herself to encounter the forces that would dismantle her atom by atom and drop her into that chasm of alternative dimensions filled with monsters from the Universe’s subconscious.
But it was one drop into an alternative reality too many.
There was another reason old age was regarded as a liability - Cloval had forgotten to take the recall unit with her.
The sunlight danced in the crystal facets of the overhead glass like a swarm of demented fireflies. The tall, lean man gazing up at his triple glazed ceiling sometimes felt as though he was living at the bottom of a transparent sea encrusted with ice. He always felt cold; frosty fingers clutched his heart, even when the sun was at its zenith.
Magin stretched indolently and reached for the button to read his mail. His life was lived in such secrecy he seldom had much. As usual, there was a message from his surgeon reminding him to look after this implant or another; an admonishment that would no doubt carry on throughout his lifetime. There was also a message from the surgeon’s son scolding him for not attending some important function. Oh, the innocence of the young. Whenever the agent arrived at any function, heads turned as if the devil had walked in and immediately undermined his undercover status.
But the last message meant an end to the preposterous games he was obliged to play in high society’s gatherings, being introduced as the person trained to encounter aliens. His expertise was at last being called upon. There was no one else to do it and his superiors were panicking.
On a planet with air so cold, birds had not evolved, someone who should have known better had opened the corridor into space-time - and forgotten to take the key. Magin was the only one who could track them down before other agencies managed to.
Thumper sliced a piece from the firm grey clay. She threw it with more vigour than was necessary onto the revolving wheel and reduced it to a glutinous slurry with handfuls of water and post examination relief. She no longer needed to turn complicated teapots or press white clay into wafer thin porcelain bowls. Now was the time to paint abstract patterns onto coarse pots and coil chunky vases.
Veronica had always grudgingly accepted that her fellow student was the most talented of her class, the only one able to sell enough work to pay for her keep. Thumper’s was so good, her Aunt Daffy was going to allow her to use the garden shed for a second-hand potter’s wheel and the electric kiln the bank was granting her a loan for.
Veronica sighed enviously. Aunt Daffy was as eccentric as her niece and always let her have her own way. Thumper’s academic mother had decided that her scruffy daughter would be better off living with her sister-in-law after her younger offspring announced on her tenth birthday the intention of sailing to Japan to study pots. Aunt and niece were like minds. Daffy could have either talked her out of it or built a raft and gone with her. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Thumper had chosen her mother’s continent, Africa. Women there knew more about making pots than some Japanese mystic with a feeling for clay.
Uhura Dillinger had never understood her daughter. Thumper was the child Daffy should have had. Uhura understood her husband even less, and left him to teach computer studies in her home town. Thumper received the occasional photograph of a zebra, pot or star pupil: more than she got from her remarried father and older brother.
Thumper’s clay slowly spun to a halt and she began to pinch ornate ribs into its sides. She completed the monstrosity by dribbling a tracery of slip into its bowl.
Veronica gazed at the creation in disbelief, wondering why such a consummate craftswoman would want to make such a ghastly object. ‘What on earth is it?’
‘A dog dish.’
‘The decent ones get broken. Rascal flings them across the kitchen. It’s her way of complementing the chef.’
‘Why not get her a tin one?’
Thumper sneered. ‘Tin? How can you expect any living creature to eat out of tin?’
Veronica didn’t answer. It was unlikely Thumper and her aunt frequented the retro junk shops her mother was addicted to.
‘How many dogs has your aunt got now?’
‘Oh - fifteen or seventeen - or so.’
‘They must cost a fortune?’
‘They do. She gets a small grant from a charity to supplement her works pension.’
Veronica gingerly set her fragile model of a pixie’s house on a stand to dry. ‘Seen Eccles lately?’
‘Couple of weeks ago. She’s working on a relief and I helped her unload some stone from the quarry.’
‘Beats me how she manages to wield a chisel with her rheumatism.’
‘Doesn’t bother her that much now. Most of the modelling she does is for casting anyway.’
‘Did she ever get around to trying lost wax?’
‘Yes. Her foundry buggered it up. The mould wasn’t strong enough.’
‘Must be wonderful for filigree work.’ Veronica sat back, admired her model, and dreamt of the angel hair and fairy wings which could be fired - or shattered - in the new kiln.
Thumper knew what her friend was thinking. ‘Every other thing you put into the kiln falls apart.’
‘Well, they always fire things at the wrong temperature at the college.’
Thumper knew what she was driving at. ‘Oh, all right. You find out what the right temperature is, and I’ll let you have the odd firing in my kiln when it’s installed.’
‘Really?’ Veronica bounced up so enthusiastically her plaits lashed through the air and nearly knocked the roof off her creation. ‘I know you don’t really think much of my little ornaments.’
This took Thumper aback. ‘I’ve never said that.’ Perhaps she paid so little attention to the other students’ work that they all had that impression. When she wasn’t so self-absorbed, the range of glazes, textures, and even fairy filigree her fellow students created often impressed her. Their work would never sell, apart from Veronica’s. Her work was twee enough to be popular. All she needed was a firm, guiding hand.
‘There’s quite a market for fairy falderals. Your main problem is getting it out of the kiln intact enough to sell.’
‘You can really be thoughtful sometimes, Thumper.’
‘How d’you mean?’ Thumper thought she had sounded too condescending to merit thanks.
‘Well, you’re not as hard as you sometimes make out.’ Veronica scrubbed her hands in the sink and rubbed in enough hand cream for a body massage. ‘Be in tomorrow?’
‘Don’t know. Old Walcott said it doesn’t matter and he’s only having the kiln on once a week now. I’m up to my limit as it is. I’m getting a lot of stuff fired over at The Pottery. They bought another batch of our mugs last week.’
‘And the Hollybush will let us have a cheque at the end of the month.’ Thumper was thoughtful for a moment. ‘Veronica ..?’
Veronica was already listening intently and desperately trying not to show it.
‘Ever thought about us going into business together? I mean - properly?’
‘Why not? We can sell all the mugs we make.’ Veronica tried to sound a little diffident, but enthusiasm leeched out of every syllable.
‘It’ll be easier when I get the kiln of course.’
‘I’d put the money I make into the business until we’re in profit.’
‘So will I.’ Thumper was surprised at how painless it was to set up a serious partnership. ‘That’s okay then?’
‘Great.’ Thumper suddenly found that she was unable to close the conversation.
Brimming with excitement, Veronica took the initiative. ‘I’ll make sure Mr Walcott fires all your stuff if you aren’t in tomorrow.’
Having to find someone to tell before she exploded, Veronica pulled on her jacket and darted out to the college canteen.
Thumper was plunged into thought about the persona she apparently intimidated the rest of the class with. “Hard”? Never. Perhaps a little outspoken by their insipid standards. The cutting edge of her tongue could be a little too accurate at times - but hard?
She sliced the dog bowl from the wheel, put it on a rack to dry, and then dutifully mopped up the worst of the slip so the room was reasonably tidy for Mr Michael’s evening class. The white fingerprints on the cupboard doors and occasional bullet of clay adhering to the windows had raised comments from some of his pupils more used to semi-detached domestication. Thumper hated their middle class normality. Its hypocrisy had ruined her parent’s marriage. She was convinced that the influential hitched a comfortable ride through life at the expense of those who felt obliged to abide by their oppressive conventions. That’s why she was living with Aunt Daffy in her acre of orchards and vegetable plots, rescuing unwanted dogs and writing letters of complaint to supermarkets, institutions and utility companies who could only be dealt with over the Internet. Her aunt found gratification in technophobia, making offices that depended so much on e-mail to write letters and pay for a stamp. Thumper was lucky; her trade didn’t depend on having a website, and a decent kiln was more important than a computer. Her brother was the one who always had a mobile phone to his ear, which probably accounted for his weak intellect.
Scooping up the unused clay, Thumper hurled a clod of it with uncharacteristic malice into the reclaim bin at the thought of her brother, another for her mother, and the largest for her father. She slammed the lid and sealed it.
After washing the clay from her hands and arms, she gathered up her ancient duffle bag and wandered along to the college canteen to collect a chocolate bar and cup of tea. Veronica and a cluster of friends had already left to celebrate her new business venture with decent cappuccinos at her mother’s favourite restaurant. To Thumper, one drink out of an oblong, aluminium dispenser tasted very much like another, and she was happy to refresh herself with the powdered concoction dribbled from the canteen coffee machine. Then she persuaded one of the junior students to help her load the pottery she had amassed in her locker over the past term into the boot of her Mini.
On the way home, Thumper stopped on Shoreham Ridge to watch the descending summer sun pattern the fields below with lengthening shadows. She wondered why she couldn’t revel in the beauty of the scene. Veronica would have pulled out a pencil and pad from her neat little knapsack to dash off lines of poetry. Perhaps Thumper’s genius for handling material that came out of the ground barred her from appreciating the vistas above it. Did that make her hard, though? This was something she would have to sort out before she became an adult and too self-important to bother.
Thumper sighed. How she wished she could meet someone, apart from Aunt Daffy, who understood her. It could have scales and tentacles for all she cared, because it was unlikely to be the world’s most glamorous man.
Pulling the last sandwich from her duffle bag, she sat on the brow of the hill and wondered what it would be like to live on another planet with exotic minerals just waiting to be mined, sculpted and turned. Perhaps there would be quartz the texture of biscuit, glittering like trays of diamonds, obsidian which could be sliced to reveal veins of rare metals, or granite shot through with glasses smelted in the fires of an alien furnace or sandwiched by the volcanic forces of Io. No, that moon was mainly sulphur. Venus perhaps. Just the right gravity for making rock sandwiches and an atmosphere which could melt concrete.
Oh, the wonders in the Cosmos she would never know. Thumper would have to be content with the interminable seasons that cloaked the countryside in predictable pastel colours year after year. Even sulphur had a better idea of what yellow should be than a buttercup.
Thumper wondered what it would be like to live in the land of her mother’s African ancestors, not the mild, misty rural world of her father. The potter had an amazing rapport with dogs, so it was unlikely a few lions would bother her. She wanted village women to teach her how to make huge, thin-shelled storage jars with strips of clay and how to fire them on an open hearth. Perhaps she should join her mother? But she lived in a town that spoke Yoruba. And all those jabs she would need - malaria, elephantiasis, beriberi, rabies... What Thumper wanted was... she didn’t really know. She would soon leave college with the best qualifications, her own business, and a second hand car. That should have been enough.
Thumper swallowed the rest of the pickle sandwich and sat with her chin on her knees until the sinking sun cast its rosy hue. Satisfied that it looked sufficiently mineral and all was well with the world after all, she got back into her Mini and drove home.
Magin again glanced at his instructions. He hadn’t expected them to be contained in an encrypted file even he had difficulty decoding. At least it offered a welcome relief from his confined life.
So, what clothes would be suitable for this bizarre mission? Should he be immaculate, the severe front of authority, or more casual to reassure the obdurate locals he was bound to encounter? Perhaps he should opt for the intimidating, just to be on the safe side. He did that very well without even trying, which was odd. He had never considered his unusual appearance or mellow tones to be unfriendly. Perhaps it was just a bonus that he shouldn’t question in his line of work.
Now, what sort of intimidation to opt for? Clean cut correctness? No, perhaps Magin should just be himself - as far as his carefully manufactured identity would allow anyway. Given what he was being told to do, appearance hardly mattered.
Magin picked up the instructions and took them to another room where he didn’t feel as though the Universe was spying on him through his triple glazed ceiling.
This was a mission he may not return from. It was not something he had ever taken into account before. He was surprised to discover that it didn’t really bother him.
He wondered why.